Posts Tagged ‘DTV’

Biting The Hand That Feeds You

If you haven’t tried the Mohu leaf antenna, it’s quite the handy gadget. Basically, it is a single-bay UHF TV collinear antenna made out of flexible conductors, and sealed in a waterproof thin plastic shell that resembles a placemat from a diner.

 

I’ve had the Leaf for a few months now and can say that it works very well for UHF TV reception – certainly no better or worse than any other collinear antenna system I’ve tried – and does a passable job on highband VHF DTV stations, if they are strong enough.  It’s reasonably priced at $45 and includes free shipping, so you really can’t go wrong with it.

Mohu's Leaf UHF antenna is super-thin and waterproof.

And here's a picture of the Leaf in action, mounted underneath a kitchen cabinet. (Not the way I would have done it, though!)

Now, here’s where things get hilarious. Apparently Mohu tried to run a thirty-second ad on Time Warner’s cable TV systems in Columbus, OH and Kansas City, MO; touting the benefits of free, over-the-air television. And TW said, “no!”

 

A resulting press release from Mohu reads, “The planned Leaf thirty second spot actually states that customers do not need “expensive cable service to watch HD programs” and that “most top-rated shows are broadcast free, over the air in full high definition.”

 

Hmmm. Think that had anything to do with Time Warner’s refusal to run the ad?

 

We may never know the whole story, but you can see the Mohu commercial here on YouTube – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RNtll-4fiis.

Attention, All Cord-Cutters!

At the September 14 Pepcom table-top show (dubbed the ‘Parisian Holiday Spectacular’ show, as so many gadgets were being pushed for gift-wrapping under the tree), Channel Master showed something that ought to bring a smile to every cord-cutter’s face: A dual DVR for digital terrestrial television.

 

Not only that, this same product also supports Vudu streaming and Vudu apps, in case you’re jonesing for a movie and don’t want to mess with DVDs or Blu-ray discs. It’s called Channel Master TV, and it will start shipping in mid-October. (Yes, I’ve already asked for a review unit. C’est si bon!)

 

You can find out all of the details about this new product by clicking here (the dedicated Channel Master TV Web site still was not up and running at the time I wrote this), or you can read on.

It's smaller than a TiVo Premiere. Dig those three WiFi antennas!

Channel Master’s big selling point for this dual-DVR box is that there are NO monthly subscription fees required. Well, that’s not exactly true: If you are content to rely on the Program and System Information Protocol (PSIP) data transmitted by each station – correctly or not – then you don’t need additional program guide data.

 

But if you want to program recordings more than 14 days out, you’ll want to add CM’s optional enhanced program guide service, for which no firm price was stated at the event. Both basic PSIP and day/time scheduling can be used to record DTV programs.

 

And you’ll have plenty of space to record. The CM TV box comes with a 320 GB hard disk drive, which ought to be sufficient for up to 35 hours of HDTV programs and about 150 hours of SD programs. Like TiVo’s HD and Premier DVRs, you can watch one program while recording another, or playback a program while recording two others.

Mira esto! Una telenovela de WXTV-HD!

Vudu movies are generally pay-as-you-go, so there’s no monthly subscription fee. And the supported apps include Pandora, MTV News, Discovery, Twitter, Facebook, AP, and The New York Times, among others.

 

From a technical perspective, CM TV interfaces to your existing HDTV either through an HDMI connection or component video outputs. You can set the video output of the box to 1080p/30, 1080p/24, 1080i/30, or 720p/60. (Sorry, no support for 1080p/60 yet. I did ask…)

 

There’s also a discrete optical digital audio (Dolby AC-3, Dolby 5.1) connection for a separate AV receiver, along with wireless (802.11n) and wired Ethernet connectivity for Vudu access and Vudu Apps, a USB port for viewing photos and videos from a flash drive, and an eSATA connection for an external expansion hard drive.

 

Technically speaking, CM TV will also receive ‘in the clear’ digital cable broadcasts, but you won’t receive any program guide data as cable systems use a different implementation of PSIP.

Scanning for active DTV channels can take a while, as all of the PSIP information is read and stored.

And the price for all of this wonderfulness? Why, just $399. That is a substantial premium over the latest TiVo boxes, but then again, you won’t be paying $12.99 a month for program guide information. (Mark my words, the price on this box will drop below $300 by December. There’s a big psychological difference between $299 and $399 to the average consumer.)

