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Latest HDTV analysis in the USA

Discussion in 'TVs' started by Chris Muriel, Jul 8, 2003.

  1. Chris Muriel

    Chris Muriel
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    Jun 14, 2002
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    In my work-related feeds this morning :

    HDTV Sets Aren't Quite Ready for Everyone
    Source: Newsbytes

    Newsbytes via NewsEdge Corporation : Every week, the HDTV temptation gets a little stronger. Prices for high-definition digital television sets, which once started at several thousand dollars, have dropped below $700 for basic tabletop sets.
    The supply of high-definition programming over the air and on cable has never been better. Fox, one of the last holdouts, recently decided to switch its digital programming to high-definition over the next year.

    And HDTV does look amazing. The improvement in image quality is far more dramatic than going from VHS to DVD.

    But if you can get your old analog set to limp along a little longer, you should. The electronics and broadcasting industries need to settle a handful of key issues; until they do, buying an HDTV set constitutes a bet on how the market will develop, not a normal consumer purchase.

    The best reason to wait is cost. Prices won't stop dropping for years. That applies to just about every kind of digital TV you can buy but in particular to flat-panel plasma and LCD sets. I'm also still waiting to see more "enhanced definition" digital sets, which lack the full resolution of HDTV (on smaller screens, few viewers can tell the difference) but also lack HDTV's costly optics.

    The second-best reason is cable compatibility. It took years of negotiation, but cable operators and TV manufacturers agreed last fall on a standard for receiving any digital cable broadcast, including premium channels. You'd need a cable box only for such interactive services as video on demand.

    Behind that relatively simple engineering problem lurks a political mess. The Federal Communications Commission must approve the agreement before manufacturers will start adding tuners to TVs. As part of the deal, the FCC would also need to ban two pernicious copy-prevention measures sought by broadcasters that would give them a veto over how you could record programs.

    FCC action seems likely, but is not guaranteed, by this fall, which would allow manufacturers to carry out plans to ship cable-compatible sets starting next spring.

    The third reason to hold off on HDTV is somewhat related: over-the-air reception. Most digital sets don't include digital tuners for that purpose, requiring you to add a separate box, at $300 and up, to pull in network high-definition broadcasts.

    The FCC voted last August to require manufacturers to include digital tuners on nearly all digital sets by 2007. (Analog broadcasts are supposed to be shut off and that spectrum returned to the government by the end of 2006, although many people doubt that will happen on schedule.) On the largest digital TV sets, the mandate kicks in next summer, and manufacturers are responding. Sony, for example, will offer eight "integrated" sets by the end of the year. Philips also plans to ship its first integrated sets next year.

    Integrating a tuner is only half the picture, though. A digital TV tuner ought to function at least as well as an analog tuner at pulling in a signal, but the hardware sold so far has often fallen short of that goal.

    "It is spotty," said Frank Sadowski, Amazon.com's vice president of consumer electronics merchandising. "It's a trickier thing than getting over-the-air analog." He should know: When he bought an HDTV tuner a couple of years ago, he could get only one station, despite living at the top of a hill with line-of-sight access to local broadcasters' antennas.

    That is because the software in digital TV tuners is still being tweaked to deal with the vagaries of real-world reception, especially with indoor antennas. Waiting to buy an HDTV set gives the people in white lab coats more time to get this right.

    The fourth, but least relevant, reason for delay is digital "interconnects," which would provide a simpler, higher-quality connection from a cable or satellite tuner to a set and from a set to a video recorder. (Almost no consumer hardware can record in high definition, but that will change before the year is out.)

    Such input and output jacks are absent on many HDTV sets. The one you're most likely to see is a DVI input, which accepts uncompressed video from a tuner or other source. FireWire (aka 1394 or iLink) outputs are rarer; they send digital video to a recorder.

    Both are tied up in copy-prevention politics. Movie studios want manufacturers to incorporate electronic locks that would stop TV owners from uploading shows to the Internet while still letting them make recordings to watch at home.

    Enough standards have been agreed on to make DVI worth looking for, especially if you're a satellite TV customer. But other aspects remain up in the air, requiring FCC intervention at some point. Given all the lawyers involved, any such action will probably take a long time.

    That's not the kind of environment that encourages set manufacturers to invest in adding digital outputs. "We'll have to look at the market and see how we address that," said Bob Nocera, Philips's vice president of marketing for digital TV, in a typically noncommittal statement.

    Fortunately, HDTVs do include a full set of analog video and sound jacks. Given that they are here, work well enough, and aren't encumbered with any copy-controlling nonsense, I'm starting to think they're not such a bad option after all. I'm willing to compromise on that point.

    Otherwise, as good as digital TV looks today, procrastination still looks better.

    Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro at rob@twp.com.

    (c) 2003 The Washington Post Company

    Chris Muriel, Manchester

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