Ulanoff: Setting Up a High-Definition TV Isn't for Sissies

For years I yearned for a large flat-panel TV in my home. I became a fan early in the HDTV craze, and every time I visited a house with an LCD or plasma display, I became incredibly envious.

Now I've joined the club. I only wish I'd gotten my master's in HDTV first.

Let's start by talking about what I've got: It's a glorious, 42-inch Samsung plasma HDTV. I chose plasma because I wanted to find an affordable large-screen display.

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I could have gone the RPTV [rear-projection TV] route, but I have little patience for a TV that fades out at a 45-degree viewing angle. I watch too much TV from the dining room to stand for that.

I arrived at my decision after careful consultation with our HDTV expert, Robert Heron, who knew that I was trying to go a little big without breaking my budget.

There are great value buys for plasma TVs of 42 inches and up. LCDs tend to be more expensive. And the colors and movie-watching experience are better on plasmas. Did I mention I'm a big movie buff?

Robert pointed me to a couple of different models and said he was intrigued by one particular Samsung display with a gorgeous black beveled frame: the HP R4272.

I followed the link he provided and arrived at a set that seemed to have all my required specs: HDTV-integrated tuner, plasma, HDMI and multiple component ports, built-in below-the-screen speakers (to save space on width), and an okay price of around $2,600.

Considering that the most I ever paid for a set before this was $800, I can't believe I thought this price was okay. My wife is having an even harder time believing it.

The site offered links to online retailers, including Vann's, a Montana-based electronics outlet. It listed the display for $2,499 but also offered a bundled deal: $2,200 if I also accepted the free Logitech Harmony remote.

The TV comes with its own remote, so I wasn't so sure what I would do with another. But if it saved me $200 I was all for it. Even better, Vann's didn't charge sales tax or for shipping. I was sold — almost.

Just as I was about to hit the "Buy" button, I remembered that my family and I would be away on vacation all of the following week. The last thing I wanted was for my precious TV to arrive while I was away.

I reluctantly bookmarked the Vann's link, hoping that the deal I'd found would be there when I returned.

A Better Deal

More than a week later, I returned to the Web site. The Samsung HDTV was still available at the original $2,499 price, but with a new bundle that was far more appealing — $1,899 for the TV and a new Toshiba DVD player with HDMI out and a media-card reader on the front.

Not only was this a great deal, but fortuitous as well — my five-year-old DVD player had just committed electronic suicide.

So the package was now $300 cheaper and included a DVD player? This was a deal I could love.

[Editor's note: The Samsung U.S. Web site lists the HP R4272 as an "archived" model, indicating that it many no longer be shipping to stores. Some Web retailers were listing it as low as $1,399 on Sept. 29.]

Roughly a week later, a huge Samsung box sat in my living room. Oddly, nowhere on it did it mention "HD", "HDTV," or "High Definition." Instead, it said "Multimedia Display."

I got a little panicky, thinking that perhaps I had made a terrible mistake and bought an HD-ready model — one that has no HD tuner — or worse yet, a plasma TV that's not even ready for HD.

Before opening the package, I revisited the Samsung site and checked all the specs again. I breathed a sigh of relief when I saw that my new baby was indeed ready to go up to 720p and 1080i, and that the tuner was built in.

I tore the box open.

Just wondering: Does anyone know how heavy 133 pounds is? I do.

The 42-inch-wide TV was actually too heavy to lift straight up out of the box, so my two kids and I laid it down on its side and slid the massive display out on its back.

Then my son and I carefully lifted it up and set it on our TV stand. Whew! That was hard work.

For as big and heavy as the TV is, it's only roughly 5 inches deep, and although the ports are almost all on the back, reaching around and even leaning behind the set to see them is quite easy. My first flat-panel bonus!

I pulled the paperwork and power cord out of the box, then did a quick flip through the rather thick manual, absorbing virtually nothing. I almost never read the manuals for consumer electronics devices, because I expect the gadgets to be dead-simple to use and to offer a wealth of on-the-product assistance.

