The long wait for digital television is over. If you have serious bucks, you can buy one of the first digital TVs.

And if you're not ready to fork over $7,000 to $10,000 for digital television, you still can get involved in television's digital revolution with a much cheaper digital versatile disk (DVD). The DVD is comparable in cost to a VCR, but delivers far more information and detail than a VCR.

Digital TV uses the ones and zeroes that computers use, not the analog waves of today's television. The picture on a digital TV—generally called a high-definition television (HDTV)—looks more like a movie than the television image you're now seeing.

The big push toward digital TV development was a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) decision to establish technical standards and a timeline for adoption. The FCC decreed that by the end of 1999, 140 stations must broadcast in digital format. The stations are expected to reach more than half of U.S. households.

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Converged contraptions
Digital TV and DVD are hyped as a giant step toward "convergence," as the cash-hungry consumer electronics industry describes the shotgun marriage of televisions and computers. Imagine the benefits when these essential devices can talk: You will be able to balance your checkbook in the Lazybum recliner, or watch Oprah on your computer at work!

Despite those enormous advantages, converged TVs may be harder to operate than the fridge-sized consoles that once delivered Jackie Gleason and the Honeymooners in grainy black and white. In fact, convergence may leave you desperate for the good old days when you could operate a television without a postgraduate degree.

(While we're talking confusion, two other DVD formats are entering the market.)

Why is the industry interested in digital? Because it will be immensely profitable. According to Broadcast Engineering magazine, the changeover "will ultimately require replacing an installed base of some 250 million TV sets in 100 million U.S. homes." 'Nuf said?

Forming new formats
The periodic changing of the format is an old ceremony in electronics. In the audio world, ancients like your writer can remember 78-rpm records being replaced by 33s, and then by 8-track tapes (remember them?) and cassettes, and finally CDs. The much younger world of video playback already has seen two tape formats (VHS and Beta), the laser disk, and now the DVD. (Need acronym aid yet?)

Although each new audio and video format required a new investment in equipment—and recordings—they also offered more storage capacity and better playback quality. The changeover to digital TV is the same story: HDTV carries more detail—more lines of information—than today's analog machines. That, combined with HDTV's adoption of the more pleasing proportions of a movie screen, might convince you to lay down big bucks.

But this is not small change—an HDTV set can cost half as much as a car.

If you're staggered by the price tag and nervous about what will happen when analog signals leave the airwaves, you always can buy a converter so an analog set can understand digital. That cheapo solution will not be very profitable for the industry. But manufacturers figure that you'll be seeing a lot of digital TV anyway, and analog will start looking worse than the 1960 Nixon-Kennedy debates.

The expected result is that you'll want to sell your antique Ferrari to buy full-fledged HDTV—although by that time they doubtless will be less expensive, so selling that vintage Mustang may suffice.

Cheaper but not perfect
While HDTV remains costly, DVDs for television playback start at about $200, comparable to the price of a VCR. That affordable tag explains why DVDs are selling faster than VCRs did just after their introduction. Three million households are expected to have the disk players by the end of 1999.

Still, deciding to buy a DVD is harder than choosing which brand of chips to gobble during a Superbowl telecast. True, they have better fidelity and more capacity than a VCR, but DVD machines can't record, and old movies on DVD are as rare as a Fred Astaire stumble. In other words, buy a DVD and you still need a VCR.

No question, DVD and digital TV are easy on the eyes. But will this dazzling technology improve the actual content of television? Funny, we haven't heard much on that score.

If you're starting to suffer "format fatigue" and are ready to clamber into the attic to dredge up those dusty 8-tracks, ponder this for a moment: Digital convergence is just starting. Still to come is the entrance of telephones, faxes, printers, and scanners into the mix.

Think buying a digital device is complicated now? Just wait a couple of years ...

Here's our advice:
If you're on the path to digital TV—either DVD or HDTV—avoid cow pies by posing these questions:
  • Will this device do what you want? A DVD will not read your VHS tapes, and it will not record off the screen (or anywhere else, for that matter), so it won't fully replace a VCR.

  • Do you like old or obscure movies? Then stick with VHS for a while. For the next few years, DVD releases are expected to concentrate on new movies.

  • What about upgrades? You can connect a set-top box that accepts digital signals to a nondigital TV. These boxes are getting cheaper by the week, but they won't produce a true HDTV because your TV lacks the proportions and increased pixel density that make HDTV so compelling. (Pixels are points of light on the screen.)

  • Can the new purchase coexist with your system? Will the sockets on the back connect to your equipment?

  • How much programming is available? The limited amount of digital broadcasting available is expanding rapidly, and the satellite outfit DirecTV promises to be broadcasting in digital by this fall or early 2000.
Do all things come to those who wait? Certainly, in the case of digital TV. Prices are falling for the stuff you may want, while some systems may expire before you get the opportunity to squander money on them. (The pay-per-view Divx—Digital Video Express—disk format already has been yanked from the market, kind of like a floundering sitcom.)

In fact, even waiting a few months could be profitable, as prices likely will drop with each new round of models. In this market, early adopters are going to pay heart-stopping prices to watch "ER" on digital TV.

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Dueling digits

They don't call them digital versatile disks (DVDs) for nothing. The high-speed DVDs also are entering two markets besides television: DVDs already have replaced CD-ROM drives in many new computers, giving you what employers will treasure: the ability to play movies on your computer, right at your desk.

On the audio front, 10 manufacturers are introducing DVDs to replace compact disk players. Even though 40 million CD players were sold in 1998, the superior sound of these newer players may persuade listeners to switch. But a format skirmish is brewing between the industry standard—DVD audio—and Sony's more expensive, and higher quality, Super Audio CD. At the least, make sure the DVD of your dreams plays the CDs in your library.

CDCompact disk
DTVDigital television
DVDDigital versatile disk
DVD+RWRecording DVD players (for computers)
HDTVHigh-definition television
SDTVStandard-definition television
VCRVideocassette recorder
VHSStandard VCR format

©1999 Credit Union National Association Inc.