Well, once you have your nifty HDTV, you’re going to want to watch HD content, right?

I touched on the subject of cable/satellite/over-the-air TV sources in a previous note, but I am frequently asked about high-definition disc formats (usually — and somewhat incorrectly — referred to as “HD DVD”).  So here we go.

Before you pick a format, you need to make sure you really do have a TV that’s going to work with the disc players.  That’s because both formats may require your TV to support something called HDCP. 

(Small warning: slight technobabble to follow.)

HDCP is an encryption protocol used by display devices and set-top boxes/players.  What does that mean in English?  It means that movie studios and other content producers don’t want you to be able to make a perfect digital copy of a movie or TV show in HD.  So…when you connect, say, a Blu-Ray player to an HDTV with an HDMI cable, the TV and the Blu-Ray player “talk” to each other.  The TV, using this HDCP “language,” tells the player that it (the TV) is a proper TV and that it’s perfectly OK for the player to start playing in full HD resolution.  (This is an oversimplification, but you get the idea.)

Early HDTVs and HD monitors did not come with this HDCP capability.  Now, it’s important to understand that the HD-DVD or Blu-Ray discs have to tell the player, “You need to get this HDCP thing going or else don’t put out HD video!”  So far, that’s NOT happening — in other words, you don’t need HDCP.  Yet.  Still, the studios could start doing this at any time.  (And the player is perfectly willing to put out non-HD video no matter what, but so will your current DVD player!)  Does your TV support HDCP?  Maybe.  If it has HDMI interfaces, then you’re fine: HDMI interfaces are required to support HDCP.  If it has a DVI interface, then maybe — some do and some do not.  Check your manual, or the website for the manufacturer of your TV.

OK, so now that you’ve checked your TV…what’s with the formats?  As you are probably aware, there are two different formats.  One is called HD-DVD and one is called Blu-Ray.  Let’s start off by listing what’s not different between the two:

  • Both play movies in glorious HD
  • Both also play normal DVDs, and even up-convert them (use special hardware to make the DVDs play in HD resolution — it’s not really HD, but it looks nice)
  • Neither will play the other — a Blu-Ray player won’t play an HD-DVD and an HD-DVD won’t play a Blu-Ray disc*

In terms of differences…well, nothing that really matters, technically.  Choosing one or the other likely won’t be a technical decision for anybody.  The big differences are studio support and game console support.  There is one movie studio that only supports HD-DVD: Universal.  There are five movie studios that only support Blu-Ray: Disney, Fox, MGM, Lionsgate, and Sony.  The rest (like Warners and Paramount) are supporting both for now.

What that means is there may be some movie, or TV show, that you really want but you can’t get because it’s only on the other format.

The other major difference is console support: the Sony Playstation3 is a fully-functioning Blu-Ray player, and you can add an HD-DVD drive to an Xbox 360.  But if you’re not a gamer, none of that matters.

For this reason, I’m still telling anyone who asks that the right choice is to wait.  But…if you really want to get one now, I think the winner is going to be Blu-Ray.  I’m not going to go into a huge monologue about why, especially since Bill Hunt of The Digital Bits does a better job than I would.

*LG and Samsung are coming out with dual-format players, but it looks like they’ll cost more than buying one of each.  Yeesh.

Choosing a New TV

July 7, 2007

So in my last post I talked about crunch time in Feb 09, and what it really means to us (summary: not that much). But let’s suppose you’re interested in taking advantage of HDTV anyway. Where do you start? There’s a lot of information out there and, worse yet, a lot of misinformation. (Sometimes I wander through Best Buy and hear the most outrageous things said to people. I feel like interrupting the sales kid and telling the customers the truth, but experience has taught me that that just gets me kicked out, or at least earns me some very odd looks.)

As I mentioned, there is a difference between digital TV (DTV) and high definition TV (HDTV). DTV just means a digital broadcast, whereas HDTV tends to mean a high resolution broadcast. (I’ll get to numbers in a sec.) As I also mentioned, nearly everybody gets their TV from one or more of the following sources: cable, satellite, or over-the-air via antenna (OTA).

