High Def Talk Part II: Content

Background

Last month we talked about high definition TV monitors and how to get started by choosing the right HDTV equipment. This month in part 2 of 2, let's take a quick look at high definition content to see what is available as far as getting high definition signals to your new HD home theater.

Through the airwaves

Perhaps the most accessible way to get HD content is to subscribe to a satellite provider that offers HD content. Unless you live in an apartment (and sometimes even if you do), you're likely to be able to get satellite TV because satellite TV is available to almost anyone provided you are not surrounded by tall trees that block the satellite signal based on where on your house (or in your yard) you can install the receiving dish. Since satellite TV depends on "line of sight" transmission, it doesn't depend on other services (like cables) being installed to your house. While federal law grants you the right to install up to an 18 inch dish even if you are in a subdivision with covenants/bylaws, there may be some local restrictions, so check with the provider you are considering to see if the satellite TV service can be installed in your location. Of course, if you already have one of these services, just call or visit their web site to inquire about getting upgraded equipment and subscription plans for HD content. Below are the two major satellite TV providers:

  • Dish Network: Dish Network offers one of the most comprehensive high definition packages on the market as of this writing as they (relatively) recently took over VOOM satellites which are dedicated to HD content. If you are looking for the most HD channels, Dish may be your best bet at this time regardless of what other services may be available to you. To see what Dish Network has to offer in the way of HD content, click this link. You can contact Dish Network from their web site to find out if you can receive Dish Network programming from your location. A visit to your home may be required to determine if the satellite dish(es) can be located/aimed from your home/property. You may also wish to inquire as to whether or not Dish Network carries your local TV channels in high definition and if they don't, whether it is possible to receive these channels OTA (over the air) via an antenna at your location in addition to the satellite dish(es). While visiting the web site, you can check plans/pricing as well.

  • DirecTV: DirecTV has fewer HD channels than Dish, but they do plan to add more and even launch more satellites to carry more content at some point. Details on timing are sketchy/speculative at best. To see what DirecTV has to offer in the way of HD content, click this link. You can contact DirecTV from their web site to find out if you can receive their service from your location. A visit to your home may be required to determine if the satellite dish(es) can be located/aimed from your home/property. You may also wish to inquire as to whether or not DirecTV carries your local TV channels in high definition and if they don't, whether it is possible to receive these channels OTA (over the air) via an antenna at your location in addition to the satellite dish(es). While visiting the web site, you can check plans/pricing as well.

In addition to satellite TV providers, most areas that have access to broadcast TV via the old "rabbit ears" also now have digital broadcast TV. OTA (over the air) channels will be limited to what you can receive as far as the major networks from local stations (ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, PBS, etc.). See last month's article for information on receiving HD over the air and to find out whether or not there are digital channels in your area. While over the air choices/channels are limited, once you buy the HD tuner box (if your TV doesn't already have one), you can receive content for free. Believe it or not, over the air HD signals are some of the highest quality you'll experience because they are typically less "processed" than HD content that goes up to a satellite or to a cable/fiber provider and is re-encoded for viewing. Don't think noise and snow when you think about over the air high definition broadcasts as they are just as "digital" and often even cleaner than other providers.

Wired/fiber HD content

If you live in an apartment or other location where satellite dishes are not an option, the next logical option is a cable/fiber service that delivers HD content via a physical cable to your residence. Most cable companies offer high definition packages, but be aware that many cable providers only offer a handful of channels so check their web site or call them to be sure exactly what channels are offered in HD. Also be aware that with cable, some of your (non HD) channels may be "analog", meaning they are not digital and can be susceptible to noise/snow just like an old TV with rabbit ears. "Digital Cable" often means that only a portion of the channels are digital and noise-free while many are still the old analog format. If you want to know which channels are digital versus analog, just check with the cable company or their web site.

