A couple of weeks ago, the falling prices for larger HDTV sets got the best of me and Costco made a sale of a 50-inch Maxent plasma monitor. We already had a 27-inch Maxent LCD monitor and a 32-inch Panasonic CRT behemoth and a Hisense ATSC decoder (USDTV brand, 4th-gen. chip) to go with the latter. I bought a new Samsung ATSC decoder (5th-gen. chip) to go with the new Maxent and it does a great job, though because its navigation data aren't displayed when using the S-video or composite outputs, don't get this one to receive DTV on your old analog set. I also bought a Sony DVD player with HDMI and upscaling (to 1080i).
Here's what I learned:
- The two older sets are really too small given our viewing distance for it to matter much what one feeds into it, but the new one makes cruddy old NTSC look even cruddier. The HD out of the new ATSC decoder looks very nice on the screen, and even at distances greater than the maximum for HD to be fully discernable, it looks better than NTSC using S-video and a lot better than DirecTV's dumbed down NTSC.
- HDMI connections provide a significantly better picture than component connections (Y/Pb/Pr, the three-cable assemblies with red, blue and green color coding). But be careful where you buy your HDMI cable. I bought the Samsung ATSC decoder at Circuit City for a decent price, but they were selling Monster cables for obscene prices -- $90 for a 1-meter HDMI cable and $120 (or was it $130) for a 2-meter version. I went next door to Costco and got a 2-meter cable in a sort of HDTV variety pack of five others for $85. I later learned that Wal-Mart has them for $30 and that you can buy them online for $5-$10 after rebates. But do use HDMI to connect your components together.
- The 5th-generation chip in the Samsung set-top box is significantly better than the 4th-generation chip in the Hisense/USDTV box. I tried them side-by-side with four antennas (a small UHF Terk log-periodic, an amplified Phillips flat-panel antenna, an UHF corner reflector, and a large attic-mounted VHF/UHF log periodic. The Samsung got more channels and a more stable picture in every case. If you're not sure it has the LG 5-th gen. chip in it, buy a monitor rather than a receiver and get this Samsung or other set-top box with that decoder. You'll save money, too.
- The upscaling/HDMI DVD player does an absolutely amazing job fooling the monitor into thinking it's receiving HD. The video is very satisfying, and it even does a credible, if less satisfactory job providing simulated surround sound. It's a mystery why anyone would want to plunk down $600 to $1,200 on a Blu-Ray or HD-DVD when you can have this for $129 and have access to hugely more titles. I've crossed it off my wish list, though it wasn't too high up anyway since the two competing formats have barely begun duking it out.