Posts Tagged ‘DTV’

TiVo’s Got A New Box Up Its Sleeve

Last night, TiVo held a coming-out party for the TiVo Premiere, the latest in a series of DVRs that can receive and record content from cable, terrestrial, and broadband TV.

The event, held atop Rockefeller Center, featured CEO Tom Rogers bantering with 30 Rock’s Kenneth the Page (Jack McBrayer) while Rogers listed the new functions and menu designs. The “premiere” of Premiere wasn’t a very well-kept secret – some Best Buy employees leaked specs and pricing information in late February.

Tom Rogers gives us the skinny on TiVo’s Premiere. Ironically, Rogers used to be an NBC executive!

What was significant about the event was the announcement that cable overbuilder and MSO RCN will offer Premiere as an option to its customers. TiVo’s DVR, although a great product in design and execution, has long suffered from a lack of content delivery partners.

At one time, the company had a partnership with DirecTV, but that went by the wayside. Partnering with RCN, even though the latter is a small player in the world of cable TV, will help drive acceptance and sales considerably.

The Premiere – which actually comes in two flavors – is a slimmer, sleeker version of the current Series 3 and HD DVRs, both of which will be discontinued. The basic Premiere offers 45 hours of recording for $300, while the XL version triples that capacity to 150 hours for a couple hundred extra dollars.

TiVo’s Premiere DVR is even thinner than the TiVo HD.

As configured, Premiere offers a ‘triple play’ of terrestrial, cable, and broadband video recording and playback. (Sorry, no DirecTV or Dish support!) There is a single M-style CableCARD slot which allows bi-directionality for video on demand (VOD) services. But Premiere isn’t ready to replace tru2way yet…not that the latter bi-directional cable platform has been setting the world on fire exactly.

Wireless connectivity is based on 802.11n protocols, and you can link Premiere with older Series 3 and HD units to share recorded shows and files on the same home media network. TiVo has also added broadband content sites Pandora and FrameChannel (over 1,000 widgets and counting) to existing Netflix, Blockbuster on Demand, and Amazon services. (Sorry, still no connections to Hulu!).

For the first time that I know of, Adobe’s Flash player has been incorporated into a set-top box (hey, who puts these things on top of TV sets anymore?). Premiere makes extensive use of Flash in its menus and video preview windows.

There are also new Search parameters that take you more quickly to a given actor’s resume, lets you search by such arcane topics as “Oscar-nominated movies,” and in general lets you REALLY drill down to find out everything you want about a particular TV show or movie, and the people who directed and acted in it.

Premiere’s new mernus make extensive use of Flash.

TiVo also showed its latest remote controls that incorporate a slide-out QWERTY keyboard. Those readers who have suffered with the directional arrows and Select button to type in keywords for program searches should be deliriously happy with that development!

Here’s the new QWERTY remote. Hooray!

I’ve had TiVo service since 1999, and just retired my first Series 1 Philips DVR, which had enough capacity to record a whopping 14 hours of standard-definition TV. (It still works, even with the dial-up phone connection for program guide info!) I also have a pair of Humax Series 2 combo DVD/DVR boxes sitting in hibernation, now that Comcast has gone all-digital.

So I’m looking forward to test-driving a Premiere and seeing how it compares to my workhorse TiVo HD, which records both digital cable and terrestrial HD signals and has downloaded several TV shows in HD from Amazon’s Unbox service. Look for a review later this spring when TiVo starts shipping.

Best Buy will be the exclusive brick-and-mortar retail outlet for Premiere, and it will also be available from Amazon. The Wireless-N adapter will start shipping in May.

Don’t ask this guy to program your Tivo, though…

Wal-Mart Buys VuDu. What does it mean?

On Monday, February 22, Wal-Mart announced it was buying the movie download service VUDU.

The announcement, which was a bit of a surprise, nevertheless makes sense in light of Wal-Mart’s 2009 decision to downplay in-store sales of DVDs and Blu-ray discs. Now, Wal-Mart can deliver HD-quality movies directly to a variety of compatible TVs and media players, including LG’s new BD590 player/DVR.

According to a Business Week story, a VUDU executive said he expects the VUDU platform to be integrated into more than 150 TVs and related AV products in 2010. This is significant because VUDU picture quality tends to be higher than iTunes and Netflix streaming video. In fact, many VUDU movies can be downloaded in the 1080p/24 format for true HD playback.

VUDU’s original set-top box

This move also pits Wal-Mart directly against Apple, Amazon, and Netflix as demand for digital downloads of TV shows and movies heats up.

