Posts Tagged ‘MH’

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!

CES 2011: Applications? Plenty! Buzz? Ahhh, Not So Much…

How do you like THIS for a videowall?

If you still needed any convincing that the U.S. economy is on the rebound, the 30-minute-long cab line at McCarran Airport did the trick. Attendance at this year’s running of the world’s ultimate gadget expo was WAY up, probably hitting 2007 levels. (CES claimed 140,000 in attendance, but my guess is that the real number was more like 90,000 – 100,000, based on cab lines and traffic.)

But CES was a vastly different show than in recent years. True “wowza!” product demos were few and far between. Instead, what we saw were ‘apps’ – practical, real-world applications of technologies introduced in the past couple of years. (And of course, umpteen million tablet computers.)

Smart phones were huge this year, and they were doing everything from shooting videos to doubling as game controllers and even talking to ovens and refrigerators. The Android OS rules this space, with Windows coming up far behind. If there was a possible use for a smart phone, someone demonstrated it in a booth (including 3D).

Ever expect to see 3D on an MH receiver? Neither did I.

A wonderful moment, indeed.

Discussions of “the cloud” were heard in every hallway. For those readers who don’t know what “the cloud” is, it’s the concept of storing and accessing media files from remote servers, streaming or downloading it to view on portable and desktop displays. Netflix streaming is a good example of “the cloud,” and many industry analysts believe “cloud” delivery of content is where everything is headed – no more big hard drives or optical disc readers, just fast wireless and wired Ethernet connections.

Speaking or wireless, it’s all the rage. I lost track of all the wireless connectivity demos, ranging from wireless USB 3.0 docking stations to full-bandwidth 1080p video and multi-channel audio streaming to TVs from Blu-ray players, using the 6 GHz radio frequency band.

And those tablet computers…they were everywhere, so many that tablets suffered the ignonimous fate of moving from the most anticipated new product at the opening of the show to “so what?” products by its closing. I saw just as many off-brand and white label tablets in the lower regions of the South Hall as I did at the Blackberry, ViewSonic, Samsung, Sharp, Sony, and Panasonic booths. Can you say, “buzz kill?”

That's a complete nVidia workstation graphics card, connected through 6 GHz wireless links.

How does a Wireless USB 3.0 docking station grab ya? Samsung's got it.

3D TRENDS

Last year’s show was dominated by 3D. You couldn’t get away from it! This year, the 3D pickings weren’t quite as abundant, although a few companies (Sony and Panasonic) continued to place a heavy emphasis on stereoscopic TV viewing in their booths.

Toshiba did too, except they chose to emphasize glasses-free (autostereo) 3D exclusively in their booth. LG opted to show passive 3D products that use inexpensive circular-polarization glasses, along with a single autostereo LCD TV. Meanwhile, Sony had concept demos of a portable 3D Blu-ray player and a 24-inch autostereo organic light-emitting diode (OLED) TV.

The reduced emphasis on 3D might have something to do with the paltry sales of active-shutter 3D TVs in 2010. Sales numbers were nowhere near what anyone predicted, which could partly be blamed on the recession. But it could also be blamed on a perception that there is a format war brewing in the world of 3D TV (shades of the 1080i vs. 720p battles from ten years ago).

Toshiba's 15-inch prototype autostereo notebook display uses a built-in camera to adjust the 3D viewing angle to your position.

HELLO, 1958! Polaroid actually showed a blue-yellow anaglyph 3D demo at CES. (CAUTION: Don't watch Avatar this way...)

Toshiba’s recent announcements of glasses-free 3D TV certainly added to that perception, and that’s all they showed at CES. Meanwhile, LG and JVC seem to be leaning towards passive 3D (embedded polarizing filters) in their LCD TVs, and in fact LG had large baskets of passive 3D glasses available to both visitors.

The LG autostereo LCD TV worked about as well as the Toshiba models. As you change your viewing position, patterned film retarders (PFRs) built-in to the LCD surface create a new perspective and viewpoint, blocking some pixels and revealing others. It works, but you’ve seen the same effect before with static digital signage displays in retail stores and in airports. And it’s not easy to watch 3D video this way for very long.

