All Dressed Up and Nowhere to Go---Yet

Sandor Hasznos of Denver, Colorado, purchased a television on July 31, and it was delivered last week. This might not seem like a big deal---unless you consider that this was the first HDTV officially sold in the US. The set, a Panasonic PT-56WXF90, was the first one bought at Ultimate Electronics during an HDTV preview event that drew over 4000 digital-television enthusiasts.

"We knew this would be one of our most exciting previews, but this event totally exceeded our expectations," says Dave Workman, president and chief operating officer of Ultimate Electronics. "Obviously, there is a tremendous amount of curiosity about digital television . . . The amount of misinformation customers have received about HDTV is amazing."

Ultimate Electronics plans to conduct similar events in Las Vegas, Nevada, and Minneapolis, Minnesota, in the first half of August. The upscale dealer does not expect to see HDTV broadcasts in any of its local markets until late 1999 (if all goes well, other markets are expected to go online this fall), but they claim that the new televisions substantially improve the picture quality of all video sources currently available, including local broadcast, cable, and 18" digital satellite.

The Panasonic set, a 56" (diagonal) widescreen rear-projection TV, is one of the first HDTV consumer products to reach to market. When paired with a DTV set-top decoder (coming this October), it can display HDTV 1080-line interlaced (1080i) and standard-definition (SDTV) 480-line progressive (480p) and 480-line interlaced (480i) DTV formats. The PTV also upconverts conventional NTSC analog signals to 480p, which enhances the picture quality of today's standard TV broadcasts, according to Panasonic. The set sells for around $6000.

"The PT-56WXF90 is our first television specifically designed for HDTV," says Bill Mannion, general manager of Panasonic's Television Division, "but even standard NTSC signals are remarkably enhanced due to advanced digital technology. The PT-56WXF90 is a key component in Panasonic's digital-television strategy. Our DTV components allow consumers the flexibility of gradually upgrading their home-theater systems to the digital format without losing any of the benefits of today's technology."

One interesting feature of the new set is called Catch-Up, which stores audio and a series of video still images from a program in progress if you leave the room. When you return, the TV plays back the captured still pictures with recorded audio until they catch up with the program in progress. Then, the TV automatically switches back to the regular viewing mode. "Tortoise" and "hare" icons indicate the progress of the Catch-Up feature on the screen.

The set also has four display modes to accommodate the signal format and your personal viewing preference. The Full mode displays panoramic 16:9 images; the 4:3 mode places an NTSC image in the center of the screen; the Just mode justifies (stretches) the right and left edges of a 4:3 image to fill the entire screen; and the Zoom mode lets you enlarge the picture uniformly to full-screen width, then reposition the picture vertically.