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Fear of obsolescence is always a factor in choosing electronics, but it's creating even more uncertainty than usual among TV buyers these days.
The confusion begins with the screens, which have evolved from CRT to LCD, plasma and projection models, but it goes far beyond that. Thanks to political squabbling over the rules that will push TV into the digital age, it's still unclear what sorts of features will be available--and how soon.
Regulators vow that they won't stick consumers with obsolete equipment, but they admit that the changing landscape can be hard to navigate. "These are great times for consumers because there's so much new technology. But it's also difficult because there are so many choices," said Rick Chessen, chairman of the Federal Communication Commission's DTV Task Force.
To avoid disappointment, new TV buyers should take the time to get up to speed on their options. That means being as vigilant of what's going on in Washington and the consumer electronics industry as they are of what's on store shelves at the mall. Among the key issues that are in constant flux:
Digital television: DTV is the "back end" technology for delivering TV signals using ones and zeros rather than the analog systems used for generations. Congress has ordered U.S. broadcasters to turn off their over-the-air analog signals by Dec. 31, 2007. But that deadline could be
delayed indefinitely in some markets, if consumers are slow to adopt digital-ready TVs and devices. Satellite providers and cable companies aren't waiting. Some already use HDTV exclusively or offer it as an option to subscribers in conjunction with a set-top box.
High-definition television: DTV provides various levels of picture quality; HDTV is the current highest. Others include enhanced-definition television, or EDTV, and standard-definition television, or SDTV.
Be careful: Although some EDTV sets are labeled as HD-compatible, that means only that they can receive HD signals--not display them in high-definition quality.
CableCard: The Federal Communications Commission has ordered manufacturers to offer "digital cable-ready" (or "plug and play") TVs that can receive digital cable television without a set-top box. One specification, known as CableCard, allows this but does not support interactive services such as pay-per-view or video-on-demand.
Video recording: As of July 31 this year, all DTV devices sold in the United States must support technology known as "broadcast flags" designed to prevent consumers from copying over-the-air DTV programming and transmitting it over the Internet. The rule, which would still allow copying for personal use, faces a legal challenge. In the meantime, device makers are beginning to comply.