Category: The Front Line

FiOS is coming! (Yawn…)

They’re here!

The big orange spools of fiber optic jackets. The rows of white utility trucks. The polycarbonate junction boxes sitting every few feet along the curb. The spray-painted lines and alien glyphs all over my lawn, and my neighbor’s lawns.

Yes, FiOS has finally made it to our neighborhood. After nearly six years of waiting, Verizon has hired an army of subcontractors to run fiber optic cables under our lawns and breach the once-impenetrable Comcast wall.

This is FiOS! This is Big! (Well, the spools certainly are!)

Thing is, some of my neighbors are kinda blase about the whole thing. And I am, too.

Here’s why: Verizon first wired up nearby Doylestown Borough in 2003-2004, back when most people had separate telephone and cable TV hookups and broadband access was starting to pick up steam. Repeated calls to Verizon about the availability of FiOS in our township brought the same results – “We’re negotiating with your township over the franchise fees.” Seems that, unlike every other township around Doylestown, our supervisors insisted that Verizon pay the same franchise fees that Comcast had, back in the day.

This, even though Verizon had successfully negotiated discounted franchise deals with most other townships in central Bucks County.

Finally, after years of haggling, our supervisors reached an accommodation with Verizon, who had already announced they would not build out their national FiOS infrastructure any further, due to the high labor/materials costs and challenging ROI environment. Fortunately, we already had the required fiber optic ‘drops’ sitting in a Verizon service cabinet at the corner of our development from six years ago.

A few things have changed along the way since 2004. First off, Comcast’s broadband speeds have picked up considerably, and their service is quite reliable. Secondly, I, along with some of my neighbors, dropped Verizon landline telephone service and consolidated everything into the ‘triple play’ option (broadband, phone, and cable TV). And the quality of phone service is much, much better than what I had with Verizon. (Other neighbors opted to install DirecTV dishes and forego any kind of cable connection.)

I’ve also got a CableCARD-enabled TiVo HD that I use constantly to time-shift programs, and it works very well. Not only that, there are numerous ‘in the clear’ digital TV channels present on my system that can be accessed by conventional TV sets without extra set-top boxes.

I saved myself about $40 a month with the consolidation. And have gotten pretty used to the high level of service. So maybe it’s understandable that I’m not in any hurry to change over to a new provider, even if their Internet speeds are supposedly faster (something that was definitely true back in 2004, but maybe not now).

And it doesn’t help when a Verizon contractor shows up at my door, asking me if he can disconnect my cable TV wiring so he can trace the underground line back to the house. Hell, no! Not while I’m reviewing artwork for a client project!

The wires are definitely here…unless they’re somewhere else.

And that’s another thing to consider. When you call Comcast for a service problem (something I haven’t had to do in over a year), a Comcast-trained service person shows up in a Comcast truck.

When you call Verizon, you may get a Verizon tech. Or, you may get a subcontractor, particularly if you have wiring issues.  There are numerous ‘installation disaster’ stories of subcontractors puncturing gas lines and shorting out electrical lines while installing FiOS connections in the central Bucks County area. That alone gives me pause about the whole ‘switch to FiOS’ thing.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not a particularly big fan of Comcast, who seems to raise their rates at the drop of a hat.  And I wonder what Comcast’s pending acquisition of NBC Universal will mean for future monthly rates and access to content.

The fact that I could switch to FiOS at any time may be useful to me to get a better rate from Comcast, or hold the line on future rate increases.

But to be honest, the service I get right right now is very good. And it’s reliable. And I can troubleshoot most of it myself with my own test equipment. And I know a lot of the service and engineering folks at Big C. So I guess I’ll stick with Comcast for a while longer, while those Verizon contractors continue to tear up everyone’s lawns and finish pulling fiber to all the houses in the ‘hood. Then we’ll see how it’s working out for any of my neighbors who decide to make the switch.

Maybe it’s simply a case of dealing with the devil you know, versus the one you don’t know?

Saturday mail delivery and DVDs: Six – no, make that two degrees of separation

Two announcements in recent weeks spell big trouble in the future for DVD rentals.

