If you've ever eavesdropped on a conversation between a prospective HDTV buyer and a salesperson at Best Buy, you know there's some confusion over just what an HDTV is.
The conversation usually goes something like this:
Prospective buyer: Is this an HDTV?Eventually, if the salesperson is honest, he'll tell you that you really don't need an HDTV tuner built into the set if you're going to be getting your HD from a cable or satellite company. You rent or buy the set-top box from your service provider, and the tuner is built into that box--which often includes such desirable features as a DVR and an onscreen electronic programming guide.
Salesperson: Yes, it's HD-ready.
Prospective buyer: What's that mean?
Salesperson: It means it doesn't have a built-in HD tuner, but it will accept a HD signal from an external set-top box.
Prospective buyer: Is that good or bad?
You read that correctly: if you plan on getting high-definition programming from satellite (DirecTV or Dish Network) or your local cable company, a built-in HDTV tuner is worthless. You don't need it. And, unfortunately, this extraneous (for most people) bit of technology is costing you extra. But don't blame the manufacturers; the culprit here is Uncle Sam himself, in the form of the Federal Communications Commission. The FCC has decreed a schedule by which an ever-increasing majority of TVs sold--all sets 25 inches or larger by March 2006, for instance--must include a high-def, or ATSC, tuner. And while the law may be well intentioned, it--like a lot of inside-the-Beltway bureaucratic policy--is a reflection of a 1950s worldview that has little to do with 21st-century reality.
Fortunately, every law has a loophole, and the tuner mandate is no exception: the high-def tuner requirement applies only to TVs that have an analog (NTSC) tuner. Savvy manufacturers are dropping both tuners, and exempting themselves from the statute. The result is a burgeoning category of HD monitors--displays that are fully capable of high-definition resolution once they're hooked up to an HD video source. While they can't legally be marketed as TVs, you'll nevertheless find them prominently displayed in the TV section of your local electronics store, not to mention major discounters such as Sam's Club or Costco. As for the likes of Panasonic and Pioneer, their highly rated bare-bones sets (such as the Panasonic TH-42PHD7UY) are referred to as industrial models, and you're more likely to find them in an online store rather than a brick-and-mortar one. Not all of these glorified computer monitors accept computer signals, but many do. For instance, the 1080p-capable Westinghouse LVM-37W1 we recently reviewed makes for a stunning 37-inch PC monitor for playing Half-Life 2 or Doom 3.
The point is that some of the best buys in flat-panel displays today are tunerless models, and consumers should avoid paying for features they probably won't use. As I stated in an earlier column, the one potential benefit of having a built-in digital tuner is that you can get free local HD programming with an inexpensive antenna, if there's a powerful enough HD transmitter in your area. That HD picture may also be a tad better than the picture you'd get via a set-top box from your cable or satellite company, which often compresses signals to conserve bandwidth. But if you're not going to get your HD over-the-air, there's very little point in having the tuner. You can, for instance, get picture-in-picture (PIP) functionality from a cable or satellite box. My Scientific Atlantic 8300HD DVR even has two HD tuners for HD picture-in-picture, something few HDTVs currently offer.
Of course, there are plenty of savvy consumers who've already figured out they'll be fine with an HD monitor rather than an HDTV. From the e-mails I've been getting lately, it appears that majority of you are looking at price first, design second, picture quality a close third, and features last--with the most important feature being connectivity (ideally, a set should have two HDMI and two component video inputs, as well as support for PC connectivity). And that's a large part of the reason so-called low-cost manufacturers--upstarts such as Westinghouse, Maxent, Norcent, Vizio, and Syntax Olevia--are taking share away from big guys such as Sony, Sharp, and the rest. A recent Los Angeles Times article observed that LCD leader Sharp saw its global unit market share dip to 23 percent from 42 percent a year earlier as a "dozen or so obscure" manufacturers increased their share to 43 percent from 28 percent. Meanwhile, Sony's TV unit saw a 21 percent revenue drop in the first quarter of this year compared to a year earlier.
Surprisingly, Dell--which is making a big push into flat-panel HDTVs--isn't offering a bare-bones tunerless model. I'm not sure how it's going to compete on price when a digital tuner--at least at this point in the game--seems to add about $200 to $300 to the price tag of a TV. Dell's 42-inch high-resolution plasma, once the least expensive in its class, is being beat by no-namers on price, and it's going to be even further challenged when Norcent and others put out high-resolution 42-inchers for less than $2,000 this fall (you can now get a 42-inch ED plasma for $1,600). Maxent is already pushing the envelope with some very aggressive pricing of its flat-panel sets. And we have a 50-inch plasma in-house (the Vizio P50HDM, review coming soon) that costs a cool $2,599 after discounts at Costco. According to the company's product rep, it neglected to include a tuner "to keep costs down."
Dell reps, for their part, say they've done focus groups that indicate that when people buy an HDTV, they expect to get an HDTV--one that, out of the box, allows you to receive HD programming. Fair enough. I understand that major companies are in the business of formulating marketing plans based on some sort of research. But I do think Dell would be better served leading the tunerless HD monitor charge, especially since it's been very successful selling tons of inexpensive flat-panel computer monitors. The company's own 24-inch 2405FPW is a perfect example; it boasts an impressive array of VGA, DVI, and non-PC video inputs, but it's too small for home-theater use. It's also now somewhat overpriced, compared to the some of above-mentioned competition.
My prediction is that, as low-cost manufacturers continue to drive flat-panel costs down, the big guys will have to respond with more bare-bones models of their own. Yes, such technologies as CableCard, which allows you to forgo a cable set-top box for HD, should eventually become more compelling, and prices for digital tuners will come down. But until then, there's no reason to pay extra for the FCC version of an HDTV.