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I Want My HDTV!

Television has always embraced fantasy and commerce with equal measure. It is no wonder then that almost a decade ago the FCC, with great fanfare, decreed standard definition television broadcasts would soon be obsolete. In its place, a new standard: high definition television (HDTV) would replace the old analog signal. Of course, America's distrust of government interference left broadcasters and television manufacturers with no clear agreement over what this "HDTV" would actually be. Instead, various approaches would be accommodated: new televisions would display 1080-i (interlaced) scan lines, 720-p (progressive) scan lines, and the legacy analog signal. In TV showrooms and science museums, people were enchanted with the look of the few new experimental HDTV sets on display: Count every hair on the tiger! Watch the mud on the football! For me, HDTV's stunningly sharp picture meant love at first sight. Sadly, it would take nearly a decade to make HDTV a common sight in my home.

A few months ago, I decided the time had come. Barriers to entry remain high: Prices for a decent high-definition set remain well over $1,000 and most TV stations broadcast little original HDTV programming if any. Still, this has been a breakthrough year for HDTV service options. DISH network introduced an affordable HDTV package around $1,000 that provides a TV set plus satellite receiver with HD capability. (This does not include the monthly service charges.) By expanding satellite coverage, DirecTV added hundreds of standard channels and included several fulltime HDTV venues. They also offered a TIVO-based unit that allows more powerful control over recording and searching for HD (and standard) TV broadcasts. VOOM pushed itself into the satellite market, specializing in HDTV broadcasts, offering as many as 30 HDTV channels. Even my lethargic and bloated cable TV provider finally got around to cramming HDTV channels into their already overburdened digital cable service.

With typical overkill, I decided to sample both DirecTV and DISH networks' HDTV service. Living in an apartment in Manhattan makes satellite installation somewhat ridiculous (because so few of us have an unobstructed view of the Southern sky) but both DISH and DirecTV did a fabulous job installing multiple dishes on the roof. Like many urban dwellers, without a clear path to the TV transmitter, I could not receive the off-air HDTV broadcasts of local TV stations. I should also note that the nice and persistent people from VOOM repeatedly tried to get me to test their service as well, but after many hours spent with the other installers and wires coming in everywhere, I somewhat reluctantly decided my marriage was more important than trying yet another HDTV service.

Now I had to find a display for the HDTV signal. Many of my more well-heeled friends broke down and purchased 40 to 60-inch plasma and LCD screens, mostly for $5,000 to $8,000 (although they are almost $1,000 less now than when I started my investigation). Plasma and LCD screens are indeed beautiful but obviously too pricey for most of us at this point. Although manufacturers are also coming out with HD sets for under $1,000 using more familiar CRT (cathode-ray tube technology), the entire joy of HDTV seemed to be also about watching larger-than-life television. I couldn't bear to have another, big box with a small screen in the living room.

JVC HD-ILA Television
I could have embraced purchasing a high-quality HD projector, but although they vary in cost, the best are well over $10,000. These projectors also require considerable upkeep, "futzing ", plus they emit loads of heat.

In the end, I selected a slenderized variation on an older theme: a rear-projection system. JVC has several HD-ILA rear projection screens and the 52-inch version I used retails for above $2500… and certainly less than the $4500 list price. JVC's new rear-projection screen system offers an astoundingly small footprint: merely 7-inches wide despite the huge display area. Of course, you can't hang this mammoth screen from the wall like the delectable flat screens. LCD and plasma screens are indeed brighter and images are usually more crisp. But new rear projection screens, like the JVC, offer a great look at a reasonable price. You must endure other compromises with rear-projection sets: this takes about a minute to turn on and a minute to properly cool down and the projector bulb does need to be replaced after a while. (I haven't needed to do this yet but the replacement process appears fairly straight-forward.) The 3-chip JVC projector gives a picture clearly superior to other rear projector units I compared it to.

Remember when I mentioned that one of the problems with HDTV was the lack of a single standard? One tremendous frustration with the HD experience is the constant adjustments needed to display content correctly. If you are watching an HD broadcast, you frequently have to toggle around between 1080i and 720p for the right picture setting. Some broadcasts look better in wide screen (16-by-9 ratio). Others look better in standard 4-by-3. Other programs, no matter what I do, remain in over-scan: you can't see edges or can't read lower-third titles properly. This problem of varying formats and varying displays is exacerbated when you decide to add a DVR (or "Digital Video Recorder") to the mix.

Satellite Service
With the DISH Network service, I received the DISH DVR 921 Satellite Receiver. This unit is fairly chunky and somewhat noisy but it allows for watching one program while recording another. You can record more than a hundred programs at standard definition and more than 30 programs in hi-def. The DVR 921 allows you to schedule recordings and access program listings but these features are weak compared to the more robust TIVO.

