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Scott's Column
HDTV

December 1, 2004
By Scott Lewis

This month I am dedicating this entire column to HDTV. Why? Simple... I have it!

The Arrival of HDTV

I was using a Dish Network PVR for a while. O.K., don't tell, but I was using it from my brother-in-law's house. We ran a cable from my house to his. When he set himself up with satellite TV the Dish Network people gave him a PVR as one of the "boxes." He never thought he would use it, so I hooked it up at my house.

I wrote about the Dish Network PVR back in April 2003. Overall I liked it then, but had a few complaints. My two biggest problems with the Dish Network PVR were that you could not watch one show while it recorded another and a poor search feature. How times have changed... as you will see in a moment.

Well, the 650 foot cable going from my brother-in-law's house to mine didn't do a good job with the signal. It worked fine for about 9 months to a year. Then some channels would get lots of "digital artifacts." You know, those pixilated screens, sound drop outs, etc. Eventually a couple of channels I really liked stopped coming in. What we needed was a signal booster from his house to mine, but I was a cheapskate. I was paying for Cable and didn't want to invest in the satellite solution. I still prefer the overall channel selection from Time Warner in San Antonio.

Finally the signal got so bad I couldn't record shows on USA Network (The Dead Zone) and Spike TV (Car and Driver, Horsepower TV, Trucks). So I bit the bullet and called Time Warner to get the HD DVR. All I had to do was go down and pick it up, which I did. I have not seen the bill yet, but if everything I read is true I think they are going to charge me $9.95 for the HD DVR, and another $6.95 for the HD Service. I wanted to get rid of the Variety Pack of channels as the only one I really care about is Speed Channel. But they won't give me that channel a-la-carte, and it is costing me only about $5. I could get Speed Channel with the Sports Pack, but I am not a sports fan. The price would be the same either way.

When I asked about movie channels they said I would have to subscribe to HBO and get all the HBO channels just to have HBO in High Definition. However, they gave me a special deal because I am a Road Runner subscriber and it would only raise my bill by 5 cents to add the HBO channels. O.K.

If you noticed I showed some hesitation in the monthly fees. I was under the impression that I may not have to pay for the box itself. They had me bring in my old Digital box to get the HD DVR. They said it would cost an extra $10 a month to keep the old box for the bedroom. I think this might mean I was already paying for a box in general, and the DVR is the same price as a regular box.

I will wait and see how the bill pans out in the long run. Some of this stuff is free for the first 30 - 90 days. I gave up trying to figure out all there selling gimics. If the HBO channels prove useful I will want that in the master bedroom, so I may get a [non HD] DVR for that room. We'll see.

The Bastard Box

Do to all the stuff you will be reading below I did some research on the Internet about Time Warner's HD DVR. Apparently this box has a reputation that is other than the best. One person calls it the Bastard Box. Feel free to read his simple explanation why his DVR (the non HD version of my HD DVR) has the nickname Bastard Box. I will refer to my box as the bastard box as well. It seems appropriate.

Setup

With the bastard box in my hot little hands I headed home. I rolled the big 65" Mitsubishi TV out from its home inside the wall (literally, we built the wall around the TV). I had to pause for a moment. The remote for my TV has long since been lost. My first step was to program the remote that came with the HD DVR to work with my TV. I have a universal remote (actually two, but both cheap units) and they will not go into the TV's setup in a way I can setup the inputs. I needed to know if the new remote would do this. Luckily it does. I was able to get into the TVs setup and turn on the input for the DTV, and set it for 1080i YPbPr... which is what the bastard box wanted. Perfect.

Next I had to pull all the wires out from the wall between the TV and the components. The big ass bundle of wires that hooks the bastard box to the TV has 5 large RCA plugs and it is one tough sucker to get through the two inch hole in the wall. I made it... barely... and was able to get the rest of the cables back in afterwards. Well, almost all. The power cord to the power strip would not fit into the hole anymore. I have the power strip in behind the components, and ran the cord through the 2" hole where it plugged in the wall behind the TV. When we built the house we had outlets installed inside the component sections, so I just plugged the cord in there... two shelves up.

Now for the big test. With everything plugged in I turned it on and all was working. I pushed the TV back into the wall and people on screen were looking a little jaundice. I reached behind the bastard box and tightened up the cables and all was perfect again.

