Blurred Reception for HDTVEnhanced-definition TVs are a step down from high definition.
The image disparity isn't clear to some, but the price is.
By David Colker Los Angeles Times
Staff Writer January 8, 2005
Glendale retiree Michael Thai loves to watch movies broadcast in high-definition format on his wide-screen plasma TV.
"It gives me the same feeling I get at the cinema," Thai said.
That's a problem for many in the consumer electronics industry because Thai's television is not a genuine HDTV. It's an enhanced-definition television, or EDTV a step down from the high-definition standards set by the industry. And it sells for far less.
Thai's set, a Panasonic made by Matsushita Electric Industrial Co., cost him $2,499 at Costco. A comparable HDTV set from Panasonic would have cost him nearly $2,000 more.
After more than a decade of development and promotion, consumers are finally embracing digital TV in large numbers. But rather than buying full-fledged high-definition sets, many are choosing enhanced definition, getting similar benefits for much less money.
Digital television delivers images with far greater clarity and sharpness than is possible with traditional analog technology. But digital TVs come in three flavors, all of which can receive HDTV signals.
At the top is true HDTV, which displays at least 720 vertical lines of picture data and constantly refreshes the image. Next is EDTV, which displays 480 vertical lines and an image that is less sharp. Both are generally available as large flat-screen plasma models.
The lowest grade of digital television is standard definition. This format also displays 480 lines, but refreshes only half of those lines at a time, which diminishes the image further.
HDTV was the star of the group when digital television was introduced in the late 1990s but was so expensive that advertisements for futuristic-looking, flat-panel sets were mostly aimed at the wealthy.
That changed in late 2002, when computer maker Gateway Inc. brought out a 42-inch plasma television an enhanced-definition model for just under $3,000.
"That changed the consumer electronics world," said industry analyst Richard Doherty of Envisioneering Group Inc. "It turned out that $3,000 was the price point at which people would start buying."
Other manufacturers followed with similar sets at the breakthrough price and lower. Name brands stuck to their more expensive HDTVs for a while, but last year even Sony Corp. added an EDTV model to its plasma lineup in the face of lower-priced competition.
"It was more of a defensive than an offensive move," said Mike Fidler, senior vice president of Sony's home-marketing division. "Our focus is still HD, but it was important for us to have an ED product to showcase."
Paris-based Thomson is going a step further. At this week's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, the company announced that its RCA brand this year would introduce a standard-definition line of digital TVs that will sell for as little as $300.
But for now, it's enhanced definition that is riding high, especially in the plasma format. In the third quarter of 2004, 54% of all plasma sets shipped worldwide were 42-inch EDTVs, according to research firm Displaysearch. It is even more popular in the United States, where in November nearly two-thirds of plasma sets sold were EDTVs, according to figures compiled by NPD Group, a sales and marketing information company.
Therein lies the problem for manufacturers: Will consumers remain satisfied with enhanced-definition television or move up to HDTV as more high-definition programming is available?
High-definition programming is commonly used in broadcast television, particularly for sports events and nighttime dramas and comedies. High-definition content also is available on cable and satellite channels, though it remains a small proportion of all programming.
As more HD programming is added, some industry analysts believe, the popularity of enhanced-definition television will fade. Under a federal mandate, television stations must convert to digital broadcasting by 2007 in all areas where at least 85% of households have digital sets.
In time, "the benefits of an HDTV will be apparent," said Tim Bajarin, president of technology consultant Creative Strategies.
But others believe that consumers will always want choice among the different grades of digital television.
Working to the advantage of EDTV is the fact that regular programming looks much better in enhanced definition than on a conventional analog set, so consumers used to old-fashioned TV are immediately wowed. And DVDs look essentially the same in enhanced definition as in true high definition.
The most convincing argument for EDTV could turn out to be that given a bit of distance, it's not easy to tell an EDTV image from one on an HDTV set, even if the program being viewed is digital.
Pete Putman, who does electronics product testing and spoke about digital TV at the Las Vegas show, said the proper viewing distance for a 42-inch screen was about 10 feet.
"If you parade in 50 people to look at properly calibrated HDTV and EDTV sets, side by side, at that distance, I'm not sure that even a couple of them could tell the difference," Putman said.
With larger plasma sets, the difference in image sharpness is noticeable, he acknowledged. But 42 inches is a highly popular screen size for digital sets among U.S. consumers.
And at that size, EDTV plasma sets also have the same design appeal and prestige factor as HDTV models.
"When the power is off, nobody knows it's an EDTV," analyst Doherty said.
At a Best Buy Inc. store in Los Angeles, Virginia Perez of Echo Park stopped to look at four adjacent big-screen sets all about 40-inch models on display. "They are so beautiful," Perez, 37, said to her husband.
She didn't realize that two of them were HDTVs and the other two were EDTVs until a sales clerk pointed that out. Confusion over the formats may come back to haunt retailers that don't make the distinction apparent to buyers, Doherty said.
"There are sellers out there who are biting their nails, worried that people will see a football game on their neighbor's full-fledged HDTV and wonder why theirs is not as good," he said.
Moving close to the sets, Perez could see the EDTV image was a bit blurred. She pointed to a Sony HDTV model priced at $4,299 about $2,000 more than the Panasonic EDTV displayed above it. "I want that one," she said, laughing, "someday," as she and her husband walked off.
Thai, a 67-year-old retired medical equipment designer, did his homework and knew the difference between formats before buying. He specifically sought out an EDTV because of the price and image quality.
He said he might move up to HDTV in about 10 years.
"I think that would be the right time," he said. "By then there will be a lot more HD shows.
"But for right now, I just can't believe how good 'Lord of the Rings' looks on my TV."http://www.latimes.com/business/la-f...ck=1&cset=true