Saturday, November 05, 2005

Digital TV

In case you haven't been paying attention to the FCC and Congressional action on this subject, here are some dates. Hopefully, you won't need to buy a replacement TV in the coming months. If you do, it will have to be an HDTV.

On Thursday, the FCC moved up by four months the date by which small TV sets sold in the U.S. [13 inches to 24 inches] must have digital tuners to receive HDTV. The new deadline is March 1, 2007. The FCC previously ruled that all new mid-sized sets [25 inches to 36 inches] be digital-ready by March 1, 2006

Senators set a deadline of April 7, 2009, to end traditional analog TV broadcasts. Telcos are eagerly awaiting use of the old spectrum they already purchased for new digital services. This latest legislation was added to a budget bill. The originally proposed transition was to have been by 2006 but consumers have resisted the expensive new sets. No single new screen technology yet dominates the market and none is ideal or cost effective for replacing the typical 32" or larger CRT screens most TV watchers now enjoy at much lower resolution, 520 lines interlaced.

The bill also provided $3 billion to help poor Americans buy digital-to-analog converter boxes for their older television sets so they can continue to receive a signal once the switch is made permanent.

I just checked Wal-Mart and a typical 32" HDTV costs $650 to $1,900 depending upon features and resolution. I'm hoping prices on the 1,020 interlaced picture models [comparable to cheap PC monitors] come down to $700 by late next year. A few early HDTV monitors are going cheap (under $300) but require an external HDTV tuner that costs $300. Built-in HDTV tuners add about $80 to a set. Contrary to the hype, a basic traditional outside TV antenna will pick up the new digital signals from your local network broadcasters within about 25 miles, about the same as before, but quality drops off rapidly to nil at about 40 miles.

Of course, once you have a TV that can show your PC picture, you'll want to get Microsoft Media Center Edition 2005 (under $200 OEM) and connect your PC with an upgraded video card sporting a DV out connector and XP DirectX 9.0 drivers. There is a special remote to control your PC but you'll want to get a wireless keyboard and mouse for another $60 or so. This is still as cheap as a digital video recorder so make sure you have a big enough HD to record your favorite TV shows, at least for now. This convergence requires a Premium version of Windows Vista and a much more expensive PC if you wait until it is released next year. Minimum 256MB video, 1 gigabyte of RAM and 3 MHz requirements add $500 or more to the base Vista PC, and much more for one with media center features. Consequently, I don't see a rapid transition to media center computing, especially in those households still paying for their new HDTV.

As you may have noticed, more and more TV programming is in the wide-screen 16x9 format rather than the older 4x3 ratio. It will take decades before the average television show is in wide-screen format. Considering the percentage of old TV re-runs on cable, we may never again be completely free from the black bars above and below our picture.

That makes choosing the shape of your new set a difficult decision. Should you pay the extra $100 to $250 for a traditional shaped screen and suffer the black bars above and below much of the time or go for the new wider format and have a much smaller picture with side bars or stretched picture when you need to watch an older format show? The really big plasma and liquid crystal (LCD) HDTV sets are prohibitively expensive and projection TV's not sharp enough for high quality broadcasts.

Soon there will be yet another option that looks quite promising. SED's, a joint Canon Toshiba venture will be entering production soon. They combine the quality, efficiency and possibly lower cost of CRT's with slim LCD-like design.

Prices are coming down but not as fast as looming government deadlines. Expect to dig deep for a new TV sometime in the next 36 months if you haven't already. I remember when color TV (invented in 1947) was widespread by the late 50's and cost nearly $1,000. We got ours around 1959. By 1963, nearly everyone watched Bonanza in living color, but then most didn't have to pay $60 a month for cable or satellite service. Today, add $50 a month for a cell phone and $30 for broadband internet too. A larger chunk of our discretionary income is going to digital services all the time. Even radio is rapidly becoming a pay-service (Sirius or XM satellite radio) and by the time I pony up it won't be commercial free either. Forget about the Public Broadcasting Service. It is already on the chopping block.

Someday, if the Bush appointed FCC has it's way, we'll even have to pay to find out what time it is. Hopefully, by then I won't care.


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