Posts Tagged ‘VHF’

Useful Gadgets: Indoor DTV Antennas – The Third Time’s The Charm

Earlier this year, I posted a couple of product reviews of indoor digital TV antennas. The first test, posted on April 6, concluded that there isn’t a heck of a lot of difference between a $5 bow tie and a $40 ‘flat’ antenna when it comes to VHF and UHF TV reception.

The second test, posted on May 29, gave one manufacturer a ‘do-over’ as their original product didn’t perform all that well and was judged to be defective. And that test also included a newcomer who didn’t make the original cut. (Believe it or not, both tests grew out of a more impromptu test in my house of a couple of panel antennas!)

Since the Round 2 results were posted, three things transpired. First, I became aware of yet another indoor DTV antenna, called the Clear Cast X1 and sold through Sunday newspaper inserts, magazines, and even on this Web site.

According to Clear Cast, “Advanced patent pending design of the X-1 digital antenna pulls in free over-the-air digital and HDTV broadcasts in your area so you can leave behind cable-only channels & expensive cable & satellite bills. Receive crystal clear digital picture on any digital TV in the house with NO monthly bill, easy install and setup plus NO waiting for the cable guy.” OK, I was intrigued enough to order one (they’re not cheap!)

Secondly, the PR firm that represents Antennas Direct – the company that shipped me a Clear Stream Micron XG for Round 2 testing – inquired why I hadn’t tested the accessory reflector with the antenna. (Simple: As Steve Martin used to say, “I forgot!”)

Finally, the Mohu Leaf Plus that self-destructed in Round 2 had been replaced and was ready for another go. (The amplifier failed, a problem Mohu was aware of and corrected in subsequent production.)

So it was clearly time for one last trek to Mountain Lakes, NJ to put all of the antennas from Round 1 and Round 2 through one more workout. I loaded up my spectrum analyzer, computer, several spools of coax, and a few splitters and headed out to put this test to bed once and for all.

THE TEST

For Rounds 1 and 2, I used the same window as the desk in front of it was unoccupied at the time. This time around, I opted for a slightly different location between two desks so that I wasn’t interfering with everyone’s work. Additionally; since the test position had now shifted by about six feet, I decided to re-test every antenna from Rounds 1 and 2 to be consistent and fair to all.

Here's what the test site looked like.

 

And here's the 'reference' bow tie antenna taped to the window.

I was assisted in my endeavor by John Turner, the owner and president of Turner Engineering and a long-time veteran of the broadcast systems integration world. Using AVCOM’s PSA-2500C spectrum analyzer, we positioned a $4.99 Radio Shack bow tie antenna (no longer available) for best reception of WNJM-51 (now known as “NJTV”) out of Montclair, NJ.

I also connected a Hauppauge Aero-M USB stick DTV received to pull in each station, in tandem with the TS Reader MPEG stream analyzer program to verify reliable reception (i.e. low bit rate errors). Each antenna under test fed the spectrum analyzer and Aero-M through a two-way splitter, and each antenna was placed in exactly the same spot on the east-facing window, using four pieces of masking tape as markers for alignment.

For each test, I scanned for channels using the Aero-M receiver. Next, I scanned each physical TV channel that was received with TS Reader to see how clean that stations’ MPEG stream was. Finally, I captured screen shots of the actual waveforms from each station I received. And if those three steps didn’t prove which antenna works the best, I don’t know what would!

THE RESULTS

For the record, here are all of the test antennas:

 

Radio Shack bow tie ($4.99, no longer offered, but you can find them on eBay)

Clear Cast X1 ($68 plus shipping)

Walltenna ($35 plus shipping)

Mohu Leaf ($38 plus shipping)

Mohu Leaf Plus ($75 plus shipping)*

Winegard FlatWave ($40, free shipping through August 31)

Antennas Direct ClearStream Micron XG ($100 plus shipping)*

* – amplified, or comes with optional amplifier

 

For my tests, I scanned for all New York City and New Jersey DTV stations within range of Turner Engineering. One local station (WMBC-18) was so strong that I essentially discounted it from my test results – it would have come in with a paper clip!

The Clear Cast X1 is definitely NOT worth $70. Let the buyer beware!

 

But other stations weren’t quite as strong. WABC-7 is a good test of high band VHF reception, inasmuch as every antenna in the test is supposed to pull in both VHF and UHF signals. WNJB-8 in the Watchung Hills of New Jersey is another good test of VHF reception.

