The Big Squeeze

Hooray! you've finally got that 50-inch plasma HDTV you've been lusting for since the days when they cost a cool 10 grand. Excited with your same-as-cash, no-payments-for-a-year 1080p deal, you grab a beer, settle into the sofa, and tune in one of the games in DirecTV's NFL Sunday Ticket package, ready to watch the greatest image you've never seen.

But now that you have that HDTV, is the picture you're seeing actually high-def - or is it something less?

According to consumer Philip Kent Cohen, if you think you're seeing true HD just because you're watching a high-def channel on a high-def set, you're wrong. Two years ago, Cohen filed what he believes is the first lawsuit against bad picture quality. He's suing DirecTV, alleging that in its quest to provide as many HD channels as it can, the satellite company is squeezing too many signals into its limited bandwidth.

Some programming providers are running out of space. DirecTV, for example, says there's no more room for HDTV channels on its satellites. But it will launch two new birds later this year so it can offer more local digital broadcast stations, as well as hundreds of new HDTV channels - assuming it can find that many to license.

It's also true that picture quality is mostly about bits. All else being equal, the fewer transmitted per second, the poorer the picture. Without enough bits, images can dissolve into little blocks, especially during fast-moving action. That's not to denigrate the importance of pixels, because the more pixels, the sharper the image. The resolution of a 1080 image, for instance, is 1,920 horizontal by 1,080 vertical pixels, with the images shown progressively for 1080p and interlaced for 1080i. But not all HDTVs can display that many pixels, and many professional high-def cameras can't even record that many.