High Definition Television

So how does it look. Simply marvelous. When I watch true HD content the picture is awesome. I have switched back and forth between the same show on a regular digital channel and on an HD channel. If the channel is clear in standard mode it will look pretty good. That is really a testament to the quality of the digital signal I am getting and the great cables that connect the bastard box to my TV. In fact, a lot of TV shows that looked bad when blown up to giant 65" size look decent now. Some channels still look like crap.

I can definitely see a difference between good digital TV and HDTV. It has gotten to the point that my wife and I are thinking about getting another recliner for the living room. Now that's saying something. I can't wait until flat panel TVs are affordable so I can put one in the master bedroom with a bastard box. Oooo, I get goose bumps just thinking about it.

I even watched Monday Night Football for a short time (I know, I don't like sports) and flipped back and forth between the regular station and the HD version of the station. The difference was drastic. Monday Night Football is much better in HDTV. I can't wait until Basketball is in the playoffs, because that is the time when I actually get into sports. It should be a blast. Go Spurs Go! 

As long as I brought up sports, I guess I should complain about NASCAR. It seems that I get a HD version of TNT and it shows NASCAR is HDTV. In fact, this was the very first show I tuned into when I got the TV up and running. So why complain? Well, it was a Saturday, and the NASCAR race was a Busch Cup race. Sure enough Sunday's Nextel Cup race was on NBC and it was not in HDTV. Hopefully next year NBC will be broadcasting NASCAR is HDTV.

DVD vs. HDTV

For the past four years I have enjoyed my huge 65" TV while watching movies. DVDs look great on this TV. So naturally a comparison between DVD and HDTV is inevitable. From general watching it is hard to notice the difference between the two. I don't notice anything but a wonderful picture while watching DVDs. The same is true for HDTV.

I "searched" (more later) the guide's HBO in HD channel to find movies that I own on DVD. I found two so far. The Saint with Val Kilmer and Groundhogs Day with Bill Murray. The Saint looked noticeably better in HDTV than it did on DVD. This was especially true when sub-titles were on screen. The sub-title text was much crisper in HD. When a close up of a person filled the screen you could see more detail in their hair in HD, while there was a distinct fuzziness on DVD.

My 9 year old sons even said, "I can see the dots that make up the picture with the DVD, but in HD it is like being IN the picture." What more praise do you need. Myself, I could also see a marked improvement when an object on screen had a sharp highlighted edge. For instance, a person was speaking at a podium and the lighting left a strong white line along the edge of his nose (it was a profile shot). This bright line was definitely blurry on my DVD while the HD version showed this with much greater clarity.

As for Groundhogs Day, this did not show nearly as much difference. In fact, the two were so close that most of the time I could not tell them apart. During a scene were the camera was tracking a van driving through the countryside the buildings did appear less blurry. Other than that it was too close call.

I will keep my eye out for more movies on the HD channels to compare to movies in my DVD collection, but at this point I would have to give the nod toward HDTV in movies that matter such as action movies and the like. In movies that don't matter, such as Groundhogs Day, there just isn't a noticeable improvement.

I am curious how older movies will look when transferred to HD. I was watching The Terminator in HDTV. It looked good, but not great. I don't have The Terminator on DVD so I can't easily compare. Maybe I will have to rent it and compare. Easily this could be due to the limitations of camera & special effects technology as well as the movie's budget back in 1984, when it came out.

I may report back on this later once I have seen more movies in both formats side by side. Either way... this definitely means we should expect HD-DVD to come out sooner or later. Remember, DVD's resolution is 852 x 480, while HDTV is either 1,280 x 720 (720p) or 1,920 x 1,080 (1080i). The Movie industry does not want us all waiting until HBO airs a movie. They want sales and rentals.

Handling Content

I am very please with the way the bastard box handles HDTV and regular TV. The default is for the bastard box to fill my wide screen TV with HD content. Perfect, just as it should be. The bastard box has two other viewing modes that are used for non-HD content. There is a stretch mode that fills the screen horizontally, so people look like they just gained 20 pounds, and there is a zoom mode, which further stretches the screen vertically. In the default mode a non-HD channel will get gray bars on the left and right sides. In stretch mode the gray bars are gone as the picture fills the screen. Zoom cuts off the top and bottom to seriously fill the screen.

The three modes are perfect for my viewing habits. My TV has its own stretch feature that it would use to stretch non-wide screen output. This is the way I prefer it. Since the bastard box lets the TV think it is always getting 16:9 wide screen input the TV never needs adjusting. This is good because I would need the remote for the TV to adjust it, and remember... it is lost.

