HDTV Buying Guide

It has been just over a year since I bought my and now I can’t imagine life without one. The picture is so crystal clear (and huge) that it almost bothers me to see movies in the theater because you see imperfections in the film in theaters (scratches and lint on the film and such) that you do not see in a purely digital high definition transmission. I rarely see movies in the theater anymore; usually only those movies that are so epic that they demand viewing on a massive theater screen.

Needless to say, playing video games on it is a treat, as well.

I have since given advice to friends on buying an high definition television and someone suggested I put it on my blog. So here it is:

My HDTV Buying Guide

HDTV Research

Considering you’re on the brink of laying down some serious scratch for your new entertainment system, you’ll no doubt want to research your purchase before committing the cash.

The best starting point I’ve found is . It will take you through the basics: What type of set you can afford; what size screen you should get; the fundamental definitions, formats, and technologies you’ll need to understand; the difference between wide-screen and 4:3; features and cable connections (with a superb chart); what to know about playing video games on your set; understanding picture quality and settings on your HDTV; and what to know about accessories and warranties.

About.com has an excellent page that ; they also have a very good home theater section.


You mean you could spend a ton of money on a new HDTV, only to have it completely ruined by burning a TV station logo into your screen? Theoretically, yeah, you could. But don’t completely freak out about it; a little common sense and you’re fine.

Basically, the idea is to not have a static image showing on one
portion of your screen for a long time, or that image will “burn-in”
and you’ll always have a “ghost” of it whenever you watch your TV. I
was all paranoid about it but fear has proved largely unfounded; You
just need to be responsible about how you use the set.

Don’t spend eight hours at a time playing a video game with a stationary graphical element (like a health bar) on it without changing the image once in a while. If the presidential election ever comes down to the wire like 2000 again and you’re rivited to CNN’s all-live coverage, just remember to change the channel occasionally to refresh the screen so that crawling ticker at the bottom doesn’t wreck your screen.

I admit, it freaked me out at first, too. But common sense is all you need. I have had no problems.

Read more:

Buying Refurbished

I bought a refurbished HDTV, so I’ll focus on my experience but don’t let the word "refurbished" scare you away. Refurbished can mean anything from the packaging the item was shipped in was dented and so was returned to the manufacturer but nothing at all was wrong with the item itself, or there was something wrong with the item but it was refurbished by the manufacturer to like-new working order.

Sellers of refurbished items put many safeguards in place, so you need to pay attention to their policies, but I think it’s a pretty safe process. I had no problems. The risk of buying refurbished, I think, is small but the savings benefits are significant.

There are two companies that I narrowed my purchase options down to but there are others out there that you can find when searching for “.” Those two were (because they are based in Minneapolis, so I’d presumably get my set quicker and since they are in town, if I hd any problems with the TV, it won’t be a burden contacting them in person).

Before settling on your particular set or of you’re planning on buying from an online shop, definitely check out for reviews of both the TV you’re considering or the merchant. Some of the reviews are obviously by the merchants selling the items, but most of the reviews are by people who have actually bought the product, so can see if there are any issues that you should be aware of.

I ultimately bought my TV from is and I was very happy with them; they had excellent customer service, and the TV arrived before they said it would. Their shipping service was great: Two guys brought it into my home, took it out of the box, and set it up in about five minutes.

You’ll also need to buy decent cables—everyone except people at Best Buy have told me that you don’t need to buy the obscenely expensive ; but even so, you’ll need good cables to hook up your home theater sound system, your DVD and/or VCR, your cable box, and your gaming system.

When you finally get your set, you’ll need to "calibrate" it for optimum performance. . You can buy set-up discs to optimize your TV for realistic settings (they set them at the factory to high brightness and high contrast to make the TVs look more vivid in the showrooms). I found one at Best Buy.

If you don’t already, think about subscribing to one of the premium movie cable channels like . Each of them have a high-definition channel and the movies on them are something to behold: The clarity is amazing—better than DVDs and certainly better than movie theaters that are using reels. You won’t really be getting the best out of your set if you don’t subscribe to some HDTV channels.

Movies are amazing but if you’re into sports, there’s nothing like watching a football or baseball game with the extra screen width and the surround sound picking up field noises and being able to hear hecklers in the crowd behind you.

As I said before, playing video games on an HDTV (especially if you’ve got a surround-sound Dolby 5.1 home theater setup) is an amazing experience. Needless to say, video games will only get that much better if you hook up a next-generation video game console such as the to your HDTV.

That’s what I’m talking about!

Xbox 360 Specs – High Definition Gaming

I was planning on doing a wish list of features I’d like to see in the next version of Grand Theft Auto. One was the ability to create mayhem at a sports stadium filled with people. I’d like to be able to sneak into a football stadium packed with people watching their hometown team and snipe at people and sorta just create panic in the stadium ala Black Sunday.