Sales of movies and TV shows on DVDs have been declining steadily for the past five years, which is not good news for Hollywood. However, DVD rentals have held fast, slipping only a tad a couple of years ago, and then recovering as Redbox “buck-a-night” rental kiosks have spread all over the country’s grocery and drug stores.

The dominant player in DVD rentals is, of course, Netflix, who is implementing a multi-year strategy to wean customers away from polycarbonate discs and get them to stream movies instead over broadband connections.  By Netflix’ own reckoning, DVD rentals will peak by 2013, and then start a slow decline towards extinction by the end of the decade.

They may want to move that timetable up a bit. The U.S. Postal Service just announced a hike of 2 cents in the cost of first-class postage, to take effect early next year. According to today’s M&E Daily, “…Janney Capital media and entertainment analyst Tony Wible …estimated that a (Postal Service) rate hike could add between $18 million and $30 million to Netflix’s physical distribution expenses in 2011.” That’s a real game-changer!

In a New York Times article from July 2, Netflix’ DVD operations head Andrew Redich was quoted as saying, “Big rate increases will absolutely squash business and will absolutely slow growth for a company like Netflix.” No kidding! No wonder the company is lobbying for a five-day mail delivery schedule instead, a move which would save the Postal Service about $2B per year.

Make no mistake about it – Netflix wants to move away from physical disc distribution to streaming, which would eliminate a ton of back-office expenses and staffing problems. The Postal Service announcement will likely hasten that move, which is not good news for DVD or Blu-ray manufacturers and distributors.

The other bad news is, of course, Blockbuster’s continuing financial troubles. Here are the vital statistics: In 2009, Blockbuster recorded a net loss of $569.3 million based on annual revenue of $4.06 billion. For Q1 of 2010, it had a net loss of $65.4 million. And BB is carrying $895 million in debt on its books. Last week, the company was informed by the New York Stock Exchange that it would be delisted as its average share price had been under $1 for a 30-day period (Blockbuster was hovering around 18 – 20 cents per share at the end of last week).

As for long-term trends, Adams Media Research stated earlier this year that 2009 in-store spending on DVD movies declined to $3.3 billion, down $1 billion from 2008 and $5.2 billion from the brick-and-mortar movie store’s high water mark in 2001.  Not a pretty picture!

So – are we seeing the last days of the DVD? Probably not for a few more years. But it’s clear that consumers like the idea of streaming content instead of buying and renting physical discs. It’s a convenience thing! (We’ve had a Blockbuster By Mail copy of Julie and Julia sitting here for almost two months, still waiting to get a ’round toit’ so we can watch it. Maybe it’s a laziness thing, too.)

The Postal Service is in almost as bad a jam as Hollywood and Blockbuster. Look at all the documents and forms that can be sent via email now, instead of through snail mail. Electronic payments, e-funds deposits, PDFs, JPEGs, virtual catalogs, you name it – if it can be digitized or scanned, it can be sent over the Internet, stamps be damned. How much longer before retail stores move entirely to electronic coupons? The ‘green’ movement is pushing more retailers to adopt online catalog and brochure formats, so more and more snail mail is just junk nowadays.

Maybe Hollywood can work with the Post Office on a movie about all this (to be streamed by Netflix, of course). They could call it, The Postman Never Rings At All. Or maybe, First Class 2: This Time, It’s 46 Cents.

And maybe we should just save that copy of Julie and Julia, instead of sending it back. It could be a collector’s item before long…

3D TV at Best Buy: An afterthought?

To complete the 3D off-axis viewing tests described in my previous post, I drove to a local Best Buy store on Sunday, June 27. The actual store will remain anonymous, but is located near a major shopping mall and down the street from other big box retailers.

I figured they’d have at least one Samsung and one Panasonic 3D TV demo set up and running. However, what I found when I got there just left me shaking my head in disgust.

The Samsung 3D TV demo was set up at the edge of the Magnolia sub-store, and featured their top-of-the-line UN55C9000 LED-backlight 3D LCD TV. Best Buy had it on sale for $6,299 and the demo was running a clip from Monsters vs. Aliens from Samsung’s BD-C6900 3D Blu-ray player. A comfy couch rounded out the picture.

