More TV Options Mean More Confused Consumers

As TVs get more complicated, more and more people don't know how to use them. In fact, half of people who have high-definition televisions don't subscribe to HD cable packages — so they aren't actually watching anything in high-def.

Then there's the federally mandated switch to digital broadcast signals, coming up in 18 months. It's got nothing to do with HDTV, necessarily, but it might just make your old TV obsolete.

So whether you're ready to shell out big bucks for a high-definition TV, or you've already coughed up the cash, there's a lot to sort out if you want to get the most out of your investment.

Happily, there are resources out there to be consulted, from technology Web sites to programming providers to tech-savvy teens who blog happily away about pretty much any device you can imagine.

And there's always the cable company: You may have to call them out anyway, if you've got a new TV and an older cable box. While the cable guy is there, see if you can get him to explain the V-chip. You'll be glad you did: Congress wants to put them in all kinds of media players, from iPods to game consoles.

Digital Set? Pre-Digital Picture? Try These Tips

If you've taken the digital-TV plunge, but you can't figure out why your 46-inch flat-screen doesn't look as good as the store's display model did, here are three things to check. They can help make the difference between digital disappointment and big-screen bliss.

Know Your Signal: If you've got an HD-compatible TV, make sure you're getting an HD signal. That means either a digital-compatible antenna to pick up your local stations' HD broadcasts, if any, or an HD programming package from your cable or satellite provider.

Hook It Up Right: HD signals can only be carried to your shiny new TV from your TiVo, your cable converter or your satellite box through HD-ready cables. Basically, you'll need one of three types: component cables, HDMI cables, or DVI cables. Check the manual for your TV to see which kinds it'll accept — many of the very newest TVs don't have DVI inputs — and then shop your local electronics retailer.

Stop the Taffy-Pulling: Widescreen TVs, designed with what's called an "aspect ratio" of 16:9, are great for watching movies and other programming meant to be seen in a widescreen format. But many TV shows are still filmed in the narrower 4:3 aspect ratio — the shape of most older TVs and many computer monitors. That can mean distorted images.

You'll want to find the aspect-ratio setting on your TV (its location will vary, but there's probably a button on your remote) and toggle back and forth depending on what you're watching. Set it to 4:3, and the TV won't stretch a sitcom-size signal to fill your widescreen display. You'll get black bars to the left and right of the picture, but the actors on that Sex and the City re-run won't look wider than you remember. Switch it to 16:9, and those high-def Shark Week scare-fests will show up in all their widescreen glory.

The good news: After February 2009, most programming will be created in digital widescreen formats. For consumers who've upgraded their TVs, these complications will fade away.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.