So – what does that mean for packaged media sales? DVD sales continued their slide last year, falling off 13% from 2008, according to Adams Media Research. Even the Blu-ray format hasn’t proven compelling enough to reverse this trend, which many analysts still blame on the economy.

I’ve got three more sensible explanations. First off, DVD rentals are still hanging in there, which means more consumers have decided they really don’t need to buy every movie or TV show boxed set out there. Renting once is just fine, particularly if you have a $1-per-night Redbox DVD kiosk in your local grocery store.

Second, there just aren’t that many memorable movies out there from recent years that are worth owning. And if you’ve already accumulated RL or BD copies of the ‘classics’ plus some boxed sets here and there, why continue to fill up your shelves with more DVDs that will likely still be sitting in their original shrink wrap a year later?

Third, it’s pretty clear that the public is captivated by broadband video. That includes video-on-demand over cable, Hulu, Netflix streaming, Amazon digital downloads, and YouTube.  Granted, mailing Netflix and Blockbuster movies back and forth is pretty convenient (although Netflix spends hundreds of millions of dollars per year to make that happen!).

But pointing your remote at the TV and downloading a movie or TV show is even more convenient (and cheaper for Netflix). And if you have access to thousands of movie titles and TV shows at the click of a button, why do you need to fill up your shelves at home with DVDs you might watch one time, then consign to a garage sale or your local library?

Wal-Mart is betting that you don’t, and that direct downloads are what you crave. And they want a piece of that action.

Reflections On a ‘Super’ Bowl

It’s the day after the biggest football game of the year, and the New Orleans Saints pulled off a miracle, beating the odds and those ‘smart’ talking heads to upset favored Indianapolis, 31-17.

Unlike past years, I had a small group of friends over to watch the game in HD. And unlike past years, I didn’t stuff the house with HDTVs and projectors to create an immersive football environment.

And that was just fine by me.

Way back in 2000, when the Titans – Rams clash was televised in HD by ABC and Panasonic, the subject of HDTV was rocket science to my neighbors. You couldn’t get it on cable, or from DirecTV. The only place to find HD broadcasts was from your local TV station…and that took an outside antenna, an expensive set-top box, and a wing and a prayer.

For that game, I set up a Princeton AF3.0HD widescreen CRT monitor (an ugly and bulky cuss, if I ever saw one) in my family room, and Sony’s VPL-VW10HT 768p LCD projector in my basement, driving a Stewart 82-inch matte screen. A single Panasonic TU-DST51A set-top box pulled in the signals from a Radio Shack UHF yagi, mounted on my rear deck.

With each successive year, the number of TVs grew…and grew…and grew.  We had LCD HDTVs, plasma HDTVs, DLP projectors, CRT projectors, and 3LCD projectors. Antennas were mounted on the roof, in the attic, along inside walls, and on that same rear deck.

Coaxial and video cables snaked all over the house. TVs popped up atop the refrigerator, in the bathroom, in the front hall (viewed from inside a closet!), on the rear deck, and even outside the front door.

The record for attendees was 70, in 2009. The record for TVs was 14, set the year Indy won it’s first Super Bowl and equaled last year. After that game, I decided to pull the plug on an ‘official’ HDTV party and keep it simple. After all, there’s no real mystery in HDTV anymore – you can buy a 32-inch LCD HDTV at Kmart for $300 nowadays!

This year’s party, which came together at the last minute, featured six screens, two of which are permanently installed. Panasonic’s TH-42PZ80U 42-inch 1080p plasma entertained guests in my family room, while Mitsubishi’s HC6000 1080p LCD projector lit up a JKP Affinity 92-inch screen in my theater.

A couple of 50-inch plasma monitors were hooked up in the living room and main theater, while Eviant’s T7 portable DTV sat atop the refrigerator and functioned as an air check monitor. As has been the case every year, all of the RF feeds came from roof-top and indoor antennas – no cable or satellite feeds were used.

And that 6th TV? Turns out that we actually got enough snow on Saturday to cover the lawn for the first time in 11 years…and it didn’t melt. So, I took a Canon SX80 MKII LCoS projector and aimed out it a second-floor window at a very steep down angle. Then, I hooked up a spare Samsung DTB-H260F DTV tuner to my house RF system.

Voila! I was now projecting HDTV onto the front lawn, using snow as a screen. The projected image had some keystoning issues, to be sure. But it still looked cool. I figure the size of the projected images was about 15 feet diagonally. And having 3300 lumens from the projector really helped punch up the brightness!

Here’s how the Canon SX80 was mounted. Talk about steep angles!

(For any ISF guys reading this, I used the Cool color temperature setting…naturally!)