Now the first question many people ask is, “Why should I get HDTV?” The answer is, “Go see it in action.” Go see some HDTV, and you’ll know. I can give you numbers and stats and describe it until I’m blue in the face, but none of that will convince you. If you see it in action, however, you’ll be sold. Even if you have to see it at a big box store with horrible lighting and the TVs set to the worst possible settings. Go right now. I’ll wait for you to get back.

OK. Convinced now? So let’s talk about where you can get HDTV programming first, and then we’ll talk about TVs and resolutions and all that nonsense.

Satellite: both Dish and DirecTV offer a variety of HDTV channels. Dish currently has more, although a lot of them are the old VOOM channels that, on the whole, strike me as a waste of time. But one person’s waste of time is another person’s weekend of bliss, so don’t go by me.

Cable: depending on where you live, your cable provider may offer a nice selection of HD channels.

OTA: depending on where you live, stations may be broadcasting HD signals that you can pick up with an antenna for free. If you’re pretty rural, then you may be out of luck, but if you live in a city or suburban area, there might be oodles and boodles of stations. You can also find “subchannels” which, I think, require a bit of explanation by way of example.

My local ABC station is on channel 7 (analog). OTA DTV broadcasts use decimals to represent themselves, so the OTA DTV channel for my ABC station is 7.1 (or 7-1 on some receivers). But there is also 7.2, which has reruns of the local news, and 7.3, which has 24 hour weather. Cable systems and satellite systems only carry the main 7.1 feed.

A lot of the time the subchannels are fluff — the weather feed being a prime example. After all, in addition to the weather channel on cable/sat, there’s also weather.com. :) But sometimes they’ve got good stuff. In my market, WGN (9 analog, 9.1 DTV) has a 24-hour music video network called “The Tube” on 9.2 that has a pretty good variety of music. And I don’t know if this is still the case, but as of a couple of years ago, the Fox affiliate in Champaign-Urbana used their “.2″ subchannel for NFL broadcasts WITHOUT announcers — just ambient stadium noise. Seriously, I’d pay a fee for that. :)

OK, so there’s definitely programming out there. What do you need, TV-wise?

I’m not going to get into plasma versus LCD versus DLP versus…etc. Everyone has a budget and everyone has personal preferences. Go look at the sets and see what you like. If possible, make the store give you the remote so you can adjust the settings — most TVs in the store are left at the default settings, which are often referred to as “torch mode” because the brightness, contrast, etc. are cranked up to the max. It’s just awful.

What I will say is that I would insist on a minimum of two HDMI ports. HDMI is a way of connecting external boxes (cable/sat box, HD-DVD or Blu-Ray player, etc.) for HD video and audio. But more importantly, they allow for a copy-protected connection that some things insist on. (If you want the best resolution out of HD-DVD or Blu-Ray, I think you need HDMI. Actually it’s not HDMI itself so much as the copy-protection protocol HDCP, but that only really matters to us nerds.) Cable and satellite boxes don’t seem to require HDMI w/HDCP yet — they can also use component video connections — but other devices do and more of them will. (Heck, I got an upscaling DVD player that requires it, for no adequately-explored reason.)

The other thing to consider is the resolution of the TV, and for this part I need to issue a

WARNING ** WARNING ** WARNING ** WARNING
TECHNOBABBLE TO FOLLOW!

I hate to do this, because an awful lot of this is just gobbledygook, but this is where so much misinformation lives. I’ll try and keep the technobabble to a minimum. If this isn’t clear, let me know.

TV broadcasts: the old-fashion type

Here in the US, the TV system that we all grew up with is referred to as NTSC. NTSC broadcasts have 480 “lines of resolution” and 60 interlaced fields per second. “In English,” I hear you say. OK. Um…well the 480 lines is the resolution of the image. There are 480 lines of video, stacked on top of each other. Except…not all at once. NTSC uses something called “interlacing” as a technique to fit more “video information” into the picture. Without interlacing, the original TV might have only been half as high! In any case, what you really see is the odd-numbered lines, followed by the even-numbered lines, over and over. This happens 60 times per second. Each group of lines (240 odd lines or 240 even lines) is called a “field” and so you get 60 fields per second. (This was done because our electrical system runs at 60Hz, so it made the timing easy. I’m oversimplifying but that’s essentially it.)

Whew. I hope that made some kind of sense. If it did…good, because that’s going to make the rest of this a cake walk.

