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Some Straight Talk on Buying Consumer Electronics


from "The Gazette," 8 December 2008

So you've decided that this is the year to buy some new consumer electronics. Problem is, you don't know where to begin. Contrast ratio? Real-time video capture? What does it all mean? Does it even matter? Read on to learn more about buying a flatscreen TV or a camcorder.


If you're looking for a new TV, the most popular type is LCD, which is probably your best buy.  Almost all LCDs are high-definition - which you want - but to make sure, check that the model you're considering has a display resolution of either 720p or 1080p.


Many manufacturers are now pushing 1080p TVs. Although 1080p is a much higher resolution than 720p, the reality is that you probably won't notice the difference between them when you are sitting at a comfortable viewing distance.  For instance, the optimal viewing distance for a 720p 42" LCD is 8 feet, but at 1080p, that drops to 5 feet.  Since most people aren't likely to sit that close to a 42" television, spending extra money for 1080p is probably not money well spent.


Resolution isn't the only specification to consider, though.  Contrast ratio is the maximum difference in contrast between black and white.  In theory, this means that the higher the contrast ratio, the blacker the blacks appear and the brighter the whites appear. However, this number can be misleading because the starting point for black can vary greatly between televisions.  One TV may have a very high contrast ratio because it is extremely bright, but in a dark scene the TV may not appear very dark. Your best bet is to compare brands and models by looking at demo units as opposed to comparing numbers.


Another hot ticket item these days is camcorders, also known as video cameras. Virtually all camcorders on the market now are digital, but the media they record to fall into two distinct categories: digital tape or media card/hard drive. Video recorded on tape offers by far the best picture quality; however, the downside is that the time it takes to transfer that video to your computer is equal to the length of the recording - this is known as real-time video capture. Thus, if your recording is 60 minutes long, it will take 60 minutes to transfer it to your computer.


Camcorders that use hard drives or memory cards to record video can be accessed by your computer virtually instantaneously. However, your video will have been captured in a highly compressed MP4 format, which can diminish video quality.


Another question to address is whether you want to purchase a standard or high-definition video camera. Standard resolution camcorders can be had for as little as $250; however, this format is likely to become obsolete in a few short years. At the moment, high-def camcorders start at around $800, which is a significantly greater investment. The real question is, how will you be using the video you record? If you intend to shoot short clips that will be viewed on your computer or the Internet, the benefits of high definition will be lost. However, if your plan is to view your videos on your 60" high-definition flatscreen TV at home, you will no doubt miss the improved video quality that HD will provide.


Still confused? You can learn more at both the Campus Computer Store and the Emerging Technology Centre. ITServices staff members in both locations can provide information and guidance in making your purchasing decisions, as well as showing you demonstration units of TVs, camcorders, and many more consumer electronics. The ETC even offers free loans of some equipment for evaluation purposes. 


Kingston, Ontario, Canada K7L 3N6 613.533.2000