One of the most promising "cable" services is Verizon FIOS. FIOS is Verizon's fiber optic answer to local cable providers. They offer a very good selection of HD channels and also offer (extremely) high speed internet that beats just about anything else available for residential customers. Unfortunately, if you are reading this article any time close to when it was written (March 2007), there is more than a 90% chance that you cannot get Verizon FIOS where you live as its availability is very sparse right now due to the necessity to install fiber optic cables to every location where it is being offered. You can enter your phone number on the web site above to find out whether or not you can get FIOS. Note that FIOS TV and internet are actually separate services but if you can get FIOS, it is likely you'll be able to get both: high speed internet and TV.

Hardware for satellite/cable HD content

These days any company who offers HD content via satellite or cable also offers equipment that allows you to receive the HD content and send it to your TV (monitor). The most common setup is an HD DVR (digital video recorder). For those familiar with Tivo, you'll know what these are. They are simply a decoder box with a hard drive inside that allows you to record HD content for later playback. Many offer nice features like passes where you can record all episodes of a certain show automatically, even if the times change, etc. An HD DVR is the best way to enjoy broadcast HD content as you can pick the shows/movies you want and you get to pick the time you watch them. Be aware that most services offer to rent the DVR for a small fee assessed on your monthly bill so many times you don't have to pay a lot for the equipment.

Other hardware: HD DVD and Blu-Ray

HD DVD and Blu-Ray are the next generation digital media format. Both the size of a standard DVD, they hold as much as 10x or more data and therefore support HD content. Unfortunately, the "format war" is still ongoing and there is no clear winner amongst these two competing HD disc formats. That's part of the reason why not all newly released movies are available in HD DVD or Blu-Ray even though most of the mail rental services do allow you to rent the ones that are available at no extra charge over what you pay for renting standard DVD's. At the moment, HD DVD players are about $500 and Blu-Ray disc players are about double at $1000. If you buy a player that only supports one of the two formats, you'll only be able to watch movies released in that format and some movies are only released in one of the two formats. This is especially true for HD-DVD since Sony owns Blu-Ray and will therefore not allow movies from Sony Pictures to be released on HD DVD.

There is finally one "hybrid" player at about $1100 that can play both HD-DVD and Blu-Ray discs but from what I understand, this first hybrid player is really a Blu-Ray player with HD-DVD support added almost as an afterthought. Apparently it doesn't support the full HD-DVD spec as far as being able to use all the menus/features of HD-DVD. Unless you have deep pockets and just want to play with a new toy, the word here is still... wait and see. Good hybrid players with less problems and faster boot up times should be available within the next year so it still probably isn't the best time to get into HD-DVD or Blu-Ray.

Do all HD channels carry HD content?

Well, yes and no. All HD channels carry true HD content from time to time, but that doesn't mean that the channel continuously broadcasts nothing but HD content! Take the major networks for example. Nearly all prime time (that would be 8:00pm or later here on the east coast) shows on major networks are now broadcast in high definition including dramas like CSI Miami, Jericho, etc. and even half hour sitcoms. The exceptions are reality shows like Survivor or The Apprentice or news/documentary shows like Dateline or 20/20 where footage is shot with non HD cameras as the shooting environment is less controlled out in the field. It is worth mentioning then, that just because you are watching an HD channel does not necessarily mean that you'll be watching HD content 24/7. In fact, while many football games are broadcast in HD during football season, you'll occasionally find some broadcast in SD (standard definition). Of course, major sporting events like the Super Bowl and the Daytona 500 are broadcast in HD and the best part is, if you have an OTA (over the air) tuner, you can receive these broadcasts in all their glory for free with just a table top or rooftop antenna provided you are close enough to a TV station/tower.

Summary

In this short article, we've taken a look at the major players involved in getting the high definition content you need delivered to your home. A big part of enjoying your new high definition home theater is being able to get actual high definition content on your system. More and more HD content is becoming available and it is certainly no longer true that having a high definition TV doesn't make sense because there isn't any good HD material. The material is there for the taking and it's getting better all the time!

-- Mike Chaney