There were plenty of autostereo handheld display demos. LG’s new Optimus smart phones were shown as game controllers for 3D gaming systems, but were also displaying mobile 3D content. Nearby, LG had a demonstration of autostereo 3D as broadcast from Las Vegas DTV station KLVX, using the MH mobile digital TV standard.

Sony showed an autostereo media player in its booth, along with the aforementioned portable Blu-ray player with autostereo screen. (Frankly, I think the market for portable BD players is pretty miniscule, but the autostereo images looked quite nice.)

Sony's 24.5-inch autostereo AM OLED was a show-stopper.

JVC's got some skin in the 3D game with this 65-inch passive 3D LED LCD TV.

Sharp, who last year missed the boat on 3D – and whose U.S. market share in TV sales continues to drop precipitously – rolled out the 3D bandwagon this year, with a full line of Quattron 3D TVs out for inspection, including a new 70-inch model. Hidden away in another part of their booth were demos of 3.8” and 10.6” autostereo LCD displays for handheld devices.

JVC, who has been concentrating more on projection products lately, unveiled their first consumer passive 3D TV. It’s a 65-inch, edge-lit LED model with embedded micropolarizers that work with RealD theater glasses. Back in the Central hall, Hisense, Konka, and TCL all showed Chinese-made 3D sets with active shutter glass technology, while VIZIO threw its hat in with the passive 3D crowd, unveiling several models that use embedded polarizing filters and passive eyewear.

Hmmm…maybe there IS something to this 3D format war, after all…

NETWORKED TVS

It was hard to find a TV at CES that didn’t sport some sort of Internet connection. Panasonic (VieraCast), VIZIO (VIZIO Internet Apps), Sony (Google TV), LG (Smart TV), and Samsung (Samsung Apps) all had full plates of NeTVs out for inspection, along with numerous connected Blu-ray players. By the way, the ‘connected’ part of Blu-ray players is the big reason they are finally selling so well, as consumers apparently can’t get enough of YouTube and Netflix streaming.

There were also plenty of demos of smart phone control of TVs, using WiFi to stream back a lower-resolution version of the content being displayed on-screen. I’m not really sure why anyone would need that functionality, especially if they are already sitting in front of the TV watching whatever program or movie is playing out. Maybe it’s just in case you need to run to the bathroom?

Don't have Internet connectivity on your plasma or LCD TV? LG's got the fix.

You want a TV remote? I'll show you a TV remote!

LG went everyone better with their ST600 Smart TV adapter. Remember ATSC set-top boxes from the DTV transition? Well, the ST600 is an Internet TV adapter that works with any set through its HDMI port.  It costs about $150, and gives you a Web browser, plus one-button access to popular Internet TV sites like Netflix, CinemaNow, VUDU, Hulu Plus, YouTube, MLB TV, Pandora, and others.

Sony prominently featured their Sony Smart TV product line, based on Google TV. This product has really stumbled out of the gate, probably because of the incredibly complex keyboard remote control (remember Web TV, anyone?) and the fact that a majority of Web video surfing can be accessed with directed one-button Hulu Plus, Netflix, and YouTube apps. Maybe we’ll see a simplified version of the product from Sony in 2011.

Panasonic rolled out its own tablet computer, as previously mentioned. The Viera Tablet is part of a “cloud” focused content delivery strategy (there it is, again!) that will let consumers access on-demand and VIERA Connect content. The tablet will actually be available in several different sizes, ranging from 4” to 10,” and also functions as a TV remote control.

Sharp also featured connected Blu-ray players, with directed apps for VUDU taking center stage. Three new models use wireless connections to access Netflix, VUDU, Pandora and YouTube content via streaming connections. They also took the wraps off a 70-inch Quattron LCD TV with built-in WiFi and a support for CinemaNow, Netflix, VUDU, and DLNA video streaming.

Sharp's got a new 70-inch LCD glass cut, and wireless Internet connectivity to go with it.

Samsung didn’t have quite as many sexy NeTV announcements, but they did have the largest LCD TV at the show (75 inches) and prominently featured their Smart Hub technology. You can access the usual suspects through wired and wireless Ethernet connections, along with Blockbuster, MLB.TV, AccuWeather, Facebook, Hulu Plus, and History Channel content, among others.

