Posts Tagged ‘Antenna TV’

Spectrum Repacking and Channel Scans

In the wake of last year’s big spectrum auction, the FCC is chopping even more spectrum away from UHF TV stations and expecting (somehow) to jam all the remaining TV stations into low band VHF (2-6), high band VHF (7-13), and truncated UHF (14-36) channels.

In my neighborhood, stations are already packing up and moving. While conducting a recent test of a “smart” indoor UHF TV antenna, I grabbed some spectrum analyzer plots of all three television frequency bands. As expected, the RF spectrum from channel 56 to 87 (channels 2-6) was largely unusable due to high levels of impulse and main-made noise.

The high band VHF spectrum wasn’t much better, with some continuous RFI kicking up the noise floor by almost 20 dB. But it was the UHF spectrum I was interested in, and several former broadcasters were noticeable by their absence. Channels 29, 35, and 39 – previously in use for Univision, independent, and PBS stations – had all gone dark.

To get around the lack of available channels, TV stations are “channel sharing,” something the FCC frowned on as recently as a decade ago. What that means is that stations divvy up the available bits in an MPEG2 encoder and multicast several minor channels on one physical RF channel. This technique was almost impossible to pull off twenty years ago when digital TV broadcasts and HDTV were just getting started.

Now, thanks to very powerful processors and tricks like adaptive variable bitrate encoding and statistical multiplexing (a/k/a “stat muxing”), it’s not difficult at all, even though the jury is still out on the quality of HD and SD video using much lower bit rates that were not possible in 1998. NBC has done this in Philadelphia and New York, combining Telemundo channels with NBC programming and making room for one HD service from each.

Locally, an independent station in Allentown (WFMZ) will relinquish its 5-megawatt signal on UHF-46 and move to VHF-9, sharing bits with WBPH and the Lehigh Valley PBS station, WLVT (formerly on channel 39). This will have happened by the time you read this column and I’ll be curious to see just how much image quality has deteriorated for each minor channel after the new transmitter lights up.

Keep in mind that many stations auctioned off their channels in return for a nice pay day. Public stations in particular pocketed some serious change, money that went into facilities upgrades and balancing their budgets. If their multicast services hold up well with the latest in MPEG2 encoding, then they’ll come out of this smelling like a rose.

What this means to you as an OTA viewer is that you will need to re-run channel scans to catch all of these moves – otherwise, you’ll tune to a channel that has gone dark and will be standing there, scratching your heads in bewilderment. I’d perform a channel scan twice a month from now through the end of the year. (You might also pick up some newer, low-power translators and repeaters along the way, and you may find some channels are gone for good.)

“Antenna” Digital TV: When All Else Fails…

Got free digital TV?

As I write this, it’s Saturday afternoon, and four days since a big ice storm hammered southeastern Pennsylvania, leaving hundreds of thousands of homes in the dark – no electricity, no cable, no Internet – and a real mess for PECO (our electric utility) to clean up.

We awoke last Tuesday morning to see a coating of ice over several inches of snow that fell two days before. Roads were largely impassable, snapped tree limbs were laying everywhere, and the sound of generators created a racket not unlike the crickets of late summer.

Our power went out for 18 hours, starting at noon Tuesday. (Some nearby tree finally gave up the good fight and toppled into the adjacent 34 kV power lines.) Fortunately, I had pre-wired selected circuits in the house with a transfer switch after Hurricane Sandy, and quickly fired up my 6,500 watt Honda generator. It ran out of a second tank of gas just as the power came back on Wednesday morning.

Mother Nature can be deadly and beautiful at the same time.

But that’s not the real story. Our cable and Internet service come from Comcast, and it was dead as a doornail when we arose Wednesday morning. Verizon’s mobile phone service wasn’t much better; it could pass calls and texts, but data wouldn’t move, nor could I load any Web pages.

As many readers know, I’m a big proponent of terrestrial digital TV. So my home system has three different TV antennas – one on a rotator atop the roof, one below it that is aimed permanently at Philadelphia, and one in my attic, also aimed at Phily. It’s a nice complement to our cable service, especially if I want to watch TV stations from New York City (about 65 miles away).