 

So if you’ve been seriously thinking about dumping your digital cable channel package and relying on broadband video and free, over-the-air HDTV, your days of waiting are over. Now you have the missing piece of the puzzle – a dual DVR with a nice electronic program guide GUI (and it is VERY nice and user-friendly.)

 

Watch your local brick-and-mortar store for the first shipments in mid-October. You can also buy the box directly from Channel Master, and I suspect it will also be available from major Web outlets like Amazon.

Useful Gadgets: RCA DMT336R Mobile DTV/ATSC Pocket TV

It’s hard to believe it’s been just 13 years since the digital TV transition started in 1998 when TV stations WFAA and WRAL first signed on the air.

Back then, ‘watching digital TV’ meant shelling out a couple thousand dollars for a large, energy-guzzling converter box and experimenting with different antennas to try and pull in the signals, which (more often than not) dropped out or froze up.

Fast-forward to 2011: The DTV transition has been history for two years. Every new TV has a built-in ATSC tuner, and the adaptive equalizers in that tuner work so well that signal drop-out from fading and multipath is mostly an unpleasant memory. In fact, ATSC set-top receivers are mostly a memory now, given that you can a new LCD or plasma digital TV for about $10 per diagonal inch.

Even computers can join in the fun, thanks to the latest generation of ‘plug and play’ USB stick tuners from companies like Hauppauge that let you use your laptop or desktop as a fully-featured DVR. Just add an antenna, and you’re ready to go.

Along the way, several manufacturers found the time to bring out some models of portable digital TVs. This product category was pretty thin two years ago, but now there are several brands to choose from, among them the familiar white dogs of RCA (now owned by Audiovox). At the June CES Summer Line Show, RCA unveiled a bevy of portable digital TVs, several of which also receive the nascent MH (mobile handheld) DTV service.

The DMT336R falls into that category. It has a 3.5″ screen, runs for over 2 hours on a single charge, and does an excellent job pulling in both MH and regular over-the-air ATSC broadcasts.

WHAT’S IN THE BOX

There’s not much to the DMT336R. It’s a little bigger than a digital camera, and features a 4:3 TFT LCD screen. (Why RCA didn’t use a widescreen aspect ratio for the LCD remains a mystery.) It has a power button on the side, just above the 5V power jack for recharging the internal battery pack, which is supposed to deliver three hours of viewing time. (It comes close!)

On the opposite side of the case are three connectors. The first is a SMB-type jack for an external antenna. (RCA didn’t provide an adapter from this connector for the review.) There’s also the usual composite video output connection with stereo audio, connected through a mini AV jack. You can also plug in a pair of headphones through a separate audio output jack.

The upper left of the TV housing hides a telescoping 10″ antenna, which can be rotated in any direction. That’s plenty long enough for UHF TV reception, but a tad short for VHF. Even so, if you have enough signal strength at your location, you’ll haul in high-band VHF DTV stations (channels 7-13) just fine.

For such a small TV, the menu is pretty loaded. ATSC and MH programs are tuned separately; you have to access different menus to scan for and select channels from each service. The main reason for that is the ATSC over-the-air standard uses MPEG2 digital video, while the MH service uses MPEG4.

Even though the LCD screen is 4:3, you can select a 16:9 aspect ratio for HD channels. You’ll see black bars above and below the image (also known as “letterboxing”). But you should be aware that most HDTV programs are composed to favor a 4:3 ‘safe area’ so you’ll still see the important stuff even if you opt to watch in 4:3 mode. There are two other aspect ratio settings that allow a partial zoom into the letterboxed image and a setting that takes a ‘center cut’ of the widescreen image.

When tuning in MH services, it takes a few seconds for an active channel to lock up. In the Philadelphia area, only WCAU (digital 10.1) was broadcasting MH when I tested the DMT336R. The long lock-up is due to the massive amounts of Forward Error Correction (FEC) used in the MH service. It’s what keeps the signal present even when you are watching MH TV in a moving car, bus, train, or bicycle. (Wait – how do you watch TV on a bicycle?) You also can watch MH while walking, or in a sedan chair, or in a kayak, or while skiing.  (OK, now I’m just being silly…)

For MH and ATSC reception, we recommend pepperoni pizza and a nice Sauvignon Blanc!

