Category: The Front Line
Cord-Cutting: A Slow And Steady Drip, Drip, Drip
- Published on Friday, 30 September 2016 12:28
- Pete Putman
- 0 Comments
An interesting study was just conducted by consulting firm cg42 and it claims that pay TV service providers stand to lose as much as $1 billion in revenue over the next 12 months. The reason? Cg42 says that as many as 800,000 customers are likely to ‘cut the cord’ in an attempt to save money on pay TV packages and bundles.
Cg42 surveyed 1,119 customers online this past summer and calculated that pay TV companies could lose as much as $1,248 per lost subscriber on an annual basis. In their survey, they found that the average pay TV subscriber spends about $187 per month for cable TV, phone, Internet access, and video streaming subscriptions.
In contrast, ‘cord nevers’ – people who have never subscribed to pay TV services – spend about $71 per month on broadband access and video streaming subscriptions. The streaming part of that amounts to as little as $15 per month.
Cg42’s survey revealed that both cord-cutters and cord-nevers don’t care much for traditional TV programming, and 83% of cord-cutters said they can access most or all of the content they want to watch without a pay TV subscription. (87% of cord-nevers said the same thing.)
Perhaps more ominous for companies like Comcast and Time Warner, the satisfaction of watching TV without paying for cable or satellite services increases the longer these viewers remain away from pay TV subscriptions.
The most popular streaming service is still Netflix, which 94% of respondents subscribe to. And number 2? YouTube’s free video channels, which offer selected clips from late night talk shows and musical performances.
Surprisingly, many respondents get their sports fix by going to bars or restaurants to watch games. The survey didn’t mention how many people also watch sports on free over-the-air TV, which of course includes NFL games, selected baseball games and the World Series, the NHL playoffs, and the NBA playoffs, plus the Olympics, golf, tennis, and NASCAR/Indy Car racing.
Surveys like these aren’t anything new. We’ve seen analysts forecasting the end of traditional pay TV packages for several years now. However, there is a real concern about the cost of these monthly services, and whether they’re worth the price.
I’ve advised numerous folks on how to get free over-the-air television and supplement it with streaming services to save money – and in fact, later today, I’ll be visiting someone nearby to do an RF site survey and see how well he can receive the local Philadelphia stations at home (upward of 50 minor channels).
Couple that with broadband service and there’s no real reason to stay with pay TV, especially now that you can subscribe to HBO and Showtime online without a pay TV service. You can also do without landline phone service if you have a mobile phone, further reducing your monthly expenditures.
I said this a few years ago in several columns: The future of cable TV is providing broadband service. Just like mobile phone companies charge you only for data (phone calls and messaging are basically free now), so will cable and satellite companies. They will look more like the electric company, charging you for however many gigabytes you used that month.
And how you use the data will be up to you: sending and receiving photos, streaming video, emails, and voice-over-IP. That’s the real future of Comcast, Time Warner, Charter, Bright House, and other MSOs. The question is, have they accepted it yet?
Ultra HDTV, HDMI 2.0, and HDCP 2.2 – Oh, What A Tangled Web We Weave…
- Published on Friday, 30 September 2016 11:30
- Pete Putman
- 0 Comments
A few days ago, I received an email from the president of an AV products manufacturer. He had purchased a Samsung UN65HU8550 65-inch Ultra HDTV back in 2014 and decided to take the plunge into Ultra HD Blu-ray.
Previously, he had been using an upscaling Blu-ray player to achieve 3840×2160 resolution, but now he wanted the real thing. So, he visited his local Best Buy and picked up Samsung’s UBD-K8550 UHD Blu-ray player, took it home, and connected it to one of the HDMI inputs on his UHDTV.
Sounds simple, right? Except that it didn’t work. The UHD disc spun up, started to play, and then a message was displayed that the player would down-convert to 1080p resolution because it didn’t detect support for HDCP 2.2 (the newest and most aggressive form of copy protection for optical disc media).
To him, this made no sense whatsoever. (Me, too!) Here he was, playing an Ultra HD Blu-ray disc, from a Samsung Ultra HD BD player, into a Samsung Ultra HDTV – and it wouldn’t work. I advised him to make sure he was truly using an HDMI 2.0 input (sometimes labeled as such, or color-coded).
