Buying a new television set in 2007 involves a dizzying array of choices of screen types and sizes.
And that's not to mention the federally mandated end of most analog television signals in less than two years, further complicating the decision and leaving those with older sets to find converters that will allow those sets to receive the new digital signals.
It's an alphabet soup world of LCDs, plasmas, HDTV, ATSC and QAM, far removed from the 21-inch black-and-white sets of the 1950s or the 25-inch Mediterranean-style console color sets of the 1970s.
"It is a lot more complicated to purchase a television now as opposed to five years ago," said Brian McCoy, television manager for Circuit City in Kingsport.
"What's the difference between HD and LCD?" McCoy said a customer recently asked. He explained HD is a high-definition or a type of TV image while LCD or liquid crystal display is a type of screen.
McCoy and others familiar with television types say that many are unaware that in mid-February 2009, the federal government has ruled, all full-power television stations must switch from analog to digital broadcasting.
But another trend is evident at a trip to local electronics stores: more and more liquid crystal display and plasma television sets and fewer traditional cathode ray tube sets are being sold.
Those flat-panel televisions have taken the market by storm in recent years, with LCDs, plasmas and projection TVs pushing out the cathode ray tubes.
Following is a rundown of the options:
• CRT (cathode ray tube). Traditional picture tube, available in either flat-screen or traditional curved screen, which Joe Culbreth, manager of Rex TV in Kingsport, said offers a contract ratio of 3,000- to 4,000-to-1, fast refresh rates good for gaming and quick-moving sports viewing, and falling prices. Some available with digital tuners built in, but retailers said supplies will dwindle in the future. McCoy said CRTs, especially those with digital tuners, are good deals.
• LCD (liquid crystal display). McCoy said LCD used to be seen mostly in smaller screens of 37 inches or less, but LCD has grown into the big-screen market of 42 inches up to 52 inches. The refresh rate is slower than plasma and CRT but has improved, and the contrast ratio generally is 5,000- to 6,000-to-1. The screen reflection is less because of a matte screen.
PC World last year reported that a 32-inch high-definition LCD might range in price from about $800 to $3,500 depending on its manufacturer and features. It also said LCDs typically are more expensive, with the gap rising as the screen size increases.
LCD screens, the magazine said, also tend to be one to several inches thicker than plasmas and have a somewhat narrower effective viewing angle. Plasmas, like CRTs, are easily viewable from well off to the side and do not exhibit any change in brightness as you stand up or sit down.
On the other hand, LCDs run cooler than plasmas, minimizing the need for potentially noisy fan cooling. An LCD is a particularly attractive choice for a sunlit room or in situations where a plasma would be too large or where you want a display that can serve double duty as a TV set and computer monitor, the magazine said
• Plasma. Using two inert gases between two sheets of glass, it is the longest-lasting technology and has a contrast ratio of about 10,000-to-1, allowing for black blacks and subtle shades of gray. Plasma sets are generally larger screens, 42 to 60 inches, McCoy said. However, they have more screen reflection than a LCD.
An article last year in PC World said that screen sizes start at 42 inches diagonal and range up to 61 inches, though screens as small as 37 inches and as large as 103 inches are available. Prices started at slightly less than $1,500 and topped out at more than $15,000.
• Projection televisions, including LCOS (liquid crystal on silicon), LCD (liquid crystal display) or DLP (digital light processing) screens. Contrast ratios are generally about 1,000-to-1, Culbreth said, refresh rates are lower and the best viewing is in subdued light, but these provide large-screen images for prices lower than plasma and LCD in the 55-inch or 60-inch size range.
A related option is projectors normally used for PowerPoint presentations, which are sometimes even cheaper but require subdued light and screens for the best image.
Culbreth said that many gamers still swear by CRTS because of the refresh rates. Early plasmas used to be subject to burn-in, but that is not as much of a problem now. He also said plasmas have fallen drastically in price in the past few years; although, the price point break for many is between the 58-inch sets available for about $3,000 versus 70-inch plasmas at $16,000 or more.
McCoy said that LCDs can last 20 to 25 years, compared to 10 to 20 years for plasmas and 10 to 15 years for CRTs.
"A television that might be right for you might be horrible for another person," McCoy said.
Regardless of what type of screen is used, the federal government says that as of Feb. 17, 2009, the new digital signals for over-the-air television will be on channels 2-13 in VHF (very high frequency) and 14-51 in UHF (ultra-high frequency).
"The reason they're doing this is to clear up the airwaves," said Culbreth. "I'd say 75 percent of the people who came in, no, they don't know" about the analog-to-digital conversion.
The National Association of Broadcasters recently did a survey that found 54 percent of TV viewers were unaware of the switch to digital, and another poll found 61 percent unaware.
The federal government will assign some of the old channels 52-69 for use by emergency responders, while others will be auctioned off to the private sector for cellular phone providers, broadband and other uses, the same fate as the old 70-83 UHF channels.
"Everybody's using that as a scare tactic to sell televisions," Circuit City's McCoy said.
"And everybody's waiting to see if [federal officials] really go through with it since they're pushed it back before," McCoy said. "I still have a couple of analog televisions in my house."
U.S. Rep. Rick Boucher, (D, Va.-9th), serves on the Telecommunications and Internet Subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee overseeing the switchover.