PROJECTION TRENDS

There wasn’t a lot of projector news from CES. Texas Instruments used the event to launch a new line of DLP Pico HD chipsets. These are tiny WXGA-resolution (1280×800 pixels) digital micromirror devices (DMDs) that are used in picoprojectors and pocket projectors, and there were plenty on display in the TI suite. They had picos running in GE digital cameras, Sharp smart phones, and even a prototype tablet computer.

Sony even showed a DLP-based picoprojector in a new digital camera at Digital Experience, an interesting development considering that both companies parted ways back in 1996 after Sony built its first and only SVGA DLP high-brightness projector.

Yes, Pico DLP chips really are that small.

Even digital cameras are equipped with picoprojectors nowadays.

Other picoprojectors were shown from LG, ViewSonic, Acer, and Optoma. The Optoma iPod docking station with built-in picoprojector was a clever product, as was the GE digital camera. But most of these projectors cast small, dim images, and you have to wonder how the explosion of tablet computers will affect this market, considering that both picos and tablets would be used for very small group presentations.

Several 3D projectors took a bow in Las Vegas. Mitsubishi finally has a model number for its LCoS 3D projector (HC9000), while Sharp announced the XV-Z17000 DLP 3D chassis. Samsung’s also got a new 3D box, the SP-A8000, which also uses DLP technology. Over in the JVC booth, the previously-announced DLA-X9 and DLA-X7 D-ILA (LCoS) 3D front projectors now have THX 3D certification – apparently the only models to earn that appellation so far. The general consensus is that DLP produces better blacks and higher contrast than LCoS 3D projectors, but that will remain to be seen. (I expect to have a review sample of the Mits unit in mid-March.)

Mitsubishi’s big screen TV division continues to hang on in the rear-projection DLP marketplace and is actually doing quite well, thank you very much. (It’s easy to capture 100% market share when you are the only player!) They launched a 92-inch DLP set with 3D compatibility, and while it doesn’t have a model number yet, expect it to sell in the mid-$5000 range, with active shutter glasses an extra.

Is a 92-inch 3D screen big enough for ya?

NO?? OK, then how about a 155-inch OLED screen?

WIRED VS. WIRELESS NETWORKING

I met with most of the major networking groups at CES. Two of them (HDBaseT and DiiVA) are very close in theory and practice, with structured wire being used to distribute video and audio between connected devices. Both systems also support USB connectivity for remote gaming control, and both systems can deliver power to connected devices (100 watts for HDBaseT and 24 watts for DiiVA).

Many commercial interface manufacturers are incorporating HDBaseT infrastructures into their AV switching products, the latest being Crestron (Digital Media) and Gefen. AMX already uses a version of HDBaseT in their AV switchers and distribution amplifiers.

DiiVA is apparently gaining popularity in China, where new apartment buildings and houses all have structured wire pulls. Most of the companies that have DiiVA-compatible products are also (not surprisingly) based in China.

Keep your eye on Diiva for both consumer and commercial applications.

A touch of the button is all it takes to get you in a surround-sound sweet spot, courtesy of Summit Semiconductor.

On the wireless side, Summit Semiconductor, Aeleron, and Amimon all showed system-on-chip solutions for high-bitrate video and audio distribution. Amimon is the founder of the Wireless High Definition Interface (WHDI) and showed wireless display connectivity to remote PCs, as well as Blu-ray 1080p playback to specially-equipped LG and Hisense wireless LCD TVs.

Aeleron featured Ultra WideBand (UWB) connectivity of 1080p streaming and docking systems that work with TVs, laptops, smart phones, and other media players. They also featured DLNA-compatible UWB adapters for in-room signal distribution (UWB can’t go between rooms) and driverless HDMI interfaces.

Summit’s demo was perhaps the most interesting. It featured uncompressed distribution of wireless multi-channel surround audio to randomly-placed powered speaker columns. A special remote activates a supersonic Doppler system that automatically adjusts the levels of all speakers so that you are sitting in t ‘sweet spot,’ no matter where you are in the room, or where the speakers happen to be placed. It takes all of ½ second for this adjustment to be made.

