Is HD television really that great?

am-watching-hdA press release from Comcast this week cites a Leichtman study showing close to 50 percent of US households will own an HDTV by the end of the year. But the ironic part is the same release says that only 36 percent of the HDTV owners were told how to get HD programming. A separate study done by Frank N. Magid Associates (from a recent MultiChannel article) says a whopping 14 million HDTV owners aren’t even viewing HD content — which amounts to a staggering 1/3 of HDTV owners.

The recent studies, and just day to day observations have me questioning, “Is HD television all that great? Is the jump from 480i to 720p and 1080i so significant that the latter is just not viewable anymore?” Obviously not. There are plenty of homes and businesses that haven’t figured out how to get HD programming, or don’t fully understand the difference, or have simply refused to upgrade to HD content even while owning HDTVs.

So why are they buying HDTVs? Because they look cooler? Because they take up less space?

You may have heard HDTV compared to the invention of color TV, and the impact the technology had at the time. While always skeptical of this comparison now I’m sure a slight or even significant improvement in image sharpness can hardly compare to the jump from black and white to color. Go ahead, give me flack. The numbers prove it. A Knowledge Networks study found only 58% of men and 41% of women actively search for HD content. The same study also found only 15% of viewers would stop watching a program if it wasn’t in HD. Just take a look at the explosion of YouTube and its barely viewable content and you’ll wonder if anyone really cares about quality.

Quality vs. Content — content still wins.

The jump to 720p and 1080i just doesn’t have the same punch as other advances in technology. For example, DVDs were revolutionary not only because they improved sharpness and image stability over VHS, they also took away the linear properties of tape. Jumping chapters and accessing a menu gave viewers more control over the content…much like what we see happening with DVRs and video-on-demand.

Well, then… what about Blu-ray? Doesn’t Blu-ray give you more than double the amount of resolution of a standard DVD, 7.1 channels of audio, social interaction while watching movies, and even more control over the content? Sure. You can place a standard-def television image next to a Blu-ray image and viewers will have no problem seeing the difference. But place a whacky YouTube video (like “United Breaks Guitars”) next to a Blu-ray disc and see which gets more eyes.

Video sharpness aside, let’s consider something that may be just as significant. That is, HDTV’s native 16:9 format. The widescreen image has brought a whole new perspective to television watching. Movies can be shown closer to their native theatrical format, and TV shows such as LOST and CSI have revolutionized the way we watch TV. Television has become more cinematic and artistic. What’s more, DTV with it’s limited bandwidth consumption has allowed 5.1 Dolby surround sound to be piped into our homes. Considering these other improvements doesn’t it seem like 100% of HDTV owners should be viewing HD content?

Maybe it’s just a matter of time. But what may be more revolutionary than HDTV, and closer to the advent of color TV (by comparison) is 3D HDTV. This nascent technology offers a huge advancement in home theater that will, eventually, pack two punches for the industry and its customers. Not only does the hi-def resolution provide a more realistic image, the element of 3D in high-definition takes the viewer experience to another, immersive, level. The push for 3D technology to move to the home will be big in 2010, with movies such as Alice in Wonderland, Dispicable Me and this month’s holiday blockbuster Avatar. In addition, Sony’s recent finalization of 3D specifications for Blu-ray will send more 3D titles to the shelves, paving the way for a new format that has been around for decades, but never really made it to home viewing.

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Jeff Chabot

Jeff Chabot

Jeff Chabot writes about technology, broadcasting, and digital entertainment. You can also find him on Gameverse, Gadget Review, and Google+.

2 Replies to “Is HD television really that great?”

  1. mike S. says:

    what are you talking about? 720p is arguably better than 1080i! but thanks for the heads up on the samsung.

  2. HD television is only good when your cable provider sends at least a 1080i signal.

    A lot of smaller towns are only getting 720p which really sucks!

    However, someone at the FTC needs to stop the Samsung BD-P3600 Blu-Ray Player from being sold or the standard will never make it!

    http://bit.ly/8XbQiL

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