What complicated this was film. Not only movies; nearly all TV dramas and even sitcoms are shot on film. Film resolution is…well, it’s real high. Higher than HDTV. :) But film is 24 progressive frames of video per second. What does that mean? “Progressive frames” just means that there’s no interlacing going on; each “frame” has the entire picture instead of just odd lines or just even lines.

So if something was shot on film, and it needs to be broadcast on TV, it has to be converted from 24 progressive frames per second to 60 interlaced fields per second. How do they do this? Well, for every second ov video, they first add 6 “duplicate” frames (they repeat a few) to get 30 frames of video per second. Then they interlace them, or split them into odd-and-even fields, which gets you 60 fields per second. Another “whew.” Why this is important comes up shortly, I promise.

TV broadcasts: the new age

The new broadcast standard is called “ATSC” and, unlike the old-fashioned kind, has MULTIPLE resolutions and frame rates. The most common:

480p: 480 lines, just like the good old days, BUT 60 progressive frames/sec
720p: 720 lines, with 60 progressive frames/sec
1080i: 1080 lines, with 60 interlaced fields/sec

Note that only the 720p and 1080i formats are really considered “HDTV” resolutions. Just like with old-fashioned TV, if the movie or TV show was shot on film, it has to be converted into 60 interlaced fields per second (in the case of 1080i) or 60 progressive frames per second (using a similar process, in the case of 480p or 720p).

Most HDTVs are “fixed pixel” displays. In other words, they are set to a specific resolution. If you feed them anything else, they scale it to their own resolution. For example, one of my TVs is an LCD with a 720p resolution (actually it’s 768, but it’s close enough for government work). If I watch something broadcast in 1080i, the TV shrinks it down. If I watch something in 480i or 480p, it blows it up. This is done by some electronics in the TV, collectively referred to as a scaler.

CBS and NBC broadcast in 1080i, along with most of the cable/sat networks (HBO, Showtime, HDNet, HDNet Movies, TNT, UniversalHD, and so on). ABC, Fox, and the ESPN networks are 720p.

Also, most (but not all) HDTVs are “progressive” displays. They’re designed to show all lines at once. If you feed it something interlaced (like 1080i), it’s going to have to convert it to a progressive format. It may just put the two interlaced fields together, converting 60 interlaced fields into 30 progressive frames.

But something else modern TVs try to do, if they’re clever enough: they try to “restore” film-sourced material to the original 24 progressive frames/sec. In other words…the scaler tries to look at the video and figure out if the interlacing process was used to add extra frames and split them up. If so…it tries to un-do all that, so that ultimately what you see is the original 24 progressive frames.

OK, so why did I waste all those words on that techy nonsense?

Because I’m going to recommend that, if you can manage it within your budget, you go for a TV that can display 1080p. One of the things that I often hear said about 1080p is, “Well, why should I bother? Nothing is broadcast in 1080p!” This is bogus reasoning. If you’re watching something that was interlaced in the first place, your progressive display is just going to convert interlaced into progressive anyway, and if it was originally shot on film, it’s going to try and restore the original progressive material.

And since most channels are 1080i at this point…a TV that can do a 1080 resolution makes the most sense.

So there you go. Sorry for that bewildering array of crap. Bottom line: find a TV that looks good to you, and if you can afford it, get one that can do 1080p. Even if you don’t…prepare to be blown away, because HDTV looks incredible.

From time to time, someone will tell me that they’re confused/concerned/worried/panicked about the switch to digital TV (often incorrectly referred to as HDTV) coming up in about a year and a half.

If you’re one of these folks…you’re not alone. Many, many people are confused about the coming switchover to digital TV and exactly how it impacts them. Let me see if I can break it down.

First, it’s important to distinguish between digital TV (DTV) and high definition TV (HDTV). DTV simply means that the broadcast is in a digital format, not analog. HDTV specifically means a high-resolution broadcast, generally either 720 lines at 60 frames/sec or 1080 lines at 60 interlaced fields/sec. Don’t worry about frames/fields/etc. for now — for the purposes of this discussion it doesn’t matter.

What does matter is that the switchover coming in 2009 mandates DTV, but NOT HDTV.