HOW IT TESTED

I’ve tried the DMT336R in a few locations, most of them stationary. In mid-July, I visited John Turner of Turner Engineering at home, w-a-y up in the hills of northern New Jersey. The elevation was about 700 feet and we had a line-of-sight path to New York City.

Not surprisingly, the DMT336R pulled in all of the available UHF stations, along with high-band VHF channels 7, 11, and 13. Reception on each channel was rock-steady using the internal whip antenna, although the position of the antenna was somewhat changed for a few channels. I also identified and pulled in MH broadcasts from WNBC, ION, and Telemunco. All of that error correction introduces lots of latency – it can take 5-6 seconds to lock up an MH broadcast, so don’t expect fast channel changes in this mode. But you will be amazed at how stable an MH signal is once you’re watching it, even if you move the TV around.

During these tests, John took out an older Eviant T7 portable ATSC receiver and we did a side-by side comparison. The DMT336R was clearly more sensitive on weaker ATSC signals, and that’s probably because its adaptive equalizer is at least Gen 6. We also watched a Yankees game on WWOR-9 while enjoying pizza and a bottle of wine, and the battery held out for almost 3 hours. The internal audio isn’t very powerful (900 milliwatts) – it’s loud enough in a quiet room or with headphones, but will be hard to pick up in public spaces or out on your boat. So plan on using a pair of headphones while traveling.

My second round of tests were at home, using my rooftop antenna and the built-in whip. I pulled in all of the Philly ATSC stations, plus a single MH service on WCAU (NBC). My particular location isn’t favorable for indoor DTV reception of any kind, save for megapower DTV station WFMZ in Allentown, PA (channel 46). So a powered antenna is a big help. Still, with WFMZ coming in, I could wander around the house and up and down stairs and still hold the signal 80% of the time. Pretty impressive performance!

Did I mention that the DMT336R also contains an FM radio? Just plug in a set of headphones and tune away – the headphone wires double as the FM antenna.

There is only a two-year difference between the receiver technology in the Eviant T7 and RCA's DMT336R, but that made for quite a difference in my tests.

THE WRAP-UP

Portable digital TVs have become so inexpensive that it makes plenty of sense to have a few around the house, especially if you suffer from frequent power outages and severe weather. Some portable DTV manufacturers have referred to these gadgets as “hurricane TVs” for that reason.

You can also catch your local sports team in action with the DMT336R. Want to sit on your boat on a Sunday afternoon and catch an NFL game? Or the Saturday baseball game of the week? Here’s one way to do it. There are also plenty of ‘retro’ TV networks carried as secondary DTV channels these days (like This TV) that are fun to watch when traveling. With over 1700 digital TV stations broadcasting across the country, you’ll find something to watch.

The DMT336R delivers the goods. Yes, it could use a more powerful speaker, and yes, it should have come with a widescreen display. But the DMT336R tunes ATSC and MH channels like a champ and costs only $169 (retail), and it’s a low-cost way to access the new MH broadcast services.

You can find out more about the full line of RCA portable digital TVs at www.getmyelectronics.com.

Useful Gadgets: Hauppauge WinTV Aero-M ATSC/MH USB Tuner

The digital TV transition – now two years over, and counting – has resulted in a cornucopia of portable DTV receiver products. After all, digital TV and computers go together like soup and sandwich (sorry, Campbell’s!)! Some of these receivers work very well; others not so well.

 

For many years, my top-rated PC/DTV tuner was the OnAir Solution HDTV-GT. Introduced in 2006, it did everything right, including outboard MPEG stream decoding, a process that put quite a load on the CPU of Windows XP operating systems.

 

That was then; this is now. The US importer of OnAir products shut its doors in 2010, and operating systems have evolved far beyond XP. So it was time to look for a replacement PC/DTV tuner.

 

Timing is everything. At CES 2011, Hauppauge Computer Works announced its latest PC/DTV tuner product, the WinTV Aero-M. It works so well that you can finally bury your HDTV-GTs and never look back. And, it’s a lot smaller, too. What’s more; the Aero-M also receives the new ATSC MH services, and there are a few of them operating in major TV markets.

Hauppauge's WinTv Aero-M is super-compact.

Incidentally, if you work with wireless audio and need to conduct spot checks for activity on UHF digital TV channels, the Aero-M should be part of your tool kit.

