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We're #1 In HDTV, MP3s & Online Spending

It's bad enough that the security maniacs may be taking away Barack Obama's Blackberry and email accounts, but the new president may find himself even more out of touch with the people around him here than he would be anywhere else in the country.

That's because when it comes to technically courant behavior, such as owning high-def TVs or MP3 players or spending big money in online purchases, the Washington area leads the nation.

Nationwide, 23 percent of consumers own HD TV sets (almost doubling the technology's penetration in one year), but in the D.C. market, that number jumps to 31 percent--tops in the nation, according to Nielsen research. As you might expect, the cities that have moved most quickly to adopt HD TV are those with affluent and well-educated populations (after Washington, it's Boston, New York and Seattle at the top of the list.)

(But are people buying HD because of the hype or because it really alters their viewing experience? A market research firm finds that nearly one in five of those who have HD sets at home can't tell the difference between the digital clarity of high-def and the supposedly passe blur of ordinary video.)

Washington demonstrates its digital supremacy in ownership of MP3 players as well, topping the list of U.S. markets in that category, with 40 percent of households here owning a player, as compared to 30 percent nationwide.

Blogger David Leavitt noticed this pattern and wondered "why the District doesn't have a reputation of being technology geeks." Well, we certainly have a wonkish rep, one that grew more out of our emphasis on policy matters and our surfeit of excessively educated residents. The rest of the country, despite Al Gore's invention of the Internets and perhaps a vague sense that the web and AOL got their starts here, doesn't generally associate Washington with tech in the way that we do, say, Silicon Valley. That's partly because northern Virginia doesn't have much of a standalone reputation--"Dulles Corridor" doesn't exactly connote a whole lot in a pop culture sense. Other images of Washington tend to crowd out the Dulles tech and I-270 biotech realities.

Probably, more Americans perceive us as an expensive region than as a technologically advanced one. And that high-priced quality helps explain why we're at the top of yet another metric of digital devotion--we're #1 in percentage of residents who spend a lot on online purchases. A whopping 39 percent of us spent more than $500 in online purchases this year, compared to a nationwide figure of 25 percent, according to a study by Nielsen, Arbitron and Scarborough Research. Again, it's the best-educated markets that top the list; behind Washington are San Francisco, Seattle and Honolulu.

In my house, we're sticking with the old-fashioned TV; it's a 15-year-old Sony and it works just fine. (Heck, I'm still amazed that they've got color pictures now.) So while most folks are fine-tuning the HD and spending their holiday week on hold waiting for the tech line to answer our questions about the wiring on the new machine, I'm going to fire up a colortini and watch the pictures fly through the air.

By Marc Fisher |  December 23, 2008; 8:07 AM ET
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Took me about 10 minutes to setup my new HDTV yesterday. Works great.

Posted by: spidey103 | December 23, 2008 9:35 AM

I think DC has a reputation for being technology geeks, who says we don't? People joke to me about that all the time.

Posted by: bbcrock | December 23, 2008 9:53 AM

Marc, I'm the first to agree that plenty of folks get HDTV as hype and have no clue. But I have to guess that the people who can't tell the difference aren't watching HD stations. That's the big mistake. Because HD is just so much better than standard. It's like the difference between standard and black and white. Seriously.

Have you watched HD? It's unbelievable. The day I bought mine I watched tennis for two hours, and I HATE tennis. And that was before I even had the cable people stop by -- HD network stations are free, and, for most TVs, require no converter.

But, really, Marc, take the viewing test yourself. A discerning viewer - particularly of sports - cannot realistically claim that standard and HD are in the same league of viewing experience (no pun intended). The difference is THAT big.

Posted by: jamesdg | December 23, 2008 10:35 AM

"A market research firm finds that nearly one in five of those who have HD sets at home can't tell the difference"

That mean 80% can tell the difference. I can play with statistics, too. It turns out that over half of all Americans don't believe in evolution and think in fact everything started about 5,000 years ago, despite real facts.

