With a final bit of effort over the last weekend, I got my HDTV system up and running, and I thought I'd spend some time talking about some of the questions that I had to answer along the way.

Should I get HDTV?

There are a few questions you should ask yourself:

  1. Do you own a big-ass TV? (Revised US Code 898.33.55(3)(c) : "a TV that would not only kill you if it fell on you, but have a good likelyhood of killing an entire average American family of 3.86 people") (Note to entrepeneurs: www.bigasstvs.com is available, but with the uncertain future of http://www.bigassdiamonds.com, caution in that adoption of such domain names is advised).
  2. Would you like to own a big-ass TV?

If either of these are true, you're a good candidate to get an HDTV-capable display. Contact your mortgage provider and/or landlord and see how they feel about you skipping a few payments to fund your display.

Is the show that I want broadcast in HDTV?

No.

What is the difference between 480i, 480p, 720p, 1080i, 1080p, and 3000GT?

Those are different HDTV formats. When companies first started getting together to talk about HDTV, they all wanted support for different formats, and rather than decide on one, they agreed that the standard would encompass some 20-some different video formats, which have mostly shaken out into the ones I list.

The base format - at least in the US - is 480i, which is what Americans call "TV". The 480 refers to the number of horizontal lines that make up the picture, and the "i" means interlaced, which is a "term of the art" that means that all odd lines are drawn, then all even lines. Interlacing is used because it's cheaper, though there are many disadvantages.

The "p" in 480p means progressive, which means that it's not interlaced - scan lines are drawn from top to bottom, one after the other.

And so on for the other formats. As the numbers get higher, the picture quality increases, as does the number of house payments you need to skip to afford it (in some cases, you may have to buy a more expensive house to be able to skip a sufficient amount of payments).

These days, you want a display that does at least 720p and 1080i.

The 3000GT is a 1990s vintage Grand Touring Sports Car from Mitsubishi.

What's this 4 by 3 and 16 by 9 I keep hearing about?

These are aspect ratios. (I'm sorry if you thought it had something to do with Seven of Nine (I'm even sorrier that I wrote that))

Aspect ratios are determined by dividing the width of an image (be it picture or video) by the height of the video. Standard TV is 4:3 (1.3333 etc), and "wide screen" (which may or may not be HD) is 16:9 (1.77etc). The goal of having a 16:9 aspect ratio is so that movies can be appreciated as their director's intended them to be appreciated, or some such rot.

A noble goal, and there are some movies filmed at 16:9. There are also some filmed at 5:3 (0.613 e), and a whole bunch filmed in widescreen, at 47:20 (0.748 pi), or even 8:3. And a whole bunch of aspect ratios in between. So, until we perfect the squeezable monitor, you won't see exactly what the director intended, but a 16:9 screen gets you closer on most movies.

What does the "HDTV" entry in the program guide mean?

Little or nothing. It means that the broadcaster is promising that you're getting HDTV, but since there is no mention of intraocular impalement, it's hard to take them seriously.

The signal is pretty sure to be HD, but the source content might be shot in a variety of formats. Perhaps the producers spent the money to get the latest of Sony's offerings. Or perhaps they had to economize a bit. It might be true 16:9 content, or it might be 4:3. Similarly with commercials - some will look great, some not so good.

What provider should I get?

There are three basic ways to get HDTV content. If you are lucky, one will work for you. If you are very lucky, more than one of these may work for you.

  1. OTA. For some reason, the industry needed to invent a new acronym meaning "Off The Air". This is the kind of TV that most people had when they grew up - an antenna connected to some device, and no monthly subscriptions sapping away your lifeblood. HD broadcasts on the UHF band, which means that antennas tend to be small (good), but also that transmission is pretty much line-of-sight. In other words, topography is not your friend - if you are in a hilly region and you live on the wrong side of the hills, you may not have any luck.

    AntennaWeb.org is a decent place to start *but* note that AFAIK, it doesn't really take topography into consideration, so it may or may not be accurate. You may be able to find somebody local to do an antenna survey of your house and tell you what your options are.

    In my case, I'm on a slight hill sloping away from the transmitter, but I'm able to get nearly all my local channels with a big-ass antenna.

    Oh, one more comment on antennas - while amplifiers can help, they're not really a cure all.
  2. Cable. Some cable systems have very nice offerings of HD content, though most systems have a mismash of delivery mechanisms - some channels are analog, some are digital, and some are HD. Their PVR offerings vary widely in usability, so talk to some people before you jump. Most people consider the quality of their PVR more important than having HD or not.
  3. Satellite. Both DirecTV and Dish have HD options. Neither provide local channels on HD, though DTV says that they will when they get some new satellites up *and* they update all the receivers to new hardware. "Don't hold your breath" would seem to be a fair guess. There is some nice stuff here.

    With DirecTV, you have the option of the Most Excellent HDTivo, a Tivo PVR that records SD and HD from the satellite and HD from a OTA antenna. The disadvantage is that they're about $600...

What hardware should I buy?

Well, that's hard to answer. In my book, having a decent PVR (/DVR (/Tivo)) is about 10 times more important (more precisely, it's 9.87663 times more important) than seeing things in HD, so I would only go with a HD solution that has a good PVR with it. There are HD-only receivers that either do SAT or OTA if you want to go that route.

If I get an antenna, how should I mount it?

You should mount the antenna is cheaply and easily as possible while still getting the signal you need. In my case, that meant an eave mount at one end of my house, but there are lots of other choices. It would be a good idea to read the ChannelMaster installation guide to get some more information.

[Update: Go read Todd's comments - he added a lot of great information]