Monday, 3 July 2006

The case for high definition

Well, it’s exactly a week now since we’ve received our new triple rear projection LCD TV, and I think a review is due.
First of all – did it change our lives the way we know them? Not at all (I doubt anything that can be bought with money can achieve that, at least not when we’re eliminating negative changes from the discussion board). The main change has been that we have been revisiting some old stuff in order to see how it works out on “this TV” (a term coined by my brother when he twisted his nose at the prospect of watching a film on our old Sony 29” CRT TV).
So for the last week we watched episodes of the new Battlestar Galactica (high definition internet downloads we watched by connecting the TV as the laptop’s monitor), TV through our standard definition set top box, lots of VHS (World Cup matches taped over night), laserdisc (my calibration LD as well as Starship Troopers), and a mix of DVDs (The Importance of Being Earnest, Austin Powers International Man of Mystery, Star Wars, North Country, Santana Supernatural, and Simon & Garfunkel in Central Park).
Does it feel like the cinema? It comes close, but 50” from our pretty average viewing distance is definitely not the equivalent of the cinematic experience. I would say that lies at about 65”, give or take a few, so if you have the space for that LG 71” LCOS model – by all means, go for it.

At this point I will break the review to explain how an LCD rear projector works, and how LCOS, its closest relative and today’s best imaging technology works. It’s just that I had many people ask me this question, so bear with me:
LCD in general works by projecting light through color filters (usually three filters, one for each of the RGB colors). By changing the intensity of the filters over time for each of the pixels, we can get a moving image.
LCDs come today as panels and as projectors, but both work the same way: A light is projected through a panel of filters, and what you end up seeing is the result. All that varies is the size and location of those filters.
Note LCD’s biggest disadvantage: it works by blocking light, not by generating light. This means that the picture’s intensity varies according to the different colors projected on the screen, and not according to the intensity of the source material. In plain Hebrew or plain English, this is commonly referred to as “distortion”.
Another problem caused by the way LCD works is the absence of true blacks. Black light, by nature, is actually “no light”, yet the filters of an LCD are unable to block all the light as required by particularly dark scenes (or, for that matters, the bars at the top/bottom or the sides of the picture when displaying a picture that doesn’t match the screen’s aspect ratio).
And yet another common issue with LCD that is also common to DLP is the screen-door effect: some of the circuitry required to toggle the fixed pixels’ filters can only be located around the pixel and you can actually see it as gaps in the picture, in the shape of a screen-door. These gaps were not there in the original picture, so that’s another form of picture distortion.
In an attempt to improve the rendition of colors and the intensity of blacks, better LCD projectors tend to have three separate projections – one for each of the primary colors. Our new TV falls into this category.
LCOS is the next generation of attempts to cure LCD’s woes. It stands for Liquid Crystal on Silicon, and it is basically an LCD projector implemented inside a chip. As the chip is fully enclosed and sealed (other than its light output), contrast ratios and blacks are that much better; and as it’s a chip, it’s easy to generate high resolutions out of it, so LCOS is currently the only medium that can generate 1080p picture without reverting to trickery (as DLP does, by having two separate DLP chips combine their picture to create a higher resolution).

Anyway, back to the review.
How would I rate our new TV’s picture quality? In one word, excellent. No, it is not as good as the good old CRT, but it’s much better than plasmas by a few parsecs: colors are excellent and the picture just feels live the way a cinema screen feels live and in contrast to the way TVs normally feel like. Maybe it’s the projection element that causes it, but it just feels alive rather than artificial.
In typical fashion, you don’t get to see the TV’s best out of the box. It’s the usual story of the fight for the shop floor space: since the masses will go towards the TV with the brightest picture, as opposed to the TV with the best picture, the manufacturers set their TVs to “stun” – that is, to project as brightest an image as possible at the expense of longevity and quality.
That is where my good old Video Standard calibration laserdisc comes into use. Aimed at CRT technology, it does not provide the tools for setting white level (more famously yet misleadingly known as “contrast”), but it did allow me to fix the rest of the controls. Brightness needed severe reduction, and now black is much more blacker than the original rather light shade of gray. Color was set fine but with a disclaimer: nowhere along the scale was I able to find a truly good setting; I had to compromise, and the default setting was indeed the best compromise. Hue had to be adjusted for better NTSC reproduction, and sharpness had to be severely reduced (as is always the case, with manufacturers concluding the masses prefer a seemingly sharper yet noisy picture over a less sharp yet truer to the source image).
Post calibration, the TV truly feels like a mini cinema screen. More than ever, I am now convinced that the manufacturers are marketing plasma monitors up our noses because that is where they make a lot of money rather than plasmas giving the best picture.