I wish the bastard box could default to stretch when displaying non-HD channels and normal when displaying HD channels. As it is now it takes 5 clicks of the remote to switch between viewing modes. That is a lot of clicking for a simple switch. The bastard.

I only use the zoom feature for one show... Smallville. Smallville is broadcast in HDTV. However, Time Warner in San Antonio does not carry WB Network in HDTV. Smallville is broadcast in wide screen format, even on non-HD channels. Here is how it works for me. The normal view of Smallville has gray bars on the sides on my TV and black bars on the top and bottom. When I switch to stretch mode it removes the gray bars on the side. When I switch to zoom mode it removes the black bars on the top and bottom so the image is properly proportioned. This allows me to watch Smallville in proper 16:9 wide screen format, even though it is not High Definition. It looks good, if not great. As a bonus, re-runs of Smallville are aired on HDNet in true HDTV and look incredible.

Gray Bars vs. Black Bars

I mentioned that Smallville has gray bars on the sides and black bars on the top and bottom. Here is the deal. Black bars are common when the picture doesn't fill the screen. However, gray bars are better. Basically the gray bars are some kind of signal to the portion of the TV that doesn't get a picture. You really don't want nothing in these areas for fear of burn-in (when permanent images stay on the screen). The bastard box puts gray bars on the TV when it is displaying a non-HD channel. Cool. Maybe this box is not such a bastard after all. However, when watching a non-HD "program" on an HD channel, such as Sex and the City on HBO HD (which is not an HD show). The box can't tell if the content is HD or not. The bastard. This is the case for a lot of Reality Shows. Survivor, for example, on the CBS HD Channel is not in high definition, but the channel is so I get black bars instead of gray. If I watch Survivor on the regular channel I get the gray bars.

Gray bars are better, but TV "shows" display black bars. Overall I am not concerned. This TV is four years old and I have not had any problems with burn-in. I attribute this to using the stretch mode when not viewing wide screen content. I expect to continue this trend for a long time to come. At least until HDTV is ubiquitous.

Sound

I am stuck with stereo sound. I don't know if the digital RCA audio jack or the optical audio jack are working on the bastard box. Some ports on the back of the bastard box are definitely not working, such as the DVI and FireWire ports. But I don't care. My stereo does not have digital inputs. It is digital "ready" and takes the individual signals from my DVD player which has a digital decoder built in. So no 5.1 sound from the bastard box. At least this is not the bastard box' fault.

Why A Bastard Box

So the picture is great, and I can record HDTV content to watch in all its glory. So far there is not much reason to call this a bastard box. Why does this marvel of technology deserve such a negative nickname? Let's find out.

Weekly Programming

I have never been blessed with the wonder that is TiVo. I here it is great. It has the best user interface for recording television. The bastard box IS NOT TiVo... I can tell you that. Without a doubt my biggest gripe with this box, and the main reason I call it a bastard box, is because it can't record a show every week.

That's right... it cannot record a show every week. At least not in any normal way. When you want to record a show (while looking at the on screen guide) you have two options. 1) Record "one episode" or 2) record "all episodes." If you choose one episode you will get just that... the one episode you just selected. You don't have any way of telling the bastard box that you want that one episode to record next week, and the week after. You just get a one time recording.

Choosing "all episodes" will ferrite out every single instance of a show and add it to the list of recorded shows. For example, when I went to record the new episode of Teen Titans for my boys on Cartoon Network, I went to Sunday night on the guide. This is when the new episode airs. I selected all episodes and it put over a dozen copies of Teen Titans in my list of recorded shows. See, Teen Titans is also on in re-runs every day... more than once a day. Every single one of these episodes was going to record.

Now, some wise cracking joker is going to tell me that I can manually record a show at any time and set it to be a weekly recording. True enough. But how useful it that. Let's say I want to record all of the following shows:

Car and Driver
Horsepower TV
Trucks
Sports Car Revolution
Overhaulin
Rides
Celebrity Poker Showdown
My Classic Car
Two Guys Garage
Teen Titans

I give you that list because they are shows I really record, and they prove my point quite well. If I enter those 10 shows into the bastard box, I will get at least 30 hours of TV programming in one week. Keep in mind that more than half of those shows are half hour shows. Let's see. Celebrity Poker Showdown airs three days a week, sometimes twice each day. It is a two hour show, so that's 12 hours. Teen Titans airs at least twice every day except Sunday... the day the new episode airs. That's at least 13 shows. Wow, that's 19 hours of programming to get two actual shows to watch. The bastard.