On the other hand, DirecTV provided a DVR, the HR-10-250, with TIVO functionality. This is unit is very popular because it can record 200 hours of standard programming and more than 30 hours of HD and does so with TIVO tools I love. With TIVO, I can always be sure that something I want to see is waiting for me. Unfortunately, this unit apparently is in such demand, it may take a while before one becomes available for you. Perhaps the shortage of units resulted in my receiving a bizarrely defective one, which required fairly constant unplugging and resetting to work properly. (I did become acquainted with DirecTV's helpful service hotline but the unit still hasn't worked normally!) Still, I suffer with this because I want my HDTV!

Which brings me to the basic point about hi-def: getting the entire experience to work is not hassle-free. The multiple standards and formats, quirky hard-disk drives in DVRs, and setup issues are usually a pain in the neck. It seems absurd to need at a minimum three remote controls to get a decent experience out of my setup. (One remote is for the TV, another for the satellite DVR, and a third is for the audio system to get surround-sound.) Kind of nutty? You get the picture.

Ok, setup is painful. But is HDTV worth the effort? Well, yes and no. Now that I have several HDTV channels, I've found that I seriously detest watching the old standard TV picture. Even with more than 500 channels, I routinely will search the same five or six HD channels and ignore the rest. For the past few months, I have watched the same sailing ship breathtakingly crack through ice floes at least ten times over. On the Discovery HD Channel, I will watch repeat after repeat of people making motorcycles even each episode is nearly identical. So entranced am I by the fabulous color, clarity, and resolution of these pictures, I sit gaping at broadcasts that show rain dripping off jungle-leaves or snakes slithering around again and again.

HDTV is captivating but programming remains limited. Unless you like sports, of course.
I rarely watched football regularly until HDTV. Now, every quarterback sack seems excruciating, every punt risky, and every swish-pan of the fans somewhat nauseating. I used to love watching boxing on TV, but now blood flecks spatter without much romance on HDTV. Still, you can't go back. So with perhaps five to ten channels of HDTV to choose from--- and with original programs repeated relentlessly--- I'm reminded of what it was like watching television nearly forty years ago: few channels and few choices you actually want to watch. This is ironic, particularly when subscribing to every premium package available. HDTV is so beautiful, it's almost impossible to go back and watch the dull, colorless, boring stuff on those endless standard channels.

Bose Lifestyle 48 Home Entertainment System
For a momentary digression, here's a wonderful audio discovery I made while studying the HDTV universe. The folks from Bose sent a new Lifestyle 48 home entertainment system to try out. Why have a 56-inch screen with breathtaking video if you don't have speakers to go with it? Some audiophiles (an ornery lot) consider me an imbecile because of something nice I said about Bose in the past: "No highs, no lows, it must be Bose…" they wrote. Well, I will again incur their wrath, because the Bose Lifestyle 48 system is one of the coolest technological gems out there. This elegantly crafted unit plays DVDs and CDs, of course, and commands tiny "jewel cube" speakers plus a robust "acoustimass" module that shakes the apartment. The ingenious part about the Lifestyle 48 is that it stores, indexes, and plays nearly an entire music collection (about 300 CDs.) That the on-board database holds information about nearly every CD recorded is astounding. But special software also allows listeners to indicate what music is appropriate for the moment and the Lifestyle 48 selects and plays variations you favor.

Back on the HDTV front, I had hoped to demo a series of home video recorders that use the HDTV standard. I wondered what home movies would be like using this technology. Perhaps one of the reasons that HDTV has taken so unbelievably long to become adopted is, in part, because electronics manufacturers have been so late to market such cameras. At this moment, only Sony has an HDTV camera targeted at the prosumer market. (The $3,000+ price makes this prohibitively expensive and, with limited supplies, I didn't want to go through the agony of borrowing one.) This shortage of consumer HDTV camcorders may soon change. The scuttlebutt on the upcoming Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas is that several such cameras, at more earthly price points, are likely to be announced by different manufacturers.

Hitachi DZ-MV580 Camera
Hitachi was kind enough to lend us a "near-HD" quality DVD-cam and it does make lovely images. The DZ-MV580A camera records on mini-DVD-RAM and DVD-R discs. It was somewhat of a challenge to find stores that carried such discs, but they can be found if you search hard enough. Recording on DVD does guarantee a superior image on a medium that lasts longer than digital tape for example. I was somewhat disheartened that I could only record half an hour per disk. The price is about $650, which is very reasonable, if you can find it in stock!

By Daniel Dubno

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