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High-Tech Times Article 017

Digital Television and You

 I must admit to being quite fascinated with the concept of my computer and my television set becoming one and the same. This “convergence” has been coming for a long time, of course. With companies like WebTV offering Internet access using a standard TV and a “set-top box,” although the resolution is considerably worse than even a basic VGA monitor, higher quality can’t be far behind.

Digital TV (DTV) promises a vast improvement in picture and sound quality over today’s analog TV, and will also provide the foundation for advanced services including Internet access, interactive data services, and localized on-demand information. Consumer electronics manufacturers must now move from basic digital data delivery to processing of extensive multimedia content. And here is where the fun begins.

As much as manufacturers would love to have each and every analog TV in the U.S. replaced with a sparkling new DTV set capable of displaying all of the 36 possible formats for HDTV, there are real-world cost factors to consider. Historically, in March 1954 when NTSC color TVs were first made available by Westinghouse, early adopters raced to retailers -- and purchased 30 color TVs the first month. This is not much different from what manufacturers expected for sales of DTVs last November when the FCC cleared the way for broadcasters.

It was only when NBC said that it would air 2,000 hours of color in the 1962-63 season that consumers really started buying color TVs. By January 1964, there were 1.4 million color sets in use; a year later, there were 2.8 million; and by 1968, color TVs numbered 15 million. But it wasn’t until 1978 that the number of homes with color TVs exceeded those with B&W screens. Some media do move faster than others: VHS recorders hit 85% penetration in 1995 after only 19 years, while cable TV has yet to achieve 70% after nearly half a century. The 85 percent mark is a magic number for two reasons: manufacturers consider it their goal for optimum buyer pricing, and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has targeted it for the shutdown of all remaining analog TV stations.

The problem is that if DTV moves as fast into our homes as the VHS VCR, it will hit 85% penetration in November 2017. And only five consumer electronics products have ever reached the 85 percent mark at all: TVs, color TVs, VHS VCRs, radios, and telephones.

Of course, today’s consumer market is a whole lot different than that of 1954. Every single one of you who read my column have at least one computer system, something that wasn’t even dreamed of in the 1950s. The average U.S. household spends more than $7,500 annually on electronics and entertainment, and this doesn’t include basic services like telephones and cable TV. And, most importantly, the use and knowledge of electronics is vastly higher today than in 1954. So manufacturers know there’s a market, but are still taking many different paths to delivering DTV to our homes and offices.

The two primary approaches to digital delivery by manufacturers are set-top boxes and new DTV sets. Today’s set-top boxes use our current analog TVs to view high-resolution images; it should be fairly obvious that this approach has its limitations. However, even the newest DTV sets may have limitations, as well. Let’s look briefly at both.

Digital content is created today for display on computer monitors, which usually have small to medium screens optimized for reading 10-point type (72 points equal one inch) and static content from a distance of around two feet. Computer monitors use progressive-scan technology with a fast screen-refresh rate to produce crisp, high-resolution, high-bandwidth images.

Televisions generate a relatively low-resolution, high-brightness image that is suitable for viewing moving content on a large display at a distance of six feet or more. TVs use interlaced scan technologies and low bandwidths due to cost and technical constraints that I’ve discussed in earlier columns. Although it is possible to add anti-flicker filters into TV circuitry, the costs will quickly outweigh the benefits.

To state things more directly, set-top boxes that use today’s analog TVs as digital output devices are unlikely to be acceptable to anyone who has used a computer monitor for any length of time. To add to the viewing problems caused by interlaced signal flickering (just sit two feet from your television set for an hour viewing large text from your cable provider, and you’ll never even consider using a TV for Internet access!), TVs have no direct way to provide 2D or 3D graphics acceleration, digital audio input and output, and multimedia input and output. Set-top boxes that include these capabilities as well as a useful user interface (think about controlling your multimedia presentation using your channel changer...) quickly become nearly as expensive as a new DTV set!

But the first DTV sets that arrive in front of you may be significantly less high-definition than what leaves the antennas of KITV-4. A recent meeting of consumer electronics manufacturers presented DTV specifications that allowed only one million pixels (picture elements), less than half of what HDTV stations may broadcast. Their reasons? It’s cheaper to build low-resolution DTV sets, which may increase their sales. Sometimes I wonder if consumer “marketing experts” are really paying attention!

Now I’ll admit that even though I love technology gadgets more than the average person (anyone who has visited Computer-Aided Technologies understands instantly what I’m talking about), I’m probably not going to rush out and spend $4-$10,000 on the newest DTV sets, no matter how much better than my TV they look. That’s because after 30+ years of working on computer systems, televisions, and many other digital and analog devices, I know quite well that the second generation of DTVs will have even more bells and whistles, and will cost from 35-60 percent less than this first generation.

But if you really like your toys, here’s a quick sampling of what’s currently being delivered in the DTV world.

At the high end, Philips/Magnavox has their model 64PP9901 DTV, which uses rear-screen projection in the 16:9 aspect ratio with a 64-inch (diagonal) screen. It will decode all 18 ATSC formats, as well as accepting component digital (D-1) and VGA signals from your computer. With a suggested retail price (SRP) of $9,999, this is a must-have for bleeding-edge technologists.

Sony offers its model KW-34HD1 DTV, which uses a 34-inch flat-face Trinitron CRT display, and will also decode all 18 ATSC formats. It goes a step further by converting all DTV signals to the 1080i HDTV format using a proprietary technology called “digital reality creation.” This technology doubles both vertical and horizontal line structure to provide four times as many pixels. Sony didn’t forget digital audio either, and the set incorporates full 5.1-channel surround-sound in Dolby Digital. The KW-34HD1 retails for $8,999.

Last, we have Mitsubishi’s entry-level DTV set (no model number was provided) with a 65-inch rear-screen projection in 16:9 aspect ratio, and supporting 1080i resolution. I wasn’t able to locate any detailed specs, but with an SRP of around $4,000, it’s by far the least expensive of the DTV sets I could find.

As more news breaks on the HDTV scene, I’ll provide more coverage on this most interesting technology. See you next month.