Back over in the Hilton, Sigma Designs has found a way to reduce line noise and broad spectrum interference in HomePlug systems. Turns out, all those battery chargers and AC adapters are pretty ‘dirty,’ which clips the available bit rate for moving video and audio through decoupled AC power lines. With the Sigma enhancements, the receive speed (to a media player or TV) is as much as 65% of the transmit speed (from the playout source). With normal HomePlug appliances, the receive speed can drop to as little as 20 – 25% of the transmit speed.

Who knew HomePlug systems were so noisy? (not to mention iPad AC power adapters...)

Guess what? Your smart phone can talk to your oven now. And your refrigerator, and washer, and dryer, and...WHAT??? No! Not the TOILET!!!

THE WRAP

There was so much more to report on from CES. Many of the new TVs and accessories will be featured in upcoming spring line shows, where I’ll take a closer look at each. You can also find news about specific model numbers and pricing at many other media outlets, along with each manufacturer’s specific Web sites.

If there was anything to take away from the show, it was that TVs were not the big news at CES this year. Instead, multi-function smart phones and connected media appliances generated all the buzz. We’re definitely in for a protracted battle between the “your TV should be the hub!” advocates and the “Connect outside the TV!” evangelists, not to mention the “go wireless!” and “use wired connections!” camps.

I tend to favor the “connect outside the TV” and “go wireless” arguments, although it is a tricky task to stream high-definition video in an uncompressed format between rooms in a house. (And no, the FCC taking away more UHF TV channels won’t help at all – there’s not enough spectrum space in the UHF band for 512 MHz channels!)

3D will continue to muddle along this year, as the economy slowly recovers and consumers sit on their hands. The confusing “glasses or no glasses” messages won’t help. Active-shutter 3D and passive 3d are clearly superior to autostereo 3D for viewing TV shows and movies, but you have to test-drive all three modes first to understand why. Look for the passive systems from LG, JVC, and VIZIO to pick up more market share as the year winds on and consumers realize they can use their freebie movie theater glasses at home.

LG's placing its bets on passive 3D TV.

Samsung's flexible OLED displays don't get bent out of shape.

NeTVs are here to stay and potentially a lot more popular than 3D. Sony’s Google TV approach may be too complicated for most consumers, who are likely to favor the simpler direct channel apps offered by everyone else. And if they can access Netflix, YouTube, and Hulu Plus, they may not need much else. Look for LG’s Internet converter box to be copied by other manufacturers so that older TVs can join in the fun.

It was nice to see a few OLED TV demos this year, but once again the technology just isn’t ready for prime time. Look for Samsung to show an OLED Galaxy tablet later this year, if for no other reason than to prove they can make one. But it will be a while before you can buy it. The rest of the tablet and smart phone crowd will stay with tried-and-true LCD technology for the time being.

Blu-ray disc and player prices will continue to plummet. I’ve predicted that major brands will stop making conventional DVD players altogether in 2011, moving to Blu-ray as their exclusive platform. While we didn’t see any BD players with internal hard drives like those sold in Japan, they’re not far off. Too many people are using Netflix streaming and would like to try a straight digital download for improved image quality. What better place to enable a DVR than in a BD multifunction media hub?

And get used to using your smart phone to do everything. Game console controls, TV remotes, autostereo displays, even diagnostic tools to use with connected major appliances – all of these smart phone applications were shown at CES.

So was a iPhone case with a built-in bottle opener, which might turn out to be one of the most useful smart phone “apps” of all…

No comment!

Goodbye Flo, We Hardly Knew Ye

Last Tuesday, Web outlet paidContent.com broke the story that Qualcomm was preparing to shut down its underperforming FLO TV business unit this coming December.

FLO TV, for those readers who’ve never heard of it (and that’s a large group, apparently), is a proprietary subscription mobile TV service that broadcasts nationwide on UHF channel 55. The service, also bundled as a ‘white label’ wholesale product to Verizon and AT&T subscribers, delivered several channels of TV programming specifically formatted for mobile and handheld devices.

Among the networks offered to FLO subscribers were Fox, CBS, NBC, ESPN, MTV, Nickelodeon, and CNN. The service first launched in 2006 as MediaFLO, and picked up Verizon (VCAST) and AT&T Mobile as re-sellers in 2007.

