Are you really watching HD on your HDTV? Maybe not.

May 12th, 2011 · 9 Comments · Blu-ray Discs, Blu-ray Players, Cable TV, Front Projection, LCD Flat Panel, LED LCD Flat Panels, Plasma, Satellite TV

Are you really watching HD on your HDTV? Maybe not.A recent survey by Nielson found that 56% of US households have at least one HDTV. They also found that the vast majority of total viewing is still standard definition.

The reasons for this are multi-fold, but one big contributor is that many who own an HDTV aren’t actually watching HD. Just because you have an HD set, doesn’t mean everything you watch is suddenly HD.

So if you own an HDTV, make sure to check this guide to be sure you’re actually watching HD.

1) If you’re like most Americans, you have cable or satellite. The first step is to get an HD-capable box from your provider, and in that process, making sure you have access (i.e. pay for) the HD channels.

2) If you have an HD-capable box, you’ll need an HD connection like HDMI or component. The single yellow cable is SD only. HDMI carries audio as well as video, and is an inexpensive cable.

3) Once everything is connected, make sure in the cable/satellite box’s setup menu that it is set to output HD. This is a big one. You could have everything else set correctly, and the box could be secretly keeping you in the SD realm. Some boxes may just label this “aspect ratio” which should be 16×9.

4) Find out what channels are actually HD. Some providers stack the SD and HD channels together. Others, like AT&T, place them in a different channel area (1000 and up). Some channels, like TBS and TNT, show SD programs stretched out and claim them to be HD, so these channels aren’t a good test for what’s HD. As an aside, if you’re watching one of these channels and everyone is stretched out, your TV’s aspect ratio button should be able to squeeze them back into shape.

5) If you want to watch a movie in HD, the only option is Blu-ray. DVDs are not HD. Upconverting DVD players may output HD resolutions (like 1080p), but an upconverted DVD looks nothing like the real HD of Blu-ray.

Checking your work
If you’re watching TV with black bars on the top and black or gray bars on the sides, chances are you’re not watching HD.

Another check is if you’re watching 1st-run programming (primetime HD programs like Castle
, House, 30 Rock, etc), the image should fill the screen, you should be able to see details like strands of hair, wrinkles, texture in clothes, and so on. If you don’t, or if everyone looks fat and stretched out, you’re likely not watching HD (unless, of course, you’re watching The Biggest Loser).

Another easy check, if your TV has it, is the “Info” button. This can sometimes be found in the menu. This tells you the incoming signal’s resolution. It should be 720p, 1080i, or 1080p.

If you’re watching an HD image, it should look amazing, detailed and exceedingly “clear.” The improvement over standard definition is pronounced. If your HDTV just looks “ok” then go over all the steps above. If you don’t think HD is anything special, it’s likely because you’re not watching HD.



—Geoff Morrison – Follow me on Twitter @TechWriterGeoff

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9 Comments so far ↓

  • Tom

    Face it, people are idiots.

    One question though, how does upscaling, uprezing, or upconverting actually work?

  • Brian

    Will, thanks a lot. I had no idea and that really explains. I can imagine the cost.

  • Alex

    I find it funny when people have to jump through hoops (pay extra) to get HD. Rabbit ears and the correct TV give me all the HD I need.

  • Abacus

    hdguru should do review of LCD/LED/Plasma tv’s that best display the SD content!

    Would help the vast 44% remaining viewers to make a proper decision.

  • Matt

    The other gotcha you might want to think about adding to your remarks about HD looking “exceedingly clear” is that the user must be seated an appropriate distance from their HDTV, otherwise HD content won’t really look much different than SD content. Sadly a lot of people get a 32″ flat panel to replace their 25″ or 32″ CRT since they’re just trying to replace it with what they think is a similar size (of course it’s not when you take in to account the finer detail of HD which needs a larger set).

  • Topp Robertson

    Overscan removes more than just a few pixels. On a 1080i signal, a standard 5% overscan removes 19% of the pixels, almost 1/5! Remember, it removes 5% from the top, bottom, left and right sides of the image. It really removes 10% of the image vertically and 10% horizontally. Unfortunately, many TVs don’t have an adjustment for this.

  • Will

    Brian, Seinfeld was remastered in HD from the original film (at great expense.) That is mostly the reason the other non-HD syndicated shows look terrible in comparison.

  • brian

    A couple things. AMC is the very worst offender of presenting HD movies. I think they stretch everything and it looks awful. I emailed them last year after they butchered Pulp Fiction. They didn’t respond. I think the way a show was originally filmed is a factor. Seinfeld, for example, shows beautifully on HD channels and it was never shot in HD. But I’ve seen shows recorded in 2005 that weren’t in HD and look terrible on HD channels. Good Eats is one. That’s on Food Network.

  • Mark

    Don’t forget the overscan. After using Windows Media Center for several months, I finally realized that it is setup by default to overscan—a obsolete concept carried over from analog technology. I figure that it effectively cut the quality of my 1080i signals to close to 720i and my 720p signals to close to 480p.

    Geoff: True, though even the worst overscan is only removing a few pixels vertically and horizontally, not as much as you say.

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