GTA does a pretty good job at having the ambient AI (artificial intelligence) characters in the game react realistically but usually it’s groups of people, three or four in a bunch, who react. I can’t recall seeing more AI characters reacting to something you, as a player, have done.

I ran across an article on Xbox.com about the Xbox 360’s artificial intelligence capabilities that explains why you don’t see massive crowd reactions to player actions in games. The article quotes Chris Satchell, General Manager of the Game Developers Group at Microsoft, explaining what the computational processing power of the Xbox 360 will mean for next-gen games beyond beautiful, high-definition graphics and 5.1 Dolby surround sound:

"I love it when you take an NPC [non-player character] and give it some really simple rules—by itself, it looks okay—then you put 10 of them together and the interaction makes things start to look interesting. Then you put 100 of them together, then you put 500 of them together…the emergent behavior is really amazing."

"You plug in some really simple things [A.I. rules]—fleeing behavior, avoidance, fright—you put these emotions in and you run it with 30 NPCs, you get one type of behavior. You run it with 500 NPCs, and you get a film. You see a scene and now you’ve got enough processing power to run 500 NPCs, with enough processing power to render them and to do collision for them, you get experiences in games you’ve never seen before."

So not only will the Xbox 360 improve dramatically from a look and sound standpoint, gameplay itself will be improved and more realistic.

Add to this the graphics improvements and sound system improvement and the next-gen systems will bring video gaming a large step closer to the holy grail of gaming: photorealism.

Take a look at Madden 06 for Xbox 360 trailers at GameInformer.com. The graphics are clearly vastly improved over the curent-gen version of the game. Much sharper and more detailed. Take a look at Brett Favre‘s face in the Packers vs. Vikings clips and you’ll see the character actually looks like Farve. The players’ movements are also immensely improved; they are much more fluid and natural.

Couple these improvements with the built in 5.1 Dolby surround sound support and the improvment in the realism of the games becomes obvious. You may be able to hear a fan heckling the quarterback in the stands on the right-hand side. Or in first person shooters, you may be able to hear shots coming from behind you on your left, allowing you to wheel around to face the threat without ever having seen it.

Games need to get to the point where it becomes less and less obvious that you’re playing a video game and more like you are a participant in a drama. That requires realism and realism, ultimately, is where video games must improve if the industry is to elevate itself above films as the predominant entertainment and art form. The Xbox 360 will help the industry reach that goal.

Halo – The Movie

Video games morphing into movies is nothing new, but I am following the Halo movie developments with great fascination. Yesterday it became official; Fox and Universal closed a deal with Microsoft to put the mega hit video game on the silver screen, Variety reported.

I’m fascinated with Halo, the movie, because I’m a fan of the game but also because it interests me as a pop culture phenomenon and from a marketing perspective.

It’s no surprise to anyone who has followed Microsoft over the years that the company tried to play hardball over the rights to the Alex Garland (28 Days Later) script. It makes sense, too. For a property whose two versions have generated more $600 million in sales, it is only logical to want as much control as possible over related products. One of the reported stipulations to the rights was that production of the film would take place under the auspices of Bungie Studios, the Microsoft-owned developer of Halo.

Looks like Microsoft didn’t get the control they were looking for, though. According the Variety article, Microsoft "is now guaranteed extensive consultation on the project, but won’t have approval over any elements." Rather than having creative control, Bungie employees will serve as creative consultants.

Considering the robust sales for the Halo franchise and the video game’s nearly fanatical following, the built-in audience for the film is significant. The fans of the game are practically a self-generating buzz machine. Hard core gamers are frequent contributors for online forums where they discuss all aspects of the game. The built-in communication features of Halo using Xbox Live helps gamers create buzz amongst themselves. The Internet is rife with speculation about the movie, with people wondering if Ridley Scott will direct and Ed Harris and Samuel L. Jackson star in the movie.

The nature of the Halo fan base helps explain why two Hollywood studios would agree to take the rare step of collaborating on a movie.

The thing to remember is that most people think Microsoft is a technology company. But it really isn’t–at least that’s not their expertise. Sure, they sell software but they excel at marketing it. Microsoft is less a technology company than a marketing firm.

So look at the timing. The movie is slated for a Summer 2007 release. Microsoft’s next-generation video game console, Xbox 360, will be available for this holiday season, probably in November. Halo 3, which will be designed specifically to take advantage of the new high-definition capabilities of the Xbox 360, is scheduled for release in the second quarter of 2006. And that gives it just enough time for sales to taper off for the release of the movie to boost additional sales. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Bungie develop additional maps and/or vehicles specifically tied to the movie and available as a download through Xbox Live.

