Posts Tagged ‘broadband video’

Cutting the Cord

There’s more than one way to watch TV these days, and cable TV’s days of being ‘king of the hill’ may be drawing to a close.

Over the past couple of years, we’ve been hearing (and reading) about folks who have decided to give up their cable TV channel package subscriptions because of the cost…and because they have audited their TV viewing habits and realized they are paying for a lot of channels they never watch.

‘Cord-cutters’ have opted to get their TV fixes in different ways. One is to supplement broadband video with free, over-the-air digital TV. Another is to stream movies and video from Netflix, or to purchase digital downloads to a DVR.

These programs are then watched on everything from laptops to desktop computers, conventional TVs connected to a computer, TVs connected to TiVo DVRs, or simply NeTVs streaming in real time – sometimes with a computer connected for Web sites like Hulu.

How about you? If you are contemplating ‘cutting the cord’ or have already done it, I’d like to hear about your experiences, both positive and negative. I’ll compile these comments and anecdotes into a future article.

Write me at pete@hdtvexpert.com with your stories. Feel free to send along a few photos, too!

The New (TV) World Order

Could Amazon.com and YouTube become more powerful than Disney, Fox, and Warner Brothers? Will TV manufacturers partner with studios to release movies directly to selected models of TVs? Is the traditional model of cable TV channel tiers finally on life support?

It’s all possible, thanks to the explosive growth of Internet-connected Tvs (NeTVs). While the experts are debating the ‘pros’ and ‘cons’ of 3D in the home, I have yet to hear one dissenting voice about NeTVs. People seem to love the idea that they can surf Web videos just like TV channels. And Netflix’ video streaming service also appears to be catching on in popularity.

It’s easy to see why TV manufacturers are jumping on this bandwagon. The interfaces add little manufacturing costs – a good thing in this age of downward pricing pressure and low margins on TV sales – and there are a log  list of partner content providers ready to link into your living room.

While most video streaming is limited to SD resolution, HD programs can be downloaded with some latency. In tests I’ve conducted using Amazon’s Unbox Web site, it took about 45 minutes to an hour to download 50-minute episodes of TV shows mastered in the 1920×1080 format, using MPEG4 AVC compression. If you’re not in a hurry, that’s a small price to pay to watch HDTV programs and movie. And the picture quality of these HD downloads, as seen on on my 42-inch Panasonic plasma, is close to what I’ve experienced with Blu-ray discs.

LG’s BD950 downloads HD content from VUDU to an internal 250GB hard drive.

OK, let’s assume that demand for streaming digital downloads continue to grow rapidly. According to Nielsen Online, 137.4 million Americans watched Web video in December of 2009, an increase of 10.3 percent over December 2008. 10.7 billion videos were streamed during the month, representing an increase of 11.8 percent versus the same time period a year earlier. The majority of those were from YouTube (no surprise there), with Hulu taking up the #2 spot.

Thanks to the Internet, it’s now possible for an independent production company to shoot, edit, and post a movie online, and reach several million viewers in short order. What’s to stop them from working out a distribution deal with Amazon, and let customers buy downloads (SD or HD) from the Amazon servers?

Throw in the TV shows and movies that Amazon already provides as downloads, and you can see where I’m going with this.  Control the server farms, and you control the marketplace. With DVD sales slowly but steadily declining about 3% to 5% a year for the past five years, the digital download marketplace takes on greater importance. And that puts Netflix and Amazon in the driver’s seat. (Possibly Blockbuster, Best Bu, and Wal-Mart as well.)

The Digital Entertainment Group insists that the Blu-ray format will carry the day, and that we’ll see a turnaround in disc sales about 2010 as we climb out of this recession. Trouble is, two years is an eternity in the world of consumer electronics. What will the market penetration figures look like then for digital downloads and streaming? I’ll bet DVD sales (red laser and Blu-ray) will be in even steeper decline as viewers eschew trips to the video store and even to the mailbox in favor of a few clicks on their remotes. So what does that do to the bottom line at major studios?

NeTVs will also create headaches for cable MSOs. There’s plenty of statistical evidence that cable subscriptions are plateauing and in many cases, declining. Where are those viewers going? Why, to the Internet, of course. These viewers value their broadband connections more than cable channel packages, of which most channels are unwatched. In contrast, NeTVs allow the holy grail of connected TV viewing – a la carte channel packages.