For UHF signals, I checked out WNYE-24 (atop the Empire State Building), WNBC-28 (also on Empire and usually strong), WFME-29 (in West Orange, NJ), WFUT-30 (on Empire), WCBS-33 (Empire), WWOR-38 (Empire), and WNJM-51 (Montclair, NJ).

I didn’t expect the antennas to have much luck with WABC or WNJB, as they are too small to have much gain at VHF frequencies. The amplified antennas were a different story, though. If you are aggressively marketing indoor TV antennas for ‘all band’ reception, then you’d better deliver!

Table 1 shows how the unamplified antennas compared to each other. Satisfactory reception is indicated by glitch-free video streams for at least one minute and a ‘clean’ reading with TS Reader, while Table 2 shows how the amplified antennas (or amplified variations) compared.

Yes, you can actually attach the Micron XG to glass with masking tape! (The reflector was a tad more difficult to install...)

 

Note that the ClearStream Micron XG was tested three different ways –‘ bare bones’ with no amplifier or reflector in Table 1; with its amplifier switched to 15 dB mode in Table 2, and with the amplifier on and the accessory reflector attached in Table 2.

 

Antenna

WABC-7

WNJB-8

WNYE-24

WNBC-28

WFME-29

WFUT-30

WCBS-33

WWOR-38

WNJB-51

RS Bow Tie

Yes

No

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

No

Yes

CC X1

No

No

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

No

No

Walltenna

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

No

Yes

Mohu Leaf

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

No

Yes

FlatWave

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

No

Yes

Micron XG

No

No

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Table 1 – Unamplified antenna performance

 

Antenna

WABC-7

WNJB-8

WNYE-24

WNBC-28

WFME-29

WFUT-30

WCBS-33

WWOR-38

WNJB-51

Leaf Plus

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

No

Yes

Micron XG w/amp

No

No

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Micron XG w/amp and refl.

No

No

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Table 2 – Amplified antenna performance

 

Oddly enough, the Micron XG was the only unamplified antenna to pull in WWOR-38. But it was ‘tone deaf’ when it came to the two high band VHF stations. Neither version of the Mohu Leaf could snag WWOR-38, either.

As for the vaunted Clear Cast X1, it was unresponsive to any VHF channels and couldn’t hear local station WNJM-51. In contrast, the late, lamented Radio Shack bow tie worked exceptionally well on just about every UHF channel.

Bonus reception: WNJU-36, which is a tough signal to pull in at this indoor location, was successfully reeled in by the Micron XG with amplifier and reflector. So was WXTV-40, also pulled in with and without the accessory reflector.

THE CHARTS

I’ve included a few charts to show what the actual DTV received signals looked like on the AVCOM analyzer. You may be surprised to see how small the differences are between each antenna, and you will also note that the reflector didn’t improve reception at all on the Micron XG – in fact, it actually made things worse, probably due to all of the signal reflections and multipath at the test site.

As a reference, the actual signal levels shown are about 12 dB stronger at the displayed resolution bandwidth (300 kHz).

Here's what the RF spectrum looks like from channels 18 to 51, using the bow tie antenna.

 

And here's the same spectral view using the Clear Cast X1...

 

...using the ClearStream Micron XG...

 

...and using the Mohu Leaf (no amplifier).

 

Here's channel 51, the former WNJM, as received on the bow tie...

 

...and here's the same station on the Clear Cast X1. No improvement.

 

Winegard's FlatWave pulled in channel 51 more robustly...

 

...as did the Walltenna.

 

Finally, here are received waveforms for WNJU-36 and WWOR-38, using the ClearStream MIcron XG with the amplifier set to 15 dB, but minus the reflector...

 

...and here's what those same waveforms looked like AFTER I installed the reflector. Reception actually worsened, something I saw on numerous other UHF channels. Indoor DTV reception can be funny that way!

CONCLUSIONS

It’s hard to make much or an argument for spending very much money on an indoor DTV antenna when you see how well the lowly $5 bow tie design performed! This antenna design has been around since the 1950s and is just one of those things that can’t be improved on – unless you build an array of them. (‘X’-shaped colinear UHF antennas perform the same as the bow ties.) It’s just unfortunate that no mainstream electronics retailer sells these anymore. (Hey Radio Shack, are you listening?)

