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  Counting the Cost of a HDTV Upgrade
 
 

Like many people, I researched my TV purchase like a man possessed. I felt like I was prepared to discuss the different features of flat panel televisions. What I did not research enough was all the anciliary costs associated with an upgrade to a HDTV.

The Prep Costs

Just before I bought the HDTV, I had upgraded my regular analog cable service to a basic digital service. The picture on my old standard definition TV was noticably better with the digital service. Now your experience may vary, but my cable company offered this upgrade for only one dollar per month ($1/month). At least based on my experience, if you are still using a standard definition TV, this upgrade is worth it.

The other "prep" cost I incurred was the connecting cable. To get the most out of your HD source, you need a HDMI (High Definition Multimedia Interface) cable to connect your source to your TV. This allows the most information to pass from your HD source to your HDTV. I was surprised at the range of prices of these cables. A quick search found cables from $0.22 for a two foot cable to nearly $500 for a 66-meter fiber optic HDMI cable. It's important to note that HDMI requirements limit cable length to 10-meters. If you need longer cables, they recommend using a repeater to bolster signal strength. Another point to consider is the type of HDMI cable. From HDMI.org,

As part of the new Trademark and Logo Usage Guidelines, cables will be labeled as either Standard or High Speed.

  1. Standard cables (referred to as Category 1 cables in the HDMI specification) are those tested to perform at speeds of 75Mhz, which is the equivalent of an uncompressed 1080i signal.
  2. High Speed cables (referred to as Category 2 cables in the HDMI specification), are those tested to perform at speeds of 340Mhz, which is the highest bandwidth currently available over an HDMI cable and can successfully handle 1080p signals including those at increased color depths (e.g. greater than eight bits per color) and/or increased refresh rates (e.g. 120Hz). High Speed cables are also able to accommodate higher resolution displays, such as those at the latest 1440p and WQXGA resolutions (e.g. cinema monitors with a resolution of 2560 x 1600).

While many cables that are branded as Standard cables will work at higher speeds (especially at cable lengths of less than five meters), to guarantee performance, consumers should purchase a cable that is tested and rated for the specific speed required by their system.

Since my TV did not come with a HDMI cable, I ran out to my local electronics retailer and overpaid ($50) for a 3-meter cable that did not indicate which rating it was. It works great, so I'm not complaining. I used this cable to connect my cable box output to the HDTV input.

The Installation Costs

Where you end up placing the TV can have a significant impact on the cost. It would be difficult to quantify a cost if your placement was on top of a new entertainment center. The cost of something like that can vary from $100 to thousands of dollars depending on what you purchased. Instead, I am going to focus on wall mounting the new HDTV.

At one of the high-end retailers I visited, the starting price for their labor for a wall-mount was $500...that was just for the labor! They also wanted $200 for a basic tilting wall bracket. There were other misc costs as well (including $165 for a 3-meter HDMI cable). I passed on spending $1000+ for an install. Instead, I purchased a Peerless tilting wall bracket from Amazon for $75. If I had stud walls, I would probably have installed the bracket myself. However, my house is plaster on block and so I decided not to risk it. The last thing I want is for a 100lbs TV to fall off the wall. I have arranged to have another installer mount the bracket for me for $300.

The Service Cost

Now to return to the type of cable service I had. While the basic digital signal was excellent on my standard definition TV, it left a lot to be desired on a 1080p HDTV. In fact, it is downright awful. Why? A standard definition signal is basically 480 lines of resolution (480i). There simply is not enough image information in a standard definition signal to properly render on a 720 or 1080 display (you can read more here).

After spending all that money on a HDTV, I was not going to accept watching a standard definition signal on it. So I ran out to my local cable provider and immediately upgraded to their basic HD package.

Once again, you may be faced with options. My cable provider's basic HD package gives me around 20 HD channels for $10/month more. The next level up from that costs an additional $13/month. I settled on the cheapest package for the time being. Now that I've seen HDTV, I cringe at watching a show without it. HD is just that amazing.

