Monday, May 10, 2010

Poor impulse control

I just recently bought a new high definition TV (HDTV). TV buying can be daunting and complicated, so I thought I'd go through the things I learned in my hunt.

Only a year ago, I bought a 46" LCD Toshiba TV for $1600 at Visions. One of the main reasons we got it was it had an "upscaler", which allegedly made standard definition (SD) inputs (like from a DVD player) look high definition (HD). It worked okay, but we started watching more movies on our Blu-ray player and HD cable, so it because less and less useful.

It was fine, but the feature that I really coveted was called Smoothing. Sony calls it "Motion Flow" and Samsung calls it "Auto Motion Plus". Before I explain what Smoothing is, I have to explain how TV signals work.

Motion pictures are filmed at a rate of 24 frames per second (fps). Every second, 24 unique frames flash before your eyes. Television is broadcast at 60 fps. Since 60 is not divisible by 24, when movies are shown on TV they have to do something called 3:2 pulldown. What it means is the first frame is shown twice, the second frame is shown three-times, the third frame is shown twice, etc. See below for an example:

[A] [A] [B] [B] [B] [C] [C] [D] [D] [D] ...

3:2 pulldown can result in a flickery and blurry effect which is typically called judder. TV manufacturers have tried to combat this by increasing the frame rate of HDTVs to 120 fps (more commonly called 120 Hz). 120 is dividable by 24, so each movie frame is shown 5 times.

This can only fix the picture so much. Just flashing the same picture 5 times may make it slightly clearer, but it doesn't change the fact that it is the same picture. This is where Smoothing comes in.

Smoothing software in the TV tries to predict what the image would look like between two frames. So if a golf ball is on one side of the screen in one frame, and then on the other in the next, the Smoothing software tries to create a new frame with the ball in the middle. Smoothing tends to make film look more like video. It is very visible when the camera pans slowly across a scene. It also makes computer-animated movies look hyper-real.

Smoothing tends to only be available on higher end TVs. Sony and Samsung (the top two LCD TV manufacturers) each had TVs with the feature that I was looking at but they were about $2400. If I had better impulse control, I'd wait until September or January, which are the best times to buy TVs. But I walked into a Walmart last week. Right in the middle of a bank of TVs I saw the beautiful glassy image of a TV with Smoothing enabled. They were showing Avatar and even though I don't really like that movie, I stood there for 20 minutes, totally ignoring the three phone calls Karen made to my cell phone. (I swear, honey, I did not hear my phone ringing.) I couldn't believe the incredible smooth image on a 47" TV that was only $1000. I did a little bit of research on the brand (no-name Vizio) to make sure it wasn't a total dog, and then picked it up on the weekend.

It was the wife and my 11th anniversary, so it is really a gift to us. Your welcome, Karen.