However, it’s easy to make the argument that the Clear Cast X1 is definitely not worth spending $70 on, especially since it was easily outperformed by the far less costly Leaf, Walltenna, and FlatWave antennas. Even the bow tie picked up six more stations than the X1 in my overall tests, two of them on VHF. I don’t know what’s inside the plastic housing, but I’d bet it is nothing more than a simple dipole, bow tie, or loop antenna (Clear Cast’s claims to having a ‘patent pending’ notwithstanding). Keep your wallets in your pockets!

Among the basic flat antennas, I still prefer the Leaf – it’s smaller and more esthetically pleasing than the Walltenna (which still  does a good job, better than the FlatWave) and it’s been a reliable performer everywhere I travel. The Leaf Plus is a bit pricey at $75, but the amplifier – while not as powerful as that on the ClearStream Micron XG – helps pull in marginal stations and doesn’t add much to the form factor.

As for the Micron XG, I had mixed feelings about it. It’s big and somewhat blocky, expensive, and based on my tests, you can’t depend on it for VHF reception in suburban locations, a chore the other ‘flat’ antennas handled without much difficulty. In its favor, the Micron XG did pull in WWOR, something no other antenna could do. (Maybe that outcome was just a fortuitous combination of antenna position and signal level?)

The Micron XG amplifier makes a big improvement, but I’d suggest running it no higher than 15 dB. The 20 dB setting creates too much noise and also degrades weak signals, as observed with the spectrum analyzer. The lower-gain 10 dB setting is also very handy in fringe urban areas where you don’t need tons of signal, but just need to boost the carrier-to-noise ratio (CNR) a bit.

And that reflector? It’s hardly worth bothering with, as it didn’t improve reception on any of the tested channels and in some cases degraded it. Those results were puzzling, because the reflector effectively converts the antenna pattern to something resembling a two-element yagi, which should have more gain as it becomes more directional. Maybe you’d have different results over a line-of-sight (LOS) path, but that’s hard to ensure when trying to grab DTV signals indoors.

In any case, you should be able to get a decent indoor DTV antenna for less than $50. Stay away from the amplified versions unless you live in a fringe urban or outer suburban area, where there are less likely to be out-of-band sources of overload and interference. Always place your antenna near a window and/or closest to the direction of the TV transmitter(s) for best results.

Good luck!

Useful Gadgets: Super-Flat Indoor TV Antennas – Do They Really Work?

Depending on you believe, Americans are fed up with ever-increasing cable TV bills and are bailing out by the thousands on channel bundles, opting for free, over-the-air HDTV and movies and TV shows streamed over Internet connections.

 

Or maybe not.

 

While there’s no question that a cord-cutting movement does exist, it’s hard to tell how big that movement really is. But the allure of dropping $50, $60, $70, or more from your monthly Kabletown bill is strong, and the recent battles between Time Warner and MSG network over rights fees only serve to highlight the inflationary spiral of pay TV services.

 

If you live in a metropolitan area and have the major networks (CBS, ABC, FOX, and NBC), chances are you already have access to quite a bit of sports programming. Maybe not the 24/7 deluge from ESPN, but you do have NFL games through 2022, selected Major League Baseball games, the NBA Finals, the NCAA Final Four tournament, college football and basketball, and numerous golf and tennis tournaments. (Oh, and let’s not forget next summer’s London Olympics on NBC.)

 

And if you aren’t into sports, that’s all the more reason to stop paying for programming you don’t watch. There’s still plenty of good prime time programming available for free, not to mention reruns of older cable network shows (Curb Your Enthusiasm was available recently on UHF channel 17 in Philadelphia).

 

With that in mind, I recently tested a pair of flat TV antennas for indoor reception. The first is the MoHu Leaf antenna (http://www.gomohu.com/) ,available direct from MoHu for $39.95 plus shipping, and the second is the Walltenna (http://www.walltenna.com/) , sold by a company known as Urban Freedom LLC for $40 (also at online stores).

 

Figure 1. The Walltenna is transparent and flexible (and maybe not too attractive).

Figure 2. Mohu's Leaf antenna is also flexible, but opaque and a bit less inconspicious.