He tried all of the inputs, including the MHL input that is supposed to be compliant with HDCP 2.2, but no luck. Again, the disc would spin up, and then display the same error message. (By the way, HDMI 1.3/1.4 inputs can also support HDCP 2.2.)
Another trip to Best Buy resulted in the purchase of Philips’ BDP7501 Ultra HD Blu-ray model, which was then connected to the Samsung TV and – voila! It worked, playing back in true 2160p resolution. That is; only when connected directly to the Samsung TV, and NOT through his existing Denon AVR (which likely doesn’t support HDCP 2.2 key exchanges on any of its HDMI ports).
Some quick checks on the Internet showed this wasn’t an isolated problem – others had purchased the same TV, or different screen size variations of it, and were unable to watch 4K movies from the Samsung player. One comment I read talked about going so far as to buy an HDCP 2.2 to HDCP 1.4 converter, a product I wasn’t even aware existed. And apparently, it worked! (Warning: This product may be illegal to purchase as it alters a copy-protection process. I’m only providing the URL as a reference.) (http://www.hdtvsupply.com/hdcp-2-2-to-hdcp-1-4-converter.html)
The next step was to check in with my friends at Samsung, who responded that an upgrade kit would fix the problem. It’s called the SEK3500U One Connect Evolution Kit, and attaches to your Samsung 4K TV through a separate connector on the side panel. This $400 box – which resembles a thin Blu-ray player – provides four HDMI 2.0 inputs, all up to speed with HDCP 2.2 support, HDMI 2.0a compatibility for high dynamic range playback, and improved color rendering, according to several Amazon reviews I read. (https://www.amazon.com/Samsung-SEK-3500U-ZA-Evolution-Kit) Samsung also commented that frame rates may play a part in the problem, as the Blu-ray Disc Association HDR specification for HDMI 2.0a calls for 2160p60 playback with 4:4:4 color, and that using a lower frame rate might fool the UHDTV into down-converting to 1080p resolution.
All of this just confirms my continued advice to my friends and colleagues: “Wait just a little bit longer before you buy a 4K TV.” Too many things are still in a state of flux on the manufacturing side, not the least of which is support for multiple high dynamic range formats. And the issues with HDCP 2.2 support are frankly, just ridiculous at this point: The standard’s been out for a few years, and it will be used exclusively with all HDMI inputs on Ultra HDTVs.
Another takeaway from this is the slow and steady move away from optical disc delivery of 4K movies and TV shows to streaming connections. The protocols for copy protection are a bit different for streaming, but at least the underlying architecture is standard across all platforms (some sort of common streaming protocol like RTSP, carrying MPEG4 H.264 or HEVC H.265 / VP9 with IP headers) and can be easily updated with software.
Given the continual increase in home broadband speeds – especially in metro areas – 4K streaming is fast becoming a realistic option. Granted, the image quality at 15 – 20 Mb/s won’t be as good as a file coming off an optical disc at 100 – 110 Mb/s, but as we’ve seen repeatedly, the vast majority of home viewers continue to choose convenience and price over quality. That may be one reason there are only three Ultra HD Blu-ray players on the market today: How many people are going to spend $300 – $400 – $500 for one?
As I write this, the SEK3500U is on its way, and my colleague will soon be enjoying true Ultra HD movies like he should have been from the start. I suppose the $400 cost is a small price to pay if you’ve already shelled out a few thousand dollars for an Ultra HDTV, but it would irk me to no end to be in that situation. (You know what they say about the “leading” edge often being the “bleeding” edge.)
To summarize; my advice to readers remains the same as it has been. If you are thinking of buying a new Ultra HDTV – like me – WAIT until next spring, or at least until Super Bowl time. Not only will you see lower prices, but you’re more likely to have all of the bugs out of the system – and you’ll be able to score a good deal on a set that can show high dynamic range content, too; certainly supporting two or more of the new HDR formats.
And if you just gotta have an Ultra HD Blu-ray player? Those prices will have come down, too. A quick check on Amazon shows the UBD-K8500 currently available for $317.99, while the Philips BDP7501 will cost you $279.99. (Panasonic’s DMP-UB900 player wasn’t shipping at the time this article was written.)
