What You Need To See High Definition on an HDTV

Now That You Have an HDTV - You Need HD Sources To See What You Paid For

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Many consumers, after they purchase their HDTV assume that everything they will watch on it is in High Definition. Needless to say, many are disappointed when they find out that their VHS videos and analog cable channels many times actually look worse on their new HDTV than they did on their old analog set. There are several reasons for this which are explained in my article: Why Do Analog TV Signals Often Look Worse on an HDTV than on an Analog TV?.

So, after investing a lot of money on a new HDTV, how do you get the High Definition picture everyone is talking about?

To Get High Definition on an HDTV, You Need High Definition Sources

If you have an HDTV, the only way to view true HD is to have true HD sources, such as HD-Satellite, HD-Cable, or, if you have built-in a built-in ATSC tuner - you can use a standard TV antenna to receiver over-the-air HDTV signals if stations in your area are broadcasting in HD.

Other true High Definition sources are Blu-ray Disc or HD-DVD players, and Cable/Satellite HD-DVRs. However, another popular source that provides near-HD quality is a good Upscaling DVD player. For more details, check out two of my articles that address this issue:

Upscaling DVD Players vs Upscaling HDTVs

DVD Video Upscaling - What You Need To Know

DVD Recorders with ATSC or QAM tuners can receive HDTV signals, but they are downscaled to Standard Definition in order to record onto DVD, and the DVD recorder does not pass the HDTV signal directly from its tuner through to the TV.

For more details on this, read my article on this issue:

Can I Record HDTV on a DVD Recorder?

High Definition vs Non-High Definition Video Sources

If you are interested in getting the most from your HDTV, you need have one or more of the following High Definition sources connected to your TV:

  • HD-Cable, HD-Satellite.
  • HD-Cable DVR, HD-Satellite DVR, or TIVO-HD.
  • Over-the-Air Antenna combined with an ATSC tuner in the HDTV.
  • Blu-ray Disc Disc Player.
  • Upscaling DVD player or DVD recorder with HDMI output. This is not true High Definition, but an upscaling DVD player can provide a much better image on an HDTV than a standard non-upscaling DVD player unless the scaler in the HDTV is very good on its own.
  • High Definition Camcorders - such as HDV or AVCHD format camcorders, and also the new breed of compact hard drive and memory card camcorders that also have HDMI output connections.

Sources that do not provide a High Definition signal:

  • Analog Cable or Basic Digital Cable.
  • Standard Satellite service.
  • DVD recorders, DVD Recorder/Hard Drive combinations, and DVD Recorder/VCR combinations that do not feature HDMI outputs and DVD upscaling.
  • VHS VCRs.
  • Standard Resolution Analog and Digital Camcorders.

The Role of Selectable Output Control

Selectable Output Control is a term applied to the ability of cable/satellite services to disable 720p/1080i or 1080p output signals on cable/satellite boxes via Component Video outputs.

When this disabling can be used is at the discretion of the movie studios and/or Cable/Satellite services involved (with final approval by the FCC), thus the "Selectable" designation.

What this means is that those consumers that have older HDTVs that do not have HDMI or DVI connections and transfer high definition signals from HD Cable or HD Satellite boxes to an HDTV via Component Video connections, access to some, or all high definition programming, may be curtailed. The result would be that content selected for output control activation would only be able to be viewed in standard definition (480i or 480p) when accessed via component video connections between an HD Cable/Satellite box and an HDTV.

The Role of ATSC and QAM Tuners

All products classified as Televisions (Standard Resolution Digital TV and HDTVs) are required to include an ATSC Tuner to receive

The ATSC tuner requirement also applies to all video recording devices that include a tuner (such as VCRs and DVD recorders). However, to get around this, some manufacturers also sell DVD recorders without any tuner at all. In this case, you must have a Cable or Satellite Box, or DTV converter box (buy from Amazon) to record television programs. Also, since standard VCRs and DVD recorders cannot record high definition resolution video, all HDTV programming is downscaled to standard definition in order to record the programming to VHS tape or DVD.

In addition to ATSC tuners, many Digital and HDTVs, as well as some DVD recorders, also include what is referred to as a QAM or Clear-QAM tuner. This type of tuner allows the HDTV to receive unscrambled, non-premium, HD-cable signals without the need for a cable box. Check with your Cable TV provider for more details if this available in your area. The inclusion of a QAM tuner in an HDTV or video recording devices is not required but is becoming more common. If this feature is important to you, check the TV specifications to see if a QAM tuner is included.

High Definition and Content Streamed from the Internet

An increasing popular source of content for TV viewing are TV programs, movies, and videos that is streamed from the internet. As a result, an increasing number of TVs, Blu-ray Disc players, and set-top boxes now incorporate the capability of accessing Internet-based media content. This presents a mixed-bag with regards to high definition resolution.

The problem is that the quality of what you see on the screen varies from service to service, and also depends on how fast your internet connection is.

For example, services such as Vudu can provide a 1080p high definition signal to your HDTV, but if your internet connection speed is too slow, you will get signal stalls and interruptions, or may just stop. As a result, you may have to select a lower resolution option for accessing the content.

One solution that Netflix provides is that it automatically detects your internet speed and matches the image quality with your internet speed, which makes viewing convenient, but you may not be seeing a high definition result.

For more details on what you need to know about the relation of internet speed and viewing quality, read our report: Internet Speed Requirements For TV and Movie Streaming.

Confirmation Your HDTV is Receiving a High Definition Signal

The best way to verify whether your HDTV is indeed receiving a high definition video signal is to see if you can locate the INFO button your TV's remote, or see if there is an onscreen menu function that accesses the input signal information or status.

When you access either of these functions, a message should display on your TV screen (usually in the upper right-hand corner, but may be displayed differently depending on TV brand). This message tells you what the resolution of your incoming signal is, either in pixel count terms (740x480i/p, 1280x720p, 1920x1080i/p), or just as 480i/p, 720p, or 1080i/p.

For a more in-depth look at HDTV, and what you need to know on how it can enhance your home theater television viewing experience, check out my HDTV FAQs.

4K Ultra HD

If you own a 4K Ultra HD TV, just as with an HDTV, don't make the assumption that what you are seeing on the screen at any given time is true 4K. There are some important, additional, factors to take into consideration with regards to what you are really seeing on the screen. For the full details, read my companion article: What You Need to See 4K Resolution On A 4K Ultra HD TV.

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