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What You Need to Watch HD

For anyone who loves a sharp, clear picture, HDTV is the most exciting part of America's transition from analog TV broadcasting to digital broadcasts. There are hours of HDTV programs on every night of the week. Those are the shows with an onscreen message at the beginning: "Presented in high definition where available." Some viewers see that message and mistakenly think they're seeing HDTV on their 15-year-old set. It's not quite that simple.

To experience true high-definition television in your home, you need a source of HDTV signals, a tuner to receive and decode those signals, and a high-performance display screen that can reproduce the remarkable detail and color of HDTV images. Many people have invested thousands of dollars in an HDTV without giving much thought to what they'll be watching on it. This article will help you put all the pieces of the puzzle together so you can avoid costly mistakes and experience the full magnificence of HDTV.

How to find HDTV signals in your area

We describe the basic ways to receive high-definition programs below. Once you know what type(s) of HDTV signals are available, you'll have a clearer idea of what equipment you need to watch them.

Over-the-air broadcasts: Digital TV broadcasts are currently being transmitted by most local stations across the country covering virtually 100% of U.S. TV households. Most digital stations broadcast in the normal UHF range (channels 14 through 69), so you can receive them with a UHF antenna. Some stations use the "high-band VHF" range (ch. 7-13), and a few are "low-band VHF" (ch. 2-6), so you may need a UHF/VHF antenna. For antenna info that's specific to your address, visit the Consumer Electronics Association's antenna selector website.

Over-the-air broadcasts

    What you need:
  • HD-compatible TV
  • HDTV (ATSC) tuner — separate unit or built into TV
  • indoor or outdoor UHF or UHF/VHF antenna
  • local HDTV broadcasts (they're free!)

See our article on how to choose and install an HDTV antenna for more info.

Cable HDTV: Cable TV providers now offer the option of HDTV service to about 90% of subscribers, especially those living in medium- and big-city TV markets. Don't confuse "digital cable" with HDTV via cable — while it's true that all HD cable channels are digital, not all digital channels are high-def. Digital cable usually means that you get more channels, and the picture quality may look a little better than regular cable, but it doesn't equate to HDTV. If your cable provider does offer HDTV, you'll probably need to upgrade your cable box to an HDTV-capable model. See our article about cable TV for more info.

Cable

    What you need:
  • HD-compatible TV
  • HD-compatible cable box (or TV with built-in digital cable tuner: QAM or CableCARD-ready)
  • HD programming (subscription required)

Most new HDTVs include a built-in "QAM" digital cable TV tuner, which lets cable subscribers watch most unscrambled cable channels without using a set-top box. CableCARD-ready TVs offer access to additional programming via a special card slot designed to accept a CableCARD™. This CableCARD is a removable security card that allows the TV to receive premium (scrambled) digital cable programming without using a set-top box. The CableCARD doesn't duplicate all cable box features and capabilities, and fewer new HDTVs have a CableCARD slot due to lack of support by cable companies. Contact your local cable provider for details regarding the availability and costs of CableCARD-related services.

Satellite

Digital satellite TV: If you live in the contiguous 48 states and have a clear view of the southern sky, you can probably receive HDTV programs via satellite. DIRECTV® and DISHNetwork® currently offer over 100 HDTV channels, if you include pay-per-view channels. Viewers who live in large cities may be able to get their local stations in HD via satellite, too. Otherwise, some combination of satellite/antenna or satellite/cable may be necessary to receive the exact channel mix you desire.

    What you need:
  • HD-compatible TV
  • HD-compatible satellite receiver
  • HD-compatible satellite dish
  • HD programming (subscription required)

Blu-ray

Blu-ray — high-def movies and more

High-definition picture quality quickly grows addictive, and many HDTV owners want access to even more HD content than they can get from the sources discussed above. High-def disc players — including Blu-ray player — can deliver an excellent high-def picture, with resolutions up to 1080p. See our Blu-ray players shopping guide for more info.

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