HDTV Shopping Guide

Here are some tips for you as you shop for HDTV equipment and services. Print this page and take it with you!

1. How are you going to get a signal?
Compare the HDTV offerings from your cable company, local stations, and satellite services, to make sure you can get the programming you really want.

2. What type of HDTV set do you have in mind?
Direct view. This is the most familiar looking set, which resembles the basic picture-tube kind of TV most of us have now. For the most part, direct-view HDTV sets are going to be 32 inches and under.

Rear-projection. Currently the best HDTV value, they're big — from 40 to 65 inches or so— mostly floor-standing sets that project the image onto a flat front. Check the picture from all angles, to see if it's bright enough from the side.

Front-projection. A set that projects across the room onto a movie-theater-like white screen, if you want an actual theater in your home.

Plasma. The hang-on-the-wall TV, plasma sets can be big and beautiful — and frequently cost more than $10,000. Many lower-priced plasma sets are digital, but not high-definition.

LCD. Smaller, slim sets that look like junior plasma models. Like plasma, many are digital, but not high-definition.

3. Will you need a separate HDTV tuner?
Many, if not most, of today's HDTV sets are only monitors, meaning that they have a screen, but they can't actually display any TV stations until you add a set-top tuner box (which you have to purchase separately). Most likely, you'll be getting a tuner — along with all of your HDTV programming — from your cable or satellite company. A few sets have the HDTV tuner built in. For the time being, until all the digital standards are firmed up, stick with a set that requires a separate tuner.

4. What about my local channels?
To view HDTV over the air, you may still need an antenna, possibly one on the roof. There's a helpful Web site, run by the Consumer Electronics Association, where you can plug in your address and get antenna advice, including the compass direction of each station in your area.

5. Widescreen or not
HDTV programs are generally broadcast in widescreen. Analog TV is still broadcast in the more squarish format we're all used to. If you have a widescreen TV and start watching a regular over-the-air channel, your TV is going to have to put dark-toned bars on the left and right or stretch and distort the picture to fit the screen. You can also buy a more squarish HDTV screen. Then, when you watch a widescreen program, it will mask top and bottom. For me, widescreen is the way.

6. Is screen burn a concern?
Some sets, mainly rear-projection TVs, have been prone to images that become permanently "burned" into the screen. A video game could be the culprit. Or the bars mentioned above. Many sets give the option of gray, instead of the more worrisome black, bars.

7. How sharp is the screen?
There are a number of different standards for what constitutes HDTV. Your set will only display one of them, (its so-called native resolution), but should be able to convert all of the others perfectly viewably. Ask what resolution it's displaying. The sharper the better.

8. What do you want to connect?
Make a list of everything you'll want to plug into that set (or the set-top tuner box) and ask your salesperson whether — and how — everything will connect.

9. What kind of sound system does it have?
The standard for HDTV surround sound is Dolby A3. All sets should be able to properly decode it, but some convert to a proprietary audio system. Sticking with Dolby is preferable.

10. Will you need a custom installation?
If you're buying a plasma set, be aware that it may hang on the wall, but it also weighs a lot. Then there's the issue of cords. You have to hide them somewhere. You may want to run cables through walls.

11. What about cords and cables?
Ask whether the set comes with all the cables you need. Lest that new investment get fried in the next thunderstorm, make sure you also invest in a good surge protector.