Excerpt: Take Control of Digital TV

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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