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High Definition

Started: 2008-12-24 09:29:41

Submitted: 2008-12-24 10:14:42

Visibility: World-readable

But this is HDTV! It's got better resolution than the real world!
- Fry, Futurama, "When Aliens Attack"

As the final stage of my fall home improvements (following a minor improvement in my basement lighting and a major carpeting project), and as an attempt to take advantage of the deflationary spiral now gripping the American economy, I went shopping for a high-definition television last weekend to replace my 27-inch standard-definition CRT. I measured my entertainment cabinet (picked up off the side of the road in 2004) and decided to look in the range between 37 inches and 42 inches. I first thought 720p would be the best for the lower end of my size range, but upgraded my target to 1080p at the upper end. I started at Ultimate Electronics (in the space formerly occupied by SoundTrack) in Boulder on Thursday night, before attending Hacking Society, and took notes on the models and prices on display. I entered my notes in a spreadsheet, looked at Consumer Reports' reviews, and studied reviews and manufacturer websites.

I assembled a list of my own requirements: side-panel HDMI, one VGA port, at least two back-panel HDMI ports (for the upscaling DVD player I planned to acquire and my Mac Mini), and an assortment of analog inputs for legacy devices. I had trouble finding smaller televisions that met my input requirements, and I rejected the Samsung models I first identified as a good candidate due to their apparent inability to pass through Dolby Digital from HDMI to the optical audio output. (The surround receiver I acquired from Morphlix as part of my vacation pay suffers from a shortage of inputs, so I needed to use my television to switch audio. I could set up my receiver so that the coax output from the DVD player fed directly into the receiver, but that would have required more manual intervention when switching inputs and wouldn't have allowed for expansion.)

At home, I continued studying models and made cardboard cutouts to help me understand what size I was looking at. I decided a 32-inch screen wouldn't be a sufficient improvement over my current display to justify the price, and that a 42-inch would be pushing the upper boundaries of my entertainment center.

Over the weekend, I headed out for my final shopping. I stopped first at Best Buy in Longmont, then headed into Boulder to visit Circuit City (which apparently isn't slated for closure by the bankrupt electronics retailer). I took my notes to Morphlix's favorite coffee shop (where I knew I could get free wifi; the barista and I recognized each other from my several-times-a-week visits while employed across the street and chatted briefly) and typed everything up to figure out my optimal strategy. I was leaning towards one of several Sony 1080p displays; I tried to understand the difference between the "V" and "S" models, which turned out to be better image processing, or something like that.

I visited Boulder's brand new Best Buy (in the space formerly occupied by another bankrupt electronics retailer, CompUSA) for a quick reconnaissance before heading back to Circuit City to pick up my model of choice, Sony's 40-inch LCD KDL-40V4100, picking it over the two-inch-wider model to better fit my living room. The salesguy made a passing attempt to upsell me on overpriced cables (he asked, "Do you have all the cables you need?" and I said, "Yep") and on an extended warranty (I don't buy extended warranties in general, and certainly not from a bankrupt retailer). Two employees carried the box out to my car and I headed home, stopping briefly by Best Buy in Longmont to pick up a Philips upscaling DVD player that also happens to have a USB port for playing media off a mass storage device.

At home, I lugged the box out of my trunk and set up the TV in my living room. It was big -- filling the space without much room left. My Mac Mini (Sasami) quickly adapted to the larger screen when I plugged it into the VGA port. (I planned on using a DVI to HDMI adaptor but that didn't work when the cable arrived on Monday, so I reverted to the VGA cable, though I was hoping to keep the VGA port available to plug in my notebook for future slide shows.) The TV is now my largest PC display in the house (in terms of both size and resolution); at 1920x1080, it easily dwarfs my notebook's monitor. This proves troublesome when I VNC to Sasami to control iTunes or Internet video; I have to carefully scale my VNC window so I can actually see enough of the screen. I'm considering the merits of a wireless keyboard and mouse for controlling Sasami from the couch, and my new DVD player's mass storage capability might also come in handy.

I plugged my new DVD player into the component cables before I remembered that I did have an HDMI cable left over from Morphlix. (Only now did I have anything to plug it in to.) The player would output 1080p only on the HDMI output. I saw a few glitches in scene changes while watching the last few episodes of Spaced, which may have been related to an unusual 50i pulldown from the British source material. Upscaled movie content looked pretty good, though when I got close enough I could see plenty of artifacts in the background details. (One of the hazards of spending two years working on mostly high-definition set-top-boxes is that I see artifacts and glitches without looking for them.)

Two digital cables arrived on Monday. With next-(business)-day shipping, the cables were still 80% off what I would pay for hyperinflated HDMI cables at any electronics retailer. I was able to set up my receiver to automatically select its audio input from the optical pass-through output from the tv (when the TV is on) or from the analog output from Sasami. This lets me play music when the TV is off, and the auto-detection means I don't need to worry about selecting the right input.

Entertainment center with all-new 1080p LCD
Entertainment center with all-new 1080p LCD

I've barely had a chance to try out my shiny new entertainment system (and I still need to secure it to the wall to keep it from tipping over -- an important consideration in the dawning Calvin Era), but so far I'm pleased by the dawning High Definition Era.