Gadget Freak: Dodge the Fuzz and Make Plain TV Shows Look Good in HD

Illustration: Barry Blitt
One recent afternoon I turned on my digital projection TV and flipped over to ESPN. Shaquille O'Neal was taking it hard to the hoop. At least, I think it was Shaq. It might have been Oprah doing Jazzercise, or possibly a commercial for Fat Albert.

The problem? I was viewing a standard-definition channel on a 90-inch high-definition display. Everybody appeared fuzzy around the edges, like they were wearing angora sweaters. When HDTV sets display standard-definition content--the vast majority of today's programming--the images don't always look so well defined. And the bigger the image, the worse it gets.

First, a little geekspeak is in order. An SD picture consists of 480 lines of pixels that are interlaced (480i), which means that every other line gets scanned 30 times a second. (So the screen redraws lines 1, 3, 5, and so on, and then it starts over with lines 2, 4, 6...you get the picture.)

HD content is usually formatted at 720 lines or 1080 lines, and it can be interlaced (1080i) or progressive (720p, 1080p). Progressive scanning draws the screen without skipping lines. With its faster frame rates and higher resolutions, HD kicks SD's booty in clarity and crispness.

Broadcasters and cable operators attempt to compensate by "scaling" or "upconverting" SD pictures--essentially, adding more lines to increase the image's resolution. How well they accomplish this partly determines whether you can tell Shaq from Oprah. The amount of compression your cable or satellite provider uses also affects SD quality.

What can you do about it? I asked some experts and came up with a few steps you can take to improve the picture on your new big-screen set.

Upgrade your set-top box: If you don't already have a digital set-top box, get one. They provide a cleaner feed, which can lead to a sharper picture, says Tom Galanas, vice president of operations for 6th Avenue Electronics in New York. But if you still have an antenna bolted to your roof, consider using it for broadcast channels--uncompressed over-the-air signals can offer superior picture quality.

Improve your connections: The more data that reaches your set, the better the picture. If your DVD player, set-top box, or TV has a High-Definition Multimedia Interface (HDMI) or digital visual interface (DVI) connector, use it. If not, component video is best.

Unsplit your cable: Running separate coaxial lines from your cable hookup to each TV and cable modem you use could improve the picture. You'll probably need your cable tech to handle this one.

Lose the wide screen: Some HDTV sets stretch an SD feed to fit HD's 16:9 aspect ratio. You can usually turn this feature off and watch the program in its natural 4:3 ratio, which frequently results in less distortion and a sharper picture, says Jake Ludington, author of the MediaBlab blog).

Throw money at the problem: More-expensive sets and DVD players come with built-in scaling technology--such as Philips's Pixel Plus or Pioneer's PureVision--that enhances low-res pictures as they're displayed. Such features can add $1000 to the cost of a big-screen set. You can also a buy stand-alone upscaler ($1000 to $5000) if you don't have one built in.

As HD content replaces SD, these problems will gradually fade. Meanwhile, one thing is crystal clear: Either Shaquille needs to work on his interpersonal skills, or Oprah has got some serious game.

Contributing Editor Dan Tynan lives to plug his upcoming best seller, Computer Privacy Annoyances (O'Reilly Media, 2005).

This story, "Gadget Freak: Dodge the Fuzz and Make Plain TV Shows Look Good in HD" was originally published by PCWorld.

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