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HDTV—Hottest Thing Since the Wheel?

There has never been a better time to be a boob. (As in, the person addicted to the boob tube.) That’s because digital technology has elevated the TV medium to a much higher level of quality. (The picture quality, not the programming quality, unless you watch The Sopranos 24 hours a day.) Here are some of the byproducts of the digital revolution.

High Definition Digital Television

HDTV has been in R&D since the early 1980s. But it had been originally planned as an analog format and therefore of only marginal improvement over current sets. High-speed digital technology has allowed some dramatic improvements in television. In fact, the changeover from the analog NTSC format, to the digital ATSC format will be one of the most auspicious transitions in U.S. history, akin perhaps to the transition from the telegraph to the telephone!

All of the nation’s TV stations are scheduled to convert over to digital broadcasting within the next 18 months. And current analog TV signals are scheduled to terminate by 2006. This date will most likely not be met since the FCC will require that 85% of U.S. sets be able to receive a digital signal by this time, and that probably won’t happen. Even if current analog signals go away, present TVs will not be instantly obsolete because there will be a digital-to-analog set top box that will convert any digital signal to one that present-day sets can use. And those boxes will probably sell for cheap (like $100 or so).

“So what does digital television mean to moi?” you might ask. Well, a few things really. First of all, digital TV will offer two basic types of pictures: high definition (HDTV) and standard definition (SDTV). A high definition picture is characterized by a vertical resolution of 720 pixels per square inch or greater. The two main HDTV specifications are 720 and 1080. SDTV is characterized by less than 720 pixels, and will mostly feature 480 pixels per square inch. A 1080 HDTV picture is about 6 times higher resolution than today’s best-quality TV picture garners through a satellite or DVD player. Even the 480 SDTV picture is still about 35% better. Another major difference between digital and analog TV is the use of progressive scanning. Analog TV uses interlace scanning-every other “line” on the set is produced 30 times per second and these are interlaced together so fast that the eye perceives just one picture being produced. progressive scanning produces all of the lines all of the time. Computers use progressive scanning because it reduces flutter and works better for text and still graphics. The current analog bandwidth doesn’t allow for progressive scanning, but the digital bandwidth does. You can tell which type of signal is being produced by the letter that follows the number of pixels. HDTV is characterized by 1080i (Interlace) and 720p (Progressive). SDTV uses 480p or 480i.

If you find this difficult to follow thus far, you’ll be horrified to know that there are actually 18 different ATSC formats! But don’t be too scared-all digital TV sets will automatically detect the format and deliver a picture-you won’t have to do a thing, and you probably won’t even know about it.

Why are there so many? Simply because the digital bandwidth allows each station to broadcast either one HDTV signal, or up to five SDTV signals. And it is unclear which format the stations will choose. One thought is that prime-time movies and sports will be in HD, while daytime soaps and the evening news will be in SD. But your guess is as good as ours at this point, so we’ll have to take a look back in a year from now and see what happens.

Other exciting attributes of digital television are data simulcasting and Dolby Digital surround sound. Because the digital broadcast spectrum can accommodate so much data, you will be able to receive additional information about the show that you are watching, as well as some ability to be interactive. It is unclear yet how this will be used, but suffice it to say that you will be able to access synopses about the show before you decide to dedicate your evening to watching it.

Also, all digital television signals will boast the latest Dolby Digital surround sound-whether they are in HD or in SD. This is the current sound available on DVDs and through many DIRECTV satellite broadcasts. Since sound makes up half of the TV experience, any HDTV without an accompanying surround sound set up will be half-naked!

The final attribute of digital television is its aspect ratio. A 35mm film has different proportions than a TV set-it is wider and shorter. This ratio is called 16:9, whereas a TV set boasts a 4:3 ratio. Presently, most movies that are converted to video lose some picture around the sides. That is why when you rent a video, it says at the beginning that the picture has been modified to fit your TV set. True digital TV uses a 16:9 ratio-also referred to as “letterbox.” So if you are in the process of designing a new wall unit, make sure that your carpenter is aware of this change so you can fit the latest TV.

HDTV vs. HDTV-Ready

High definition TVs are expensive. But as one has grown to expect in the world of consumer electronics, the prices have come down precipitously, and are dropping faster than a nickel off of the Empire State Building. Last year an HDTV set sold for about $8,000. Now you can pick one up for half of that. And if you opt for a set without the digital tuner, you can pick up a “digital-ready” big screen projection set for almost the same price as a similar analog set.

Currently, it’s the price of the digital tuner that is so expensive-they are still about $1,000. And what makes matters worse, the current digital tuners do not have an input for digital cable (because there is no digital cable standard-although there will be one shortly). The key is to buy one with an HD-ready display. Therefore, when the price of the digital tuner comes down, and it has all of the proper inputs, you can just add it to your existing set.

Mitsubishi-who is the current leader of the digital TV revolution-has introduced a whole new line of digital-ready projection TVs that deliver an exceptional analog picture, and will deliver a 1080i or 720p picture by adding a digital tuner later on. Their least expensive set is a WT46805 46-inch tabletop 16:9 projection TV that sells for $3,000. Its table-top design allows you to place it on a stand, bureau or inside a wall unit easily.

