Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Digital TV Free-For-All

I finally had a chance to give digital over-the-air TV a try. A friend bought a new TV (a sweet 46" Samsung LCD) and as part of the deal also got a 19" Samsung LCD to go with it, and I got to bring the little one home for a while to play with.

I had been very curious about the prospects for getting HDTV by tuning into the digital TV broadcasts that are now quite commonly available in the US. My expectation was that like other digital technologies it would be a go/no-go affair. A digital tuner ought to either receive a functional signal or not be able to tune in at all - none of the fuzzy, snowy, partial reception we are all used to with typical analog TV broadcasts. However, I had not yet heard of anyone actually using an antenna to pull in HDTV content, so I suspected that it was not that simple.

Turns out that it is.

I plugged in the TV, hooked up a small indoor antenna, and viola - instant HDTV!

I didn't have to fiddle at all with the antenna to get a decent picture, every local digital channel just came in perfectly. Simply getting perfect reception of broadcast TV would be a big win all by itself, but this deal provides even more. Not only is the reception perfect, but the picture quality is better to boot. Digital broadcasting provides each station with a wide 'pipe' that they can send programming over. How they choose to make use of that bandwidth is up to them, and several different schemes are being used. Some stations broadcast only a very high-def version of their usual programming (our local CBS affiliate, for example, is broadcasting the usual CBS programming at a resolution of 1080i - the maximum possible for broadcast). Others have chosen to split their allotted bandwidth into multiple channels, some at high-def and others at the digital standard-def (480i), which is a fair improvement over analog TV (around 350i). Some of our local stations are showing 2 channels of the same programming - one at 720p high-def and another at the 480i standard-def. Others have gone for 2 channels with different programming on each, like our local ABC affiliate which is showing the usual ABC programming in 720p high-def and also a second channel with local news and weather programming in 480i. Our local public broadcasting station has really gone for more content - they have split their main channel into 2 with unique programming on each, and they split their secondary channel into 5 channels each with its own category of programming.

So, not only does the existing programming arrive in higher-quality digital perfection, but I get more channels as part of the deal, many of which are in high def!

I had been considering my options for cable or satellite, all the while balking at the cost. While there are certainly some cable channels that I'd like to get, there are not many, especially if I don't count the local stations that I can get at no cost over the air. Also, the local digital broadcast is less affected by weather than satellite is, and there is no compression of the data stream as satellite must do, so the local channels that I do get are (marginally) better than what I would get if I opted for satellite (I don't yet know much about what would come in via the cable in terms of quality, but I am guessing that it is pretty similar to satellite).

So, I think I will take the money that I'll save by not buying TV content and put it toward a decent LCD TV that can make it's permanent home here. Once you go digital it is tough to go back, so I think I have to get something rather quickly before I feel too bad about keeping my friend's little TV for too long (the 27" Sony tube is already feeling a bit left-out - I have not been able to tolerate it since this little 19" Samsung LCD arrived).


wunelle said...

Nothing like a little experiment to show you the way!

I'm still a bit lukewarm about HDTV overall. I get a great picture with my 768p Panasonic and DVDs (which are, I think, about 480), but my only HD source is from the satellite. But about half the time the signal from the HD satellite (my "superdish" is oblong and used to receive a couple different satellites at once) is on the fritz. I'm used to reception problems with regular satellite in bad weather, say, but this is just a weak signal in the best of circumstances. So one wonders whether it's worth paying for.

Your option, of just receiving the HD signals from local channels, is workable, except that there's not a single thing I want to see on my local channels. Pretty much ever. (Susan watches the local channels, but doesn't care about--cannot even SEE--the HD.)

So we'll see; maybe I need a 2-dish setup: one for her, one for me!

But I am definitely spoiled by the big, clear picture. It's almost a shock to watch regular TV in a hotel room on a 27" screen now.

Dzesika said...

Only trouble with a digital signal: When it's good, it's very, very good, but when it's bad, it's horrid. :(