Or another way to look at it, if you take the bottom 20% of people in intelligence, they're pretty dumb overall. They believe in goblins, ghosts, horoscopes, they think digital watches were a "pretty neat idea".

Also included in that 20% are people with issues with their visual acuity.

Add to that people on comcast where the bit rates on HDTV are so low they aren't much better than SDTV.

So are you surprised? I'd it's actually very low.

Posted by: Skeptic1 | December 23, 2008 11:46 AM

jamesdg - you are exactly right - when you are hooked up to receive it correctly, the difference with HD is stunning. After watching sports events, movies and television programs in HD it is very difficult to watch standard definition broadcasts.

Unfortunately many restaurants, hotels and other places have nice flat screen TVs installed, but do not display HD broadcasts. This may give some a false impression regarding HD broadcasts.

I don't see the point in a nice large flat screen without being hooked to HD capability.

Posted by: jwc50 | December 23, 2008 11:49 AM

On a similar thread someone reported that his girlfriend had watched No Country For Old Men, on DVD, and commented that it wasn't very good and was oddly shot. The entire movie seemed to be close ups of the actors faces. Turned out she'd hit the zoom feature and had spent the whole time watching in 16x mode. So I agree the 20% figure isn't surprising. He also made the good point that the zoom feature is pretty useless. If you want to see a bigger image, you could sit closer to the screen.

Posted by: TonyMostyn | December 23, 2008 12:23 PM

I didn't get my HDTV based on hype. I already knew how nice the viewing was. Me and my brother watch only the HD channels now we enjoy looking at the difference. Once you see HD clarity on your computer screens it's only logical to upgrade to your living room...or bedroom...wherever you have yours. After I off'd my old tv, I bought my HDTV. Been happy with it ever since.

Posted by: cbmuzik | December 23, 2008 12:25 PM

We got an HDTV (and bought it online) this year, replacing a 20-some year old TV. It is well worth the money. Granted we get terrible over-the-air reception but HD picture is sooooooo much better than "ordinary" TV.

Posted by: slackermom | December 23, 2008 1:02 PM

First, I have to say that I hate it when people repeat the misinformation that "Al Gore invented the Internets" The Internet was around long before Al Gore had anything to do with policy. The Internet adapted form the old Arpanet and would have trundled along without Al Gore who only helped ensure that certain sites that were already moving in the right direction had additional funding.

That said, I have a big HD screen at home and we don't have cable or anything else...just plain old rabbit ears and it works great. Yes, the difference between standard and HD is *HUGE*. I think some people who can't see the difference are also watching standard cable vs cable HD where there is less of a difference than between standard and HD airwaves.

And last, I think the concept that Washington is not a geek town is limited. I know for a fact that many places and people around the country consider this area very much a techno-corridor. Most of them attribute it to the "beltway bandits" that huge industry of federal contractors who do nothing but IT work supporting the federal government. I think 2/3 of the federal workforce are contractors supporting government projects. And the rest of the nation knows about us.

Posted by: DadWannaBe | December 23, 2008 2:35 PM

I think the perception of relative degrees of geekiness is that in Silicon Valley they develop the cool new technologies whereas here we're just massive users of already developed and deployed technologies.

Posted by: ronjaboy | December 23, 2008 2:52 PM

Not true. There are tons of applications that are developed at sites around here such as NASA, NIH, Dept of Energy, various Dept of Homeland security agencies (Justice, FBI, CIA, NSA, etc) that are groundbreaking in their applications and the majority are developed in house by locals who work for the agency or contract to the agencies. The reason that it is isn't obvious is many people don't see that software vs the glitzy commercial stuff that comes out of Sili-Valley.

Many people will not see some of the software and technologies that are developed here locally, but that doesn't diminish the fact that we create a lot of cool new technologies that make a huge difference.

Posted by: DadWannaBe | December 23, 2008 3:34 PM

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