Both are marketed to cord-cutters. Both companies cite the trend away from pay TV services “…as more and more viewers look for higher value alternatives” and “…and to get free from recurring monthly cable or satellite bills, high-maintenance rooftop antennas, or bulky tabletop models.”

 

Do they work? I tested both recently for wall-mount and window DTV reception, alongside two other stalwarts – Kowatec’s UHF panel antenna  (discontinued) and Radio Shack’s model 15-1874 ‘budget’ TV antenna. Let’s see how they stack up.

 

THE TEST

 

My house isn’t in the best location for indoor DTV reception. Although it’s less than 25 miles from the Roxborough (Philadelphia) digital TV antenna farm, there is a slight hill and a bunch of tall trees in the way.  Only a couple of UHF stations (17, 26) and one VHF station (6) are strong enough to come through without separate amplification.

 

The back side of my house looks north towards Allentown, which has DTV stations on channels 9, 39, and 46. And they’re not all that strong, either. In short, I have the perfect location to test these flat antennas – weak signals, but just strong enough to lock up a tuner.

 

To quantify my tests, I looked at the received waveform for each DTV station on an AVCOM PSA-2500C spectrum analyzer. And I used Hauppauge’s WinTV Aero-M USB stick receiver to verify reception and get some screen grabs of the stations that came in reliably.

Figure 3. (clockwise from upper left) The Walltenna, Leaf, Kowatec, and RS 'budget' antennas in position.

THE CONTESTANTS

 

MoHu’s Leaf antenna looks mysterious and ‘stealthy’ with opaque black and white sides, but hold the black side at an angle to a bright light and you’ll see exactly what’s going on under that “luncheonette counter menu” plastic housing: A pair of dipole antennas with X-shaped capacity hats at the ends.

 

The Walltenna takes that design and makes it larger, except you can see exactly what’s embedded in the plastic – copper foil shaped much the same way as the Leaf antenna. It just doesn’t look as nice on the wall as the Leaf, but then again, some of the best antennas have little eye appeal. (In the eyes of us RF enthusiasts, however, they are things of beauty.)

 

The significant difference between both antennas – and one which I figured ahead of time would give the Walltenna the edge in receiving more DTV channels – is that the elements on the Walltenna are electrically longer than the Leaf. This means the antenna should be resonant at lower frequencies.

 

I should point out that neither antenna uses a traditional collinear dipole array, as many rooftop and wall-mount UHF antennas do. With a collinear design, the physical connection ‘crosses over’ from one dipole array to the next, so that each X-shaped dipole array is out of phase with the one behind and/or in front of it, creating a broadband response. In the case of the Leaf and Walltenna, the physical connection to each ‘X’ element remains on the same side of the antenna.

 

Both antennas are designed to be stuck to a window or fastened to a wall. Mohu doesn’t provide mounting holes, but Walltenna does. On the other hand, Mohu has encased the coaxial cable connection to the antenna in a solid plastic block, while Walltenna simply solders a balun to the copper strips and attaches the balun to the plastic cover with a rivet.

 

I do not like the latter method at all. First off, inserting a piece of metal between the balun legs at such close range de-tunes the balun lines. Secondly, the balun is stiff enough that it provides too much torque on the base of the antenna when bent – you must be careful not to put too much strain on the connector, and the supplied RG-6 cable jumper is too stiff and heavy for the balun.

 

Mohu’s antenna comes with a long run of mini 75-ohm coaxial cable. This cable has higher signal losses per foot, but is much lighter and more flexible for indoor installations. Given the rough handling that such antennas are likely to receive, this is a much better approach.

 

THE TEST: ROUND ONE

 

My first test took place in an upstairs bedroom. I removed an oil painting and hung/clipped the antennas to the picture hooks. For comparison, I elevated the Kowatec and Radio Shack antennas and placed them in the same position. This wall position is on the part of my house closest to Roxborough.

 

After scanning for channels, the Walltenna snagged a few expected stations and a few that were not. Channel 6 (WPVI) runs tons of power to overcome interference from nearby FM stations (Channel 6 is at 85 MHz, and the first strong FM channel in Philly is 88.5). So it wasn’t a surprise to lock up.

Figure 4. (Clockwise from upper left) Spectrum analyzer waveforms of WPVI-6 as received with the Walltenna, Leaf, RS 'budget,' and Kowatec antennas.