The vast majority of us get our TV from one or more of the following sources:

* Cable
* Satellite
* Over the air (antenna of some type)

Cable: cable isn’t really affected by the switchover. Even if your cable system were to switch to a fully digital system, so long as the cable box still has analog outputs (the RCA-type yellow/white/red plugs, or an S-Video plug, etc.) you can continue to use your same TV.

Satellite: satellite also isn’t affected by the switchover. Satellite is a purely digital system anyway, and so long as your satellite box has analog outputs, you’re fine. I also lump things like Verizon’s FIOS and AT&T’s U-Verse into this category, since they’re partly or wholly digital and use an external box, just as cable and satellite do.

Over the air (OTA): the FCC has mandated that analog OTA broadcasts cease by February 17, 2009. Broadcasters all have to be broadcasting in DTV by then. Most large ones already are, although there are some small, low-power stations that are planning to do a “hot cut” from analog to digital at some point. What this means if you watch OTA TV is that you either (A) need to get a new TV that can tune/receive DTV OTA broadcasts, or (B) you need to get some kind of tuner box that can tune/receive DTV OTA broadcasts and then output an analog signal to your existing TV.

Per FCC regs, any TV sold now that can tune/receive good, old-fashioned analog TV can also tune/receive DTV OTA broadcasts. (If you go looking at TVs, you’ll see some referred to as “monitors” — those cannot “tune” anything at all and are only useful if you have a cable/satellite box or a box for tuning DTV OTA.)

Also per FCC regs, some time next year you’ll see low-cost DTV OTA tuner boxes for sale. Some kind of coupon will be available that will make the box either free or extremely cheap, although this may only be available to those who can demonstrate that they only get TV OTA. They’re still trying to figure out exactly how they’re going to handle this, but the vendors are already lined up to produce the boxes. Again, remember that all of this only matters for OTA, and not cable or satellite.

Finally, there’s no such thing as an “HDTV” antenna. DTV signals are broadcast on VHF and UHF, just like analog TV. The only caveat to this is that most current DTV stations are broadcasting on UHF, even if the analog equivalent is VHF. (For example, in Chicago the local ABC affiliate, WLS, is on analog channel 7 — VHF. The DTV equivalent, 7.1, is really being broadcast on UHF channel 52.) To make matters even more complicated, those frequencies can (and probably will) change at the time of analog shutoff. Why do I mention this? Because if you live somewhere that requires a big roof antenna, you need to make sure it’s the right kind for all the channels you wish to receive, both now and in the future.

The marvelous antennaweb.org site will tell you where things are today and what kind of antenna you might need. For even better advice, you might take a trip to the AVSforum. It can be a scary place, because most of the inhabitants are real enthusiasts, but if you find the antenna thread for your local market, read through it and post a request. I’ve never failed to get terrific help there. OTA reception is definitely more work than cable or satellite, but it’s worth it: cable and satellite’s picture will never be better and can often be a lot worse.

That’s the long and the short of the big switchover which, as you can see, isn’t a very big deal for the vast majority of folks (74% of people get their TV programming from cable or satellite). In my next post, I’ll address HDTV specifically and choosing TVs.

Get it all out of my head.

January 15, 2007

Well, I’m not certain a blog is the right format for what I want to do, but it’s a good place to start and, hell, everyone’s doing it.

I’m a product research nut.  When it’s time to get a new TV, or washing machine, or hair dryer, or car, etc., I start researching.  I hit web sites, forums, Consumer Reports, you name it.  I’m not interested in the opinions I find, exactly; more like raw data.  Whatever the topic, I want to understand it at as low a level as I can.  Naturally, this isn’t possible for all topics, but I ignore that restriction and make the attempt anyway.

Invariably I will later end up in a conversation with a family member/friend/colleague/local celebrity/plumber regarding something I’ve researched recently.  “Oh, you’re about to get a new vacuum?  Well, let me tell you what I’ve found out…”  Except I won’t remember everything.

So now I will send them here.  They (and you) can read what I’ve compiled and the conclusions I’ve drawn.  I obviously cannot include everything as there doesn’t seem to be a way to attach spreadsheets and whatnot, but I will put as much as I can, and when I draw conclusions or offer opinions, I will make sure to mark them as such.

I’ll also post opinions/rants about whatever I’m worked up about.

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