Digital Programming

This year, the sales of digital televisions were impaired by a “chicken-and-egg” scenario. Customers were reluctant to purchase a digital set until there was ample programming available. And programmers were not going to make the commitment to produce expensive HD programming until there was enough of a base of digital sets out there so that lots of people could watch them.

Mitsubishi recently made a deal with CBS to underwrite the prime time digital programming (at a cost of $20,000 per hour). And soon other manufacturers followed. While Mitsubishi underwrites prime time sitcoms, Samsung is underwriting prime-time movies. And Panasonic is underwriting ABC Monday Night Football. ABC has also committed to broadcasting Jay Leno in HD and HBO also will produce digital programs as well. By the time this issue of JazzTimes hits the newsstands, there will be enough digital programming to justify buying a new HDTV set!

Programming Distribution

Currently, over 70% of all U.S. households get their TV shows via cable. Ironically enough, cable TV providers will be the last ones delivering digital programming. Instead, most folks will get their programs terrestrially (a fancy term for through the air). The good news is that digital signals will not be subject to the same marginal reception that viewers now experience with most shows received via an antenna. Digital signals will be perfect-with no snow or ghosting. Or, if you don’t have clear line-of-sight to the antenna, you won’t get a picture at all.

Satellite providers such as DIRECTV will also deliver HD programs in the near future. In fact, many TV manufacturers are including a satellite receiver with their sets so many customers can get immediate programming. Mitsubishi is offering a digital receiver with a built-in DIRECTV receiver and an additional dual-LNB satellite dish for $1,000.

Some manufacturers are offering sets with the digital tuner/DIRECTV receiver built in. Toshiba is offering the DW-65X91-a 65-inch 16:9 projection TV that delivers HDTV without an outboard tuner. Also built into the set itself is a DIRECTV receiver. And a satellite dish is included in the purchase price, which is a cool $8,000.

Other Digital Video Products

One of the hottest electronics products this holiday season is the PVR. This product features a high-capacity computer hard drive instead of videotape to record TV shows. The benefit of this is instant access and instant recording.

There are two main PVR manufacturers: TiVO and Replay. TiVO is supported by Sony and Philips, and Replay is supported by Panasonic. They both utilize high-storage hard drives and can accommodate up to 30 hours of recording time, depending on which model you buy.

There is a myriad of advantages of hard drives over videotape, and that is why most experts predict that the PVR marks the beginning of the end for VCRs. But the picture quality is not up to that of a DVD player, so the two will most likely coexist for some time to come (more about new DVD players below).

The most impressive thing about a PVR is that it can pause live TV! If you hit the pause button, it immediately starts to store the program in the hard drive, and you can get another beer, and hit play, and it starts playing the recorded program, even though it is just a few minutes off of the original. If you decide to fast-forward through the commercials, it will catch up with the live broadcast, and when it does, it will automatically switch over to live again.

PVRs also come with software that is smart, so smart that it will learn your viewing habits. If you use a PVR with a source that includes additional data (such as digital TV or DIRECTV), you can request that it record all shows that have a common theme. For example, if you are a big Mel Gibson fan, you can enter in the words Mel Gibson, and it will automatically record all Mel movies that run-day or night-and you won’t even know it. Then, when you sit down to watch the tube-there will be a host of the hunky actor’s films for you to choose from. You might not be as lucky if you were to choose a lesser-known actor, George Lazenby, for example.

It will also learn your tastes and recommend new movies and TV shows for you to test drive. The TiVO unit will ask you to rate each program with a thumbs-up or thumbs-down, and will go out and record like programs. Each box requires a subscription to the service, although the lifetime service cost is included in the Replay up front purchase price, whereas it is extra with TiVO.

The TiVO HDR-312 sells for $1,000. 30 hours of service costs $199 live time or $9.95 per month. Replay service is included, but the cost of the hardware is incrementally more ($700 and $1,200).

The New Breed of DVD Players

While recordable DVD isn’t quite here yet (give it another year), there are two new types of DVD technology that are worth investing in. The first one is progressive scan DVD, that utilizes the same progressive scan technology as digital television, so if you have a DTV set already, you can purchase a DVD-P player and get a better-looking picture. The Toshiba SD-9100 is a top-of-the-line player that offers progressive scan capability, as well as built-in Dolby Digital and DTS sound. It sells for around $1,500. Remember that you need a Progressive Scan TV (any digital TV will do) to get full use out of the player.

There is also DVD audio, a replacement for the current audio compact disc that delivers much better sound than a conventional CD. It boasts both high-resolution 2-channel stereo, as well as 5.1-channel Dolby Digital surround sound for music. If you want superior sound quality, make sure that when you buy a new DVD player, it accommodates DVD audio as well. The Panasonic DVD-A7 DVD player will play both DVD movies and the ultra-high-quality DVD Audio. It sells for around $800.

Originally Published