Figure 5. (Clockwise from upper left) WBPH-9 and WHYY-12 as received using the Walltenna, Leaf, RS 'budget,' and Kowatec antennas.

Neither was WHYY-12, which also runs beacoup power now that they don’t need to protect channel 12 in Binghamton, NY. WHYY locked up just fine without dropout. WBPH-9 from Allentown was also rock steady.

 

So were UHF stations WPHL-17 and KYW-26, also a couple of powerhouses. WCAU-34 was mostly reliable with the occasional ‘hit,’ as was WFMZ-46 from Allentown, another strong station. (WBPH-9 and WFMZ-46 antennas were on the wrong side of my house.)

Figure 6. (Clockwise from upper left) KYW-26 as receivedon the Walltenna, Leaf, RS 'budget,' and Kowatec antennas.

Figure 7. (Clockwise from upper left) WFMZ-46 as received on the Walltenna, Leaf, RS 'budget,' and Kowatec antennas.

I could see RF carriers from other stations, but none were strong enough to lock up the Aero-M tuner. Even so, this was impressive performance from a so-called “all band” omnidirectional antenna. What the designer got right was to make the antenna elements longer, which helps with gain at highband VHF frequencies (channels 7-13). But it can also degrade performance in the UHF spectrum – you never get something for nothing.

 

By using a balanced line connection to the balun, that problem is overcome. At higher frequencies, only the dipole elements are active. At lower frequencies, part of the transmission line becomes part of the antenna. It’s a technique I’ve used for years on ham radio antennas and on my ‘ugly duckling’ UHF antenna prototypes from a decade ago.

 

So, how’d the Leaf do? Not too bad, but it only pulled in channels 6, 12, 17, 26, and 46 reliably. Channel 9 was nowhere to be seen, while channel 34 suffered from constant breakup. Odd, considering the Leaf is primarily a UHF antenna design and WCAU’s signal on channel 34 is one of the stronger signals around.

 

The fact that the Leaf pulled in both channels 6 and 12 is a testament to how much power both stations run.  This antenna also uses a balanced line feeder to its coaxial connection, which provides resonance over a wider range of frequencies.

 

But the ‘X’ elements at the end of the balanced line are only 4.25” long, whereas the Walltenna ‘X’ elements are over 7” long.  So the Walltenna has a decided edge in reception of VHF signals.

 

How about the two ‘control’ antennas? Kowatec’s panel antenna is usually a strong performer with UHF TV stations, but all it could receive reliably in the test position was WBPH-9, WCAU-34, and WFMZ-69. Radio Shack’s ‘budget’ antenna (UHF loop and rabbit ears) did marginally better, pulling in WPVI-6, WHYY-12, KYW-26, and WFMZ-46.

 

THE TEST: ROUND TWO

 

For the next part of the test, I hung or placed each antenna in a back bedroom window, facing north towards the Allentown and Bethlehem stations. Once again, channel scans were run using the Aero-M and screen grabs were taken of actual DTV waveforms.

 

I didn’t expect to pull in much from this location, save for WBPH-9 and WFMZ-46. The Walltenna met those expectations and also pulled in KYW-26 as a bonus, off the side of the antenna. The Leaf antenna located the exact same stations with comparable reception results.

 

The control antennas provided mixed results, but one did marginally better. Kowatec’s panel antenna snagged WPVI-6, WBPH-9, and KYW-26 (no sign of WFMZ-46 and its million-watt ERP signal), while the Radio Shack 15-1874 delivered WPVI-6, WBPH-9, KYW-26, and WFMZ-46.

 

Obviously all of the antennas could have been placed more carefully for optimum results. But how many readers have access to a signal level meter, or a spectrum analyzer? I’m betting  not many. So my methodology of just picking an arbitrary antenna position yielded a fair set of results.

 

CONCLUSION

 

There’s definitely something to the Walltenna design, but it’s not black magic. Just make the elements bigger and you will approach resonance at lower frequencies. The X-shaped elements on the end act like capacity hats and do the trick! (A full wavelength @ 175 MHz – channel 7 – is 1.7 meters, while a full wavelength @ 665 MHz – channel 46 – is .45 meters.)

 

The Mohu Leaf is a solid performer on UHF and will pull in the odd VHF station, if it’s strong enough. Both antennas are easily concealed, but take care in what you place them behind or near, as metallic surfaces will detune each antenna and the balanced feed line, degrading performance. (Tip: If a metallic surface is placed ¼ wavelength behind each antenna at the desired frequency, it will become more directional on the opposite side.)