Halo The Movie should be a textbook case in marketing convergence with each product driving sales of the other.

eXpensive Xbox 360

Microsoft has announced the pricing for their next-generation console Xbox 360 and it’s gonna be mighty expensive.

In order to offer a more attractive price point, they’ll be releasing two versions of the console, the Xbox 360 and the Xbox 360 Core, at $399 and $299, respectively.

The Xbox 360 will include the Console, a 20-gig hard drive, a wireless controller, an Xbox 360 faceplate, a headset (no word on whether or not it’s wireless), a component HD AV cable and ethernet cable, an Xbox Live Silver membership and a Media remote control. Also note that there is only one controller.

The Xbox 360 Core will include the console, a wired controller, a faceplate, an Xbox Live Silver membership and a standard AV cable.

GameSpot quotes a securities analyst who calls the $299 price point a publicity stunt: "They’re doing it to say they are launching at $299. The hardcore guys will absolutely not buy the $299 model…only a complete idiot would buy the $299 model." 

Can’t say I disagree, especially when you consider that you’ll need a hard drive if you want to play your existing Xbox games on the console.

Game Informer just wants to know how much the whole thing will realistically cost.

So do I. So when I saw the price points and looked what each console came with, it was clear I’d have to buy the $399 model. Okay, so that’s $400 bucks for the console, I’ll need another controller, so throw in another $40 for that, I don’t have to, but I’ll want to go wireless, so that’s another $100 for networking adapter. That’s $540, so far.

And I still don’t have any 360 games. Sure, with my $400 model, I’ll be able to play my old skool Xbox but, damn, when you got a new tricked out toy, you really gotta go full out and see what it can do. There are two games that I would want to play out of the 360 (X)box, if you will: Madden 06 and Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter. At sixty bucks a 360 game, that’s another $120. We’re up to $660, ad some tax, and we’re looking at nearly $700.

Looks like Christmas will only come for me this year.

The Problem With HUDs

When reading about the soon-to-be released video games King Kong and Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter, it occurred to me that both games were attempting to overcome the same problem: The disruption that the Heads Up Display (HUD) gaming interface causes to the realism of the gaming experience. Particularly in first person shooters, the HUD’s persistent presence is a constant reminder to the gamer that his experience is an artificial one.
If game are to progress to the point any science fiction reader or sci-fi movie buff expects them to, then the problem of the HUD must be overcome. A screen with a superimposed map and health bar and weapons/ammo inventory floating in the corner mimics no reality we currently experience. The information the HUD provides is crucial to gameplay but game creators must find a more clever or creative way to present this information to the gamer in a way that it does not interrupt the realism of the game experience.
The solution that Michel Ancel took with Ubisoft‘s King Kong is to remove the HUD entirely. In an interview in the August issue of Game Informer, Ancel observed: "I think it’s creating something different by having nothing onscreen…We don’t need a big arrow showing you the danger in this direction." See GameSpot’s interview with Ancel.
In Kong, for example, when your player is harmed, his vision blurs and turns red. That’s a far more natural method of conveying health status than a persistent health bar.
Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter takes the opposite approach, solving the HUD problem by making the HUD central to the story. As an advanced warrior, you will naturally be viewing the world through a high-tech set of goggles. Ubisoft has decided to make it obvious that the gamer is looking through the eyes of the soldier’s goggle, and then lays all the traditional HUD information within that natural context. (View GameSpot’s video trailer of the game to see exactly how this looks. The video clip also reveals the very nice touch Ubisoft include of augmented reality)
Both approaches are sound but, more importantly, the are a conscious indictment of the artificiality of the current use of the HUD.

Madden 2006 Is Out

The media blitz has begun.

Actually, it began quite some time ago but it has stepped up now that Madden NFL 06 is in stores. I unfolded my Star Tribune this morning and saw on the top banner of the front page a Madden-generated Ken Irvin (why Ken Irvin, I don’t know) next to a headline of "Madden ’06 – One thing’s for certain–it’s got game."

Inside the paper, on the front page, below the fold of the Metro section, was the article "Twin Cities mad for Madden"

Last night, the NFL Network aired a show called the Making of Madden. It was an absolutely fascinating look at how video games such as Madden are made and how they produce the stunning realism for which they are known. Fortunately, you don’t have to get the NFL Network in order to see them because they are online at NFL.com: Watch it online in parts 1 and 2.

