Reader Question: Indoor HDTV Antenna

Q: I’m interested in picking up over the air HDTV indoors. Do I need a special antenna or can I use rabbit ears ? Radio Shack sells some antennas that are listed as UHF, VHF, and HDTV but are more money then the rabbit ears. I have heard of picking people up HDTV with just rabbit ears. Any help is appreciated.

A: Let me start with a quote from the FCC Web site: “In general, an antenna that provides quality reception of over-the-air analog TV signals (VHF and UHF) will work for DTV reception.”

The fact is that the UHF (and occasionally VHF) frequencies used for digital TV — DTV — signals are just like those used for analog TV broadcasts. Yes, there are some design tweakings that may make a difference, but your tuner and connections are more likely to be bigger factors. So if you’ve got rabbit ears (or some other low-cost antenna system) that works for analog, there’s a good chance that it will work for digital signals as well.

And just to be clear: DTV is not necessarily HDTV. You need a digital signal such as DTV broadcast over the air to get and HDTV signal, but not all DTV programming is in high definition.

War of the Worlds?

Peter Steiner drew a now-famous cartoon for The New Yorker that was published in 1993; a dog types at a computer and tells another dog that “on the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” This has interesting implications for the rise in user-posted videos on sites such as YouTube, and it is appropriate that we consider this today, because of something that happened 69 years ago today.

October 30, 1938 was the date of the original broadcast of Orson Welles’ radio adaptation of H.G. Wells’ science fiction novel, The War of the Worlds. In spite of repeated announcements that it was a radio drama, thousands of people tried to evacuate from New York City in an effort to flee the Martian attack, resutling in massive traffic jams.

My point is that we are well-trained as consumers of video information, and we have visceral responses to the production values and format of what we see on the screen that help us decide whether the information it contains is objective or biased, factual or fabricated. The current flood of political advertisements demonstrate (some with more skill than others) that directors and producers are able to manipulate those reactions to their advantage. And now that anyone can have access to sophisticated video recording and editing equipment with as little as a laptop computer, they can post video clips on the Internet to make whatever point they desire.

On the plus side, this adds immensely to the power of free speech. On the other hand, it may become increasingly difficult to tell if the creator of a video clip was in fact a dog.

Rich Folk Buy HDTVs

Last week, a story in USA Today cited a report from the Leichtman Research Group that revealed — among other things — that 63% of the U.S. households with one or more HDTV had an annual income of $75,000 or more. I don’t find that at all surprising. The fact that 6% of households with an annual income under $30,000 have an HDTV is more surprising, though I suspect that there are a lot of adult students from more affluent families who received one as a gift, which helps boost those numbers.

By many accounts, the average amount spent for a television by U.S. households has averaged $300 to $400. A majority of U.S. households probably cannot afford to spend much more than this, so it should come as no surprise that only people with higher incomes have the disposable income available to spend $2,000 or more on an HDTV. (And as much as $100 per month for HDTV cable or satellite service can add another $1,200 every year.)

Yes, prices continue to fall. And yes, more people are buying HDTVs. But it still is unreasonable to expect that every home will have a 42″ flat panel HDTV any time soon. The bigger question is whether or not there are enough consumers out there with enough money to sustain the growth that the manufacturers are counting on to justify their plans to expand production capacity.

One in Ten Watch TV on PCs

Where did you watch the latest episode of Lost ? If you were like one out of 10 of those surveyed by The Conference Board for their “Consumer Internet Barometer” service, you were probably seated at your PC instead of on a living room couch. The study found that 10% of the respondents watched some television broadcast online. Another interesting result was that this online viewing did not reduce their viewing time for traditional television.

The report cites personal convenience and avoiding commercials as the main motivators for watching television online. This supports my theory of the “iPodding of video”; the desire for individual control over content, time, and location for viewing video entertainment content is going to drive consumer technology choices. PCs remain personal devices, and provide the personal control that consumers want.

10 Million Chinese Can’t Be Wrong

How real is IPTV? As I’ve pointed out before, the definition of IPTV varies depending on who you talk to, but in general it means the distribution of video content over the Internet. YouTube is a limited type of IPTV, but there are services out there that look just like a typical cable TV broadcast or on-demand service.

In this country, we’re saddled with an enormous (and well entrenched) infrastructure based on the broadcast network model. But just as many developing countries have skipped wired telephone service and gone directly to cell phones, television distribution in other parts of the world are skipping the traditional broadcast model and relying on Internet distribution instead. And nowhere is this more apparent than in China.

A report by Pyramid Research projects that the number of IPTV subscribers in China will top 10 million by 2011. That’s an enormous number, and will undoubtedly help fuel the adoption of IPTV in other countries by driving down the costs of the components required to build the infrastructure. It’s worth noting that China has also announced that it is developing its own version of digital television signals for over the air broadcast — competing with the ATSC standard used in the U.S. — so the future of Chinese TV is not all Internet all the time, but expect IPTV to become as familiar a part of the television menu as cable and satellite.