 

As for the control antennas, they held their own in at least one test, so I can’t say that either flat antenna had a distinct advantage over the Kowatec and Radio Shack entries. Where the flat antennas have the upper hand is in design – they’re easier to hide and to look at . (Although Walltenna should really take a page from Mohu and encase their product in an opaque plastic coating. )

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.

To the Federal Communications Commission: STOP! Enough, already!

I don’t normally get worked up by much that comes of out Washington, DC these days – it’s apparent that politicians have no limit to the levels they can sink to.

But the Federal Communications Commission’s ongoing effort to reclaim broadcast TV spectrum in an attempt to ‘solve’ a so-called ‘wireless broadband crisis’ has reached absurd levels. And it is time to call them out on it.

Let me first set the table by stating that, a long, long time ago in a country far, far away, the FCC was actually a respected organization that had some actual engineering expertise. The FCC was created in 1934 to replace the Federal Radio Commission. As part of the 1934 Act that birthed the FCC, it was charged with “..regulating the airwaves in the public interest.” Not in the interests of big corporations like Verizon, AT&T, Qualcomm, or Google. In OUR interests.

The interpretation back then was that the radio spectrum (television hadn’t made its debut yet) belonged to the citizens of the United States. And the FCC would regulate how it was used to the benefit of all.

As new communication modes came into existence, the FCC was there to test-drive them and ultimately approve them for everyday use. FM broadcasting, television, Doppler radar, satellites, cellular phones – all became an integral part of our lives after thorough vetting by the FCC’s engineering staff, many of whom (like me) also held amateur radio licenses and could ‘walk the talk’ then it came to the latest technical terminology.

The FCC also regulated ‘common carriers,’ i.e. telephone companies. They approved tariffs and made sure rural areas had access to service. When television took off in the 1950s, the FCC had the foresight to add more channels in the UHF spectrum, and when TV manufacturers were reluctant to add tuners to their TV sets to enable viewing of those channels, the FCC simply made them do it with the All Channel Receiver Act of 1962. Otherwise, the nascent UHF television broadcast service would have died a premature death.

I got my first amateur radio license in 1970 after playing around with pirate AM and FM stations in high school. Back then, you didn’t mess with the FCC, and the appearance of one of their dreaded unmarked gray vans in your neighborhood meant they were on to your illegal radio station – so you pulled the plug, and fast.

In short, the FCC was the perfect umpire for our nation’s spectrum. They knew the technology inside and out, they tried to balance the needs of big corporations with the little guys, and they made sure everyone responsible for a single radio emission knew what the hell they were doing, and were held accountable for it.

Today? The FCC is a joke. I never thought I’d say that, but they have become a laughing stock. They are purely a political organization that is rapidly losing its best engineering talent, and exists merely to identify more spectrum that can be auctioned off to private interests so that Congress can continue to fill its insatiable appetite for money. (It turns out, we do have the best politicians money can buy, as Mark Twain once pointed out.)

Need proof of how low the FCC has sunk? How about the two rounds of ‘white space devices’ testing that the Office of Engineering Technology undertook a few years ago? (White space devices are low-power gadgets for wireless connectivity of media players, TVs, and other goodies in the home, and are intended to work in the UHF TV band.)

All of the devices failed both rounds of tests. Many did not detect strong active digital TV broadcasts on the same frequency! Some took an eternity to scan for active channels.

In short, these devices clearly weren’t ready for prime time. The old FCC would have sent their manufacturers packing in a hurry.

But the ‘new’ FCC? Why, they approved the concept,saying in effect, “Even though none of these gadgets ever worked correctly, you all seem to be nice people and pretty smart, so we’ll assume you can fix the problems.” This, after virtually every manufacturer of wireless microphones, lobbyists for theme parks, Broadway show producers, TV networks, the NAB, church groups, and professional AV associations lined up against white space devices.

So now, just two years after the completion of a difficult transition from analog to digital television – one that has brought us better picture quality (well, in most cases) and free HDTV to communities all over the country, and one that gave up channels 52 through 69 to public safety agencies and private interests, like Qualcomm’s failed FLO service – the FCC wants to take away another 120 MHz (20 channels) of UHF TV spectrum for its manufactured wireless broadband crisis.