 

Surprisingly, there were no 3D broadcasts during the game. I was ready if there were, though – I still had a pile of anaglyph 3D glasses left over from 2009 (remember the Monsters vs. Aliens trailer and the Pepsi SoBe commercials?) Some of this year’s commercials were entertaining, many were forgettable.

But the real story was New Orleans’ dramatic, come-from-behind win, a real feel-good result for that beleaguered city. The HD slow-mo replays were awesome, in particular the one that conclusively proved the Saints had gotten a crucial two-point conversion in the 2nd half. And The Who’s halftime show was one of the best in memory – it rocked out!

Our house was loaded with Saints fans, some sporting ‘Who Dat?’ T-shirts and wearing strings of colorful beads. The eats included jambalaya and pork barbecue, with Hurricanes do drink on the side. And my hat’s off to one guest who managed to bring back the original Café Du Monde beignet mix and whip up a batch of those tasty treats for us.

So…no more extravagant Super Bowl parties from now on. Just some good food and a couple of TVs (OK, maybe three, or five, or six) on which to enjoy the action.

And if Fox decides to carry the game in 3D next year, I still have those glasses…

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!

Classic Pete: Up On The Roof…Once Again

Three DTV antenna installations in two weeks — just another “day at the office?” Not for two of the homeowners involved, who are enjoying more free HDTV channels now.

It’s been a while since I got up on a roof with my tools and wired up an antenna system. With a whirlwind Panasonic dealer tour taking up most of my time in October (along with thousands of miles logged on United and US Airways), it was a nice break to put aside the computer and Powerpoint presentations, strap on my tool belt, and work with my hands.

As it turned out, I upgraded two systems and built a brand-new system for the third location. Off-the-shelf antennas and preamplifiers were used in each case, along with existing DTV sets and set-top boxes. Propagation tests and TVFool.com plots were used along with a Sencore SA1501 portable spectrum analyzer to align the antennas and verify reception at each location.

FIRST STOP: WALL TOWNSHIP, N.J.

I had previously set up this location a few years back to receive as many of the New York City DTV stations as I could. Back then, all of them were transmitting on UHF channels, but the combined antenna owned by CBS and mounted on the NW side of the Empire State Building still had pattern problems.

In particular, WNBC-28 was getting out horribly with a pattern that looked more like broken glass than a semi-circular shape. The pattern was so bad that I couldn’t even receive the station reliably when sitting on top of the Ramapo Mountains in NW New Jersey, looking directly at Empire with a Channel Master 4308 UHF yagi.

Following the analog shutdown on June 12, three NYC stations gave up their UHF assignments and moved back to highband VHF channels. WABC vacated channel 45 and returned to VHF-7, while WPIX turned UHF-33 over to WCBS and went back to VHF-11. WNET completed the trifecta by bailing out of UHF 61 (now out of the DTV core) and resuming transmissions on VHF-13.

Why didn’t WWOR move back to channel 9? Asleep at the switch, I’m afraid. WBPH in Allentown, who had been assigned UHF-60 originally, moved their operation to channel 9 and decided to stay put when the final channel elections were conducted. So, WWOR was forced to stay on UHF-38, carrying their own programs on minor channel #1 and duplicating WNYW’s telecast on minor channel #2. (The story behind that arrangement, along with WNYW simulcasting WWOR on 5-2, is best left for a future column.)


Figure 1. The “old” antenna setup (since June 2009) for VHF/UHF reception in Wall, NJ.

The original antenna setup (Figure 1) was a modified CM4308 driving a CM 7775 Titan 2 mast-mount preamp, fastened to a chimney atop a one-story house barricaded immediately to the north by tall trees. The location, just west of NJ Route 18, sits about 39 miles from Empire “as the photon flies” and was a good candidate for strong highband VHF reception, too.

The problem: The owner had originally replaced the CM4308 with a Channel Master 2016 and CM 7777 dual-band preamp at my suggestion to pull in 7, 11, and 13, but no luck. Channels 28 and 33 were solid, while WNYW-44 was in and out. Not good if you are a New York Giants fan and want to watch NFC games on Fox! Figure 2a shows the weak VHF signals on those channels using the original antenna setup, while figure 2b reveals that WNYW, while presenting with a clean waveform, has just barely enough carrier-to-noise to lock up reliably.

The fix: I ordered an Antennacraft Y5-7-13 five-element highband VHF yagi ($26.99 plus shipping) to replace the single angled half-wave dipole element on the CM2016, and set the internal combining switch on the CM 7777 preamp to separate VHF and UHF inputs. Out came the original CM4308 and it went atop a newer, taller mast (Figure 3).


