Television a Bright, Clear idea
By Jim Bray
The next generation of television is here, and its clearly better
than what youve been watching.
High Definition TV (HDTV) couples an ultra-high resolution, widescreen
picture with digital surround sound to give a breathtaking television
HDTV already exists in the US, and the number of shows being shot and
shown that way is growing quickly. Such series as Jag, NYPD Blue, Everybody
Loves Raymond, and Diagnosis Murder are regularly simulcast in HD, as
well as special programming including live sports events like golf and
American digital channels are broadcast over the air side by side with
the conventional analog ones, and some cable companies are also offering
some HDTV feeds. CBS leads the way in HD programming, offering most of
its prime time series in the 1080i standard (see sidebar).
Canadians HDTV choices are pretty much up in the air no
pun intended. Cable companies are dragging their heels, with no concrete
plans for HDTV, but the two Canadian digital satellite services already
run dedicated HDTV channels.
I had the opportunity to try Bell ExpressVus HDTV service for a
few weeks and, though the amount of programming available right now probably
isnt worth the $900 for the HD receiver yet the quality
of the broadcasts has me hopelessly hooked.
ExpressVus $899 ($999 with dish) model 6000 (basically similar
as the US Dish Network's comparable model) receiver accepts and delivers
both 720p and 1080i signals, as well as conventional broadcasts; I output
the 6000 to a 1080i-capable big screen.
The first thing you notice with HD is the crystal clear, widescreen image.
Depending on the source material, it can actually look more like film
than video, and the 16x9 aspect ratio (compared with conventional TVs
4x3) opens the picture up in a most welcome way.
A good example is Diagnosis, Murder, which is shot directly in a digital
video format some experts feel will replace 35mm film as the production
medium of choice. The difference between watching Dick van Dyke solve
homicides on conventional TV and on the high resolution widescreen version
makes the program seem more like a motion picture than your run of the
mill TV series.
Then theres the Dolby Digital 5.1 channel audio
What makes you really stand up and cheer, however, is what the wide HD
picture does to benefit a sporting event. The 2001 Superbowl may have
been a lousy game, but it was a technophiles idea of heaven. Besides
CBSs ultra-crisp 1080i picture (you could actually see the players
perspiring, especially the Giants), the widescreen aspect ratio can show
more of the playing field and, depending on the camera angle, gives a
better view of the plays developing.
Unfortunately, a lot of the HD fodder is merely simulcast from the regular
signal, so people using an honest-to-goodness widescreen TV are stuck
with a square picture in the middle of a rectangular screen, with black
bars to the sides in the same way widescreen DVDs on a 4x3 TV leave
unused black areas above and below the picture.
Bell ExpressVus HDTV receiver lets you stretch and/or zoom the
picture to fill the big rectangle, though that distorts the picture somewhat.
ExpressVu actually has three HD channels right now: one runs a 24 hour
HD demo tape loop (which looks great, but which gets really boring really
quickly!) augmented by HDTV movies, another that shows a mixture of the
US Networks HD simulcasts, and an on again off again
HD Pay Per View channel.
Star Choices ($699) HDD201 high definition unit piggybacks onto
your existing satellite receiver. The company currently has a single HD
channel offering special sports features and late night programming.
Both satellite providers are planning to expand their HDTV channels as
programming warrants, though no timelines are written in stone yet.
Cable is definitely the slowpoke when it comes to HD programming. A spokesman
for Shaw, which is one of Canada's main players, told me theyre
waiting for enough content to be available, and for enough customers to
have the hardware.
To the cable guys, then, its the old chicken and the egg
story with their leading edge customers holding the bag. Cable
appears willing to be dragged kicking and screaming by the competition
into offering HDTV service.
So if you want the best now, and for the near future, youll need
Should you bother? Youll have to eventually, but theres no
point in rushing into HDTV unless youre looking for a new TV anyway,
or just want the latest and greatest. Otherwise, you still have a couple
of years for the software library to increase and the hardware prices
When the time comes, however, prepare to be dazzled.
There are two major HD formats in use, but rather than this sparking
a format war they appear to be coexisting. The 720p standard uses 720
scan lines, progressively displayed the same way your computer monitor
works. The other format, 1080i, uses more lines, but interlaces
them. This means the odd scan lines are displayed first, then the even
ones, in much the same way todays 480i NTSC television
system works only you get a lot more scanning!
CBS and NBC broadcast their HD programs using 1080i, while ABC and FOX
have chosen 720p.
Most HDTV receivers will accept both types of signal, though they dont
necessarily display them as is. Sonys new XBR projection TVs,
for example, display native 1080i, but downconvert 720p signals to a third
standard (480p), the format used by DVDs. Other receivers upconvert
from 720p to 1080i, while still others (like ExpressVus Model 6000
receiver) are perfectly happy with whatever you throw at them, short of
This digital fudging from one standard to another may sound
as if it compromises the quality, and it probably does somewhat, but in
my admittedly limited experience with HDTV signals the differences arent
worth worrying about in the real world.
Jim Bray's technology columns are distributed by the TechnoFILE and Mochila Syndicates. Copyright Jim Bray.
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