Thursday, October 21, 2010

Busting Hi Def Myths

I had forgotten about "upselling."  For those of you unfamiliar with the term, upselling is the practice of selling items related to large purchases.  Marketing geniuses long ago figured out that people willing to spend big will likely spend even more to protect their investment. I used to upsell items back in my retail days selling leather jackets.  We were told not to let people leave the store without telling them that they needed to buy leather protection spray.

Upselling has grown prominent at electronics stores.  Large purchases there can run thousands of dollars. By focusing on the customer's desire to protect his investment salespeople try to upsell all sorts of things.  Most of what they try to sell are not bad purchases, such as antivirus and protection plans for laptops, wireless controllers for gaming consoles, and some Blu Ray movies with that new Blu Ray player.  On the other hand, a surefire bad purchase is a high priced HDMI cable.  These are sold at all electronics stores and can run as high as $300.  Salespeople push them with the sale of most Hi Def equipment like Blu Ray players, gaming consoles and especially HDTVs



Customers walking into electronics stores are likely to notice at least one wall full of HDTVs.  These beauties tantalize with their elegant flatness and perfectly clear demo reels. The lure of HDTVs is made all the stronger by the presence of Blu Ray players, Playstation 3s, X-Box 360s and streaming HD rental services like Netflix, Zune, and Apple TV.  If that's not enough, HDTVs usually drop in price before the holidays. I, for one, wasn't able to resist. I went out and bought my first HDTV last month.

Buying an HDMI cable with an HDTV isn't a bad idea.  HDMI cables aren't bad in and of themselves.  They're handy.  They carry both digital sound and digital video to the television. With them, you have no need for left and right audio cables or Red/Green/Blue components.  It's all in one; just plug and play.  Just the expensive cables are bad.  When a salesperson mentions superior quality HDMI cables, know that there is ZERO difference in picture quality from the cheapest to the most expensive.

Popular Mechanics, Endgadget, Consumer Reports, PC World, Gizmodo and Cnet have thoroughly debunked superiority claims by HDMI manufacturers but that hasn't stopped some electronics stores from exploiting our lack of audio/visual savvy in order to make more money.  When salespeople bring up anything akin to "picture degradation," know that they are lying to you or their boss has lied to them.  Whatever the case, you will be on the receiving end of lies.  Digital signals do not degrade.  The signal either gets to your HDTV or it doesn't.  If a digital stream doesn't reach the television, the picture will not be fuzzy, like it is with bad cable reception, it will show up as a bunch of indistinguishable squares or a big blank screen.  You won't be able to watch anything.  There will be no reduction in contrast, black level, hue, or anything else.  Picture degradation through HDMI is impossible.

HDMI manufacturers have also established a new myth in order to sell more expensive products.  They started "rating" cables for 120hz, 240hz or even 480hz. These statements are nonsense.  The signal carried by an HDMI cable is 60hz.  Always. Newer HDTVs have 120hz refresh rates (the picture refreshes 120 times every second a.k.a. 120 frames per second) but it has nothing to do with the signal going to the TV.  The more unscrupulous manufacturers count on the complexity of digital entertainment systems to trick us into buying products that we do not need and are horribly misrepresentative of the technology.

HDTVs with 120hz refresh rates were created because of a frustrating side-effect from watching non-digitally filmed movies.  Movies shot on film (Godfather, The Matrix)  run at 24 frames per second--for the purpose of simplicity, we'll just call it "24hz." Movies filmed in digital format (Star Wars: Episode III, Avatar) run at 30hz. Because older HDTVs interpret the signal at 60hz, it must repeat frames from the video to appear fluid.  It is not a problem for digital films because all 30 frames are repeated once, fitting perfectly into 60hz.  That obviously doesn't work with films shot at 24hz--the television must interpret the signal by repeating some frames once and others twice.  This effect, called 3:2 pulldown, makes the video jump during scenes with excessive movement.  Therefore newer HDTVs were created that could interpret films with 24hz or 30hz without 3:2 pulldown.  The simplest solution was to create a television that processed information at roughly 120hz.  That way it could show 30hz movies by repeating frames 3 times and 24hz movies by repeating frames 4 times, leaving no jumpy effect.  Hurray innovation!  What should you take away from all that technobabel? 120hz "rated" HDMI cables have absolutely no effect on picture quality. *For a more detailed explanation of 3:2 Pulldown, with more accurate terminology, click here.

If the HDMI cable is durable and the plugs on the end are sturdy, it will work the exact same no matter how expensive or inexpensive.  Instead of buying a $200 cable, I would suggest something more useful, like a Blu Ray Player...or 10 movies...or 20 movie tickets....or 400 candy bars (but don't buy the candy bars AT the movies; with $200, you could only afford a few).

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