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Demystifying HDTV Terminology

We translate the technobabble and help you select your next set.

As if buying a new television wasn't stressful enough — as you wrestle with the cost, how to install it and what to do with your existing TV — you'll also need to make some sense of the new buzzwords out there.

Jargon phrases, acronyms and numbers go in one ear and out the other, be it "1080p," "HDMI," "ATSC," "240Hz," "widgets" or "LED." Huh? You probably — and justifiably — feel like you need a degree in electrical engineering just to understand it all.

Although the jargon is confusing, the technologies behind it are designed to enhance your television experience. Each of them handles this task in a different way, however, such as providing a picture with more detail and depth (1080p and LED, respectively), delivering smoother motion (120Hz or 240Hz) or supporting Internet connectivity (widgets).

The manufacturer and screen size you choose depend on your personal preferences and budget, but many of these techie terms do offer some worthy benefits to keep in mind when you're shopping for a high-definition television (HDTV).

Consider the following a handy geek-to-English dictionary.

16:9 and 4:3

These numbers, known as the aspect ratio, refer to a TV's dimensions and shape; they express the ratio of the width of the screen to its height. HDTVs are wide-screen televisions, with a 16:9 aspect ratio that is more akin to a movie theater's rectangular screen than the almost-square 4:3 televisions of yesterday. When you go to buy a TV, though, you will still — as with older sets — be choosing a size based on the diagonal dimension of the screen, such as 32" or 54".

1080p and 720p

A "pixel" is a little dot of information, and a high-definition television is capable of displaying up to 1,920 pixels by 1,080 pixels on its screen. By comparison, older standard-definition televisions had about 720 by 480 pixels. This translates to a lot more detail and clarity. You will see HDTVs today referred to as "1080p" or "Full HD" televisions, meaning all the lines of resolution on the screen are shown "progressively," displayed in sequential order in a single pass (1, 2, 3, etc.), as opposed to the older 1080i ("interlaced") method of alternating between even and odd lines to make up the image (1, 3, 5, etc.). This results in a smoother, richer picture when the TV is connected to a 1080p source, such as a Blu-ray Disc player or high-definition video game console, such as an Xbox 360. Going from DVD to Blu-ray Disc is like putting on a pair of prescription glasses for the first time: Everything is clearer, and minute details are easily seen.

On the sales floor of your local electronics retailer, you'll notice the availability of 720p HDTVs, which display 1,280 pixels by 720 pixels. Although these sets are capable of displaying a 1080i image (the minimum for "HD" designation), they do not provide the same amount of detail as 1080p screens. 720p screens allow you to view an ultracrisp image on screens 37" or smaller. Any size bigger than this — at normal viewing distances — and you'll notice the lack of detail compared to the 1080p.

LCD, LED and Plasma

Plasma televisions consist of a glass panel of plasma cells that, when electrified, produce a picture. LCD technology involves the placement of liquid crystals between two panels of glass, which are then electrified to produce an image. Until recently, plasma-based televisions held a discernible advantage over LCD TVs when it came to "contrast ratios" — the difference between the brightest whites and the blackest blacks displayed on the screen — but this gap has been bridged considerably with something called LED backlighting.

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