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Home Theater Hacks by Brett McLaughlin

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Hack #28. Ensure You Can Get HD Programming

Although high definition is certainly the future in video, it might not make sense for you to go to an HDTV unit. Learn what should push you over the edge—and what shouldn't.

There has literally been almost a run on HD-capable television sets in recent days. However, buying an HD set doesn't necessarily mean you'll get an HD signal. If you don't have HD channels available to you, the greatest set in the world is wasted on low-resolution standard-definition (SD) programming. But to determine what programming is available, you need to know a little more about HD programming.

The Telecommunications Act of 1996

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 was passed by Congress and signed by the president. One of its provisions requires all terrestrial TV stations in the country to convert to digital modulation; in other words, these stations will be required to broadcast a high-definition signal.

Tip

Contrary to a persistent rumor, the VHF channels won't be abandoned.

The deadline for this switch is a little fuzzy, but it currently is set for around the end of 2006. To stay competitive, all cable systems are rapidly converting to digital, but there is no deadline for that.

The preexisting TV technology in the United States is called analog. It also is called NTSC (National Television System Committee), after the people who defined the standard itself. The NTSC specification was created in 1946, updated for color in 1953, and updated for stereo in 1984. Both of these updates were backward compatible, which avoided rendering anyone's TV set obsolete. But the new digital standard is totally different; the only thing it has in common with NTSC is the 6-MHz channel width. To continue using an NTSC TV after 2006, you might have to buy a converter box, which probably will cost about $200. At the time of this writing, these boxes were not yet available. You won't need such a box if you can rely on a cable or satellite box that has an NTSC output.

The new digital standard is called ATSC (Advanced Television Systems Committee). Soon the government will require that all new TVs be able to receive ATSC channels. The ATSC standard includes multiple formats, from 640 x 480 pixels to 1920 x 1080 pixels. All TVs must receive all of these digital formats and display them suitably. Then the broadcaster can choose from any of these formats.

To make the transition manageable (and, theoretically, gradual), the FCC is temporarily giving all terrestrial TV stations a second channel, so they can broadcast a digital channel along with their analog channel until 2006. There are 1,500 terrestrial TV stations in the United States, and 1,000 of them have their digital channel on the air. Most of these transmit some high-definition programs. More than 90% of the U.S. population can receive some high-definition programming from these stations.

Tip

These numbers are accurate as of September 2003, which is the last time reliable information was collected.

So, given all of that, here's the bad news:

  • The cost to consumers for the new hardware is still pretty high.

  • Home TV systems can be especially complicated during the transition.

  • The picture-in-picture (PIP) feature many people enjoy doesn't currently work with HD programming. Most TV set designers are currently concentrating on other features, but an HD version of PIP will eventually show up.

  • NTSC images sometimes look worse on a big, high-definition set than on a small, standard TV.

On the other hand, the quality of TV reception will improve dramatically. Temporary inconvenience, at least in this case, results in permanent improvement.

Should I Buy an HDTV?

When it comes to actually deciding to purchase a TV, you must consider two main questions:

  • Can I afford the step up to HDTV?

  • How much HDTV programming is available to me?

Can I afford an HDTV?

The top-of-the-line HDTVs go for $10,000 and up, but a minimal compromise in quality will put you in the $2,000 range (the first color TVs cost $500, which, adjusting for inflation, would be $3,200 today). This lower-range compromise means you lose screen size and horizontal resolution; full horizontal resolution for HDTV is 1,920 pixels. But many sets being sold today resolve to only 1,280 pixels, and it is often difficult to see the difference. As such, 1,280 is still considered high-definition.

Smaller HDTVs are now available in the $1,000 range. If this still is beyond your budget, you have two choices:

  • Postpone the purchase. Set prices will continue to come down, although much of this decline will be from the introduction of sets with lesser features.

  • Buy a cheap, standard TV and hope your finances improve with time.

How much programming is available?

Table 4-1 lists the HDTV programming available at the time of this writing, aligned with the major satellite and cable providers.

Table 4-1. Current HDTV programming

Network

Hours/day

DirecTV

DISH network

VOOM

Cable providers

Discovery HD

24 (some repetitive content)

Yes

Yes

Yes

Time Warner Cable (TWC), Charter

HDNet

24 (some repetitive content)

Yes

Yes

No

TWC, Charter

HDNet Movies

24

Yes

Yes

No

TWC, Charter

INHD

24

No

No

No

TWC, Charter

HBO HD

18

Yes

Yes

Yes

TWC, Charter, Comcast

Cinemax HD

17

No

No

Yes

Comcast

Showtime HD

10 (plus some DVD-quality content)

Yes

Yes

Yes

TWC, Charter,

Starz HD

8 (plus some DVD-quality content)

No

No

Yes

Comcast

The Movie Channel

8 (plus some DVD-quality content)

No

No

Yes

None

Bravo

Undefined

No

No

Yes

None

Encore

Undefined

No

No

Yes

None

Playboy

Undefined

No

No

Yes

None

TNT

Undefined

No

Yes

No

TWC

CBS

4

Yes

Yes

No

Check local availability

NBC

3

No

No

No

Check local availability

ESPN

Undefined

Yes

Yes

No

Charter, Comcast

Pay-per-view

Undefined

Yes

Yes

No

None

For quality and quantity, the best networks tend to be HBO, HDNet, Discovery HD, and CBS.