Combine broadband through a NeTV, Amazon, Netflix, and maybe even an outdoor or indoor antenna for free HDTV broadcasts, and you can see there’s trouble in River City for the traditional media distribution companies. Those companies may not admit it, but they’re scrambling to figure out ways to get on this bandwagon and replace that evaporating revenue from DVD sales. Look for TV manufacturers to form exclusive content partnerships with major studios and media companies (a strategy that Sony is already implementing on its 2010 models). And I’m not talking just about widgets!

Content partnerships and controlled content distribution has been the magic formula for Apple’s iPod, iPhone, and the new iPad tablet. There’s no reason those strategies won’t also work for TV manufacturers…

CES 2010 – Part I: Big crowds, smaller booths, 3D, MIAs…

CES 2010 rebounded nicely from last year’s lightly-attended show. But there weren’t as many surprises this year.

First off, 3D was everywhere. You couldn’t hide from it. I estimate I saw at least 20 demos of 3D over two days, and toards the end I simply declined the active or passive glasses and just took notes on the manufacturer and the projector or TV on display. 3D is like the wild west right now – everyone’s advancing their own “solution” and there aren’t any standards for home delivery just yet. (Where’s a sheriff when you need one?) Some of the more ballyhooed demos were actually disappointing, like JVC’s 4K 3D demo that used passive glasses. Yes, the images had lots of detail. Yes, they were larger than life. But they also exhibited too much crosstalk for my liking. (Crosstalk in 3D appears as unwanted ghost images in your glasses and is actually left or right eye information showing up in the wrong eye.) My preference was for the active shutter demos – they were cleaner and a better representation of 3D.

Secondly, more and more companies are jumping on the NeTV bandwagon. In addition to new Widget alliances and an entire App Store that Samsung announced, I saw numerous demonstrations of image processing for cleaning up Internet video to be shown on large screens. IDT’s suite at the Wynn had some particularly effective processing for not only YouTube videos, but movies downloaded to iPods as well. Those of you who own large LCD and plasma TVs know exactly how bad Internet video looks on a 1080p screen. These processors don’t make it look substantially better, but they do clean it up enough to be tolerable. This movement towards broadband delivery of video content is exactly why CE companies are asking the FCC why it is that digital TV stations really need all of the channels currently allocated to broadcasters.

One good answer is mobile handheld digital TV, or MH. There was an entire MH pavilion this year in the Central Hall, loaded with exhibits of integrated MH cell phones, MH receivers inside portable DVD players, and USB plug-in MH receiver sticks.  Participants included LG, Samsung, Movee, and the Open Mobile Video Coalition (OMVC),  among others. Combined with a primary HD program stream, MH could be a real game-changer for broadcast television. Add in custom widgets from local TV stations to appear on NeTVs, and voila – broadcasting has re-invented itself.

Yet another trend was green displays, from pocket LED projectors to LED-backlit LCD TVs. Even Panasonic got into the game with a demonstration of 25% to 30% reductions in energy usage on their latest line of plasma TVs. LED baklights are rapidly replacing cold-cathode fluorescent lamps (CCFLs) commonly used in LCD TVs. My prediction is that LEDs will be the dominant backlight technology within two years across all sizes of LCD TVs – they contain no mercury (although they do contain gallium, a rare metal) and enable much better color control and local area dimming. In the projector world, Samsung showed an LED-powered 3LCD model that was rated at over 1000 lumens, while Casio featured a hybrid red diode – blue laser – green phosphor color wheel design in an ultra-slim $800 XGA DLP chassis!

I was quite impressed with the size of the booths staged by Chinese TV manufacturers TCL, Haier, and HiSense. TCL manufactures the RCA line of LCD TVs, while HiSense is planning to launcha full line of TVs and related products this year, under its own name. That includes 240Hz Tvs, 3D models, and Blu-ray players.These are major players, and wil give the Japanese and Korean manufacturers a run for their money.

Missing in action? Pioneer’s AV receivers and BD players (they opted to skip the show to “conserve resources”), Hitachi’s LCD TVs and camcorders (no public explanation why), and Sanyo’s line of camcorders, cameras, and projectors (again, no official word on why they passed up the show).  Those are three substantial, heavyweight players in the CE marketplace!

