Excerpt: Take Control of Digital TV

Editor’s Note: The following article is an excerpt from Take Control of Digital TV, a $10 electronic book available for download from TidBits Electronic Publishing. The 77-page ebook helps readers work through the buzzwords and acronyms to pick the best digital TV, position and configure it for optimal viewing, and find HDTV programming.

The long-hyped digital convergence of home media is finally under way. Digital TV is the key to bringing this unification to your own home. In this excerpt, I briefly explain how to bring your TV-based and computer-based systems together in perfect harmony.

Consider an A/V Receiver

Instead of attaching all your audio and video inputs to the different connectors on your DTV set, or daisy-chaining them in a potentially signal-degrading sequence from one machine to another, you can buy an A/V receiver to act as the hub of your home entertainment network. All your sources (DVD, VCR, cable or satellite box, CD player) go into the A/V receiver and back out to your DTV monitor and speakers. Almost all HTIB packages include an A/V receiver. Some A/V receivers include ambience processing , a bit of digital trickery to provide fake surround effects to music CDs.

Here are some pros and cons to using an A/V receiver:

Pros: Stronger signals, cleaner connections, fewer remote controls, and consistent decoding of surround sound. Some home-theater experts claim you shouldn’t attempt to hook up surround speakers without an A/V receiver to route signals to them, even if your DTV set or DVD player has separate surround-speaker outlets.

Cons: Less flexibility. It’s an extra expense ($200-$1,000 for some current models) you might not absolutely need, particularly if you’re only using two speakers.

Consider a DVD Player

Until either Blu-ray or HD-DVD players and discs find more consumer acceptance, today’s DVDs are the best tangible source of video you can get. The tens of thousands of DVD titles released in the past nine years (yes, it’s only been that long) will still play on your DTV gear, especially in widescreen and surround sound, and will look crisper and more detailed than they ever did on an analog TV.

Look for the following features in current players:

  • Progressive scan: DVD movies are programmed in 480i, but look their best when translated to 480p (also known as EDTV). Some DVD players include an optional progressive scan function, which processes the video signals through a firmware deinterlacer . Instead of half a frame 60 times a second, you get a full image 30 times a second.

    Some DTV sets contain their own deinterlacing firmware, which could do a better or worse job than the deinterlacing in a DVD player. DVD players are so inexpensive these days that you might as well buy a progressive-scan model, then experiment with the results with the progressive-scan feature turned on and then off.
  • Up-conversion: This feature uses software interpolation to add lines to DVD images, resulting in a simulated HDTV look. Not many players have it yet, but more will in 2007. (Even as more HD-DVD or Blu-ray disc titles come out, your current DVD library will benefit from up-conversion.)
  • Region-free playback: Most DVDs are mastered with region coding , which prevents discs sold in one part of the world from being played on a DVD player sold in another part of the world. The United States and Canada comprise Region 1. Most DVD players sold in Region 1 won’t play discs intended for sale in the rest of the world.

    If your regular viewing fare is limited to major Hollywood features and TV-series compilations, a single-region player is good enough. But if your tastes veer toward Japanese anime or Latin American drama, look for a player that is, or can be easily adjusted to become, region-free.

    For more information about DVD regions, check out Home Theater Info and DVD Demystified. Sources of region-free players include Region Free DVD Player, Code Free DVD, and HKFlix.com. For discussions about which DVD players can be easily modified for region-free playback, see VideoHelp.com. (If you alter a DVD player for region-free playback, you might void its warranty.)
  • PAL compatibility: There’s a second difficulty in playing international DVDs. Only a few countries outside of North and Central America (most notably Japan, the Philippines, and South Korea) use the NTSC video system. TVs in most of the rest of the world use one of two other video specs, PAL and SÉCAM. However, SÉCAM is similar enough to PAL that it’s not used for DVDs. DVD players sold in SÉCAM countries translate the data from PAL discs into SÉCAM output. (Most TV receivers now sold in SÉCAM countries can directly display PAL transmissions without translation.)

    So, to play discs sold anywhere in the world, you simply need a player that translates the data from PAL discs into NTSC output. Fortunately, several players (even some that aren’t region-free) can do this. Others will directly output PAL data, which many DTV receivers can convert internally. Check the manufacturers’ specs and online forums to find one.
  • DivX compatibility: Two different digital-video systems have used the name Divx . The first, a short-lived line of DVD discs that became unplayable after one or two uses, isn’t what I’m talking about. The second, normally capitalized DivX, is a video compression and authoring system that claims more robust performance than its MPEG rivals. While MPEG-2 is still the official standard for commercial DVD discs, DivX has found growing markets among the makers of online video content. Many DVD players can play DivX-compressed content; they can be found here.
  • CD compatibility: Want to use your DTV’s astounding audio capability without adding a separate CD player? All DVD players also play standard audio CDs. Some can also play the newer, multichannel Super Audio CD (SACD) and DVD-Audio formats.
  • MP3 compatibility: Some DVD players also play discs containing your favorite (legally obtained) downloaded music.
  • Macrovision-free output: A few players can be modified (or can be bought from third-party sources already modified) to bypass copy-protection schemes on many DVDs, such as those created by the Macrovision company. That way, you can record video from a copy-protected DVD to a VCR or a recordable DVD. However, you can make copies more conveniently with a DVD recorder attached to a personal computer with a DVD-ROM drive.
  • Consider a DVD Recorder