Samsung Moves Front & Center With HDR
- Published on Tuesday, 16 August 2016 17:29
- Pete Putman
- 0 Comments
Last Wednesday, I was one of a group of journalists, engineers, and other technical types sitting in on a presentation about high dynamic range (HDR) TV. The location was Samsung’s sparkling-new product showcase in lower Manhattan at 837 Washington Street, and the presenters ranged from Samsung execs to well-known industry consultants, including Florian Friedrich of AVTOP, Steve Panosian of Samsung, Kevin Miller from ISF, Gerard Catapano from Samsung QA Labs, and Jason Hartlove of Nanosys.
THE NEXT BIG THING
You’d have to be living under a rock not to have heard about high dynamic range television by now. Along with Ultra HD resolution, HDR is the next big thing in TV displays, along with a new, wider color gamut, and eventually high frame rate video.
The transition away from mature Full HD (1920×1080) display technology to Ultra HD is happening much faster than most people expected. The costs of manufacturing LCD panels for televisions have absolutely plummeted in the past couple of years; so much that there is at best a $50 to $100 price delta between same-size 1080p and 2160p TV models.
In fact, we will start to see major TV brands dropping 1080p models altogether in larger screen sizes; possibly as soon as December. Sales experience is showing that customers take the upgrade to 4K more often than not when buying sets measuring 55 inches or larger, which is good news for retailers.
And that’s “qualified” good news, as worldwide sales of televisions have been in decline the past four years. The double-digit annual growth of Ultra HDTV sales are keeping things from getting worse and leading everyone in Japan, Korea, and China to focus on 4K and leave increasing numbers of sales of 1080p sets to the bargain brands.
But quadrupling the picture resolution by itself isn’t enough to turn the tide. Hence, we now have HDR, which can produce images containing peak brightness levels that are 10x higher than what we used to see on our old tube HDTVs. (Remember those?) And the colors represented on these displays are also much more saturated and intense, thanks to advancements in illumination technology.
Back in the early days of high definition television, we were largely in unknown territory. The first HDTV broadcasts used terrestrial television, and everyone needed to learn more about antennas and set-top boxes. Yet, seven years after the first HDTV broadcasts, every major network had produced some quantity of HDTV content.
There were missteps. Remember the surge in interest in 3D about a decade ago? It peaked in 2009 and featured competing 3D encoding and viewing standards, expensive glasses that often broke, complaints of headaches and nausea after extended, and even a campaign by the American Academy of Ophthalmologists to test for eye disorders; one based on the inability of certain people to see stereoscopic images correctly.
TIME TO CHANGE THINGS UP
HDR is different. You don’t need anything other than the naked eye to see it, and the premise of HDR is that you are watching images with peak whites and contrast ratios that follow closely what you see in real life (about 14 stops of light at any instant, from deep shadows to peak brightness).
What’s more, the colors you see rendered in HDR are much more vivid than what our current televisions can display as they’re working with a restricted color gamut. If you’ve seen bright neon or LED signs at night, marveled at a brilliant sunset, or gotten up close to tropical flowers in bloom, you know how hard it is to reproduce those intense colors on a television or computer monitor.
That’s all changed. We’re now standing at the threshold of an entirely different class of displays that are advanced by several orders of magnitude from the color TVs your parents or grandparents watched 50 years ago. It isn’t just about having more pixels – it’s about adding in all of the visual elements that replicate what you see every day.
Samsung is one of the first companies to get out of the gate with HDR televisions, and they’re using a new technology to light up the screen. Instead of conventional white light-emitting diodes (LEDs) and arrays of color filters, the light source is made up of arrays of blue LEDs and matrices of green and red quantum dots (QDs). It’s not difficult to get intensely-saturated and bright blues from LEDs, but green and red provide more of a challenge. Hence; the QD backlight.
And they are bright. Samsung claims that their HDR TVs can achieve 1000 candelas per square meter (cd/m2) in a small area, which is quite the jump from the 300 cd/m2 or so that conventional white LED backlights can generate. Plus, the intense greens and reds generated by QDs have expanded the gamut of displayable colors considerably; closer to that of digital cinema projectors.
Now, the catch: How can we measure the performance of an HDR TV equipped with quantum dots? We can’t use the older test pattern generators and set-up Blu-ray discs as they’re limited to the current ITU Recommendation BT.709 color space and only use 8-bit color encoding. (HDR is based on a 10-bit color system.)
