Future Bright and Clear
HDTV on its way
By Jim Bray
Get ready for the
biggest change in TV since the introduction of colour.
Digital High Definition
Television is coming, and it's a quantum leap in the viewing experience.
Digital HDTV is already
being broadcast in the United States; limited broadcasts began in late
1998 and have now spread to smaller markets like Spokane, Washington.
NBC's Tonight Show has made the HDTV jump as well.
Digital HDTV is said
to offer five times the detail and ten times the colour information of
today's NTSC (dubbed by someone "Never Twice the Same Colour") system.
I dunno about that, but I've seen the future and it is definitely bright
and sharp; it looks more like film than TV.
The NTSC standard
uses 60 "fields" of 262.5 scan lines per second "interlaced" into 30,
525 line frames per second. Although there are actually 18 digital TV
standards in the US, the broadcast networks appear to be lining up behind
a handful of formats including 1080i (which means 1080 scan lines, interlaced);
and 720p (720 "progressively scanned" lines with no interlacing - like
today's computer monitors).In
demos I've seen, the 720p actually looked sharper than the 1080i despite
having fewer scan lines.
With 18 formats on
tap, you might think we're about to have another VHS/beta format war on
our hands, but chances are that won't happen. At this point in time, many
- if not most - major manufacturers' HDTV sets can supposedly switch between
the formats automatically, though whether they all do the job as well
as each other remains to be seen.
HDTV, which also features
CD quality digital surround audio, is ideal for movies (most of which
are filmed in a widescreen format these days) and live sports events.
Everything looks better in high definition, though one might argue that
being able to count all of Alex Trebex's pores isn't a real breakthrough.
Still, HDTV is coming,
and within the next decade or so it's going to replace today's TV - which
means you're going to have to replace your TV as well. It'll be a leisurely
transition, however, and along the way there'll be lots of tools to make
it easier. These include "digital ready" TV's you can get now and upgrade
later via a set-top box and even "dumbers-down" boxes that'll convert
HDTV back into NTSC signals for those who haven't shelled out for a new
set by the time NTSC becomes a blast from the past.
HDTV sets are pricey
right now - you can figure on paying a premium of at least $1000-1500
for HDTV capability - but as with all things electronic this price will
drop. HDTV sets will also get better as manufacturers get a few generations
of them under their belts, though it's hard to imagine how the picture's
going to get any better than it already is.
In Canada, the conversion
to HDTV lags behind the States - which should surprise no one. Industry
Canada commissioned a task force to look at the subject and the report
was sent to Heritage Minister Sheila Copps in October of 1997. Among the
recommendations was one to hold up the introduction of HDTV for 12 - 18
months behind the US, "far enough behind to benefit from the (US) momentum
but not so far as to be swamped by it." Other recommendations included
giving each Canuck TV broadcaster a digital licence, with the stipulation
that the service be up and running by the end of 2004.
Fortunately, the task
force also recommended that Canada adopt the same DTV broadcast standards
as the Americans. This breath of common sense assures eventual compatibility
between the two countries' systems as well as a healthy supply of the
nifty new TV sets.
While HDTV broadcasting
is important, a local (Calgary) TV station employee told me they're more
concerned with the cable company going HDTV than they are with getting
their own HDTV transmitter - because most of their viewers use cable or
satellite. So for HDTV to be important to most Canadians, these media
have to convert as well.
I couldn't pry any
information from the local cable company about its plans, nor was the
federal government any help (surprise, surprise!), but the abovementioned
TV station employee said the cable companies haven't even agreed on a
standard yet and expressed frustration with that fact. On the other hand,
Bell ExpressVu says it's planning to offer some HDTV
programming in late fall '99, though you'll need a new receiver to appreciate
However you slice
it, HDTV is coming (and don't forget the grey market for US products and
programming!) and it's only a matter of time before Canada is dragged
into the future.
HDTV sets are already
proliferating South of the border. At January 1999's Consumer Electronics
Show in Las Vegas, every major manufacturer showed units ranging in size
and price from $2800US 32 inch screens to 64 inch (and larger) projection
units priced up to $70,000US. And weren't they lovely!So get ready for your eyes
to be dazzled.
Now if there was only
a way to improve the quality of the programs they'll be
broadcasting in HDTV!
Tell us at TechnoFile what YOU think