The reviews are in and, as you might expect, they are all pretty favorable. IGN.com says the game is great but that EA hasn’t outdone themselves this time. GameSpot gives the game an 8.2 rating largely because they’re not sold on the addition of the Quarterback Vision feature. But the leading video game publication, the Minneapolis-based Game Informer, gave Madden NFL 06 a thumbs-up, saying "Many questioned the fact that EA may lighten up on the innovation factor since they’ve wiped out the competition, and they’ve got the next generation creeping up on them, but fortunately this is not the case." 

The EA Tiburon team even released a special video featuring Florida Governor Jeb Bush laying a wicked hit on his brother, President Bush, on route to a touchdown. The video was produced as a surprise for the Florida Governor when he visited the Electronic Arts studios in Maitland, Florida.

Madden has also become a launching pad for new music and this year’s soundtrack features such bands as the Foo Fighters, Hot Hot Heat, and Godsmack. You can listen to the soundtrack at the Madden 06 site.

Yesterday, KFAN had an Electronic Arts representative on the P.A. & Dubay show talking about Madden 06 and he claimed that the Vikings would be one of the top teams to play this year because of their improved defense. Sweet.

Speaking of which, I’d be remiss if I did not point out that the updated Vikings 2005 Roster I made after free agency and the draft to reflect the Vikings current roster, was…disastrously wrong. I clearly don’t know what ratings formula EA uses, because I gave my rookies far too high player ratings, as many of you astute readers pointed out. Check out IGN.com for the 06 player ratings.

Xbox Video Gaming Chair/Racing Wheel/Joystick

What racing games need is a full-sized, ergonomic video gaming chair that requires no configuration with your favorite game.

This is needed is because the video game racing wheels on the market don’t quite cut it. I’ve tried both leading racing wheels and both are disappointing in a some significant way. I tried them on Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit 2, Need For Speed: Underground 2, and Burnout 3: Takedown.

With the Logitech wheel, you are supposed to be able to use it on your lap, but there is nothing to keep it from sliding off your legs when taking a hard turn. Also, the Logitech video game racing wheel does not have a shift stick, which pretty much sucks if you like to drive manually.

Comparitively, the Mad Catz video game racing wheel has a shift stick but for the life of me, I could not get it to properly down-shift with any of my games. The Mad Catz racing wheel does have little wings that you can pull out that fit around your thighs and keep the wheel from sliding off your lap during hard turns, which gives it an edge over Logitech. The Mad Catz foot pedals have a more realistic feel than Logitech’s foot pedals.

Both wheels have nothing to prevent their foot pedals from sliding when used on carpet, forcing the user to use some heavy object to keep them in place. Logitech has the only wheel that uses force feedback technology, but only on their PS2 version. Both Logitech’s and Mad Catz’s wheels require significant tinkering with both the wheel and your game’s controller configuration in order to work optimally.

Gamers need a realistic wheel for their racing games, so this is what I propose: Take an ordinary office chair and turn it into a racing wheel/gaming chair.

It would have all the functions of an office chair–pneumatic lift to adjust to leg length, ability to lock/unlock the lean-back function, ability to swivel the chair, and arm rests that can be set in the up or down position.

Take this chair and add an arm that could be lowered down in front of you–with a tilt function–that has a steering wheel attached to it and includes controller functions. On your right-side would an arm attached to the bottom of your seat with a stick shift that you could raise up or tuck out of the way if you wanted to drive with automatic transmission.

Attached to the bottom base of the chair would be a platform upon which the pedals–gas, clutch, and break–would be attached.

Obviously, the entire thing would have to be wireless in order to avoid annoying entanglements.

Ideally, the thing would be plug and play with your favorite game, so you wouldn’t have to waste time configuring your games.

With current wheels priced in the $60-$150 range, I think you could go as high as $200-$250 for this gaming chair and they’d sell briskly. At the $250 range, you could offer a universal controller chair that had a normal controller for non-racing play and a joystick for flying games.

The benefits such a universal video gaming chair/controller would offer are obvious when you consider how it would work for a game like Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, where you often go from on-foot gameplay, to driving a car or boat, to flying a plane or helicopter. As of now, you must use an ordinary controller for the game, and so you need to use only the tools that a standard controller offer you: buttons and triggers.

But if you could use a universal video gaming chair/controller with the game, you could seamlessly use the control devise most appropriate for your current gameplay: If you’re walking, you use the standard controller. If you’re driving a car or boat, you use the steering wheel, shift, and pedals. If you’re flying, you use joystick.

Right now, the standard controller for video games is an awkward user input device that is entirely unrelated to how people perform their corresponding video game actions in the real world. The controller itself is a persistent reminder to the gamer of the artificiality of the video game world, thus obviously reducing the realism of the game itself.

A universal video gaming chair/controller would be a step toward making the controller more natural and thus enhancing the realism of the gaming experience.