For that matter, we can’t even use the older display interfaces to connect a test pattern generator. For HDMI, the standard must be version 2.0a, and if we want to use DisplayPort, it must be version 1.4. It goes without saying that we must use an Ultra HD Blu-ray player if we want to source HDR test patterns from optical disc – and there is exactly one of those (Samsung) on the market, with another one coming from Panasonic this fall.
At the Samsung event, Friedrich and Miller explained how a new suite of test patterns has been prepared for Ultra HD Blu-ray to both evaluate and calibrate an HDR display. This test pattern UHD BD will be available from Samsung and can be used with any HDR TV, even the line-up of LG organic light-emitting diode (OLED) UHD sets that have come to market.
Steve Panosian talked about the lack of standards in TV performance and how there has to be a better way for consumers to compare the performance of one brand of HDR TVs against another. Although at this point in time, there are so few models available that it’s basically Samsung vs. LG, with companies like TCL and Hisense looking to get into the game this year.
Jason Hartlove from Nanosys made an appearance to talk about what’s happening with quantum dot science and what the next generation of HDR TVs might look like as the QD arrays in Ultra HDTVs start to resemble something like an OLED emitter array. And Chris Chinnock of Insight Media served as moderator for the day’s events, which culminated in hands-on sessions showing how to use the test pattern UHD Blu-ray to evaluate a set’s performance and calibrate it for optimal results.
The interesting thing about HDR TVs is that we really don’t need to provide much in the way of user adjustments anymore. HDR TVs use CEA 861.3 metadata, flowing through an HDMI or DisplayPort connection, to determine brightness levels, gamma, and color values. And with peak brightness values in the range of 800 – 1000 cd/m2, why would we need to have a “Dynamic” picture mode setting? (It’s already dynamic!)
Although I had seen this demonstration on two previous occasions, Insight Media and Samsung did an excellent job of explaining the challenges in both designing a set of test patterns to evaluate HDR TV performance and putting those patterns to actual use. I was reminded of those early days of HDTV: What signal format and connector do I need? What kind of antenna will pick up the broadcasts, and where do I aim it? What’s the difference between 720p, 1080i, and 1080p?
THE NEXT STEPS
My advice to everyone remains unchanged, however. If you are in the market for a new Ultra HDTV with HDR, I would hold off on purchasing it until at least January, if not next spring. By then, there should be several models supporting more than one HDR format (the baseline being HDR 10, but there are at least four others developed by Dolby, Technicolor, Samsung, and the BBC).
More importantly, your UHD set should support not only HDR content flowing through a display connection, but over an Internet connection. More and more content delivery is switching to video streaming as we move away from physical media. Plus, you’ll certainly spend less money on an HDR set if you can sit on your hands for a while, and there may even be a few more UHD Blu-ray player models to choose from six months from now, along with a lot more movies mastered in HDR.
Product Review: ClearStream Eclipse TV Antenna
- Published on Thursday, 11 August 2016 18:41
- Pete Putman
- 0 Comments
It’s been a while since I reviewed my last batch of TV antennas, but the topic is worth revisiting with the ongoing spectrum auction and an apparent increase in cord-cutting as people ditch more costly pay TV packages for free, off-air reception of broadcast TV channels.
Plus, in case you hadn’t noticed, the Olympics are under way and NBC has saturated the airwaves with coverage across a multitude of channels, including Telemundo. That means you may be able to watch events on two broadcast channels in addition to streaming channels.
A couple of weeks ago, the folks at Antennas Direct sent me one of their ClearStream Eclipse antennas. ($59.99, various retailers) It’s shaped like a big loop, is flexible, and has a black finish on one side and white on the other. Plus, the surface is known as SureGrip and will stick to just about any surface, over and over again.
Like other ClearStream antennas I’ve tested, the loop appears to be optimized for UHF reception. And that could be problematic, since the FCC may wind up taking away at least 10 (if not more) UHF channels after the spectrum auction, assuming the bids are successful.
That, in turn, may force more than a few TV stations back onto high-band VHF and (horrors!) even low-band VHF channels if they want to stay on the air. And digital TVs need much larger antennas to pick up broadcasts on channels 2 through 6, unless you’re located fairly close to the TV transmitter and the signal levels are very high.
