Consumers snapped up millions of high-definition TV sets this holiday season. Now if they can only figure out how to use the darn things. More than half of HDTV owners lack the knowledge or gear to actually watch digital high-definition on their new sets, recent surveys show.

Others are dismayed by the sometimes-poor picture quality of analog shows on sleek digital screens.

Given the dent in their wallets from shelling out $2,000 or more for a TV, it can lead to "buyer’s remorse," says Mike Vitelli, senior vice president of consumer electronics at Best Buy. HDTV returns are "notably higher" than for analog sets, he says.

The good news: HDTV should take off its training wheels in 2006. Cable companies and retailers plan to ramp up consumer education and fix the analog picture problem.

HDTV sets with crisper pictures and clearer sound are estimated to be in 16 million, or 15%, of U.S. homes, up from 7% a year ago, Leichtman Research Group says. Another 2.5 million or so households have digital sets that are not HD, but still are sharper than analog sets.

Meanwhile, leading cable channels and most TV network affiliates offer at least their prime-time lineups in HD.

But up to 56% of HD-equipped homes haven’t obtained extra gear needed to watch in HD: a special set-top box from their cable or satellite service, a cable card or an over-the-air digital tuner, surveys by Leichtman and gear maker Scientific-Atlanta say.

Why? About 28% say the picture already is better on an HD set; 23% think the logo labeling broadcasts "available in HD" means they’re watching HD. "It’s like buying a sports car and never driving more than 50 miles an hour," Leichtman President Bruce Leichtman says.

The cost of extra HD gear can range from $5 a month for a set-top box to $200 for a new satellite dish.

Experts say stores and cable companies need to better inform buyers. "(Retailers) just want to make a quick sale," Parks Associates analyst Deepa Iyer says.

Circuit City CEO Alan McCollough disagrees. "It’s important for us that you have a great experience when you get home," he says. He concedes some sales representatives make mistakes.

McCollough and Vitelli say proposed legislation to end analog broadcasts on Feb. 17, 2009, will help them more emphatically steer customers to digital TVs.

Time Warner Cable is among services planning TV and print ads next year to tell subscribers how to get HD, spokesman Keith Cocozza says.

It’s also among those working to fix poor analog display on HDTVs. Much of cable and local broadcasting still is transmitted in analog only. Stretching that picture onto a digital screen often blurs it, TeleChoice analyst Pat Hurley says.

"The HD picture is wonderful, but the analog channels look much worse than on your regular TV," says HDTV owner Jerry Schoenburg, 60, of Moorpark, Calif.

To fix that, many Comcast and Time Warner systems now transmit digital versions of analog channels, and all will by the end of 2006, the companies say.

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