 

WHAT’S INSIDE

 

Not much! The Aero-M is a very compact, 2.75” long USB stick design with a built-in whip antenna. Unlike the HDTV-GT, it does use your laptop or desktop’s CPU to decode MPEG and convert it to video. But of course, your laptop is likely to be running the Windows 7 OS, which is more than ready for the challenge.

 

In addition to the built-in whip, Hauppauge provides a SMB-type adapter (push-on) that breaks out to a standard F-style thread. The connector pops in and out, so be careful not to lose it! You can connect any antenna you want to this input, and you should use larger antennas with the Aero-M as its built-in whip is only six inches long and won’t provide enough signal induction unless you are about 10 miles or less from any antenna tower.

 

And of course, VHF signals require a much longer wavelength than UHF, so don’t expect much performance from channels 2 through 13 with the built-in whip. There are plenty of other options out there for VHF reception – Radio Shack’s #15-1874 budget VHF/UHF antenna works just fine and will cost you all of $13.

 

SET UP AND OPERATION

 

The supplied software loads easily and guides you through tuner configuration. You can select channel scans for regular ATSC channels, MH channels, and even unscrambled QAM (digital cable) channels. The process takes just a few minutes and you will be provided with a channel list which you can prioritize.

 

Changing channels is as simple as hitting the up/down buttons on your computer, or opening the ‘Find Channel’ menu option. You can also record the transport stream from any station (including MH) for later playback – a useful feature when you are checking for quality of service. Hauppauge also provides a ‘snapshot’ button for capturing still images from channels.

Here's the ATSC chanel scan menu.

You can view programs in variable window sizes, or go full screen. The native aspect ratio is 16:9, but you can also select 4:3. If a given program has multiple streams of audio, you can toggle between them, and of course, closed captions are supported.

 

The Aero-M, like all PC/DTV products, uses your hard drive as a digital video recorder, and you can schedule programs to watch by time interval and image quality. This feature can be handy when you are traveling and want to watch a program that’s broadcast when you are out to dinner, or at a meeting. Recording are also saved in the transport stream (TS) format.

 

I also found the Aero-M works perfectly with the latest build of TSReader, which is an MPEG-2 transport stream analyzer program. TSReader allows you to identify individual MPEG programs in a stream multiplex, check bit error rates, and verify streaming bit rates. It works with any system using MPEG-2 encoding,  and hopefully there is an MPEG-4 AVC version in the works.

Here's an NBC HD program viewed inside the factory default window setting.

IN USE

 

The key to any ATSC PC receiver is its adaptive equalizer. Most echo and drop-out problems with ATSC were solved with generation 5 adaptive equalizers, which were used in the OnAir HDTV-GT. The Aero-M relies on Gen 6 adaptive equalizer technology, which means it’s less sensitive to echoes and cancellation. That in turn results in fewer drop-outs of programs and also reception in ‘tough’ areas, such as cities with lots of tall buildings, deep valleys, and fringe areas.

 

I’ve used the Aero-M numerous times on the road in Las Vegas, New York City, Philly, and Palm Springs, and it has performed above expectations in every location. Reception hasn’t been an issue anywhere, aside from the occasional drop-out on very weak signals.

 

ATSC MH signals are even more robust, as they have lots of forward error correction built-in. Of course, MH programs are designed for much smaller screens, so the image quality isn’t very good on a laptop screen. On the other hand, full HD programs (720p and 1080i) display beautifully on laptops. My new Toshiba M645 has Harmon-Kardon mini-speakers and sounds great with digital programs, and I can also connect the output through HDMI to a TV and listen to surround sound audio.

Don't expect high image quality from ATSC MH stations - the image size is optimized for smart phones and portable mediap layers, not laptops or TV screens.

I don’t have any major issues with the Aero-M. The tiny whip antenna could be easily damaged, which is why I usually travel with a compact panel antenna instead. Every now and then, after watching an MH channel, I can’t select a conventional ATSC channel, but most of the time channel changing is seamless and quick.

 

If you are a fan of digital TV or need to diagnose ATSC signals on the road, then you should add the Aero-M to your tool kit.  And you can’t beat the price: Buy the WinTV Aero-M directly from Hauppauge’s Web store for $59.95, or shop around –  I’ve seen it for as low as $48 online.  Such a deal!

It’s Just Not That Complicated!

