All I wanted to do was buy a new high-definition television -- without putting a high-definition dent in my bank account. After years of watching on the sidelines, I had decided I was ready to go shopping when my cable provider, Comcast, began offering more than a dozen high-def channels as well as the ability to record them for later viewing.
With my I'm-not-gonna-pay-a-lot-for-this-HDTV mantra, I had to throw out thoughts of fashionable, pricey plasma and LCD sets. My choices quickly narrowed to the relatively cheap but absolutely unstylish CRT, or cathode-ray tube. And since most retailers carried only two or three CRT high-def sets, shopping was relatively easy.
I went with Sony's KD-34XBR960, a 34-inch set that sold for -- gulp -- $2,200 but was described in reviews as the best picture at any price. (Budget-minded buyers can spend as little as $700 for an HD set.)
My HD programming would come through Comcast's cable box that included a digital video recorder, and that cost nothing upfront and added just $9.95 a month in rental fees. But since that recorder could hold only about seven hours of HD programming, I wanted a way to archive copies of the best shows. Here, the only option was a D-VHS machine, a box using a high-grade version of the venerable tape format for recording and playback (a few movies and documentaries are available on D-VHS).
This JVC machine tacked an additional $530 onto the bill, but I was still under my self-imposed $3,000 limit. On the advice of two friends who work as broadcast engineers, I declined high-profit extras such as a $700 set of connecting cables and a so-called power conditioner for $1,200 -- despite a salesman's claim that he got a "30 percent better picture" from those costly cables.
Once two hulking delivery guys had hefted the almost-200-pound Sony set onto a stand in my living room, the installation seemed easy. I plugged the cable-TV wire into the Comcast box, then connected the three component-video cables and two audio cables to the TV. (Later on, I swapped out the trio of component cables for a digital connector, which made the picture look even better.)
Then, alas, I tried adding the D-VHS machine to the mix. Plugging it into the Comcast box with a FireWire video cable, the only HD-capable connection provided, didn't actually do anything. Multiple calls to Comcast and JVC yielded multiple answers -- the manufacturer claimed that cable companies all disabled FireWire outputs on their boxes, a claim that some Comcast reps backed up and others did not.
While I was puzzling this through, the Comcast DVR itself started hiccupping when playing video recorded on its hard drive. After further phone calls and tinkering, the replacement box Comcast sent was able to send video digitally to the D-VHS recorder.
With TV, cable box and VCR in harmony, it was time to sit back and enjoy the better picture. What to watch? Sports were an early pick, thanks to the heavily promoted HD coverage of such special events as the Olympics and PGA golf championship, plus regular baseball, hockey and basketball games. (Football comes this fall, with at least two high-def games a week.) Not all HD productions, however, are done capably -- witness NBC's hapless, late HD Olympics coverage.
As for prime-time network shows, ABC and CBS offer their entire lineup in HD, while Fox and NBC, playing catch-up, are about to reach the halfway mark. Cinemax, HBO and Showtime all offer full-time HD broadcasts.
My favorites, though, are the Imax movies and other documentaries offered by HDNet, PBS and Discovery HD, plus a pair of cable-only channels called INHD and INHD2. These all-HD channels, however, can get repetitive; the same programs will routinely air several times over a week.
The prerecorded movies and shows I've bought for the D-VHS make for a spectacular demonstration of how good a high-definition picture can look, even if scenery-oriented programs such as "Over America" or "Bikini Destinations" (I'm not making that up) can be thin on plot.
On the downside, while HD pictures usually look terrific, they do suffer occasional outbursts of pixelization and blockiness when Comcast's signal suffers some momentary degradation. And the link from cable box to D-VHS remains troublesome -- by design. Thanks to an industry agreement, a high-def program can be copied from Comcast box to D-VHS only once. If you stop halfway and try again from the start, a "copy flag" prevents it.
I'll put up with all the hassles, though, because the high-definition TV's clarity, sharp focus and wider range of colors has me hooked. I'm so spoiled by the great picture and surround sound that I now watch very few shows, other than news, in standard definition. I'll always favor the high-def NFL game of the week -- even if it's not the Redskins. And while I never dreamed I'd watch a show about fish, I now find it's fun to leave a high-def documentary on as a sort of electronic fish tank.