Monday, October 15, 2007

When Bigger Isn’t Better.

You see them everywhere: in stores, bars, restaurants, airports, and hotel rooms. I’m talking about big screen televisions; specifically, wide screen flat panel video displays.

They look great, in that televisions have always been way too bulky and a screen only a few inches thick that can be hung on the wall is terrific. The problem comes when you turn them on. A bad picture made bigger is not an improvement.

There's nothing wrong with the display panels themselves. The problem is with the signals they're receiving. Garbage in, garbage out.

In public places like bars it’s not so bad, because you’re usually sitting much further away from the screen than you would at home. The flat panel screens tend to be very bright, so the fidelity loss isn’t too noticeable when you’re sitting 15 or 20 feet away from the screen.

But put one of these things into your home or, as I’ve experienced several times recently, into a hotel room and the illogic of it becomes as clear as the picture is fuzzy. Most hotels I have been in recently have had fairly modest-sized 26-inch units, but one proudly advertises its "42-inch HDTV flat screen televisions" in every room. It fails to mention that they are not feeding the units an HD signal, so the picture is terrible.

Even the smaller units, which usually are bigger than the conventional TVs they replaced, look like crap if they’re being fed by the same old distribution system, as every one of them I’ve experienced has been.

Even less of an improvement is a 4:3 aspect ratio picture stretched to the much wider 16:9 ratio. Yes, it fills the wider screen, but the stretched out Silly Putty images look ridiculous. If you have access to the remote control it’s usually easy enough to figure out how to reset for the correct aspect ratio, but the default setting appears to be 16:9 and most people seem content to leave it that way.

I’ve frequently experienced pixelization, where the picture breaks up in places into lines or blocks of random pixels. This occurs, to paraphrase a crude expression, because they are trying to stuff 10 pounds of video signal into a 5 pound distribution system. Since all digital video display systems work by processing only difference information, i.e., the things on the screen that change, this problem is especially noticeable in programs like sports broadcasts and action movies, where everything on the screen changes at once and quickly. In other words, the very thing most people are buying these units to watch, they reproduce the worst.

Even many of the stores that sell this equipment can’t seem to get a good picture on it. I have commented on this in stores and had salespeople tell me that their internal video distribution system isn’t as good as what you can get at home. If that’s the truth, it’s insane. If you’re trying to sell the things, shouldn’t you make sure the picture on every single unit in the store is as good as that particular unit is capable of reproducing?

And the displays are capable of producing good pictures. I’ve seen it done. In some smaller stores they don’t use distribution at all. They have DVD players attached directly to each display and get a good picture that way.

Unfortunately, I believe this phenomenon is happening because most people can’t tell the difference. Picture size they understand, picture quality they don’t. I have worked as a video producer so I know, from working in professional facilities, how good even a standard definition picture can look with well-maintained equipment and a high quality signal. Sadly, that isn’t what most people are watching and all of the new stuff coming out now isn’t much of an improvement, not because the HD displays aren’t capable of producing a terrific picture, but because most of the entities responsible for getting a video signal to the display (whether in a bar, store, or home) are either incapable or unwilling to do what is necessary to deliver a signal of the highest possible quality.

I don’t have HD at home, but I noticed when sporting events started to be broadcast in HD, the picture on my conventional TV got better. It’s not magic. I know my display is not capable of reproducing an HD picture. What happened was that the program producers simply started originating a better picture, which looks better all the way down the line, even on conventional televisions. (For the record, my TV is a Sharp 4:3 ratio CRT that’s about 20 years old, and my signal is digital cable from RCN. Yes, the TV overscans a little, but the picture overall is better than what I’ve been seeing in hotel rooms.)

How bad are the pictures in these hotels? Have you ever copied a VHS cassette onto another VHS cassette? Yeah, they look that bad. In my experience last weekend, in a very nice hotel, the local broadcast channels looked especially bad. The cable channels looked better, but they weren’t HD. Even the very expensive movies the hotel sells through an on-demand system weren’t HD. At least the previews for them were not. I wasn’t about to spend the money to see if the films themselves were any better. There is no reason to believe they would be since the problem is with the distribution system the hotel is using.

But, like I said, apparently most people can’t tell the difference. I’ve never been able to understand why someone would buy one of those "big screen televisions" that are based on a rear projection system. Those have been around for many years. Again, what good is a big picture if the picture quality sucks? Those suck particularly because they lose brightness as well as resolution in the transition from projector to screen.

I can understand using front projection systems in meetings and such. If you need a big picture because of the size of your audience, it’s acceptable to give up some quality. But in your home where you’re probably going to sit six to eight feet from the screen, why is a big fuzzy picture considered more enjoyable than a smaller sharp picture?

One more thing I just don’t get.

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