Well, back to work. Look for more detailed coverage next week, this time with photos. (Boy, it takes a LONG time to download and edit 750 images…)

Classic Pete: Once More, Out To The DTV Fringe

Recently, I made a third trip to my brother’s house in the hills of southwestern Vermont to finish what I started over two years ago – set up this distant, remote location to receive every digital TV channel from Albany. And I succeeded.

 

 

My first visit in May of 2007, chronicled here, showed that a modest suburban UHF yagi (Channel Master’s model 4308) and a low-noise preamp was sufficient to pull in four Albany DTV stations over a 54-mile path by taking advantage of knife-edge refraction of the RF signals, bending over a range of hills about ½ mile to the southwest of the house.

I was surprised at how strong the “bent” signals were, even with moderate multipath distortion. But they came in just fine on a pair of Gen5 ATSC DTV receivers, with minor interruptions in service during periods of heavy rain or dense fog.

Still, I hadn’t resolved the issue of receiving a pair of high-band Albany VHF DTV channels – WXXA-7 (Fox) and WNYT-12 (NBC). That would be addressed during my next visit in early January of this year, and you can read about it here. Trust me; it wasn’t much fun working outside in sub-zero temperatures. And I didn’t have the best antenna for the job, relying on a used Terk TV35 suburban VHF/UHF yagi to pull in the signals, aided by a dual-band, low noise preamplifier.

I knew a third and final tweak to the system would inevitably be in order, particularly to improve the reception of WXXA-DT. Plus, WRGB-DT (CBS), previously operating on UHF channel 39, was scheduled to move back to VHF channel 6 on June 12 as the analog TV shutdown was completed. And another Albany DTV station, WNYA (MyTV), hadn’t even signed on yet- they were still waiting for WNYT to vacate their analog signal from channel 13.

 

 

THE FINAL PUZZLE PIECE

The first order of business was to replace the Terk TV35 with a more serious VHF yagi. Fred Lass, chief engineer at WRGB, kindly sent along a pair of Antennacraft Y5-2-6 low-band VHF yagis for the job, but those wouldn’t help me with channels 7, 12, and 13.

Instead, I opted for the Antennacraft CS600 VHF yagi, which would provide reception from channel 2 through 13 and which (according to the specs) was good for up to 40 miles on low-band VHF and 50 miles on high-band VHF. Coupled to the Channel Master #7777 dual-band preamp, I figured it would be enough.

The next step was to check reception from the January installation by recording new spectrum analyzer plots and comparing them to the screen grabs I captured eight months ago. Good news – the 8VSB carriers from the remaining UHF stations (WTEN-26, WMHT-34, and WCWN-43) hadn’t changed any, even with all the nearby trees fully leafed out.

Unfortunately, signals from WXXA-7 and WNYT-12 didn’t look too good, thanks to a broken rear reflector element on the TV35. So, I removed the Terk from the system and assembled the CS600. I also had to install a second, offset antenna mast to clear the rear elements of the CS600 from the deck supports, not to mention a large rose bush which had grown around the mast and TV35!

 

 

 

 

 

To make everything fit in this tight space, I drilled a set of new boom-to-mast bracket holes near the rear of the CS600. The antenna is light and sturdy enough to be mounted this way, although I recommend using the standard mounting holes when up on a rooftop mast to balance the antenna and reduce wind load.

From my January escapades, I found that the TV35 worked better when it was offset about 30 degrees farther west from the UHF antenna heading. I chalked that up to different reflections of the knife-edge signal than I had seen on UHF, and initially installed the CS600 at the same height, facing in the same direction.

A quick test with a Zenith DTT901 NTIA converter grabbed WRGB-6, WNYT-12, and newcomer WNYA-13 with no difficulty. But WXXA-7 was intermittent, and now WMHT-34 (PBS) was becoming problematic to receive. This wasn’t going to be easy! (It never is…)

ZEROING IN

In my January conversations with Fred Lass, he mentioned that the refraction angle for channel 6 could be more severe than that of the UHF DTV stations. That meant I might have more luck if I lowered the CS600…and that’s exactly what happened.