Thanks to those rigs, we were able to get uninterrupted TV service and catch up on the latest weather, traffic conditions, and power outage updates. All I had to do was switch over to the RF inputs on each TV, and I was in business. And apparently, I was the only one of my neighbors in this subdivision able to do so. (And I could keep using my TiVo HD DVR, as it also has a terrestrial DTV tuner.)

So – here we are on a beautiful but chilly Saturday morning with no Internet, no cable, and no VoIP telephone service. I can’t get any emails or data through my mobile phone. But I can watch as much TV as I want, on as many channels as I want (about 55 minor channels here in the metro Philly market).

Why is this important? The FCC has been planning a spectrum auction for some time to free up more UHF TV channels for mobile phone and Internet service. This auction, the rules of which are still being developed and vetted, will rely on broadcasters “willingly” giving up channels in exchange for cash, presumably to be paid by the likes of Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint.

But there are some flies in the ointment. So far, there hasn’t been much of a positive response to the idea from broadcasters, the majority of whom seem content to hang onto their licenses – licenses that they paid plenty of cash to get in the first place, in case you didn’t know.

The CTIA (aka The Wireless Association) and other broadband advocacy groups like to talk about how broadcasters got their spectrum “for free.” Hogwash. They had to pay millions of dollars for licenses, construction permits, and related costs to light up transmitters and keep them on the air 24/7.  A recent analysis by analyst Jeffery Eisenach of Navigant Economics illustrated in detail that broadcasters had to pay their way – and plenty – to use the airwaves, just like anyone else.

In the meantime, Verizon and AT&T are sitting on chunks of unused spectrum that they’ve had for several years. Numerous studies over the past three years have illustrated that there is no “wireless broadband crisis,” as former FCC chairman Julius Genachowski insisted. (There have been plenty of new ideas for more efficient ways to use exiting wireless spectrum, though.) And locally, we’ve found out several times in the past two years that cellular networks are notoriously unreliable when there is a natural disaster, as they are easily overwhelmed with traffic.

Meanwhile, the terrestrial “one serving many” digital TV broadcast model continues to chug along reliably, providing timely news and weather updates and helping us feel like we’re not cut off from the rest of the world. Yes, I do miss my Internet connection, and shudder to think about how many emails I’ll have to plow through when it comes back.

But I don’t miss the telemarketing calls. And I’ve gained a new appreciation for just how dogged (and perhaps crazy) local reporters are from Philly TV stations KYW, WCAU, WPVI, and WTXF as they drive through dark neighborhoods, sliding on ice and dodging downed power lines to keep us updated on the progress of PECO crews. And what’s happening on the local roads . And which sections of which towns are still dark. And what to expect from the next storm system heading our way. (No, not more snow!)

When all else fails…

Useful Gadgets: Channel Master CM-7400 TV

For those readers who are either (a) tired of ever-increasing bills for cable TV, or (b) looking for a different TV experience, I’ve got a product for you: Channel Master TV.

 

This new product from the folks who were formerly best-known for TV antennas, amplifiers, and related products, is an ATSC receiver with dual DVRs (320 GB total capacity) and tuners, plus built-in WiFi connectivity for Vudu’s streaming HD movie service and Vudu apps. If you live in an area with plots of digital TV stations and are content to give up premium news, sports, and lifestyle channels (replacing some of them with Internet-delivered content), then you should check out this product.

WHAT’S IN THE BOX

 

The CM7400 is a stylish, small (10” W x 7” D x 1.75” H) black box with three ‘rubber duck’ WiFi antennas attached to its rear panel. The front panel has a black gloss finish and shows only the power indicator, current time, and indicator LEDs for menu navigation. There’s also a small USB 2.0 port above the clock.

 

The rear panel is loaded with jacks, including an RF loop-through (two ‘F’ connectors), component and composite analog video outputs, an HDMI output, a Toslink connector for digital audio, a second USB 2.0 port, a 100BaseT Ethernet port, and an eSATA connection, presumably for an external hard drive. Power for the CM-7400 comes from a small wall transformer – there’s no internal supply.

