How to Get the Best From Your HDTV

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How to Get the Best Video Signal for Your HDTV

Got your new HDTV in place? Next you'll need to make sure that all of the sources that will feed your new set with video--whether your DVD player, DVR or cable box--are HD ready. These tips will help you make sense of how best to manage that process. We also include some tips on where to find the best over-the-air HD content, and how to set up your own free DVR.

Upgrade Your Video Sources to HD

If you are upgrading from a standard-definition TV, chances are most of your existing video sources--such as your cable box, DVR, DVD player, or VCR--are also SD. While your HDTV or audio/video receiver will try valiantly to scale everything up to HD, they will inevitably exhibit pixelation and jaggies, especially with motion. In fact, SD video from your cable provider or VCR typically looks worse on an HDTV than it does on a standard set.

The exception is DVDs, which usually offer widescreen modes. A good upconverting DVD player can deliver a very nice-looking HD picture to your TV, at minimal cost. Full 1080p DVD players can be had for as little as $50 to $75.

Make sure to upgrade your other video sources, including your cable/satellite box and/or DVR, to native HD as soon as possible. You'll see the benefits immediately, and you'll make proper use of all those pixels on your new TV.

Illustration: Jason Schneider
Moving to HD won't be free. Cable and satellite companies tack on an additional charge for HD channels and equipment. And you'll definitely need an HD set-top box of some sort unless you have a TV or DVR (like the TiVo HD) that accepts CableCard tuners, or that supports Clear QAM, which lets you tune basic digital channels (usually the same as those offered over the air) without a decoder. If you're a satellite subscriber, you may need a new dish, unless you have a recent one. The good news is that you can usually get free installation of your equipment upgrade to HD if you agree to extend your service contract.

The Tivo HD DVR can let you receive basic digital channels without an HD decoder.
Consider Switching Providers

Want to know which providers have all your favorite channels in HD? Check out AVSForum's nationwide HD lineup comparison. Double-check the channel lineups for the providers you are considering (easy to do on TVGuide.com), as some local and regional variations not covered in the AVSForum list, although its chart will give you the big picture.

Tops for HD content are AT&T U-verse and Verizon FiOS. These two fiber providers are great choices if you live in their service areas, and a new HDTV is a good excuse to consider switching. They deliver high-speed Internet and phone services along with a host of HD channels. Their picture quality is better than cable or satellite, because they have so much bandwidth that they don't need to compress the HD signal as much.

Watch Over-the-Air HD for Free

You might also consider dumping your TV provider altogether. Free over-the-air HDTV broadcasts make that possible, along with the fact that all HDTVs sold since March 2007 have built-in digital tuners. All you need to add is an antenna to pull in crystal-clear programming, with none of the snow or interference of analog. Even better, over-the-air HD signals are generally of higher quality than the corresponding cable or satellite channels, since those providers must recompress the signals to fit on their pipes.

Illustration: Jason Schneider
Visit AntennaWeb.org to see which over-the-air digital channels you can receive, and what type of antenna you will need to pull them in. Note that you may not be able to receive all the networks in your location, no matter what antenna you use. Also note that not all of the digital channels shown will be HD, or they may be HD only for certain prime-time programs. Most digital TV is still 480i. The TitanTV online listings provide a quick guide as to which programs are in HD format.

Of course, you won't find cable channels like the Comedy Channel, ESPN, or MTV over the air. However, many of these channels provide online streams of popular shows, which you can send from your PC or set-top box to your TV (see "Stream HD Video from Your PC and Other Devices").

Set Up a Free DVR

You don't have to give up using your digital video recorder to switch to over-the-air programming. Both the TiVo HD and Windows Media Center PCs can record off the air, and with a PC, you won't even have the $13 monthly TiVo charge (although I think the money is well spent for TiVo's ease of use and features like Netflix and Amazon streaming). See this guide to turning your PC into a free HD DVR with a USB tuner for more details.

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