More and more people are going high-def. Even in a bad economy, HDTV sales continue to be a bright spot for electronics retailers such as Best Buy and Circuit City, based on their recent financial reports. In the first quarter, worldwide sales of just LCD displays -- almost all of which are HDTVs -- increased 45 percent over the same period a year earlier, according to the NPD Group.
A major reason is that U.S. consumers are switching to HDTVs in advance of the government-mandated switch to digital TV broadcasts in February. But people also just like to keep up with the times.
If you're new to HDTV, here's a guide to what kind of high-def programming is available for your high-tech viewing pleasure. To see specifically what's available in these categories in your area, visit the website Where Is HD? (www.whereishd.com).
This is the easiest option because it's essentially free, especially if you already have a decent over-the-air antenna. Even if you don't, a relatively inexpensive set-top antenna, such as the Philips PHDTV1 for $25, will do the trick. (Go to www.antennaweb.org to gauge reception quality for your address.) Fourteen broadcast channels offer some kind of high-def programming in the Twin Cities, but much of that content is restricted to prime-time shows and major sports events. About half of the programming on KARE-TV, Ch. 11, is in high-def, but the other network affiliates have no more than 20 percent, according to Where Is HD?
The high-def options broaden considerably with cable TV. Comcast (www.comcast.com), the Twin Cities' largest cable operator, offers 39 high-def channels, including networks that offer high-def shows virtually around the clock, such as Animal Planet HD and ESPN HD. In addition, Comcast has more than 400 on-demand high-def programs that can be watched at the viewer's whim. Of course, all of this comes at a price. It ranges from $20 a month for a basic package that includes just the local HD channels to $115 a month for everything, including the required HD receiver. (Otherwise, leasing the set-top box costs $7 a month.) Prices and selection might vary depending on where you live, your cable operator and promotional offers.
Satellite TV services offer even more high-def channels, but not the same on-demand options as cable. DirecTV (www.directv.com) wins the numbers game with 97 channels that offer high-def programming at least some of the time. High-def channels add $10 a month to DirecTV's monthly packages, which cost $30 to $82, depending on the number of channels you want. You also have to buy a DirecTV HD receiver, $100 to $200 depending on the model. The Dish Network (www.dishnetwork.com) has 72 high-def channels. A basic package with 45 high-def channels costs $30 a month, including equipment, while other programming packages -- $33 to $95 a month, depending on channel selection -- can have high-def channels added for an additional $10 to $20 a month.
Blu-ray Discs are the high-def version of DVDs. More than 550 titles have been released to date. They offer the best high-def presentation in picture and sound. Players -- which also play standard DVDs -- start at about $300, although the best model, the PlayStation 3, starts at $400. Discs typically retail for $35 to $40 each, but retailers such as Wal-Mart, Best Buy and Amazon.com have had sales discounting titles to $15 to $20. If you don't want to buy the discs, the online rental service Netflix (www.netflix.com) offers Blu-ray titles at $17 a month for unlimited rentals of three discs at a time, its most popular plan. (Other plans cost $5 to $24 a month.)
Standard DVDs don't offer high-def resolution, but they can fake it. You just need an up-converting player, which includes Blu-ray models. Such players increase the lines of resolution to make a standard DVD look better on HDTVs. The result is a picture that isn't as good as Blu-ray but nevertheless will please many viewers, especially those who already have a sizable DVD collection. The only catch is that you must connect the player to your setup using an HDMI cable. Oppo (www.oppodigital.com) makes award-winning up-converting players starting at $169. But reliable models can be found for less than $50 through bargain sites such as Dealnews (www.dealnews.com).
Streaming high-def content from the Internet is still relatively new and problematic, but it is largely free. You'll need a computer, an adapter and other cables to get things going, or a special interface box such as the soon-to-be-released HP MediaSmart Connect ($349). A recent article at Dealnews (www.startribune.com/a4502) explains how to do it by someone who gave up cable TV for a month to try online streaming exclusively. His conclusion: "Despite its great strides ... Internet TV just isn't ready for prime time."
Randy A. Salas • 612-673-4542