HDTV: the time is now for diving in

For a while now, we've been saying you may want to delay buying a high-definition television (HDTV) until prices for the sets come down and the availability of HD programming increases.

That time may be at hand. Indications are that HDTV – with detail and clarity far surpassing conventional television – could become a reality for mainstream America in 2004.

Just a year ago, the only direct-view HDTVs priced at less than $1,000 had 27-inch screens – smaller than many people want, especially in a state-of-the-art television. Now, HD-ready sets with 30- and 32-inch screens have dipped below that threshold.

And there's more to watch on those cheaper sets. While some smaller broadcast networks still provide limited HD programming, the majors (ABC, CBS and NBC) all offer a substantial amount of their prime-time lineups in high-definition. Cable and satellite channels have a growing menu of HD offerings, and over-the-air HD broadcasts by local stations are on the rise. Depending on where you live and the service provider you use, you may be able to enjoy an abundance of HD programming.

Lower prices and more programming are certainly enticements, but the only way for you to decide if high-definition television is worth the cost is to see it for yourself. Visit a television retailer and check out an HDTV set's picture quality, viewing both high-definition and standard-definition programming. (Given a clean signal, some HD sets can make even standard-definition images look better than they do on a regular television.) Compare the HD set to a top-notch standard-definition set to determine if the difference sells you on high-definition.

Although this may be a propitious time to buy an HDTV, the argument can also be made for waiting. Predictions are that higher sales and newer flat-panel technologies could cause prices to tumble on such sets, perhaps this year.

You're also likely to see price competition intensify with the recent or expected introduction of televisions by big names from the computer industry, including Dell, Epson, Gateway, Hewlett-Packard and others.

Visit the Consumer Reports Web site at www.consumerreports.org.