The FLO will be cut off in December…

Unfortunately for Qualcomm, FLO never caught on with Verizon and AT&T customers. Customers didn’t care to watch movies and long-form programming on cell phones, opting instead for ‘snacking’ on news and sports clips.

The result was a decision to market the service directly to consumers in the summer of 2009, with big box stores including Best Buy and Radio Shack offering a 3.5” LCD FLO TV receiver for $250, along with a $9 per month service contract with a three-year commitment.

The total out-of-pocket expense to watch 12 channels of programming – $570 – was not appealing to potential customers, particularly with the new ATSC MH mobile digital TV service getting off the ground. Why pay all that money when you could potentially access thousands of digital TV stations across the country for free?

Another strike against FLO TV: It didn’t offer any local news, weather, and sports broadcasts, which are the three biggest drivers for mobile media consumption. To make matters worse, smart phones were already providing Web access to video content providers like Netflix and Hulu, not to mention Web podcasts of sports, news, and weather programming; all on a flat rate data plan that also included email access. That’s not a battle Qualcomm could hope to win.

Ironically, FLO viewership numbers surged with ESPN’s coverage of the 2010 World Cup as the obituary was first being drafted back in June. But it was a case of too little, too late.

Nice try, but no cigar.

Qualcomm’s plans for what’s left of FLO TV and its nationwide network of over one hundred channel 55 TV transmitters (and in some markets, channel 56) aren’t clear yet. But there doesn’t seem to be a lot of hand-wringing coming from the San Diego corporate headquarters.

That’s because Qualcomm acquired the UHF spectrum relatively inexpensively earlier this decade, and now feels that the channels are worth at least $2 billion today, based on current spectrum auction results.  So they can sell off their real estate and still pocket a nice piece of change for their efforts, which among other things included relocating (at Qualcomm’s expense) a few UHF TV stations broadcasting on channel 55 prior to the analog TV shut-down in June of 2009.

Is there a market for subscription-based mobile digital TV? It would appear not. And there’s no guarantee that the free MH services just getting off the ground will be sustainable, either.

But in a day and age of customers feeling they are being ‘nickel-and-dimed to death’ for cable and satellite TV, Internet access, cellular phone service, and landline telephone service, FLO TV never stood a chance.

NAB 2010: A Show in Transition

Some of the big questions facing attendees as their flights landed in Las Vegas were these: Can NAB survive? Will it evolve into something different? Is it even that important to attend NAB anymore?

The answer to all three questions is “yes.” Even though attendance was still down from 2008 (NAB claimed 83,000 ‘officially;’ my guesstimate was more like 55,000 to 60,000), there were plenty of companies in attendance with lots of cool products to check out.

That said, the show is undergoing a rapid transformation away from a traditional ‘broadcasting’ show to a mix of InfoComm and CES – hot new products for professionals. Of course, 3D was all over the place. But so was networked video, which dominated the upper and lower South Hall exhibit areas.

Booths were smaller this year, and that’s not going to change any time soon…not when the typical booth is showing products that have price tags in the hundreds and low thousands. Contrast that with NAB shows 15 years ago, when most of the price tags had three and four zeros in them!

You know attendance was off when this was one of the largest booths in the Central Hall!

On the other hand, the alternative wasn’t too attractive…

The smaller booths and lower number of exhibitors resulted in wider aisles and less traffic – a plus. But it also resulted in NAB placing the main registration area smack in the middle of the Central Hall, something I’ve never seen before.  And there was plenty of wide-open space at the end of that hall, as well in the North and South Halls.

Can NAB be staged in three halls? Absolutely! And can you see everything you need to see in three days? Try two days. (Thursday has become ‘exhibitor bonding day,’ to quote a fellow editor.) I could have covered my beat in two days if necessary.

THE TRENDS

Not surprisingly, 3D was a big topic this year, although not to the same extent as it was at CES. The SMPTE/ETC/EBU Digital Cinema Summit focused entirely on 3D for both days, and I was fortunate enough to deliver one of the papers to a jammed room of 500+ attendees.

