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It's a paradox of today's video market: Familiar equipment, such as VCRs and TVs, has never cost less or been more consistently good in performance. Yet choosing what gear to buy--and how to receive the programming that hardware will carry--has become increasingly complicated. A key reason: Virtually every standard analog video product and service now has an alternative that draws heavily on digital technology.
Digital video signals promise a noticeable leap in quality, to near-pristine picture and sound. But as the box at right makes clear, not all digital TV alternatives are ready for prime time. While almost all of the digital technologies have great promise, many remain too expensive, too limited in availability, or too immature in design to yet be a mainstream option.
Another twist to digital technology: It's hastening the trend toward convergence, in which once-discrete components and functions begin to morph into one another. DVD players play both movies on video discs and music on compact discs. New TV set-top boxes handle both TV programming and Internet access. Digital camcorders can provide still photographic images as well as video recordings.
This section is your consumer guide to television in this time of transition. The good …