I could go on, but let's get to the real problem. Back to the wise cracker who thinks I should just enter each show in manually by time and the day of the week I want to record. I should only have to do this once, right? True enough, but once I put in those ten shows above how can I tell them apart? When you enter a show in manually it is displayed in the schedule of programs as "manual recording." So I have to scroll through at least ten "manual recordings" in the schedule, and they show up in the list of recorded programs as "manual recording." Again, how do I find the show I want to watch. I guess I have to memorize when the shows are on so I can tell them apart in the listing.

Why can't we get three options of "one episode," "weekly," and "all episodes"? How hard is it to provide weekly recording of a show? What a bastard. In fact, I e-mailed Time Warner and Scientific Atlanta with that question. I never heard anything from Scientific Atlanta, the makers of the bastard box. Time Warner was worse. Here is a quote from a Time Warner rep: "As for the weekly recording, there is no way not to record all shows, the only thing I've been able to do is to try to remember to re-set the recording the day after the showing."

I am expected to "re-record" every show... every week. The Bastards!

Searching

Reading my old article about the Dish Network PVR, I see I did not like the searching. Well, after using that system for about 18 months I can tell you that its exact phrase search is the greatest thing since sliced bread... next to the search feature on the bastard box. The bastard box has no search what so ever. None. Nada. Zip. Zero. Nothing!

This really sucks because I ordered HBO so I could have HBO in High Definition. Getting HBO gives me 12 HBO Channels, with only one being High Definition. I cannot search for movie titles to see if/when a movie will be on. The bastard.

Pause, Fast Forward, Rewind

You probably think that it is a little silly to have a couple of paragraphs related to pausing and fast forwarding with a DVR. I mean, this is what they do, so why to you need to comment on it. For two simple reasons. 1) It is different from the experience I had with the Dish Network PVR, and 2) the Dish Network PVR was more intuitive and better.

More intuitive? How can pressing a pause button be more intuitive? Well, with the Dish Network PVR you would hit pause and the screen would pause... just like that. If you were watching live TV when you pressed pause it would display a small blue box with the time difference from live TV. However, when you hit pause on the bastard box it goes through a bunch of screen flickering as it settles into what I assume is a "non-live mode." Once in the non-live mode pause and fast forward work as expected. Put the screen gyrations on that initial pause is enough to get me not to do it if I missed a line in a show.

Fast Forward is less smooth with the bastard box. The picture is always jumpy. The Dish Network PVR had 4 FF speeds. 4X, 15X, 60X and 300X. At 4X speed on the Dish Network PVR everything looked smooth, like an old VCR but with a clear picture.
Whatever speed you were at was clearly displayed on screen. You cycle "up" by pressing the FF button multiple times. Once at top speed it stayed there. You cycle down by pressing the Rewind button. If you are at 60X FF and press the Rewind button once it puts you at 15X FF. This is nice. The bastard box cycles through its three FF speeds, but wraps around to "play" if you hit the FF button a fourth time. If you are at the 3rd FF speed and press the rewind button it throws you into Rewind speed 1. This is probably more a matter of getting use to it then being a bad thing.

The Dish PVR has a 30 second jump ahead button, typically called a "commercial skip" button. No such button existed on the bastard box. They both have a jump back button. I really miss that jump ahead button.

Available Space

One of the great things about a DVR/PVR is that it tells you how much recording time you have left. Or does it? The Dish Network PVR tells exactly how many hours it has left for recording new shows before it will delete existing recorded shows (the oldest shows get deleted if necessary). I cannot find any information on how to find the amount of space left on the bastard box. I asked that question of Time Warner. The rep gave this answer: "The DVR will hold about 40 hours of recording time, when you bring up the list, you would have to scroll thru and add the time up to make sure your not running out."

So I have to manually add up the time of all the shows. You guessed it... The Bastards! And this is not even an accurate answer. For starters this is an HD DVR, and HD content takes up at least 4 times more space than non-HD content. I believe this box is physically capable of storing 20 hours of HD content and 80 hours of non-HD content. Either way... there is no way to determine how much space is left before things go wrong. Bastards!

Favorites

There is a favorites button on the remote. I did a little digging though the settings and tried to setup some favorite channels. Unfortunately this was worse that not having a favorites button. When you add channels to your favorites pressing the button on the remote will switch you through them. That's it.