Figure 2a. Highband VHF signals were weak through the CM2016.


Figure 2b. WNYW-44 was intermittent.

After careful aiming with the SA1501, it became apparent that, while the optimum heading for the VHF yagi was true to the TVFool prediction, the optimum heading for the CM4308 was about 5 degrees farther east to clean up the pattern from WNYW-44.

Figure 4a shows the improvements to channels 7, 11, and 13, adding NJ Public TV station WNJB-8 to the mix, while figure 4b shows UHF channels 25 through 40 all booming in. A stronger, dropout-free 8VSB waveform from WNYW-44 is seen in Figure 4c. (That’s WNJT-43 off the side of the antenna.)

Now, the homeowner has reliable reception of all major network channels, even in high winds (which we experienced that day) using a DirecTV set-top receiver with ATSC tuner. That means was able to see the NY Giants get their butts kicked on successive weekends by the Cardinals and Eagles! (Be careful what you wish for…)

Note that, as of this writing, Channel Master has discontinued the CM4308 from its catalog. Not to worry! You can use a CM2016 in its place — just don’t connect the single dipole VHF element, although you should fold it out into its normal position.


Figure 3. The new split-stack UHF/VHF array, showing the offset for UHF reception.


Figure 4a-b-c. Now, channels 7 through 13 are solid (left), while UHF stations are slightly stronger (center) and WNYW-44 has lots more headroom (right).

SECOND STOP: HOME SWEET HOME

Not many people come home from church services at noontime on a sunny, warm day and say, “Gee, I think I’ll go up on the roof and change out my antenna system!” But I’m a bit strange that way. My wife asked me if she should stick around to help out while I was up there, but I assured her I was perfectly capable of falling off a roof by myself with no additional help. (Black humor…)

Turns out, I ordered two of the Antennacraft Y5-7-13s, which (for some strange reason) they insist on shipping FedEx Green with signature required. Apparently, theft of TV antennas from front porches is a problem in some parts of the country?

Last December, I had replaced my old setup with a pair of CM 2016s, stacked and offset on a rotatable mast. The offset was designed so that when the bottom antenna was aimed towards Philadelphia, the top antenna was aimed towards New York City (60+ miles away, over two ranges of hills).

The problem: As things turned out, I rarely need to move the Philly antenna, but I did rotate the top CM2016 frequently to pick up stations as far away as Scranton/Wilkes-Barre (70+ miles, also over two ridges). Alas, after 6/12/09, I lost WABC, WPIX, and WNET completely as they moved back to the VHF band. As I discovered at the previous location, the CM2016s weren’t up to the job of pulling in these stations, even though they did snag WBRE-11 and WYOU-13 from Scranton — pretty impressive for a single half-wave dipole!

Figure 5. My lower, fixed CM2016, aimed permanently towards the Roxborough (Philadelphia) antenna farm.

Figure 6. The new UHF/VHF stack, aimed towards New York. Told you it was a beautiful day for antenna work!

The fix: This was a three-art solution. First, I removed the lower CM2016 and fastened it to the rotor support, permanently aimed SSW towards Roxborough, about 22 miles away as seen in figure 5. It feeds the combined input of a CM 7777 preamp, necessary because I split the signal several times to distribute it through the house.

Next, I re-installed another CM4308 atop the mast and Y5-7-13 below it, both feeding another CM 7777 preamp in split-input mode. This array would become my “DX” antenna (figure 6), although I anticipated leaving it aimed towards New York most of the time.

Results were encouraging, although not perfect. Figure 7a shows the RF spectrum from channels 7 through 13 before the upgrade, while figure 7b shows the same channels afterwards. Not a substantial difference to be sure, except that the antenna is now more selective and I gained some C/N headroom on channel 7. WPIX-11 and WNET-13 are largely unchanged, which would imply that I had some enhanced propagation when I took the original measurements back in late June of 2009.

Reception of all three VHF channels continues to be problematic, although each has gotten much stronger. Channels 11 and 13 in Scranton are no doubt causing co-channel interference problems, so I may never get that resolved. As for WABC-7, I don’t think the station is running enough power for highband VHF operation — another 3 or even 6 dB would seem to be in order.

Figures 7a-b. Channels 7 through 13 as received on the old CM2016 (left) and the new Y5-7-13 (right).

Figure 8. There’s lots of RF coming in from New York on the low UHF band!

On UHF, signals just barrel in, as seen in figure 8. WNBC-28, WCBS-33, WWOR-38, and WXTV-40 are all strong, 24/7. Unfortunately, WNYW-44 can’t get through because of co-channel interference from WMCN-44 in south Jersey (no NY Giants NFC games…sigh…), while WPXN-31 just isn’t strong enough to peek through.