After a night to clear my head and socialize with my relatives, I walked outside early the next morning, connected my spectrum analyzer, loosened the mast bracket, and lowered the CS600 to within a foot of the ground. I also rotated it south to the same antenna heading (230 degrees) that I eventually used to clean up reception of WMHT-34 on the Channel Master 4308.

 

After firing up the DTT901, I was finally done. All eight of the Albany DTV stations were now coming in reliably, free of dropouts. WXXA-7’s waveform, although still somewhat bowed, was considerably cleaner than before. And a modest amount of tilt on WNYT-12 and WNYA-13 was no problem even for the adaptive equalizers in my Gen 5 OnAir Solution HDTV-GT receiver.

In fact, I had enough signal out of the CM 7777 preamp to run a second coaxial drop upstairs to a bedroom, feeding a second DT901 converter box with the same results. Oddly, WRGB’s signal on channel 6 remained consistent through the CS600 at any height and with either of the compass headings I used. The 8VSB carrier wasn’t perfectly level, but the converter boxes and HDTV-GT locked it up quickly every time.

 

PROBLEM SOLVED

When TV signals bend, they really bend! Knife-edge refraction works so well at this location that I actually received all of the Albany DTV channels with the CS600 resting nose-down on the ground and its rear elements tilted up at a 45-degree angle against the mast! That certainly was cool.

The only weather effects I observed happened the last night of my stay, when dense clouds of moisture formed in the valley right before a strong weather front passed through. The resulting mist and fog caused ABC affiliate WTEN-DT’s signal on channel 26 to break up on a regular basis, while all other channels were unaffected. The next morning, all was well again. (Coincidentally, I’ve observed the same effect at home on Philadelphia’s KYW-DT, also transmitting on channel 26 and otherwise a very strong and reliable signal.)

Because the CS600 sits so low on the mast, I wrapped the longest elements with bright orange electrical tape so no one would walk into it. I also capped the swaged ends of the elements with plastic bolt protectors, glued in with silicone seal. Some new flower plantings around the antenna should keep visitors from accidentally walking into it in the future. (Don’t these problems sound ridiculous?)

 

 

Now, my brother and sister-in-law are going to try terrestrial digital TV for a month and see if they still want to pay for their existing DirecTV service. Given how little television my brother watches, I think I know how he’ll cast his vote, but I’m not sure about his wife.

I will say that she showed remarkable enthusiasm for finally having gained access to “free TV,” and she subsequently informed me that there would be a stampede for my services from nearby neighbors who’d also want in on this deal. Maybe it’s a good thing that I live almost 300 miles away?

I’m also amazed at how robust the 8VSB DTV system turned out to be, and how it’s perfectly suited to unusual propagation paths like this one. Granted, I also pulled in analog VHF and UHF TV stations with the earlier antenna setups, but the signals were fairly noisy and had more than a few ghosts, as you might expect.

Digital TV cleans all of that up. All you need is enough signal to get over the required carrier-to-noise threshold (in this case, about 20 dB C/N), and voila – perfect pictures and audio. (Never mind that a few of them were infomercials.) The fact that converter boxes and new integrated digital TV sets are largely using Generation 6 adaptive equalizers is just icing on the cake.

 


Any disappointments? Well, I never could pull in WYPX-50 from Amsterdam, although it’s strong enough to show up on my spectrum analyzer. The problem is their transmitter location, much farther west than the Helderberg Mountain antenna farm used by everyone else. That would require “sacrificing the good of the many for the good of the one” (to misquote Mr. Spock from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan).

Also, I could see another 8VSB carrier on channel 9 from WVER (Vermont Public Television) in Rutland, Vermont. But to receive that station would have required divine intervention, as the signal was coming from the opposite direction, 34 miles to the north/northeast over a tall range of hills, including Mt. Equinox (3,848’ ASL), and ricocheting off the 1300-foot-tall ridge in front of the house. Now, THAT would have been one heck of a billiards shot!

The good news is, if you live in a “tough” DTV reception location, you may not be completely out of luck. It helps if the DTV stations you want to receive are co-located, because having only one antenna heading to deal with is a real blessing. But there’s no reason why you couldn’t succeed with a broader antenna pattern if DTV stations are spread farther part – you just need to get enough signal to the receiver, and you’re home free.

As they used to say in those old Westerns, “Looks like my work here is done.” Time to saddle up, and head off in search of the next fringe…