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HDTV is High Definition TerrificVision

New Television a Bright, Clear idea

By Jim Bray

HDTV Backgrounder

The next generation of television is here, and it’s clearly better than what you’ve been watching.

High Definition TV (HDTV) couples an ultra-high resolution, widescreen picture with digital surround sound to give a breathtaking television experience.

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 the Superbowl.

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 ExpressVu’s HDTV service for a few weeks and, though the amount of programming available right now probably isn’t worth the $900 for the HD receiver – yet – the quality of the broadcasts has me hopelessly hooked.

ExpressVu’s $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 TV’s 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 there’s 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 technophile’s idea of heaven. Besides CBS’s 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 DVD’s on a 4x3 TV leave unused black areas above and below the picture.

Bell ExpressVu’s 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 Choice’s ($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 they’re waiting for enough content to be available, and for enough customers to have the hardware.

To the cable guys, then, it’s 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, you’ll need a dish.

Should you bother? You’ll have to eventually, but there’s no point in rushing into HDTV unless you’re 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 to decrease.

When the time comes, however, prepare to be dazzled.

HDTV Backgrounder:

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 today’s 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 don’t necessarily display them as is. Sony’s new XBR projection TV’s, for example, display native 1080i, but downconvert 720p signals to a third standard (480p), the format used by DVD’s. Other receivers upconvert from 720p to 1080i, while still others (like ExpressVu’s Model 6000 receiver) are perfectly happy with whatever you throw at them, short of a brick.

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 aren’t 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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Updated May 13, 2006