Terrestrial Broadcasts

Long ago, many people switched from roof antennas to cable service because the picture quality was a little better. This argument no longer applies. ATSC channels are like satellite TV in that, if you get a channel, the picture will be perfect, snow-free, and ghost-free.

You might not want to give up cable because of the many other channels it offers. But in many locations, over-the-air (OTA) broadcasts will be the largest source of HDTV programming for the next three years. All the network stations in most large cities are broadcasting HDTV. The web site http://www.AntennaWeb.org can tell you what DTV stations are available in your area.

Tip

In smaller cities, some DTV stations might not be passing along network HD material. The easiest way to determine the HD programming available to you is to go into a store selling HDTVs and ask for the "HDTV expert."

You need an antenna to get these ATSC signals. Information at http://www.AntennaWeb.org can tell you the compass directions to the transmitters in your area and recommend an antenna. Their recommendations are close, but not perfect, so you might want to see what others in your neighborhood have done.

If you have been told you can't erect a small outdoor TV antenna, that is probably incorrect. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 has a provision that preempts (overrules) nearly all local restrictions such as deed restrictions, homeowners association rules, renters contracts, and so on.

Tip

For more details, see the FCC Fact Sheet at http://www.fcc.gov/mb/facts/otard.html.

If you are in an area where reception is difficult, you might see occasional distortions in the image, and dropouts lasting five seconds or so. If these occur often, a bigger antenna might help. Note that as antennas become bigger, though, they become more directional, making aiming more sensitive. Additionally, nearby trees affect UHF much more than VHF. If putting a UHF antenna on your roof doesn't raise the antenna above the trees, you must find a place to mount it where it can see the horizon in the direction of the station. A UHF antenna should be at least 8 feet above ground, but mounting it higher doesn't always get you a stronger signal. VHF antennas always should be mounted as high as possible. The best weak-signal UHF antennas are the multi-bowtie reflector antennas, such as the Channel Master 8-Bay.

Cable TV.

The cable TV industry was slow to take up the transition to DTV, but is now charging ahead. Digital cable is now being introduced in many areas, and some of these are carrying from 6 to 10 HD channels. About 40% of households can receive some HDTV programming via cable, although a special HD cable box is usually necessary. Ask your cable company what HDTV channels it carries. At present, HDTVs don't have built-in digital cable receivers, but they will soon.

Some analog cable systems have added a few ATSC (8VSB) channels to their lineups as well. You can receive those channels by connecting an OTA DTV receiver to the cable system. This is temporary, as the whole cable TV industry is converting to digital cable.

DirecTV.

*To use DirecTV, you must have the oval dish that receives three satellites: 101°, 110°, and 119° west longitude. DirecTV and DISH Network are moving very slowly toward HDTV because they are spectrum-limited. None of the local channels is HD. DirecTV has stated that it is working toward HD local channels, but has not estimated when this will happen. It could take years.

DISH Network.

Presently, all the HD channels except CBS are carried on the DISH Network satellite at 110°. Thus, you need a dish with two low noise blockers (LNBs).

Tip

There was an announcement from DISH that the HD channels will be moved to a new satellite at 105° and that a new three-LNB dish will be required. This author doesn't know the present status of that move.

None of the local channels is available in HD.

VOOM.

This is a new Direct Broadcast Satellite service, presently in start-up phase. Some Wall Street analysts have predicted this company will fail due to insufficient funding; currently the company is funded by Cablevision, a cash-rich company, and it certainly will succeed if Cablevision wants it to. VOOM service is sold through Sears, although most Sears salespeople seem surprised when asked about VOOM. Reports from the few people who have signed up for it tend to state that the service is either "fantastic" or "horrific," but not much in between. It seems most VOOM personnel are learning as they go.

VOOM provides about 100 channels, approximately 30 of which are high-definition. About 20 of those HD channels originate at VOOM and are exclusive to VOOM.

Tip

No independent reviews of those channels were available at the time of this writing.

VOOM bills customers yearly instead of monthly; it costs $750 per year, and the receiver and dish are free. Receiver and dish installation also is free. Plus, VOOM will provide an OTA antenna for free, and install it for free (although probably not in weak-signal areas). VOOM has been giving free months to many customers to compensate for a rough start-up. I'm still neutral on whether signing up for VOOM is a good idea. The company probably will succeed, in which case VOOM would be the leader in satellite HD.

CBS national stations.

DirecTV and DISH Network carry WCBS-HD (New York) and KCBS-HD (Los Angeles). However, they are available only to viewers in cities where the network owns the local CBS station, and even then you might have to apply for a waiver from the station. If your local CBS station is privately owned, DirecTV and DISH are not permitted to offer you these channels. You should call DirecTV or DISH to find out if you qualify for CBS-HD.

The DISH Network carries these channels on a satellite at 61.5° for East Coast viewers and on a satellite at 148° for West Coast viewers. In addition to the regular DISH Network dish, you need a second dish for the HD satellite. But the need for that second dish possibly will be short-lived.

C-band 4DTV.

C-band and Ku-band refer to the satellite systems that require an 8-foot dish. 4DTV is a digital service available on these bands. The high definition channels on C-band are HBO East and West, Showtime East and West, Starz East and West, Encore East and West, Discovery HD Theater, and Nebraska Educational TV (PBS). About 150 DVD-quality digital SD channels also are available.

—Kenneth L. Nist

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