The Dish Network PVR let you setup a number of favorites. Each was a list of channels. Since you could have more than one list you could easily setup a list of "car show channels" and "movie channels." And this is exactly what I did. The way these favorite lists worked was when you pressed the guide button on the remote it would show you "all channels" or one of your favorites. Each time you pressed the guide button it would cycle through you favorites and the all channels list. This was incredibly useful. I actually setup 5 channels for car shows, and the guide showed 45 channels at a time. So i didn't have to scroll up and down through a wad of channels I didn't care about when looking for a car show to watch or record.

Alas, the bastard box' favorites is useless.

Dual Tuner

One thing that use to bother me about the Dish Network PVR was that you could not watch one program while recording another. The bastard box handles this quite well. I initially thought this was an issue with the software, but have learned that the physical box must have two tuners, regardless of the software. I guess the Dish Network PVR only has one tuner. The bastard box has two tuners. It will allow you to watch one program while recording another. You can also record two programs at the same time (because of the dual tuners). As a last effort to hard drive access you can watch a program you previously recorded while two new programs are being recorded. Wow!

Some Minor Details

I do have a problem with the way the bastard box plays recorded shows. All programs that are recorded and watched later are played through channel 664 on the bastard box. This creates a minor annoyance. When the show ends you are left on channel 664. You have to manually select a real station, but first you have to go into the guide to select a channel. The Dish Network PVR would just drop you back to its one tuner in live mode when you finished watching a show and left the program list. I guess the bastard box can't decide which tuner to put you on when you are done watching recorded programs. Even hitting the "Live" button on the remote to the bastard box doesn't do anything.

O.K. I may be getting really picky on this one, but I bet TiVo has a smoother solution than to leave you hanging in the breeze after you watch a show.

Another problem with the bastard box comes when switching between recorded shows. Let's say you are watching a two hour show that you recorded earlier. About 2/3rds through it you stop watching and watch another show. You get a little bit though that and decide to finish the first show. No, I don't watch TV like that, but I will start watching a show one day, not finish it, and start watching another show another day.

The point is... when you return to a show that you have partially watched you must watch it from the beginning. The bastard box will not remember where you left off. This is very frustrating because its fast forward is not fast enough. The Dish Network's 300x speed would make this easier to tolerate, but it takes a while to get 2/3rds through a two our show to find where you left off.

I do jump around a lot with shows, mostly because of who comes in the room and also wants to watch TV. The Dish Network PVR would remember where I left off on every single program I watched.

As long as we are griping about playback problems, here is a doozy. If you are watching a live program and pause it for a while, when the program come to an end on live TV the bastard box stops showing it. That's right. It stops showing it even though you were not done watching it. You have to find the show in the list of recorded shows and... you guessed it... start from the beginning and find where you left off. The same thing happens if you want to watch a show you recorded, but it is still playing. You can rewind to the beginning, but when the show stops recording it throws you out, and you have to find it in the list of recorded showed then fast forward to the point you were at. 

This really is a bastard of a box.

True HDTV

I have extolled how wonderful HDTV is, but I don't have true HDTV. And you probably don't either, even if you think you do.

How can this be? My Mitsubishi TV is a rear projection TV with 7" diameter CRT lenses. 7" CRTs are not capable of generating the full 1920 x 1080 resolution that is HDTV (1080i). I am not sure if the 7" CRTs are capable of the resolution in 720p HDTV (1280 x 720), but my TV's native format is 1080i, not 720p. What does this mean? It means that even though I finally have a true HDTV signal coming into my house and that signal is properly being sent to my TV, my TV is doing some kind of math on the resolution to get 1920 x 1080 pixels of information onto the physical screen.

I believe you need a rear projection TV with 9" CRT lenses to actually display a true 1920 x 1080 pixel image. Many HDTVs cannot display a resolution this high. If yours does you paid an awful lot for it.

My setup is so good that I will probably be hard pressed to notice the difference. However, with newer display technologies I will probably enjoy a DLP, LCD or Plasma TV more than my "old style" CRT rear projection TV once they get to a resolution of 1920 x 1080. In fact, I would bet that you won't see too many true HDTVs in the old style CRT based rear projection. When I bought mine there were only two models I could find on the market that were so equipped, both were at least $10,000. Ouch! The other technologies are more in vogue and will receive all the attention from now on.

If you want TRUE HDTV make sure your TV is capable of displaying a resolution of 1920 x 1080 naturally. Anything else is a math equation.

Conclusion

So, is this box a bastard. You bet it is! I hate a lot of things about this box. It is a huge step backward from Dish Network's PVR, and probably two huge steps backward from a TiVo. However, it does have two tuners allowing me to record one program while watching another and it does provide me with HDTV.

I can live with it.
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