    Most home computers these days have built-in DVD drives. Some of them can record discs, some can only play them, and some can record to regular CDs but not to DVDs. If your computer doesn’t include a DVD recorder, get an external one. You can also get a DVD recorder that’s made to attach to a TV, but a DVD recorder that attaches to a computer is far more useful.

    Everyone reading this book should have a DVD recorder—not only to burn backups of your movies, but also—in some cases—to burn regular backups of your computer data. As even mid-price laptops now have hard drives bearing 30 GB or more, backing those gigs up to CDs has become too tedious for many users to perform as regularly as they should. A DVD recorder can record those 30 GB on as few as seven discs, each of which can get burned in as little as seven minutes depending on the disc and recorder used; the older CD-R technology needs as many as 40 discs to hold the same data.

    DVD recorders come in three main flavors—DVD-R and DVD+R (two rival recording systems), and DVD±R (which can record and play both systems). DVD-R machines can’t record to DVD+R blank discs and vice versa; a DVD±R machine can record to both disc types.

    The software supplied with your DVD recorder probably won’t work with copy-protected discs. You’ll need a “ripping” program, to transfer the data from a protected DVD into an unprotected version you can then burn to a DVD-R. Ripping software for Mac OS and Windows can be found via a search engine.

    Why you should back up your DVDs: I’m opposed to the commercial piracy of movies. But I’m strongly in favor of the right of consumers to make backup copies of the DVDs they own. These discs are, despite advances in manufacturing, still subject to breaking, scratching, and simple overuse. You not only should have the legal right to preserve your investment by making backup discs, you should do so.

    Consider a Digital Video Recorder

    Digital video recorders (often abbreviated as DVRs; also known as personal video recorders, or PVRs) are the main way to record HDTV fare, and the best way to time shift DTV viewing, so you can watch your favorite shows when you want to, not when they are broadcast.

    TiVo may be the first famous DVR brand, but it’s not the only one. Its competitors now include many cable and satellite providers, who increasingly offer DVRs built into their set-top boxes. If you use a cable or satellite company’s DVR, it’s an extra few bucks on your monthly bill. If you use TiVo or a similar separate product, you have to buy the box and also pay a monthly fee to connect to its electronic program guide, or EPG.

    DVRs are essentially special computers. They record to, and play back from, internal hard drives. Some cable company models store channel and schedule information in RAM; if one of these DVRs loses power, its program information is lost and has to be automatically redownloaded, but the shows recorded to its hard drive remain.

    A series of point-and-clicks on your remote control guide you through the EPG’s constantly updated menu of upcoming shows, allowing you to quickly set up future recordings days in advance.

    The advantages of using a DVR instead of a videocassette recorder (VCR) to record and replay TV shows include having full digital quality (including HDTV on some models) and enjoying easier programming, recording, and playback. However, a DVR’s internal hard drive has a finite amount of space, and it takes know-how and equipment to move shows from a DVR to anything except old-fashioned VHS tapes.

    Consider a D-VHS Recorder

    One other way to record DTV and HDTV material, D-VHS, is a digital variant on the old-fashioned VHS videocassette. (Both systems were originally developed by JVC.) It can record up to 4 hours of HDTV on one tape cassette, or 24 hours of standard-definition video.

    Consumer D-VHS recorders are rare, as are prerecorded D-VHS movies. (D-VHS tapes won’t play on standard VHS machines, but regular VHS tapes will play on D-VHS machines.) You can buy D-VHS machines, and blank and prerecorded tapes from DVHSmovie.com.

    Consider an HDV Camcorder

    Want to make your own HDTV? Sony and Canon offer consumer high-definition video (HDV) camcorders, starting at about $1,000. They record to standard Mini-DV tape cassettes, which hold up to an hour of footage in HD mode. You can edit their output on your computer by using software such as Apple’s iMovie HD. (You need more computer processing power and a lot more hard-drive space to edit HDV than to edit standard digital video.)

    Want better lenses and other advanced features? Sony, Canon, Panasonic, and JVC currently sell “pro-sumer” (high-end consumer or low-end professional) HDV camcorders, at prices ranging from $2,000 to $6,000. To keep up with developments in this area, check out HDVideoGuys.com and camcorderinfo.com.

    Consider a Game Console

    Increasingly, people these days use TV screens more to play video games than to watch TV shows. A DTV monitor makes the graphics shinier, the explosions louder, and the whole gaming experience more intense. An HD-capable monitor does the same, on an even higher level, especially for game software and hardware that supports HD.