The supplied remote resembles those shipped by TiVo. It provides the usual secondary control of set-top boxes and other connected gadgets in your system, plus volume, channel, mousedisk, and numeric keypad functions.  It’s actually pretty hefty, compared to the box it’s controlling!

 

To hook up the CM-7400, your best bet is to use the HDMI port, but if you have an older TV, the analog RCA jacks will suffice. Keep in mind you can only get 720p and 1080i resolutions through component jacks – if you want 1080p playback (24-frame or 30-frame), you’ll need to use the HDMI connector. Digital audio is accessible through the Toslink connector, or embedded in the HDMI hook-up.

Does this remote remind of you anything in particular?

 

MENUS AND SETTINGS

 

The first thing you’ll want to do is configure your channels. Go into the Settings menu and select Channels, and the CM-7400 will prompt you for your location. Scroll to the Local Broadcast option and select it (make sure your TV antenna is connected first!). The box will take a few minutes to scan for all local channels and will also start building program guide information from each station’s PSIP data.

 

You’ll notice that the box can receive digital cable channels that are not scrambled (conditional access) and if you enter your zip code, will ask you for your cable provider. The problem is; most cable systems are moving to scramble all channels in the future, even over-the-air retransmissions. It appears the FCC will give in on this request (they already have with RCN), so plan on sticking to free over-the-air channels.

 

The next step is to configure your wireless network. (Or, you can simply plug in a wired Ethernet cable, but wireless gives you more options.) The CM-7400 supports 802.11 b/g/n protocols and will connect quickly to your network – if there is a password, you’ll be prompted to enter it on the remarkably easy-to-read menu GUI, which uses mostly white text on a black background.

 

Channel Master provides a nice Quick Start Guide to get you through these steps, so you should be up and running pretty quickly. Now, it’s time to watch TV.

Here's the top level menu bar.

And here's the program guide interface.

 

As I mentioned earlier, the CM-7400 uses each station’s Program and System Information Protocol data to build an electronic program guide. That’s how the DVR knows what programs are coming up in the schedule and when to record them. As you tune through each major and minor channel, you’ll see a program synopsis appear in a black bar at the top of the screen. This bar will list the major and minor channel numbers, the program name, its duration, the rating, and a brief description.

 

You can also press the GUIDE button and a complete program schedule for all receivable stations will appear, showing 30-minute increments. Scroll to a program listing and press OK, and the scheduler will appear, asking you if you want to (a) record the episode, (b) record the series (repeated scheduled recordings), (c) find other times that the program is scheduled, or (d) manually record the program.

 

The manual feature is handy if your local station isn’t listing program guide information correctly, or it is simply missing, a problem I had with local station WCAU-10 (NBC) a couple of months ago. Scheduling a manual recording without the correct program guide info is not an easy task, as you have to carefully enter a start and stop time and how often you want to record this time block (One Time Only, etc). For all recordings, http://reviews.cnet.com/internet-speed-test/ you can select the record quality, how long to keep it, and if you want the program to start early or end late in one-minute increments.

 

IN ACTUAL USE

 

The more I used this product, the more similarities I saw to the TiVo interface, which IMHO is the best GUI around for a DVR. About the only things missing from Channel Master TV are “thumbs up and down” controls, an audible “beep” or “boop” each time you execute a keystroke or command, and the program preference and search functions that make TiVo so powerful. Well, you can’t win them all…

 

As for the Vudu streaming and apps section, you will see a lot of familiar Internet TV services, including Pandora, Facebook, Picasa, Flickr, and some newbies like NBC Nightly News, New York Times, Associated Press, CNN Daily, and quite a few premium channels like Dexter, Californication, Big Love, and TrueBlood. Just select and click away to start watching.

Here's what the Vudu Apps screen looks like.

 

To test out Vudu, I opened an account and purchased two movies – Bridesmaids (or as I like to call it, The Hangover on Estrogen), and The Help. Yeah, they are both chick flicks, but quite entertaining (in fact, Bridesmaids was flat-out hilariously gross!). Vudu gives you the choice of renting using HDX (1080p/24) quality, HD (720p) quality, and SD (480p) quality. The price difference is small, but you need to check first to see how fast your Internet speeds are.

