How bad is your HD?

The picture quality of high-definition programming can vary greatly depending on the source. So how good, or bad, is your HD?

A few weeks ago I asked how many people had given up on standard definition completely and only watch high definition. Interestingly, even though the majority of you had made the switch, it seems many were dissatisfied with the picture quality of their HD programming.

At the top of the HD quality pyramid is Blu-ray, of course. Lots of bandwidth, lots of storage, and pristine image quality are the hallmarks of what will surely be our last physical media format.

Quality degrades rapidly, though, as you change media. In many markets, the HD broadcast (over-the-air) signal is nearly as good as Blu-ray. But this isn't always the case. Many stations try to squeeze multiple channels within their allotted bandwidth (such as 2-1, 2-2, 2-3, and so on, all from the same station). This has a noticeable and negative effect on the quality.

Worse yet are cable and satellite TV, all of which have limited bandwidth to work with. Additional compression to fit in more total channels is the norm, as is adjusting the quality of more popular programming at the expense of the picture quality of less popular channels. Some providers are better than others, and I'd be very interested to read in the comments how you feel about the picture quality of your cable or satellite provider.

At the bottom of the picture-quality chain are the streaming providers, like Netflix and Hulu. These highly compressed feeds may technically be HD, but with visible softness and occasional compression artifacts, quality is generally the worst here. That said, if you've got the bandwidth to max out your streaming video quality, online HD video services can sometimes approach the quality of some cable and satellite channels--though that's generally the exception, not the rule.

So the question is, how bad (or good) is your HD? Do you care that the HD you're getting is often subjectively hardly better than DVD?

It's important, of course, to make sure your TV is set up correctly and hooked up with the correct (and inexpensive) cables before you can really judge the picture quality.

About the author

Geoffrey Morrison is a freelance writer/photographer for CNET, Forbes, and TheWirecutter. He also writes for Sound&Vision magazine,, and several others. He was Editor in Chief of Home Entertainment magazine and before that, Technical Editor of Home Theater magazine. He is NIST and ISF trained, and has a degree in Television/Radio from Ithaca College. His bestselling first novel, Undersea, is available in paperback and as an ebook on Amazon, B&N, and elsewhere.


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