The demo was running nicely, except that only one pair of Samsung 3D glasses was available for viewing, and it was tethered via a long cable to a stand behind the couch. That didn’t work out so well for the four people standing there when I arrived – we were all jockeying for the same pair of glasses.

Over in the Best Buy TV aisles, I found Panasonic’s TC-P50VT20 50-inch 3D plasma on an end-of-aisle shelf with not much room around it to watch the 3D demo, and no place to sit. It was on sale for $2,199. Next to the TV was a locked plexiglass box with two pairs of Panasonic active shutter glasses, and I had to hunt down a sales associate to open the box so I could squat on my knees (not too comfortable) and watch a 3D travelogue of Rome.

What caught my eye below the Panasonic plasma was an advertised special for Samsung’s BD-C6900 Blu-ray player, even though Panasonic’s BDT-350 was clearly running the show. No one seemed to be paying any attention to this discrepancy until I pointed it out to the sales associate who procured my glasses. He then quickly yanked the sign, but didn’t replace it with another. Nor was there any mention of the specially-priced Panasonic  3D TV, glasses, and Blu-ray player ‘bundle’ to be found.

Well, that doesn’t look right…

Around the corner, there was another small theater set up, this time showcasing a Samsung 46-inch 3D LCD TV (I didn’t check to see which model). It, too, was running clips from Monsters vs. Aliens in 3D…except that the clips weren’t in 3D, they were 2D.

The fellow sitting on the leather couch behind me, watching through a pair of Samsung 3D glasses, seemed blissfully unaware of this fact until I mentioned it. I watched him fidget with the glasses for almost five minutes until I finally tipped him off, after which he tossed them on the couch and walked away in disgust, muttering “…I wondered why it didn’t look like 3D.”

I wandered back over to the Magnolia section, where a Panasonic 65-inch plasma was running a variety of HD video clips and advertising (of all things) Mitsubishi’s Laser VUE rear-projection TVs. (Wonder how Panasonic feels about that?) I was searching for the last 3D demo in the store – a Panasonic  TC-P50VT25 plasma set hanging on the wall.

Well, I found it, except that there were no 3D glasses available for viewing. But that didn’t matter as it turned out, because the TV was only showing 2D coverage of the World Cup. The irony of this was the empty Panasonic stand positioned in front of the TV with a placard that said, “You have to experience TV in 3D!” and exhorted me to try on a pair of 3D glasses to get the full Panasonic 3D experience. OK, so where were the glasses, exactly? And where was ESPN’s 3D World Cup video feed? Who dropped the ball here? (Sorry, bad pun…)

All in all, it was a pretty lame exhibition of 3D by Best Buy. Demo #1 had but a single pair of glasses available, while demo #2 was set up in a crowded area where no one could watch and you needed to pick a lock to get at the glasses. Demo #3 wasn’t even showing 3D content in the first place, and demo #4 was completely missing in action.

So…tell me, how is a consumer supposed to make an educated 3D TV buying decision under these circumstances?

Samsung and Panasonic 3D TVs: Any better than Sony?

This past Sunday, I packed up my Sanyo Xacti pistol camera and headed over to a nearby Best Buy store. My goal was to re-run the same off-axis viewing tests that I conducted on a Sony Bravia 3D LCD TV at the CEA Line Shows. Except this time around, my guinea pigs would be Samsung and Panasonic products.

I picked a normal exposure for the correct (level) view and didn’t change it as I rotated the camera and glasses around. This was done so you could see any change in screen brightness.

First up was a Samsung 55-inch LED model. I settled in the comfy chair, pulled out the lone pair of active shutter glasses, and picked a few scenes from Monsters vs. Aliens.

Figure 1 shows a close-up view of the screen through the right eye lens, with the glasses positioned at the correct angle to the screen. No ghost images (crosstalk) were spotted and picture quality was high.

Figure 1

The next image shows the view with the glasses tilted about 30 degrees to the left. No objectionable ghosting here, either, although this particular scene is of a TV weatherman on a ‘flat’ picture tube – not much 3D going on here.

Figure 2

Figure 3 shows the view with the glasses tilted about 60 degrees to the left. The image is noticeably darker now, as the polarizers in the glasses are starting to cancel out the polarized light from the LCD TV screen.

