Times Article 017
Digital Television and You
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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,
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
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!
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!
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.
if you really like your toys, here’s a quick sampling
of what’s currently being delivered in the DTV world.
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
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.
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.
more news breaks on the HDTV scene, I’ll provide more coverage on this
most interesting technology. See you next month.