Samsung's setup was pretty easy. I removed the bits of tape and protective packing they'd placed on the HP-R4272 and then set about hooking up my TiVo, the cable line, and the Toshiba player (which arrived the day after the TV).

Cable Shock

Before I even started hooking anything up, I decided to get some decent cabling. I'd heard how subpar cables could degrade a high-def image (actually, they can affect any video image, as well as sound quality). All I had at home were dozens of stereo and composite cables; this was simply not good enough for my $1,800-plus TV.

It was late, so I chose convenience over bargain-hunting and went to my local Radio Shack. The store had a collection of Monster video cables.

Monster cables are pretty much the Rolls-Royce of the media cabling world and cost about as much. One 3-foot, best-quality component (RGB) cable set cost a whopping $50. Six-foot cables would run me about $70 for a set.

I staggered away from the cable display and as I thought about leaving empty-handed, a sales-person approached.

"Need help?"

"I'm looking for cables."

"What for?"

"I just got a Samsung HDTV."

"Ooh, nice."

"I found [gulp] these."

"Yeah, those are the best. It's what I'd get."

I nodded, thanked him, and started looking for more affordable options in the store.

Opposite the Monster setup was an aisle with more cables. There were other equally expensive Monster cables, and then some Radio Shack brand cables that were about half the price. They too had gold tips and were the Shack's "best."

I grabbed $80 worth of component cables and sheepishly handed them to the salesperson at the counter. I could see the disappointment (or was it disdain?) in his eyes, but I couldn't bear to spend $150 or more on cabling.

Back at home, I unpacked the first set of 6-foot component cables and prepared to connect my TiVo Series 2 unit to the Samsung display. Now, if I could just find those component ports on the TiVo. Hmmm.

I'm sure many of you are now chuckling at my ignorance. There are no component ports on the TiVo. Crestfallen, I grabbed the best-looking composite cables I had and ran them from the TiVo to the back of the Samsung.

I then used the HDMI cable Toshiba graciously included to connect my new DVD player to the HDTV. In addition to the HDMI cables, I used the available 5.1 surround-sound ports on the Toshiba player to hook up my Onkyo 6.1 surround-sound system.

Since I have a cable splitter behind the TV, I also ran one cable line directly into an available coax-in port (the other was going into TiVo) on the HDTV. It was showtime!


As I expected, the TV did a nice job of leading me through the initial setup. It asked if I was connected to a digital or analog cable system, using an over-the-air HD with analog or over-the-air with digital cable connection.

I chose analog cable with over-the-air because, even though I didn't have an HD antenna, I thought I might get one soon.

That was a stupid decision, because this choice determines how the TV decides to scan for channels. I was forcing it to scan its over-the-air connection when it couldn't possibly pick anything up.

The analog-cable connection worked better, and the HDTV found all my cable channels. Unfortunately, it seemed like my new baby needed a pair of glasses.

The images coming through TiVo looked horrendous. I quickly figured out how to change the aspect ratio from the native 16:9 to a standard TV-friendly 4:3.

That introduced two huge gray bars on either side of the image and improved the image a bit, but not much. My children sat on the couch behind me, aghast.

"It's official: I hate this TV," my son deadpanned.

My wife looked at the image and then at me, then back at the image. I stared down at the manual I had just flipped open.

"I'm working on it," I said tersely.

I tried switching inputs to the direct cable connection to see if that helped. Initially it did nothing — I couldn't even get a signal — but it turns out that was my fault. (More on that later.)

I decided to switch gears and see how the new Toshiba DVD player with a high-def–friendly HDMI cable worked with my now somewhat disappointing HDTV.

I grabbed an old favorite — actually, my very first DVD movie, "The Matrix."

I switched inputs, turned on the movie, and used the DVD remote to toggle among 480p, 720p and 1080i.