"My sense is the deadline will not be extended," Boucher said. A 1996 law set a goal of a 2006 switchover, but, Boucher said, it became apparent a firm deadline was needed so the National Telecommunications Information Administration set one.
McCoy said the federal legislation mandating the switch requires "reasonable accommodation" for those with analog sets on over-the-air, cable or satellites.
Culbreth said he tells everyone he helps at Rex about the digital conversion, sometimes running the risk of upsetting them.
"They're coming in here. They're on fixed incomes," Culbreth said. "People get mad and think you're trying to up-sell them. But 23 months is not a long time, really. I tell everyone that."
McCoy and Culbreth along with George DeVault, general manager of Holston Valley Broadcasting, which operates WKPT television in Kingsport, said a major misconception is that digital TV is the same as high-definition. HD is a type of digital TV, providing a wide screen 16:9 picture ratio.
McCoy said that a survey once found that about 4 million people owned HD televisions and thought they were getting HD signals when in fact they were viewing a traditional analog signal.
Another less common misconception is that digital TV requires a new type of antenna. But McCoy, DeVault and Culbreth said existing aerials or antennas still in good shape will work fine; although, DeVault said that some would try to sell new "digital" antennas like some tried to sell new "color" antennas in the 1960s.
Regardless of the type of screen, the 480-line interlaced analog technology is being replaced by the 720-line progressive technology or the 1080-line interlaced technology for broadcasting in digital. HD and BlueRay DVD systems can provide even sharper 1080 progressive signals, McCoy said.
A lesser standard, ED (enhanced definition) TV, displays at 480 lines progressive, about twice the quality of standard resolution of 480 interlaced but below the resolution of high definition.
DeVault said that with the various line numbers and interlaced-versus-progressive options, 18 types of standards are possible. Also, television signals actually carry more lines than are visible on the screen. For instance, analogy actually broadcasts 525 lines.
Standing next to a Sony 46-inch LCD screen TV costing more than $3,400, McCoy said that because of price reductions now is a good time to buy a traditional cathode ray tube or CRT set, too, since prices are falling.
CRT 27-inch sets with digital tuners are available for $300 or less. A good rule of thumb, according to various Web sites, is to measure the distance from where viewers sit to the TV screen in inches. Divide that by three and get the appropriate size for optimal viewing.
A major advantage of digital, aside from a cleaner picture and better sound, is that up to six standard digital channels can be broadcast in the spectrum space now required for one analog channel, or one high definition and multiple regular digital can go in the same one-channel analog space.
When the switchover occurs, the old analog tuners won't be able to pick up the new digital signals on the same frequency without a converter box.
TVs on the converter boxes will get a signal, but to take full advantage of the digital signal - and to see the wide-screen HD television - a digital set and HD TV are required, respectively.
The tentative plan is to make available by mail two $40 coupons per household for digital-to-analog converters, changing the new ATSC (advanced television system committee) signals to the analog NTSC (national television system committee), but that is not yet finalized.
The budget is for nearly $1.5 billion, enough for about 34 million converters, compared to an estimated 20 million households relaying on over-the-air signals, based on National Association of Broadcasters numbers.
But an estimated 70 million TVs are hooked up to antennas or so-called inside rabbit ears, including extra sets in homes with cable or satellite. And as of June 2005 there were 15.4 million television households in the United States that received over-the-air signals only, according to Federal Communications Commission statistics cited by The Associated Press Wednesday.
"People should not assume it's going to be two coupons per household at $40 each," Boucher said of a program funded with $1.4 billion. He unsuccessfully worked to get $2 billion in funding.
By law, all TV sets sold in interstate commerce with 13-inch or larger screens made or imported into this country as of March 1 must have the ATSC tuner. Those 27 inches and larger had the same mandate as of March 1, 2006.
However, some newer sets and some converters also have a QAM (quadrature amplitude modulation) tuner that can pick up non-scrambled digital cable signals.
DeVault said he would advise anybody getting a new TV to try to get one with the over-the-air and cable digital tuner built in. Those with satellite service but no digital set in effect already have digital-to-analog converters, Boucher said.
The FCC mandate does not require cable and satellite systems to convert to digital.
However, Tony Falin, Northeast Tennessee director of operations for Charter Communications, said that converting to digital cable signals will allow cable providers to provide more channels in the same space - up to 12 digital channels in the space of one analog channel or three high-definition channels in the space of one analog channel.
"There's going to be something out there to convert [cable] digital to analog," Falin said. However, he said the FCC is looking at an open-channel standard that would set one cable tuner standard and make basic or even advanced cable boxes something electronics retailers sold instead of having cable companies lease or sell them.
Consumers would buy converters or tuners over-the-counter but still might buy a card to plug in the tuner or download software for premium services.
Boucher said he is pushing for the "two-way plug-and-play" cable boxes to have a national standard and be sold at retail instead of leased by cable companies.
The congressman said the cable industry representatives tell him that the industry as a whole likely will provide concurrent digital and analog signals, but that Congress eventually would force digital, if cable providers do not go on their own.
Digital is markedly clearer than analogy.
The "NBC Nightly News" broadcast recently converted to the HD format, while on ABC, "The View" is among a handful of non-sports shows broadcast in high definition.
Like television programming in the 1950s and into the 1960s moved from mostly black-and-white to practically all color, Boucher predicted more and more HD television shows would drive HD TV sales.
At least, he said, that is the intention and hope of Congress and federal regulators.