Figure 3

Figure 4 shows – nothing! The glasses are tilted about 80 degrees to the left and the ‘twist’ of polarized light from the LCD screen is canceled out by the polarizing angle of the 3D glasses. Not surprising, considering that two polarizers are being used in the 3D glasses.

Figure 4

These tests don’t mean the Samsung glasses are completely free from ghost images when tilted. Figures 5a and 5b show two different views with the glasses tilted at about 45 degrees to either side, and you can see crosstalk in both images.

Figure 5a

Figure 5b

On to Panasonic! Figure 6 shows the 50-inch plasma screen head-on, as seen through the right lens.

Figure 6

The next figure shows the same screen with a tilt of about 45 degrees. Picture brightness has dropped a little, but there is no ghosting evident in the image.

Figure 7

Figure 8 shows the screen as seen at a nearly vertical angle, about 80 degrees. Image brightness is still good and there is only a hint of ghosting to be seen (look around St. Peter’s dome). Figure 9 shows the screen 90 degrees to horizontal and it’s still largely free of crosstalk.

Figure 8

Figure 9

From these tests. it should be pretty clear that plasma has a big advantage over LCD technology for viewing 3D, and that’s because plasma TVs don’t use polarizers as part of their imaging process. (Anti-glare glass is used, but doesn’t seem to have an adverse effect on 3D viewing angles.)

In contrast, it’s a tricky proposition to pair up polarized glasses with a polarized TV screen, as we’re just seen with Samsung and Sony LCD TVs. Your head really needs to be level to avoid seeing any ghost images.

It appears that the crosstalk problem is worse on Sony’s 3D LCD TVs because they’re only using one polarizer per glass lens (that’s the consensus educated guess). That decision results in images that are brighter, but are ridden with crosstalk – even when the glasses are positioned level to the screen. So there’s no allowance for head tilt  – even slight amounts – with Sony’s approach.

By using two polarizers per lens, Samsung cuts down crosstalk more thoroughly, just at the cost of screen brightness. But you can tilt your head at a greater angle and not be distracted by crosstalk through the glasses.

Panasonic is also using dual polarizers and their images were about as bright as Samsung’s, but nearly free of ghost images when viewed at any angle. If and when OLED-based 3D TVs make it to market, you can expect to see that same level of performance.

So…now you know!

2010 CEA Line Shows and Summer Digital Experience: A recap

The annual CEA Line Show event in New York City seems to be gaining in popularity, although the pickings were slim again this year.  Still, this event, coupled with Mitsubishi’s press showcase on 18th Street and Pepcomm’s evening Digital Experience tabletop show, held later that evening, gave me a good excuse to make a trip to the Big Apple.

My first stop was at DriveIn24 Studios, where Mits had set up a very nice dealer and press display of their latest LCD and DLP HDTV sets. As most readers know, Mitsubishi is the lone hold-out in rear-projection TV, a product category that’s nearly extinct thanks to super-low prices on big plasma and LCD TVs, along with the general public’s obsession with super-thin TV profiles and their disinterest in replacing lamps.

Still, Mits has claimed to sell in excess of half a million RPTVs every year (a number I have some doubts about) and is hanging in there as the remaining ‘niche’ player in the category. And they had a few new products to brag about, including two upgraded 82-inch DLP Rear-pro sets (WD-82738 and WD-82838), a larger, less-expensive Laser DLP product (the 75-inch L75-A91, MSRP $5,999), and a 3D Starter Pack (Model 3DC-1000, $399).

Now, THAT is some serious 3D TV viewing!

This starter kit is designed to retrofit older Mitsubishi DLP TVs for active shutter 3D and contains two pairs of active shutter 3D eyewear, a 3D emitter, a 3D adapter with remote control, an HDMI cable, and also features a Disney 3D showcase Blu-ray disc with 3D trailers of A Christmas Carol, Alice in Wonderland, and Toy Story 3. The 3D adapter is also available separately for $99.