    Sony’s new PlayStation 3 and Microsoft’s Xbox 360 can show game graphics in HD: Sony includes a built-in Blue-ray DVD drive in the PlayStation 3; Microsoft offers an HD-DVD drive as an optional accessory for Xbox 360. Nintendo’s new Wii console system, Wii (pronounced “wee,” and previously code-named Revolution), lacks HD capabilities.

    A good comparison of the consoles is at USA Today.

    Consider a Universal Remote

    With all these devices feeding data into and out of your DTV set, you could amass a half-dozen or more remote controls. Sooner or later, you or a family member will get perturbed that the DVD remote won’t change cable channels, the cable remote won’t turn on DVD subtitles, the TV remote won’t play back a DVR recording, and all of them can mute the sound (but only the remote that was used to take the sound away will bring it back). That’s when you might want a universal remote , a single device that you can program to control all these components and more.

    The cheap drugstore-model universal remotes are still around, and still work. But now, you can buy a fancy high-end model with a lit-up LCD touch screens (a great convenience in a darkened home theater). These can cost $350 or more, perhaps more than your old analog TV. Remote Central maintains an ongoing body of reviews and product announcements.

    Use Your TV as a Computer Monitor

    As anyone old enough to have used a Commodore 64 home computer can tell you, analog TV sets made lousy computer monitors. But digital (and especially HD) TV sets make good computer monitors. Indeed, some HD and HD-Ready sets share the same hardware guts as computer monitors.

    You can at least pretend that your giant-screen DTV purchase was a productivity investment by occasionally using it with your computer for digital-camera slideshows; teleconferences; computer-based gaming; PowerPoint presentations; digital-camcorder home movies; and, perhaps most importantly, downloaded music. (Hook the power of iTunes to those 5.1 speakers!)

    And while you’re at it, you can also bring material from your TV (or rather, from your set-top box) to your computer. With enough computing power and hard-drive space, you can record DTV programming to your hard drive or to a DVD-R (though you’ll need to use an intensive compression system, such as DivX or MPEG-4, to store more than half an hour of HDTV on a single-layer DVD R). And with a deluxe computer monitor, such as Apple’s Cinema Display series, you might not even need a separate TV.

    One way to make sure you can do this is to get a set that’s equipped with UPnP (Universal Plug and Play), a networking technology supported by (among others) Philips, Samsung, LG, Toshiba, Sharp, Sony, Thomson/RCA, Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft, and Intel.

    Computer/DTV connection systems for the Mac include the following: Elgato’s EyeTV family of software and hardware (including EyeHome and EyeConnect) and Miglia’s TVMini and TVBook Pro DVRs process your images, sounds, and data for output to or input from any DTV or monitor that meets UPnP standards. Apple has announced its own device, to be available in early 2007 and code-named “iTV,” to perform similar functions.

    To hook a Mac to a DTV, connect the devices using a VGA or DVI cable, depending on which input port your DTV offers. (Use DVI if you have both ports, and both are equally easy, because DVI is a more modern standard.) If necessary, you can buy an inexpensive adapter to help make the connection; for example you might buy an adapter to convert an older Mac’s ADC port to output to DVI.

    Get DTV Content from Your Computer

    Eventually, some computer industry pundits claim, we’ll get all our multimedia content through the Internet. Currently, many Web sites offer video streams and clips; most of these clips are so small and low-res that you might as well view them on your computer screen.

    The availability of digital video on the Internet has been slowly increasing, and not just due to BitTorrent and other file-sharing systems. A few Web sites offer feature films, TV episodes, and short subjects as video-on-demand (VOD) products—and these sites may charge for them, or charge for premium content.

    To download video from the Internet, you need a fast broadband connection. Expect only SDTV picture quality at best (probably less). Be forewarned that some VOD purchases give you access for a limited amount of time or number of viewings before the downloaded files become unusable.

    In October 2005, Apple began selling video downloads (for Mac and Windows) at the iTunes Music Store. The selection has grown to include hundreds of TV episodes and clips from ABC, NBC, and several cable channels, plus short films, movie trailers, and classic Disney cartoon shorts. Apple initially offered these video downloads at the rather small size of 320-by-240 pixels, a size that works nicely on Apple’s video iPod, though it plays on computer screens as well.

    In September 2006, Apple added feature films, and larger-format downloads of shorts and TV episodes, to its renamed iTunes Store. Thus far, the store’s feature films are all from Disney. Apple claims “near-DVD quality” in its current movie downloads.

    [ Clark Humphrey is editor of the Belltown Messenger , a Seattle newspaper, as well as a former staff writer for The Stranger and The Comics Journal . He wrote, among other things, the 1995 book Loser: The Real Seattle Music Story ; his latest book is Take Control of Digital TV ( TidBits Electronic Publishing, 2006). ]

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