ClearStream has also included an inline amplifier to boost signal levels. Technically, it qualifies as an antenna-mounted amplifier, although you can place it anywhere ahead of the TV or set-top box receiver. This amplifier does make a big difference, as you’ll see in a moment.
For the purposes of this review, I went into my lab and fished out my trusty Radio Shack bow tie antenna (not available anymore, but it cost all of $4 back in the day) and also a spare Mohu Leaf antenna; both for comparison. I also grabbed an “anonymous” inline, 15 dB VHF/UHF preamplifier that would normally mount on a mast but was quite happy sitting on the floor.
I also set up a crude antenna support – a shipping box from a well-known retailer of just about anything electronic in New York City. I taped each antenna to the box (which was standing on its end) and placed the box atop a perch my cats use to look out the window.
This box was positioned near the window in an upstairs room, facing in the general direction of the Philadelphia DTV antenna farm. I operated much as the average TV viewer would – I didn’t know exactly where to aim the antennas, but used consumer DTV sites to use dead reckoning and hoped for the best. 20’ of RG-59/U cable ran from each teat antenna back to a two-way splitter, feeding a spectrum analyzer and my Hauppauge Aero-M USB stick DTV receiver.
I connected each antenna and scanned for VHF and UHF channels three times – once without any amplification, once with my ‘anonymous’ amp, and once with the ClearStream amplifier. I captured spectral waveforms for selected channels on the analyzer and also ran a quick MPEG stream analysis using TS Reader.
The stations I looked for were in order WPVI (ABC, channel 6), WBPH (IND, channel 9), WHYY (PBS, channel 12), WPHL (My, channel 17), KYW (CBS, channel 26), WUVP (Univision, channel 29), WPSG (CW, channel 32), WCAU (NBC, channel 34), WYBE (IND, channel 35), WTXF (FIX, channel 42), and WFMZ (IND, channel 46). Channels 9 and 46 originate from Allentown, PA; the rest come from the Roxborough section of Philadelphia, about 20+ miles from here over an obstructed path.
After compiling that data, I had a pretty good idea of how each antenna worked. The results can be seen in table 1, and once again, it’s pretty amazing how functional the bow tie is. Not a great performer without an amplifier, but with the ‘anonymous’ amplifier it grabbed 9 of the 11 stations, including WPVI on channel 6. It performed even better with the Eclipse amplifier, pulling in 10 of 11 stations. (WTXF-42 reception was erratic.)
Mohu’s time-tested Leaf was next. As a solo act, it sniffed out 5 of 11 stations and also found WPVI without amplification, so its low-band VHF performance was good. Adding the ‘anonymous’ amplifier improved the score to 8 out of 11, and switching to the Eclipse amplifier added one more station. This was the only antenna to pull in WTXF-42 reliably, using amplification.
Finally, it was time for the Eclipse to take its turn. Riding bareback, the Eclipse tied the Leaf and snared 5 of 11 stations – but not WPVI-6. Adding in the ‘anonymous’ amplifier improved its score to 9 up and 2 down, while switching to the Eclipse amplifier resulted in one less receivable station (WPSG-32, which is a bear to pull in at any time). But I could not receive WPVI in any of the three modes.
And the spectrum analyzer grabs show why. WPVI’s 8VSB waveform is at least 20 dB above the noise floor with either amplifier, and actually closer to 32 dB C/N when you add the correction factor for this resolution bandwidth. Using the Eclipse, channel 6 measures only 10 db C/N (22 dB with correction factor) using the ‘anonymous’ amplifier and barely 14 dB C/N (26 dB with correction) using the Eclipse amplifier.
That’s just not strong enough for reliable reception, especially when you see the 6 dB notch in WPVI’s carrier from multipath. There’s also about 6 dB of multipath tilt through the Leaf, but the overall signal is much stronger and well within the range that can be corrected by adaptive equalization. And the cleanest signal was seen with the bow tie – not as strong as the leaf, but minimal tilt and notching and easy for the TV to demodulate.
Based on my measurements, the inline Eclipse amplifier has somewhere between 18 and 20 dB of signal gain, and lo and behold, that’s what it says in the dual-side instruction sheet. No specification was given for noise figure, but it appears to be about 2 dB in the UHF TV band, based on my noise floor measurements (-88 without, -86 with).
