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When "HD" isn't high-def
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March 2008
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Finding the best high-def TV service
More channels, more competition

Basketball game on big-screen TV
Sports events are a big reason to go HD with your TV and service. The extra detail in high-def images and the larger size of most HDTV screens make the action more lifelike and the ball easier to see.
Has the lack of high-definition programming been standing between you and a new HDTV? Then you'll have to find another reason not to buy. Many TV-service providers say they'll be offering 100 to 150 HD channels by the end of this year, up from barely 20 channels a year or two ago.

About one-third of U.S. households now own at least one HD set, and they're clamoring for more high-def content. Because high-def images contain much more detail than standard-definition fare, the best HD programming can look dazzlingly clear and lifelike. Once you're accustomed to that level of quality, it's hard to settle for standard-def TV.

The upsurge in HD is also being driven by increased competition among TV and telecom services. As phone companies—most notably Verizon but also AT&T and others—roll out fiber-optic networks that can handle TV, voice calls, and Internet access, more consumers looking for the best high-def TV service have a choice of service providers.

About 1.5 million homes get their TV service from a phone company, compared with 65 million cable households and about 30 million satellite subscribers. But the telcos, as the phone companies are called, are expanding fast as they successfully poach customers from their rivals, especially cable carriers.

Many converts seem happy they made the switch. In a recent survey by the Consumer Reports National Research Center, subscribers to the leading telco TV service, Verizon's FiOS TV, were significantly more satisfied overall than those who have satellite or cable. (We don't have enough data to report on AT&T.) Overall, cable scored below satellite, though the best cable carriers were as satisfying as satellite-TV providers.

Unfortunately, competition isn't doing much to reduce the cost of TV service. Cable rates recently jumped 3 to 7 percent, and Verizon increased rates for new customers by 12 percent. Dish Network announced in January that it would not raise prices of its most popular packages in 2008. At press time, DirecTV had not announced any rate changes.

To offset rising costs, more households are subscribing to plans that bundle, Internet, TV and phone.

For the ultimate in cost savings in your quest for the best high-def TV service, you can use an antenna to get free HD signals from the major broadcast networks. The quality can be superb, but you won't get channels such as ESPN, Discovery, and others available only on for-pay TV.

As competition heats up, cable, satellite, and telephone companies are waging an advertising war over who has the most channels, the fastest network, and the best picture and sound. This report evaluates the claims to help you decide which TV provider suits you best, whether you want high-def or standard-def service.