There is a lot of confusion when it comes to HDTV. Many places that sell televisions have an inadequate understanding of the concept, and often compound the confusion by offering wrong information.
For starters, it is important to know what a television is, what HDTV is, and what sorts of signals are available. It may seem obvious what a television is, but surprisingly, that's one of the more confusing parts of the problem. Television is a broadcast medium. In other words, signals are sent over the public airwaves on assigned frequencies to television tuners. "A television" is a device with a monitor and tuner built in. An HDTV, therefore, has a high definition monitor and an ATSC (high definition) tuner.
A big problem for television dealers is that people buy a set that looks good in the store, take it home, and then complain that the picture quality looks terrible when they watch it. As with the computer adage, "garbage in, garbage out," what you see will be no better than the incoming signal. That's why many stores now admonish customers that they must upgrade to an HD cable feed or an HD satellite service to get an HD picture. But that answer is not quite correct.
A monitor will not be able to display a picture with any more resolution than the source provides. That means that if you have a standard cable box, an HD monitor, or even an ED monitor may give no better resolution than a high quality NTSC (standard TV) monitor. If you switch to an HD source, you might get a better picture, but that ultimately depends on the source of the material being viewed. If the HD cable channel is showing a videotape that was made in NTSC format, you cannot expect it to have the clarity of a show that was produced in HD. So it's still possible, even with an HD cable box, to end up with no improvement, depending on what you typically watch.
One thing that you don't hear asked very often is what would happen if you try to use an HD source with a standard television (SDTV.) Most people will tell you that there's no point, since an SDTV is not capable of showing high definition pictures. That's only partly true. Anybody who has seen an SDTV's remarkable increase in detail with a DVD player hooked up to it can tell you that an SDTV is capable of a lot more than what the NTSC broadcast standard offers. While it's not HD, the picture quality improvement achieved by hooking up an HD source to an SDTV results in better-than-DVD quality. Actually, the source would need to have a lower resolution output, such as an SVHS connection, but HD devices typically offer that as a connection option.
Although I mentioned a problem with the admonishment to upgrade your cable or satellite source as a requirement for HD, there is another fundamental problem with that advice. As I mentioned, television is a broadcast medium. HDTV is a broadcast standard. Depending on where you live, you can get HDTV signals for free over the air. It's possible in all major US markets, and many smaller ones. NTSC broadcasts are scheduled to stop completely, and the government has mandated a switch to HD broadcasts. When that will happen depends on whether Congress extends the deadline or not.
In the San Francisco Bay area, I get 36 HD channels for free over the air. Most stations offer sub channels, so instead of getting channel 4, for example, you might get 4-1,4-2, and 4-3. Some stations allocate more bandwidth to some sub channels than others, so they may have one HD feed, and one or more standard feeds. So your local PBS channel might show their regular feed, their world channel, their encore channel, their life channel, and their kids channel. Those might not show up at all on basic cable.
I live in an area where I was never able to get more than one channel clearly with an antenna, but since HDTV is digital, either you get enough signal for a crystal clear picture, or you don't get it at all. I now get a lot more channels with an indoor antenna than I did with basic cable, and a simple roof antenna, even if placed in your attic, can go a long way with HDTV.
Ultimately, the picture quality depends on the source of the material, the medium used to get it to your monitor, and the quality of the monitor. If you stick with basic cable, your picture may improve slightly simply because you got a better quality monitor. But the resolution might not improve. On the other hand, you might find that you have a good variety of material for free. Or you might want something that will be ready for the next generation of DVD players, or anything else that will come along in the next decade or more, depending on how long you plan to keep the set. If you get a lower resolution monitor, you will see slight improvements as your input sources improve. You will see bigger improvements if you get an HD monitor. But for now, unless you take advantage of the built in tuner, don't expect a remarkable improvement from your cable box.
Submitted by: Wayne R. of San Francisco