Mitsubishi also showed off a new line of six Unisen LCD TVs (40, 46, and 55-inch) with their unique 18-speaker soundbar. Paired with a separate woofer, this audio system does provide some amazingly good surround-sound effects, and it’s also found in their ten rear pro models. The soundbar can be used by itself, or set up as the center speaker in a surround sound system (I liked the audio quality better in that mode).

The funny thing about the Mits line-up is that they’ve managed to survive some very turbulent times in the TV industry and maintain their distinct brand identity as a high-end product. (Too bad their dealers can’t pull that trick off; 62-year-old specialty retailer Ken Crane’s in southern California just announced they’re closing their doors for good this year.)

And Mits does make a high-quality product – I was quite taken with the 3D demos on that 82-inch behemoth in a darkened room, the best way to watch 3D content. They were a lot more impressive than the 3D stuff Sony showed at the Line Show (see my related post here). As for 3D on LCD TVs, Mits doesn’t think the technology is ready for prime time yet, due to crosstalk problems between LCD TVs and active shutter glasses.

Mitsubishi execs Max Wasinger (left) and Frank DeMartin (right) are all smiles as they show off their new 75-inch Laser Vue DLP RPTV…and continue to thrive in the rear-projection TV business.

Back at the Line Shows, I found a few items of interest. Envision Peripherals is a specialty brander of 19-inch, 26-inch, 32-inch, and 42-inch LCD TVs under the AOC name, and they had a demonstration of a 32-inch set that uses a standard flash memory stick as a DVR. This feature will work with any ATSC or QAM signal and writes the program to flash memory, allowing you to fast-forward, pause, rewind or skip through programs.

Currently, the minimum storage supported is 512 MB, while the maximum is 2 GB. (You’ll need about 9 GB per hour to record or shift HD programs and 3 GB per hour of SD programs.) So it’s an intriguing feature, but one which needs more work if it has any value. The literature mentioned that AOC is working on making 8GB flash drives compatible with their TVs.

Across the way, Vizio set up their booth to show a full range of consumer electronics products, including a new broadband WiFi router (XWH100, dual-band operation) and a wireless 5.1 surround sound system with sound bar for under-TV mounting (VHT510) and separate wireless subwoofer and rear speakers. Vizio also showed a passive 3D LCD TV prototype using alternate-line circular polarization, but it was plagued with purple-tinted ghost images from crosstalk. (Back to the drawing board!)

Vizio’s 65-inch passive 3D TV made for an interesting concept demo, but had serious crosstalk problems.

As mentioned in my other post, Monster Cable is in the 3D glasses business. They’ve signed a deal to OEM active shutter glasses from Florida-based Bit Cauldron, and these glasses don’t use infrared (IR) signaling. Instead, they rely on the 802.15.4 RF (wireless) ZigBee protocol, which (as a sage company representative pointed out to me last January at CES) “…will still work even if you are standing in the next room!” (No comment…)

The advantage of an RF-based connection is immunity to interference from intense lamps, fluorescent lights, and momentary obstructions of the TV’s IR emitter. Best of all, these are universal (learning) active shutter glasses that will work with ANY 3D TV. (And they work a heck of a lot better than Sony’s own glasses with Bravia LCD TVs!) They’re not cheap at $170 a pair, though.

Need a pair of ‘works anywhere’ 3D glasses? Monster’s got your number.

I wrapped the day up a visit to the Digital Experience gadget fest, where Logitech was showing a prototype of the Google TV set-top box. They couldn’t tell me anything about it or what it would cost (those details will be forthcoming in the fall), but I can tell you it has HDMI input and output connections, dual USB sockets, an Ethernet port, a SPDIF connection, and an external DC power plug. So far as I can tell, it has no provision for time-shifting or recording, although (as mentioned earlier) that could easily be done with flash memory sticks, which can be bought for about $20 apiece with 8 MB of capacity.

Across the way, TiVo had their Premiere DVRs out for inspection (they run on a Flash operating system) but no new updates to announce. They were intrigued, though, by Google’s attempt to get into the TV Guide business and what that means long-term for manufacturers of TVs and set-tops.

Here’s the Logitech prototype Google TV box. Not much to look from the top, is there?

And here’s a look at its connectors. Hmmm…HDMI inputs and outputs, eh?