It was hard to tell which one was better, but the picture did fill the screen and was remarkably vivid. It was also green.

Was "The Matrix" always this green? I switched back to regular TV and noticed a similar hue.

I selected Menu on my new remote and started drilling into some of the picture options. I could choose color presets, such as Red, Blue, Green, Standard, White, and Custom.

All but Custom emphasized the named color, and you could see how they were supposed to look in side-by-side photos of a woman in a red blouse in front of green grass hills and a boat with white sails. One side was standard and the other was my selection.

My wife stood beside me as I toggled through them.

"I don't see any difference," she said.

At first, neither did I. Then I noticed subtle differences in the woman's face and blouse, but not too much else.

I could also access individual color controls, but ratcheting the green all the way down didn't seem to help.

As I tooled through the menus, I also found the contrast and brightness settings. Contrast was set at 100 percent. I moved that down to a level where "The Matrix" looked punchy but not too harsh.

There were additional presets that appeared to control color, contrast, brightness, and other settings simultaneously. The TV could also change these dynamically, based on input. Nothing I did, however, seemed to drain the green from my movie.

Frustrated but undaunted, I looked for a DVD with less inherent green ("The Matrix" is apparently a very green movie). I selected "Spider-Man," a bright, punchy flick with less black and shadows and strong reds, whites, and some greens (there is the Green Goblin, after all).

It looked considerably better than "The Matrix" did, but I realized something else was odd. All of my sound was coming through the TV's speakers.

Samsung did equip the HDTV with built-in speakers that do sound pretty good, but I have a 300-watt sound system and subwoofer that really thumps, and this was not the immersive experience I was hoping for.

When I got closer, I noticed that the movie sound was also whispering, faintly, through my sound system.

So what did I have to do? Was I supposed to switch the HDMI cable to component video, to force the sound through the Onkyo system?

Some Light

The next day I told Robert about my awful display quality. He empathized (he also has a TiVo) and said that I might try the S-Video connection.

That night I did, and the image is much more watchable. I said watchable, not great.

The next morning, I took another look at the direct cable connections on the TV and noticed that there were two. One was for "Air" and the other was for "Cable." Had I used the wrong port when I tried a direct cable connection?

I reattached the cable to the other input. Then I used the controls to rescan the channels. It took 20 minutes, but the TV said it found 425 channels on my Cablevision Family Basic cable line — which has only around 85 channels.

I started flipping through the channels — 2, 2 HD.

I stopped. I was staring at the most glorious high-def image of a tennis match I had ever seen.

Martina Hingis was darting across the court, battling an opponent I'd never seen before. They might as well have been standing in my den.

I kept flipping and found that most of my major broadcast networks now had HD twins. I also had a few other channel surprises, including a low-def traffic-cam access for the New York metropolitan area.

Finally, I was experiencing the HD/digital experience I paid for.

Sadly, I can't get this through my current TiVo (Here I come,TiVo Series 3!). When I rescanned the channels, it still came up with the same set as before — unaware of the HD excitement hidden on my plain old cable line.

I know that people reading this will deride me for not reading the manual cover-to-cover, but, seriously, I've always used CE manuals as reference guides — what to do when something goes wrong, or if I want to do something beyond the norm with the device. I figured that basic setup didn't require a Ph.D. in HD.

Though I'm happy with my TV and the handful of new HD channels, I still miss my DVR control, and I now know that there are far more HD channels I could access.

I have some options for the future. My experience with DVD playback did eventually prove that this TV can provide spectacular images, but it needs the right source.

It's obviously time for me to get digital cable with a DVR so I can access and control more HD content.

I could also try getting an antenna, as there is airborne HDTV for the taking. But where would I put it? I'm not attaching something on my new roof.

I know I'll figure all this out. But I had no idea going HDTV would be such an education.

Copyright © 2006 Ziff Davis Media Inc. All Rights Reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of Ziff Davis Media Inc. is prohibited.