Supposedly, an upgrade to the combined VHF antenna atop Empire is in the works for 2010, according to sources in the industry. Maybe that will change things for the better!

LAST STOP: SAUGERTIES, N.Y.

My last trip was up to the foothills of the Catskills on a rainy, foggy early morning. My goal? Install VHF and UHF antennas for reception of Albany and Schenectady DTV stations, allowing the homeowner (my youngest brother) to “cut the cord” and drop expensive cable TV channel packages while retaining broadband service from Time Warner.

The problem: This location, on the side of a hill and about 35 miles from the Helderberg Mountain antenna farms over a 1-edge path, didn’t look to be particularly difficult. (Figure 9) I had run some UHF DTV reception tests at this location a few years back with encouraging results. At the time, most of the Albany DTV stations were on UHF, with a couple plugging away on highband VHF. Post-transition, I’d need to pull in WRGB-6, WXXA-7, WNYT-12, WNYA-13, WTEN-26, WMHT-34, and WCWN-43 at the least.

Figure 9. The Saugerties location had a nice, nearly flat roof to work on.

Figure 10. Here’s the final UHF/VHF stack with the CS600 on the bottom.

The fix: Because the Albany market has a lowband VHF DTV operation (WRGB-6), I ordered Antennacraft’s CS600 dual-band yagi ($34.72 + shipping), the same antenna that is currently sitting about a foot off the ground at the “fringe” SW Vermont location I wrote about this past August.

UHF reception would be taken care of by yet another CM 4308, sitting a few feet above the CS600 on the stack. (Figure 10) A quick test with my spectrum analyzer showed that it didn’t much matter where I mounted the antenna on the roof — I’d have plenty of signal to work with, except from WNYA-13. This channel exhibited low signal levels no matter where I spotted the mast.

(Subsequent email chats with one Albany DTV engineer revealed that the WNYA-13 DTV antenna system does not get out as well as other stations and is side-mounted on the old WRGB analog channel 6 tower — PP)

Each antenna drove the separate inputs of a CM 7777 mast-mounted preamp (gotta love it!), which in turn was scheduled to go into an existing eight-way splitter from the original cable TV distribution system. As it turned out, only four of the taps on the splitter actually led to any TVs or wall-mounted jacks, so I swapped it out for a more reasonable four-way split arrangement.

Figure 11a-b-c. WRGB-6 is super strong (left), while WXXA-7 (center) and WNYT-12 and WNYA-13 (right) are sufficiently powered up.

Figures 12a-b-c. WTEN-26 (left) is another monster signal out of Albany, while WMHT-34 (center) and WCWN-43 (right) are “merely” strong enough!

Figure 11a shows the unbelievably strong signal from WRGB-6, boosted shortly after 6/12 to overcome possible interference from those adjacent FM broadcast stations and also to fill in holes in signal coverage. Figure 11b shows WXXA-7; while figure 11c lets you clearly see the power disadvantage of WNYA-13 (right) compared to WNYT-12 (left).

As for UHF, you can see the strong signal from WTEN-26 in figure 12a (that’s WTBY-27 to its right, many miles SE of my location), with WMHT-34 and WCWN-43 visible in figures 12b and 12c, respectively. WYPX (ION) from Amsterdam just wasn’t strong enough to lock up on either of the Digital Stream DTV converter boxes I installed in the house — too far away.

Oddly enough, WNYA-13 will only come through on two of the three active RF feeds in the house, even though a test of signal levels showed all three to be about the same. Switching converter boxes out didn’t make any difference, so there may be a problem in one of the coaxial lines I’ll have to ring out on a future visit. In the meantime, the system was up and running in time for us to watch Game 3 of the World Series…even if it was downconverted digital TV of an old Philips CRT set.

Tech notes: Antennacraft yagis are designed with square booms and cannot use conventional round boom hardware that is common to Channel Master yagis. You will get a hardware bag with the antenna — don’t lose it! Also, you will need to purchase a balun transformer separately to make your coaxial feed, as Antennacraft doesn’t provide baluns or weatherproof boots with their yagis.

Figure 13. Here’s one way to attach a round balun to a square boom. (Sounds like one of those mental puzzles from my childhood…)

Figure 13 shows a Channel Master balun attached to a Y5-7-13 and secured with tape. It’s a good idea to form the balanced wire connections into drip loops and mount the balun underneath the antenna. Also, add a drip loop to the coax feed before it attaches to and travels down the mast.