Sony, Panasonic, JVC, Canon, Grass Valley, AVID, Doremi, Harris, Evertz, and Ross Video were just some of the companies showing 3D products in Vegas. Those products ranged from 3D monitors and cameras to 3D workflow (acquisition, editing, post, effects, and playout) software and hardware.

Sony’s LM4251TD 42-inch LCD monitor uses micropolarizers for passive 3D viewing.

Other specialized 3D brands were in attendance, too. TD Vision, Miracube, Mistika, and HDlogix had nice exhibits in the South Hall, down the street from Grass Valley. Smaller companies like Cine-tal occupied the 3D Pavilion nearby, while Motorola and Ericsson showcased 3D transport and format recognition products upstairs.

Although the consumer TV market is seeing a big push towards active-shutter 3D TVs and monitors, the emphasis at NAB was on passive 3D viewing (cheaper glasses, more expensive displays). JVC, Hyundai, and LG all manufacture them, and there were plenty of folks standing around with RealD X-pol eyewear watching the demos.

The projector guys were on top of things, too. projectiondesign showed a stacked pair of 3-chip 1080p lightboxes in the Mistika booth, using linear polarized glasses. HDI showed a 100-inch, 1080p LCoS rear-projection TV in the HDlogix booth, also using X-pol glasses. Christie also had suitable 3D projection systems out for inspection.

There were also some demos that left me scratching my head, such as Canon’s dual-projection X-pol 3D demo, using a pair of REALiS WUXGA (1920×1200) LCoS projectors. While it worked well, it requires two separate projectors and outboard 3D filter holders – too klunky! (A Canon rep told me that was because of the 60 Hz frame rate limitation on the internal video processor.)

Well, it IS 3D, but I doubt Canon will sell very many of these rigs…

Broadband video and IPTV were also big this year. This market for MPEG-4 AVC over Ethernet, fiber, or private data networks is exploding, and encoder companies such as Adtec, Vbrick, Harmonic, Ericsson, Harris, Motorola, and Digital Rapids were showing a full range of compatible products.

Sezmi also occupied a booth at the show. This company has a unique selling proposition – a set-top box that receives both terrestrial (read: free) digital TV and selected cable channels carried on secondary terrestrial channels. It also accesses a video-on-demand server through broadband connections (SDTV only) and has a customizable program guide for each user.

While not technically broadband, the nascent MH broadcast format was in abundance at NAB. MH uses MPEG-4 AVC coding in multiple streams with IP headers to send low-resolution video to handheld receivers, such as mobile phones and combo PDA/receiver products. MH is catching on in popularity with broadcasters, who see it as a more sensible alternative to simple multicasting of secondary channels that very few people may be watching.

ATSC MH on an iPhone? Brilliant! (There’s an app for everything!)

MY PICKS

After three days of walking around, I came up with a list of “finds” that I’ll share here. These are all products that represented clever thinking, breakthrough technology, and/or new price points. Some were easy to spot; others required quite a bit of digging. But they all made the trip to Lost Wages worth it (and that’s saying a lot, considering how airlines jam you in like sardines these days!).

TV Logic: This manufacturer of LCD broadcast monitor showed the world’s first active-matrix OLED broadcast monitor (unless you think Sony’s press announcement hit first, which it didn’t.) The LM-150 ($6,200) uses a LG Display 15-inch OLED panel with 1366×768 pixel resolution and come equipped with all the expected niceties including markers, crop marks, caption displays, over/underscan, and HD/SDI, HDMI, and analog video jacks. There’s also a 3D version in the works (TDM-150) that will sell for about $7,700.

This was the coolest product at the show. But will it REALLY last 30,000 hours?

Ericsson: In addition to a host of MPEG-4 and IPTV encoders, the ‘big E’ also showcased an innovative, iPad-like LCD touchscreen remote control/video viewer. Dubbed the IPTV remote, this product can dial up video from broadband, cable, satellite, and even your home network. Not only that, it can monitor weather sensors and your home security system. (Sound much like a Crestron product?) The IPTV remote will not be offered for sale at retail. Rather, it’s intended to be a content provider offering.

