Saturday, January 20, 2007
High-Def Disconnect
For $1,399 and Endless Add-Ons He Got 12 Channels

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By Howard Bryant
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 21, 2007; F01

Back in August, my needs were simple. As one of the reporters covering the Redskins for The Post, I needed a television and a way to record games so I could analyze what turned out to be a five-win season. A $119 combination 13-inch TV with a VCR would have solved the problem.

Instead, I ended up taking the high-definition plunge, spending $1,399 for a far-bigger and fancier television set than I originally had in mind. As I left the store with my new HDTV, my confidence was boosted by approving nods from people in the parking lot.

"It's going to change your life," one man said.

If only someone had told me that buying the set was the easiest part.

Since then, I have been riding a high-definition roller coaster -- mesmerized by the new TV's crystal-clear images but disillusioned by the disappointingly low number of HD channels you get in exchange for the investment of the upgrade.

My purchase put me in a growing wave of people switching to high definition. Last year, more than 13 million HDTV sets were shipped to stores in the United States, and the Consumer Electronics Association predicts that even more -- closer to 16 million -- will hit shelves this year.

Moving into HDTV had been on my mind for a while. I'd been admiring a 50-inch plasma, and its dropping price tag, for about a year, but I was still fighting the psychological barrier of paying such big money for a TV. I'd spent less than $300 on a 27-inch Toshiba tube set only four years ago and wasn't mentally ready to shell out four figures for a replacement.

And so, faced with the onset of the season and needing a second set at home, I headed out with self-restraint and intentions of saving money by going low-tech -- until I started comparing prices and saw how much they had come down.

A 27-inch tube set is the same price today as the one I bought four years ago, around $275, but a Polaroid 20-inch flat-panel, HD television was less than $50 more, at $318. A 32-inch combination TV-VCR cost in the mid-$300s, but a Samsung 32-inch HD was in the low $600s, which didn't seem unreasonable considering the quality of the picture.

Besides, was I really thinking about buying a VCR? In 2006? I had already been interested in TiVo, the VCR-like device that records TV programming to a hard drive instead of tapes. And after asking a few questions, I discovered that TiVo had an add-on service called TiVoToGo, which would let me transfer the recorded programs to a laptop, iPod or other handheld device. From there, I could use software to burn DVDs of the games, or even the first three seasons of "The Sopranos" (instead of paying $219 for the box set).

I started to imagine the possibilities: I could have a library of Redskins games at my desk, on an airplane or in the press box. Couldn't remember a specific play from that Skins-Cowboys game three weeks ago? Now, I could just pop in a DVD. I was hooked.

I ended up buying a Philips 37-inch LCD HD television for $1,399 -- about $400 more than I had planned on spending. Once I got the set home, I confronted a series of unexpected decisions, the first being the choice between digital cable or satellite service -- a pick driven purely by economics for me. Watching a cheetah chase a gazelle on Discovery HD is just as eye-popping in either format.

Going the cable route seemed easiest. My provider in Fairfax, Cox Communications, made it easy: Simply exchange the digital cable box with the HD version. Taking the satellite TV path meant a complete overhaul. I'd need an HD receiver as well as an HD antenna, which meant DirecTV would have to come to the house to upgrade everything.

Over the long term, though, Cox HD is demonstrably more expensive than DirecTV. Both charge a monthly fee for the privilege of having HD service -- $6.95 for Cox, $9.99 for DirecTV -- but Cox also charges $9.99 per month per HD cable box, while DirecTV makes consumers buy each HD receiver for $99 with no recurring charge. After one year, the expenses are about the same. But over five years, the Cox $9.99 monthly fee for the HD box would total about $600, compared with $99 for the DirecTV HD receiver. My decision was made.

So now I was in love with this TV and its gorgeous picture. I watched a man tool around New Zealand in a hot-air balloon for hours because the picture was so ridiculously sharp. The Discovery HD Theater program "Equator" makes my television look like an aquarium. During a snowy Monday Night Football matchup between Green Bay and Seattle, not only could I watch snow turn to water as it hit Brett Favre's helmet, but I also could see the powdery wisps of pancake makeup on Tony Kornheiser in the broadcast booth.

But man cannot live on nature shows and sports forever. And neither cable nor satellite offers more than 12 channels of HD programming.

That's right. I paid $1,399 for my HD television, $99 for an upgraded receiver, $110 for the proper cables and an extra $10 a month to a satellite provider that offers me more than 200 channels -- and only 12 of those are in HD.

That's 6 percent. Six!

The other 94 percent of programming is in the regular 4:3 format, the same as the square of your grandfather's regular old TV. That leaves six inches shaded in on the left and right of my screen because most channels are not HD-ready.

And remember my TiVo plan, the one with an HD DVD library of Redskins games on the plane or in the press box? Wrong.

TiVo's 80-gigabyte recorder -- the one that requires a $16.95 monthly subscription -- doesn't work in HD. To record those programs, I need a TiVo HD box that costs -- get this -- $800. Really. And the TiVoToGo service, which transfers recorded programming to a laptop, doesn't work in HD, either.

The good folks at DirecTV informed me that I could still use digital video recording in HD and that their HD-DVR receiver costs $300. More money!

The compromise: The HD television is in the living room, but the TiVo and TiVoToGo are attached to the old Toshiba, where I get regular programming and create non-HD DVDs. And sometimes, that doesn't even work. One time, thanks to software crashes, it took nearly three days to burn the Redskins' 24-14 loss to the Falcons to a DVD.

In the end, I realized that the technology is far ahead of the infrastructure and, for me, there just aren't enough HD channels to justify the expense. If I hadn't needed a new set, I would have waited until there was more programming available.

One night, as my wife and I watched a DVD movie on the HD flat-panel TV, she noted how everyone looked a little fatter. I called Philips, freaked out that something was wrong with my new TV. As it turns out, I should be watching high-definition DVDs -- either the HD DVD format or another technology called Blu-ray -- and scrap my collection of 200 DVDs. Of course, those new DVDs work in only special HD DVD or Blu-ray players, which cost anywhere from $600 to $1,000.

And it's unclear -- as in the old VHS vs. Betamax war -- which of the technologies will become the standard. So in the meantime, I guess it's best to just watch movies with actors who look heavier than normal.

Or a lot of sports and nature shows.