 

Channel Master TV will do that for you automatically through the Vudu interface and recommend a quality level. But be warned – Internet speeds vary widely  and typically slow down in the evening during peak viewing hours. My suggestion is to go to the CNET Internet Speed Checker Web site (http://reviews.cnet.com/internet-speed-test/) and see what your typical download speeds are during the day and at night. You may find that SD mode works most consistently.

 

My rule of thumb is – up to 2-3 megabits per second (Mb/s) is good for SD video delivery. Figure on 5-6 Mb/s to get 720p HD content reliably, and 8 Mb/s or better for 1080p video. Otherwise, you may find your movie stops abruptly and the Vudu screen will tell you it is “buffering” – something that can take a few minutes if download speeds drop.

 

Bridesmaids took four tries to start correctly, then played perfectly in HDX resolution until the past 10 minutes when it stopped and started “buffering” again. I dropped down to SD resolution to finish the movie and it didn’t look all that bad on my Panasonic 42-inch 1080p plasma. The Help ran smoothly except for one hiccup near the middle, but this time, I selected SD playback for the entire film. The reason? My average nighttime Internet speeds were dropping into the 2 – 4 Mb/s range.

 

As for over-the-air channels, the CM-7400 has a very sensitive receiver and evidently uses sophisticated adaptive equalization. What that means in English is reliable reception of weak stations or stations off to the side of the antenna, as well as good reception during periods of signal fading, such as during a thunderstorm. I was able to lock in and watch 38 different minor channels in the Philadelphia market, which is basically a small hotel cable TV system. And they’re all free.

 

Sports fans should also keep in mind that there is a growing cry to move all cable sports channels to premium tiers as cable bills continue to climb. You won’t need to pay to watch NFL games (available on CBS, NBC, and FOX through 2022), the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, selected major league baseball games and the World Series, SEC and Big Ten football, and the Olympics – not to mention the Masters golf tournament, selected tennis matches, and the Indianapolis 500. All free with an antenna!

 

I should mention that the test unit seemed to run a bit warm to me, even when it was switched off. One product review on the Channel Mater Web site recommended using a laptop cooler (external heat sink) to help with heat dissipation. Also, Channel Master released an updated version of the OS on January 18, which you should install and upgrade.

 

CONCLUSION

 

Channel Master’s CM-7400 TV DVR is a clever product that nicely combines dual DVRs with Vudu streaming. It has a nicely-designed and executed user interface, sets up quickly, and supports 1080p playback through its HDMI connector. You can also loop your antenna connection through the CM-7400 and continue to watch on your regular TV, giving you the ability to watch three programs at once while recording two of them. Clever, eh?

 

SPECIFICATIONS

 

Channel Master CM-7400 TV DVR

SRP: $400

Available at: http://tinyurl.com/7m6qbgk

And other online outlets including Amazon.com

 

Video

  • 480i/480p
  • 720p
  • 1080p/1080i

Audio

  • Dolby® Digital and Dolby® Digital Plus

Tuners

  • Dual ATSC/Clear QAM¹
  • No monthly subscription fee
  • Includes a one year manufacturer’s limited warranty

Recording Capacity

  • 320GB Hard Disk Drive²
  • Up to 35 hours of HD recording³
  • Up to 150 hours of SD recording³

Wireless

  • Built-in 802.11b/g/n

Dimensions

  • 10(w) x 7(d) x 1.75(h) inches

Rear Panel Features

  • RJ-45 Ethernet
  • USB 2.0
  • HDMI®
  • eSATA
  • Digital Audio (Optical)
  • RF output
  • RF antenna/cable input
  • RCA component and composite video
  • Stereo audio

Front Panel Features

  • Illuminated power standby button
  • Indicators for network status, HD and recording status
  • USB 2.0
  • IR receiver
  • Capacitive touchpad
  • Clock display

Contents Included

  • Channel Master TV Unit
  • User Guide
  • Quick Start Guide
  • IR Universal Remote Control
  • AA Batteries
  • Composite and Stero Audio Cable
  • RF Coaxial Cable
  • HDMI Cable
  • AC Adapter