Another Pocket Projector

Last week, Toshiba announced their TDP-FF1AU projector. (Where do these companies get their model names? Imagine if Detroit were to name their cars this way!) It has 800 by 600 pixel resolution (SVGA) so it can display EDTV images without a problem, making it suitable for DVDs. It uses a DLP imager, and it has a $699 estimated price. So far, that’s pretty familiar. But it runs on rechargeable batteries for up to two hours, uses a solid-state LED light source instead of a traditional lamp, and is about the size of a paperback book. It weighs 1.7 pounds, about one-third of which is the battery. It even comes with a foldable 23″ display screen. It even has a USB port so you can show photos or make a presentation without a computer.

This advances the “personal display” market, and while it’s not clear how people will use them — or if they will use them at all — this is an exciting step in the pocket projector market.

Make it Up in Volume?

A report in today’s DigiTimes Display News cites industry sources that claim LG.Philips LCD is cutting its price for the 42″ LCD TV panel to $10 less than rival Samsung’s 40″ panel. According to the report, this places the price about $200 below the company’s production costs.

While this can be seen as good news for consumers, it’s not great for LG.Philips, which has already been awash in red ink. It will also take time for the lower prices to work their way through the pipeline, getting to the set manufacturers next month, so we may not see the effects of these cuts until the end of this year at the earliest. And since they’re essentially matching Samsung’s price, the net effect may be just to shift some products from Samsung to LG.Philips panels, rather than show up as a major price cut.

Still, competition is good, and so long as these giants can stay in business at these prices, it should mean that we’re getting the best possible price at the checkout counter.

Mobile Video Viewing Habits

Okay, so maybe it’s pushing it to talk about “habits” in something as new as mobile TV in the U.S., but Telephia provides detailed research on mobile TV viewership, and they’ve discovered some interesting results. The one I find most fascinating shows when people are most likely to be watching TV on their cell phones or PDAs. The most popular segment is 4 PM to 8 PM (31%), with the noon to 4 PM time close behind (30%). Primetime — 8 PM to 11 PM — and the morning — either 6 AM to 9 AM or 9AM to noon — each garnered just 9%.

These results pass the sniff test, in my opinion. Getting ready for work and the morning commute are not times to watch TV, nor is it when you first arrive on the job. And prime time programming is more often shared with other family members, and you watch the big screen together. The noon to 4 PM segment makes sense, as this includes lunchtime when I would expect people would want to catch up on breaking news, or review sports scores, or keep up with their favorite soap opera. And the top spot being the early evening seems reasonable; it’s tough to focus on work during the evening commute, and this is the ideal time to catch up on the day’s news.

Mobile TV clearly has a strong appeal to a lot of people, not necessarily as a replacement for the traditional TV, but as an adjunct to it that lets you get some video content in your down times during the day. As the services expand, I expect to see more and more people taking advantage of it.

HDTVs Are Dependable, says Consumer’s Union

People are understandably hesitant to spend a lot of money on unfamilar technology. Buyers should find some comfort in a statement contained in the November issue of Consumer Reports:

With more consumers buying flat-panel TVs, there’s a growing amount of data on reliability, and the news is good. During the first year or two of use, LCD and plasma TVs have been just as reliable overall as picture-tube TVs, which have historically required very few repairs.

This confirms what I’ve observed over time. LCD panels used in desktop computer monitors have proven to be at least as reliable as the old CRTs, and I have every reason to expect the same from LCD TVs. Having one of the most respected names in consumer product evaluation chime in, however, should help put to rest any uncertainty that some folks may have.

Look Up in the HDTV Sky!

It’s a bird? It’s a plane? No, its DIRECTV 9S, the latest satellite in the DirecTV constellation, one of four launched in the last two years. It supports both standard resolution and HDTV programming, as well as interactive services. The company plans to launch two more birds in the coming year, which will more than quadruple their HD transmission capacity. The satellite rode into space last Friday on an Ariane 5 ECA rocket launched from French Guiana (a French territory north of Brazil) by the European Space Agency (ESA).

According to a company release, the addition of DIRECTV 10 and DIRECTV 11 in 2007 will provide the capacity to broadcast 150 national channels in high definition, as well as more than 1,500 local HD channels.

This is good news. As I have often pointed out, bandwidth is the limiting factor for HD success. If the signal is so compressed that it’s no better than standard definition, or if a channel is dropped entirely in order to make room for another, subscribers are going to wonder why they’re paying extra money to get HD signals. There’s plenty of programming content available already; it’s a matter of delivering it to the customers’ screens in a way that makes good on the promise of better images through HDTV.