Jim's Pages

High Definition Adventures

This all started when one of my co-workers offered to loan me some movies she had purchased from a DVD club. At the time, I figured my fifteen-year-old Mitsubishi VCR would need replacing soon enough anyway, so I bought a combination DVD player-VCR. I paid $180 for a Zenith XBV243, which seemed like a pretty good deal at the time. The DVD player worked well enough, but I was very disappointed with the VCR. The picture quality was decent when playing back rental tapes or stuff that I'd recorded on my old machine. When playing back tapes recorded on this machine, however, the picture was grainy and the colors somewhat washed out. I use the timer for unattended recording frequently for events such as European soccer games that are shown live at noon Tuesday. My old VCR's timer could only be set using the buttons on the front of the unit, so I was delighted to get a unit with on-screen programming . . . until I tried to use it. Setting the start time requires pressing a button to advance the timer one minute at a time. The end time defaults to thirty minutes after the start time, and is also advanced one minute at a time. So if you're setting it to record that soccer game before you leave for work, you're going to punch that sucker three or four hundred times!

Anyway, I was ready to watch a DVD, and selected Pearl Harbor. Turns out it was the widescreen version. Do you know how small a widescreen movie looks when letterboxed on a 19" screen? The approaching Japanese airplanes looked like a swarm of mosquitos. Of course, I soon decided that I just had to have a bigger screen. My first thought was to buy a 27" to 32" standard TV. With a matching stand and extended warranty I would spend maybe $600 or $700 at most. Then one day I found myself in an electronics store with a friend who's buying something or other for his computer. I start looking at TV's and thinking about how great it would be to watch movies on one of those high definition widescreen models. The Sony with the picture tube had a noticeably better picture that just about anything else, including some of the really expensive plasma sets.

At first, I decided it wasn't worth it, mainly because I couldn't think of a convenient and affordable source of movies. There's digital cable, but in order to download movies to watch later I would need a high-definition recorder or media PC. Satellite dish isn't an option when your condo is in a high-rise facing north. I used to rent tapes and return them on the way to work the next day. Back then I was driving everywhere, but now I walk to work and there is no rental store on the way. I didn't want to start buying DVD's and end up with shelves full of stuff I really didn't care to see again and again.

I changed my mind when I discovered Netflix. If you're not familiar with this type of service, you select movies from a web site and receive the DVD's in the mail. You get three at a time (at home or in transit), keep them as long as you like, and return them in the prepaid mailer. For this you pay a monthly fee, currently under $25. You might have to wait a while for new releases, but otherwise the selection is phenomenal, with something like 15,000 titles. I couldn't resist.

So I bought a Sony KV-34HS510 widescreen high-definition monitor at Circuit City for $1,900 (this was June, 2003; now it's a discontinued model and I've seen it advertised on the internet for under $1,600). It has one of the biggest picture tubes you can buy, so the unit is bulky and very heavy (200+ lbs). The matching stand, which is essential, cost $300 extra. There was no way I was going to move the thing myself, so I gladly paid the $40 delivery charge. I don't usually go for extended warranties, but they offered an in-home service plan for $300 that covers parts and labor for five years. I wasn't about to take a chance that I would have to haul it to the shop, so I bought it. With sales tax, the total bill came to $2,655. The stand, oddly enough, only comes with one shelf. You're going to add at least a high definition receiver and a DVD player, so you're going to need more room. I guess Sony had gotten some calls on this, because they included a mail-order form for a second shelf. That brought the cost of the TV up to an even $2,700.

They don't assemble or deliver the stand, instead they give you a rather heavy and bulky box of parts to take home with you to assemble yourself. They don't tell you this until after you've handed them your credit card. I stuffed the thing in the trunk of my compact car and had to go back into the store to ask for some rope so I could tie down the trunk lid. I took time off work to wait for the delivery truck (they take your money on weekends, but they only deliver Monday through Friday). They didn't show up. Apparently the salesman was in such a hurry to take my money before I changed my mind that he entered the wrong date into the computer. So I took some more time off work.

Once the thing was delivered, I realized that the DVD-VCR combo didn't have the features (progressive scan and reverse 3:2 pulldown) to properly show movies in high definition. I bought a Sony DVP-NS725P DVD player for $130. In the unlikely event that I want to watch a VHS tape, I get the Mitsubishi out of the closet and hook it into the auxillary inputs on the front of the TV. The combo unit is now quietly collecting dust.

Once I started watching movies, I decided it was worth the money and the hassle of getting the TV. The picture and the sound are terrific, and you can stop the movie and restart it any time. You can watch two or three movies a week, and always have another one ready to play. Then I started getting bad disks. I'm not talking about bad movies on disks, but disks that won't play properly because of scratches, cracks, etc. I wouldn't mind so much if the disk doesn't play at all; you can return it to Netflix and request a replacement. However, they always seem to freeze up half way through the movie. I think I know why this happens; the disks are layered, and the laser can read the top layer, but not the bottom. Anyway, you have to mail the thing back and wait for a replacement to arrive several days later before you can see the rest of the movie. After about five of these experiences, I cancelled my subscription. I figure I can buy a couple of movies a month for the same money.

I had read about how the networks were now broadcasting all this great programming, including NFL games, in high definition. I decided it was time to complete my system with a high definition receiver. I found a Zenith HD-SAT520 for $285 (including shipping) on Ebay. Since I live in a condo on the third floor of a high rise building, I'm limited to an indoor antenna. It's a little tricky getting signals tuned in, but when you get there the picture is fantastic! Trouble is, it's still hit-and-miss as far as what's actually shown in HD. NASCAR on NBC isn't (at least today's race wasn't). Yesterday CBS showed LSU-Georgia in HD, but the Colorado game was analog. The NFL games on CBS are high definition, which is great for fans of AFC teams. I have yet to find anything in HD on ABC or FOX. They transmit an analog picture over an HD signal with grey bands on the sides of the wide screen. I guess they're supposed to be broadcasting everything in HD within a year or two. For now, $3,165 seems like a lot of money......