The ClearStream Eclipse is certainly small and can go just about anywhere – and it’s not likely you’ll damage it, given how flexible the housing is. This loop antenna is a decent performer with UHF and high-band VHF signals, but just doesn’t have enough gain for reliable low-band VHF TV reception.
That may not be a problem if you don’t have any low-band V’s in your area, but you should check TVFool.com in any case as we’re starting to see lots of low-power repeaters and independent stations lighting up on channels 2 through 6 all across the country. One of those stations could be your ticket to watching a TV network you wouldn’t be able to otherwise.
The Mohu Leaf did a better job with channel 6, but was no better in overall station count unamplified. And connected to an amplifier, the bow tie gave both the Leaf and Eclipse a run for their money. With the Eclipse amplifier, it was a dead heat between the Leaf and bow tie (10-1 scores), with the Leaf locking in WTXF-42 and the bow tie securing the difficult WPSG-32.
As The World Turns: Vizio Is Acquired by LeEco
- Published on Wednesday, 27 July 2016 16:16
- Pete Putman
- 0 Comments
A press release crossed my desk yesterday, detailing how the TV brand Vizio had just been acquired by the Chinese firm LeEco for $2B. LeEco, while largely unknown on this side of the Pacific, is the 7th largest TV brand in China and also operates an online video content delivery business.
It’s expected that the combined operations of both companies will push them past Skyworth as the #6 worldwide TV brand, according to analysis from IHS Technology I just received this morning. (Never heard of Skyworth? Give it time.)
Vizio, which started operations over a decade ago, has become a powerhouse brand in the U.S. Although they don’t release their revenue and market share results, the company has given Samsung a run for their money over the years with a full line of televisions, most recently taking steps into HDR and UHDTV with Dolby Vision-equipped sets.
Yet, not everything the company has touched has turned to gold. There have been brief forays into smartphones (gone), tablets (gone), and computers (also gone.) In contrast, the company has done very well with sound bars, which all flat-screen TVs benefit from.
This news didn’t surprise me at all. The TV marketplace has become a very cutthroat business as prices and profits went into free fall, aided and abetted by competition from China where the nexus of LCD panel manufacturing is moving.
Numerous prominent nameplates have been victims of this downward trend, starting with Hitachi several years ago and continuing through Mitsubishi, Toshiba, and Sharp; all of whom have withdrawn from the North American TV market. (Hisense continues to sell televisions with the Sharp brand name in the U.S. and Canada.)
Panasonic, once a major player in TVs, is in the unusual position of offering an Ultra HD Blu-ray player (DMP-UBD900, $699) this fall, but no UHD televisions to bundle it with. For now, the company is not selling TVs at retail in the U.S. even though it demonstrated a 65-inch OLED UHDTV at CES that used an LG RGBW OLED panel.
Only Sony remains as a Japanese TV brand, and they’ve paid a dear price to stay in the game, losing hundreds of millions of dollars for a decade. Samsung and LG, meanwhile, have maintained their positions in the Top 5 even as worldwide TV shipments have gone into decline by an average of 3-4% per year, offset somewhat by double-digit growth in UHDTV shipments.
What’s interesting about LeEco is that, according to the HIS analysis, they’re willing to sell TVs at or below manufacturing costs – or even give them away free as a promotion – to secure paid subscriptions to their online content in China. That’s not a model that is likely to work here, but it does indicate how aggressive the new LeEco / Vizio marketing approach could be here and overseas.
Checking this weekend’s sales fliers, I spotted a Vizio 50-inch “smart” Ultra HDTV with HDR for $800 and a 70-inch model for about $2,000; both at Best Buy. Connect the dots and you can see why TV prices continue to fall, and why the bulk of TV sales are transitioning from 1080p to Ultra HD in a hurry.
Sharp (again, now made and marketed by Hisense) did Vizio one better this week, offering a 55-inch Ultra HD set for $650 (no HDR). We’re not far off from seeing $500 55-inch Ultra HDTVs, which will probably be on store shelves in time for the fall football season and certainly by Christmas.
Vizio’s conversion to a publicly-held company a year ago set the stage for this sale and is more proof of the shift in power to China for manufacturing and sales of televisions – at least worldwide. Will TCL and Hisense make further inroads to the U.S. market? What impact will they have (if any) on Vizio’s market share?