Christie: Have you seen their MicroTiles yet on the Colbert Report? These innovative ‘mini’ DLP projection cubes use LED light engines to power 800×600 DMDs (the actual working resolution is 720×540) and measure about 12” x 16.” They can be configured in just about any format you wish, including floor and ceiling projection, and up to 1024 can be driven at one time. The LED light source is specified to last over 60,000 hours. Think of LED-powered LEGOÔ blocks, and you’ve got the concept.

And YOU thought iPads were all the rage…

SmallHD: It wasn’t easy finding these guys behind the Sony booth, but they’d come up with a focus assist monitor for video and still cameras that they claim is the world’s smallest HD video monitor. The actual size is about 5.6 inches and the glass is WXGA (1280×800) LCD. It comes in two flavors – one for digital SLRs ($899) and one with SDI input ($1199). The monitors are an inch thick, weigh 10 ounces, and mount to hot shoes.

Z3 Technology: I found this booth on my last pass through the South Hall, and it was worth the stop. They showed the Z3-MVE-01 MPEG encoder, a compact box that codes HD up to 1920×1080 resolution using H.64 High Profile (up to 30Hz), with Ethernet and ASI outputs. Input compatibility includes composite, component, HDMI, DVI, and HD-SDI video…all for $5,000.

JVC’s 46-inch X-pol monitor always drew a crowd.

Adtec: I didn’t expect to see an HDMI-to-QAM modulator at the show, but that’s exactly what Adtec pulled out for me. The HDMI2QAM is a dual-channel design that encodes anything from the HDMI inputs (yes, they are HDCP-compliant) to a pair of quadrature amplitude modulation (QAM) channels, using MPEG-2 encoding. The modulation format is selectable between 64-QAM (SD), 128-QAM (not widely use), and 256-QAM (HD). Bit rates are constant and optimized for each mode (i.e. 38.8 Mb/s for each HD channel).

 

Cydle: This new start-up demonstrated an app for iPods and iPhones that allows viewing of ATSC MH (A/153) video. Along with it comes the i30,  a battery-powered docking station with built-in antenna (UHF). This means that your ‘i-whatever’ has two batteries to draw from, so if you run low on talk power, simply switch to the i30 battery. Both can charge simultaneously. Cool!

Sezmi’s personal program guide rivals TiVo for user-friendliness.

Panasonic: I’ve seen it before at CES, but it now has a model number. The company’s first production camcorder now goes by the moniker AG-3DA1 and is yours for the low, low price of just $21,000. (Well, all things are relative, I guess.) The camera weighs about 6 and a half pounds and uses a pair of 2.l07 MP sensors (full 1920×1080) to record 1080i and 720p HD content to SD memory cards. Convergence and horizontal and vertical displacement are fully adjustable.

Panasonic gets another mention for the AG-AF100, which they claim is the world’s first Micro 4/3-inch (1.33:1) HD camcorder. That’s a big deal because the 4/3” format matches the coverage area of 35mm film frames…which means you can use standard 35mm film camera lenses to get effects like shallow focus, soft focus, and vignettes. The camera records to SD/SDHC/SDXC memory cards using the AVCHD format and supports 1080i/p and 720p formats, including 23.98/24/25 Hz.

Sony gets extra credit for announcing the world’s second (or first) AM-OLED professional video monitor. The PVM-750 ($3,850) is a bit smaller than TV Logic’s offering at 7.4 inches (16:9), and is not quite full HD resolution at 960×540 pixels. (Not that you’d notice on such  small screen!)  The PVM-750 has 3G HD-SDI, HDMI, and composite video inputs, the full range of adjustments from tally and markers to blue screen mode and AC/battery power operation. No word on lifespan of the display, but Sony uses small molecule (SM) OLED technology, as does LG Display.

LP Technologies rounds out my list with one of those ‘too good to be true’ products: An LCD-based 9 kHz to 3 GHz spectrum analyzer with USB 2.0 interface, built-in preamp, and Ethernet connectivity for remote monitoring. Sorry, no internal battery pack!) The USB hook-up can be used to save data in the Excel format, while the internal memory can tore 900 different waveforms. The display is a 6.4” 640×480 (VGA) LCD type. And the cost? Just $4,500…

Stick one of these on a Canon 5D MK II, and you can shoot an entire episode of ‘House!’ (No kidding!)