To do that, over 600 TV stations currently operating in the UHF TV band will have to relocate. Unlike the analog to digital TV transition, there will be no opportunity to ‘simulcast’ on a new channel while winding down operations on the channel to be given up. These stations will simply have to shut down, install new transmitters and antennas, run coverage tests, and only then light up again.

In a classic case of Orwellian language, the FCC is saying that broadcasters will be invited to participate in a ‘voluntary’ spectrum auction and decide if they want to give up their UHF channel in return for financial considerations. (Look how far we’ve come from the Federal Communications Act of 1934: The FCC is now offering  bribes to get broadcasters to move, or shut down!)

Anyone who has ever dealt with the government knows that the term ‘voluntary’ is meaningless. If the FCC doesn’t get enough broadcasters to move, then they’ll simply change the rules to get those channels one way or another. It’s a sham.

How will this affect free, over-the-air TV viewers? Well, if you live in Syracuse NY, ALL of your digital TV channels are UHF. Ditto for all but channel 7 in Boston and San Francisco , Huntsville AL, most channels in Denver, Portland ME, most channels in New Orleans, all but one channel in Salt Lake City – well, you get the idea.

The question no one is asking is this: Why not look somewhere else for new broadband spectrum? What about the old analog cellular phone band around 800 MHz? What about the hundreds of MHz the government has allocated to itself on a primary basis for whatever purpose?

You see, the UHF television band used to go all the way to channel 83. But it’s been whittled down several times since the 1950s, and in fact broadcasters have already given back 192 MHz of spectrum for other services in the past 40 years. In my eyes, they’ve done their part already, several times over.

The UHF TV band is better suited for digital TV for a number of reasons. It penetrates into buildings better than high-band VHF channels 7 to 13 (forget trying that with low-band VHF channels 2 through 6). It is easier to design compact, high-gain antennas for UHF digital TV reception. And antennas for the new portable MH digital TV receivers are quite small – only 5 inches is needed for a quarter-wave antenna @ 600 MHz, right around channel 35.

Did you know that ALL TV broadcasting moved to UHF channels in Great Britain in the 1970s after the move to color TV? UHF TV channels were deemed to be much more suitable for the regional broadcasting services. Made plenty of sense then, and makes plenty of sense now.

But there’s no use explaining any of this to the FCC, particularly its chairman, Julius Genachowski. To me, he is the consummate political animal and bureaucrat. He is bound and determined to go after TV broadcasters once again and chop off another limb to satisfy his friends at CTIA and the big telecoms. And you will suffer for it.

One of the few really good deals left to recession-weary Americans these days – who are being nickel-and-dimed to death with monthly service fees for cable, satellite, broadband, and mobile phones – is free, over-the-air digital TV and HDTV. Many of you who have ‘cut the cord’ or are contemplating doing so, relying on a mix of OTA TV programs and Internet video, are going to get screwed if this so-called ‘voluntary’ spectrum auction and re-allocation goes through.

Apparently the FCC doesn’t care about saving Americans money, or supporting a diverse, 1700 station-strong free digital TV ecosystem that provides local news, weather, entertainment, sports – again, much of this in HDTV – without costing a dime. Nope, we desperately need more channels to fix our wireless broadband crisis!

Did you know that, in a candid moment last year, the head of Verizon said they weren’t using all of their channel capacity for wireless mobile phone and data service?

Did you know that the UHF TV spectrum is not the best choice for a wireless broadband service? (No, let’s instead move UPWARDS in frequency a few hundred megahertz.)

So, what are you going to to about it? Do you live in a TV market with mostly or all UHF channels? Do you enjoy watching free HDTV programs? Do you realize the disruption this FCC action will cause?

Then get on the phone, or email or write to your congressional representatives in the House and Senate and tell them to put a short leash on the FCC. Tell them to have a full spectrum inventory conducted and made available for public inspection.

Ask them why they would allow the FCC to take away one of the few good deals left to Americans during this time of economic stress, a TV service that more than 15% of the population relies on exclusively (over 30% among Hispanic households).

Ask them why the telecommunications industry gets what it wants, but the average John and Jane Doe – who were the supposed beneficiaries of the Communications Act of 1934 – are usually left holding the bag.

And tell the FCC this: STOP! Enough, already!