In a survey guaranteed not to bring smiles to the faces of TV manufacturers, 14,000 TV owners around the globe are downplaying the importance of Internet connectivity and 3D capability as they decide to purchase a new TV.

The DisplaySearch study, which is summarized here, shows that 3D capability runs a distant third behind LED backlights and LAN or WiFi connections in order of importance, and that order of importance is remarkably consistent worldwide, except in Indonesia (3D was ranked #1, just ahead of LED backlights) and India (Internet connectivity and 3D functionality were close behind LED backlights).

In some countries, 3D was one of the weakest drivers of the TV replacement cycle, ranking near the bottom of the list in Germany, Japan, and the United Kingdom. LED backlighting was three times more important than 3D in the USA, and about twice as important as Internet connectivity. In urban China, 3D commanded about 25% of the interest of LED backlighting, while in Russia, the number was closer to 10%.

Indonesians are apparently contrarians. They ranked 3D capability as “most important” of all three features, edging out LED backlights by about 20%. In India, the three drivers were almost equally weighted, while in France, Internet connectivity outranked both LEDs and 3D.

This must be the season of studies! DisplaySearch’s parent company NPD also released a report last week that stated 15 percent of U.S. consumers reported using a Blu-ray player in the prior six months to March 2011, up from 9 percent the prior year. By way of comparison, 57 percent of U.S consumers reported using a standard (red laser) DVD player in 2010, unchanged from 2009.

The NPD summary doesn’t break down how, exactly, the study group “used a Blu-ray player” in the six month period. Was it for streaming Netflix? Watching Hulu? Watching rented or purchased Blu-ray movies? We don’t know.

Other interesting tidbits: 49 percent of Sony PlayStation 3 owners are viewing Blu-ray movies on their consoles at least once a month, and Y-Y sales of Blu-ray players have increased 16%.

In their press release, NPD makes the case that sales of Blu-ray discs are starting to offset the decline in DVD sales. Keep in mind that NPD identified 116 million current physical disc buyers in the United States (not sure how they made that determination), down from 128 million in 2009 – a decline of about 10%. The 26 million Blu-ray buyers ‘offsetting’ that number amount to about 22% of the ‘current’ total.

The most interesting part of the study was summarized near the end, where it was reported 50% of consumers who intend to buy a Blu-ray player in the next six months said that they were primarily interested in using said players to view “available subscription video download services” (read: Netflix) as opposed to buying and/or renting Blu-ray movies.

If NPD had told us how respondents were using their Blu-ray players, we might have enough information to spot a trend. Alas, we can only assume that streaming is becoming a bigger driver of Blu-ray player sales than the discs themselves. 50% is a substantial number!

Even so, both surveys may tie together nicely. The lower levels of interest in Internet-connected TVs in the first survey may be due to the fact that late model TVs can add Internet connectivity a lot less expensively with a connected Blu-ray player.

Why replace a perfectly good 5- or 6-year-old LCD or plasma TV when you can ‘soup it up’ for another $125 – $150? That’s exactly what I did with my 2008-vintage Panasonic TH-42PZ80U 1080p plasma TV, installing a Panasonic DMP-BD85 connected Blu-ray player to replace an older red laser DVD player. I watch about 1-2 Blu-ray movies per month on it at most, and it streams Netflix quite nicely.

There’s no question we’re seeing a big change in how movies and TV shows are acquired and watched, and the playing field is tilting more towards streaming with every passing month. This change affects everyone from movie studios (some of which have been announcing sizable layoffs in recent weeks) to cable companies (Gen Y viewers are more likely to cut their cable ‘cords’ and rely on free OTA TV and broadband streaming) and retailers of packaged media (Wal-Mart and Best Buy have scaled back the size of their CD, DVD, and Blu-ray departments in the past year, and of course, Blockbuster went into bankruptcy last year and has been closing stores left and right).

In the meantime, I’m still waiting for that consumer survey that really drills down to see (a) just how consumers are using Blu-ray players, (b) what they think of renting and purchasing packaged media in general, (c) if they are seriously considering ‘cutting the cord’ – or have cut it already, and (d) if and how they supplement streaming video and YouTube with free over-the-air digital TV and HDTV.

Of course, that survey would have to be conducted by an organization that is primarily interested in finding out the truth, and letting the facts point to a conclusion instead of jumping to one like the DEG did recently, or advancing an agenda as the CEA has been doing.

Sigh…