Any drawbacks? Sure!
Blacks are still not as black as real black or as CRT black (or DLP black, for that matter). But they are good enough for me.
Next on the line of issues is directionality. We all know that projectors need a very dim room to operate in, but our new TV doesn’t. It’s not plasma scintillating bright, but it’s definitely bright. This brightness is achieved by overdriving the projector, which shortens overall longevity and lamp life in particular (I hope that is not the case in our TV, but I can’t be sure), and also by limiting the screen’s directionality – the direction the screen allows light to go through. While side directionality is pretty good on our TV, vertical directionality is quite limited: your head has to be between the top and the bottom of the TV to enjoy the best picture, and if I stand up the picture looks dim and miserable. Not that this is an issue, because I tend to watch my films while sitting, thank you very much.
The next problem comes from the fact our TV is a fixed pixel TV with a 1.77 aspect ratio, while most of the source material is not. As a result, you have to set the TV’s zoom/crop settings for every single piece of material that you watch, and I mean it: every single piece of material. DVD menus are different to the film and the supplementaries are different yet again; SBS generally broadcasts in widescreen, yet some of their broadcasts are made of material originally made in 1.33.
The bottom line here is that you need to know what you’re doing to get the best undistorted image you can get. The TV definitely doesn’t help you: it’s set to expand the picture all over the screen by default, which fills the screen up but also distorts the picture; I’m more of a purist and I prefer to stick to the original, thank you.
But no matter how you look at it, it is still a problematic issue. I doubt that Jo, who is definitely not less intelligent than me, would know how to best set the TV up for each of the movies we watched; it’s one of those things where you need to know what you’re doing, and I suspect that the majority of the plasma buying public out there would not know a thing.

And now we come to the TVs biggest problem: the only problem we will not be able to live with for long.
Just like a good stereo, the TV is quite unforgiving when bad source material is displayed. You get to see what your source material is truly worth; if it’s good than the result is great, but if it’s bad than the result is a nightmare of noise.
VHS looks bad, very bad – especially the long play six hour football recordings I made during the weekend. You watch VHS and immediately you start calculating how to save for a high definition hard disk recorder.
Standard definition digital broadcasts look better, but not by much. They have obvious digital compression artefacts all over them, making you feel as if you’re watching a badly compressed JPEG (albeit a moving badly compressed JPEG).
Laserdiscs are fine but their resolution is simply too low for true comfort. Analog noise is abundant, too.
DVD is ok. That’s it: ok, no more and no less. It’s a decent picture, but you can clearly see there’s room for more details and a better picture overall, as if the TV is saying “Is that all? Did you wake me up for that?”
And so for the solution.
For years I have wondered why Widescreen Review makes such a fuss out of moving to true high definition. Now I understand why: High definition is the only true remedy for good big picture quality, period.
Currently, high definition is only available off the air, yet our antenna is incapable of handling it; we will need to fork out a few good hundreds of dollars to maybe be able to achieve the capability to watch the trash Australian broadcasters provide is with.
The next solution is to go for one of the two new high definition disc formats: HD-DVD or Blu-ray. Yet these are way too expensive and way too limited at the moment, and with the rivalry between the formats one has to be totally stupid to commit to either. Not that there’s much of an availability anyway.

And so I’m annoyed. I’m annoyed because while we significantly improved our TV experience, we did not achieve happiness. In fact, happiness is now a few thousands of dollars further away – or, to be precise, an antenna plus a set top box or a hard disk recorder away, throw in a new format player and a few discs as well.
Once again, we fell into the greatest marketing trap of all, the notorious upgrade loop.
Luckily for us, we have a huge supply of excellent material on DVD to watch until we save up for the next round.


Anonymous said...

A stupid user guide is still needed here.
With low budget, should we go with the regular LCD/Plasma that are less problematic reagrding watching from in-direct angles, or should we go with your new Gizmo (that this blog is the 1st time I'm hearing on, which might be connected to the fact I'm leaving in Kna'an, country of the camels), will the near future (one year) will present something totally new or not, how this TV will face HD (take it to a friend (that you don't have) and try it out).
Waiting for a comparision table on your next post.

The ACME desert agent

Moshe Reuveni said...

I can actually copy & paste a comparison table from Widescreen Review, but that would be a copyright infringement (not that I mind that, but I do have nothing but the utmost respect for Widescreen Review).
I think there are no silver bullets - there is no magical technology that works best for everyone. More than this, the technology itself doesn't matter as much as the way in which it is implemented.
Personally, I am not a big fan of plasmas. "Fatigue" is the word that comes into my mind, fatigue from the overly bright picture. Colors are very saturated, which is good, but they don't look real, which is bad. Burn in is a major problem if you play computer games or like to pause/stop your DVDs a lot, or just if your favorite station has a very bright logo that is fixed to one place. And with plasmas, when you reduce their brightness to get a proper image you also reduce the dynamic range.
That said, plasmas and LCD panels are very handy and easy to deal with, because they're so small.

Projectors will give you the best picture, period, but they are also a nightmare to live with.

Personally, I'm with well implemented rear projectors. LCOS is the best technology there, followed by DLP and LCD (I think DLP has a slight advantage, but that's a taste thing).

Whatever you go with, make sure it's the latest generation, as changes are huge. DLP, for example, has a new generation of chips out every fortnight. An HDMI input should not be neglected as the new DVDs will use them.

With regards to high definition, today the minimum I would go with is 720p, which is widely considered superior to 1080i.
LCOS and expensive DLP will give you 1080p, which the new DVDs will eventually support, and the LG 71" LCOS TV we saw is not more expensive than a shit 50" plasma. And it's way better - by far the best display I've seen out there (just in case you are still are after the silver bullet).

Moshe Reuveni said...

As I stressed before, the fact you are unfamiliar with certain technologies has nothing to do with them being good or bad and everything to do with the fact the marketing brain-wash campaign is tilted towards the plasma and LCD panels that generate most of the revenues for the manufacturers.
To quote Kuwato from Total Recall, "open your mind".