I will return to the subject of the service after a few other points.

The Acilliary Costs

Following the above discussion, there is a HDTV installed and wired properly to an HD digtal cable box. However, there are still many other costs that can be involved.

So far, there is one HD source...the cable box. However, what about your DVD player? If you are like me, you have an older standard definition player. You will probably be disappointed in the image quality produced by this player. There are three options to upgrading your DVD source: upconverting DVD, HD-DVD or Blu-ray Disc.

An upconverting DVD player resamples the standard definition signal for 720p or 1080p resolutions. It is not true HD/1080p sweetness, but it is much better than the standard definition signal. These players can be purchased for less than $100.

HD-DVD and Blu-ray Disc (BD) are the competing formats for high-definition DVD content (think Beta vs. VHS). Up until recently, it seemed like we were at a stalemate. However, about two weeks ago, some major hollywood studios pulled their support of HD-DVD and will exclusively produce BD dics. This was a huge blow to the HD-DVD camp. In fact, Toshiba (major force behind HD-DVD) is already feeling the heat and has begun drastically slashing the price of HD-DVD players. Unless something happens, it appears that BD may win the fight and become the standard for HD content for DVD's. Unfortunately, BD players are not cheap...you can expect to pay at least $400 for a decent BD player. Also adding to the confusion is a future BD spec revision to 2.0. This will add some nice, new features. Unfortunately, it appears that 1.0 and 1.1 revision players will not be firmware upgradeable.

Cables, cables, cables...the back of your entertainment system probably looks like the snake scene from Indiana Jones. My guess is that most, if not all, of those cables are the standard RCA style. Unfortunately, those cables do not have the bandwidth to carry HD signals so you will have to upgrade those cables wherever they are in the path of your HD video signal (meaning you can keep those RCA cables for your audio needs). There are three primary types of upgrade cables for video signals: HDMI (mentioned previously), S-Video and Component video. HDMI is the best. S-video is the older standard and features a single cable with round connectors at each end. Component video is a newer standard and features a three cable assembly with RCA type connectors at the ends. From my own testing, I saw moderate improvement going from RCA to s-video, but only a slight improvement going from S-Video to Component.

Finally, how are you going to record these new HD TV shows? Do you have a VCR? a TiVo? If you have an older VCR, you will probably be disappointed in the quality of the playback. It was never designed for HD content. Similiarly, if you do not have a HD DVR, the playback will only be in standard definition.

If you want to record in HD, there are two basic options: an upconverting DVD recorder or a DVR. The upconverting DVD recorders start around $100. However, since DVR's are the more popular way to record TV shows, I will focus on this option.

As mentioned, a standard definition TiVo is not a treat on a HDTV. TiVo does offer a dual-tuner HDTV DVR, but it has some drawbacks. First, it uses two CableCard slots. You will have to get these cards from your cable company. The cards act as mini set-top boxes for the TiVo. At least with my cable company, using the CableCards deprives you of some of the cable company's extra features like the TV guide and demand programming. Additionally, the HD TiVo is not inexpensive. Their basic unit is $300 and only records 20 hours of HD content. The next step up is around $800 (before rebate).

Most TV service providers offer their own DVR options. Instead of owning the DVR like a TiVo box, you rent these DVR's from the cable company. You should be able to get the guide and demand programming options with these DVR's. Of course, they do not come free. For my cable provider, the DVR's cost another $14/month. While that is about the same as TiVo (without the extra cost of buying the DVR), the cable company gets you in another way...you cannot use their dual-tuner HD DVR's on a basic HD TV package. You must upgrade to their digital "classic" package which will cost another $13/month.

I ultimately ended up getting the "triple play" (telephone/internet/tv) package. It ended up being about $30 cheaper a month and I got the HD DVR free.

Conclusion

A new HDTV can be an amazing purchase. It is important, however, to fully understand all the "hidden" costs that are associated with such a purchase.

Previous - Inductory Guide to Buying a HDTV

 
      Posted by: , January 20, 2008, 4:27 pm  

 
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