High-Def DVD: Who to Believe?

The marketing and PR campaigns for the dueling high-definition DVD formats continue to heat up. Each side lays claim to the Number One position. The Blu-Ray camp has claimed that they have sold twice as many Blu-ray discs than HD DVD. Toshiba has countered that they have maintained a lead in sales of “high definition stand-alone video players” from the outset.

What’s the truth? I expect that both of these statements might be accurate. The Blu-ray player in Sony’s Playstation 3 no doubt made users curious about its capabilities, and so they went out and bought a movie or two to try out on their new console. Toshiba’s HD DVD players are priced way below the Blu-ray players from Sony and others, so it makes sense that they would outsell the more expensive technology. If you fold the PS3 sales into the equation, however, Blu-ray probably has a pronounced lead.

I still pick HD DVD to win in the long run, starting this fall. There are enough good movies available in HD DVD to satisfy many consumers, and the lower cost of the players will be a big factor in the holiday buying season. Expect to get more for less when Toshiba brings out its third generation models in the next few weeks. Also, Warner Brothers has a dual format HD DVD/DVD disc that would make life so much easier for Netflix and Blockbuster, as it would only require stocking one disc for both standard and high definition. (I was given one of these dual format discs at CEDIA last week, and plan to try it out soon.)

Blu-ray clearly has the early momentum, but I expect that to shift towards HD DVD in the coming months. If HD DVD establishes a significant lead, you can expect to see some of those “exclusive” commitments to Blu-ray by some movie studios begin to waver.

Cool HDTV Stuff at CEDIA 2007

Okay, I’m finally digging out from under all the backlog that piled up while I attended CEDIA 2007 in Denver last week. Here are few of the highlights that I feel are worth noting.

Epson has made it easy to install a professional-grade front projection system.

The first item is the new Epson Ensemble. It’s a clever combination of either their 720p or 1080p home theater front projector, plus everything you need to easily install it. You get a motorized 100″ screen that includes the left, right, and center speakers. The projector fits in a ceiling-mounted cradle that also contains speakers for the two rear surround channels. The control box includes a DVD player. It even includes wire management tracks so you can run the wires unobtrusively across the ceiling and down the wall, without having to fish for wires behind drywall. Epson estimates that it will take about four hours to for a homeowner to install the system.

Toshiba's new LCD HDTVs have thin bezels.

One of the drawbacks of LCDs and plasmas is that they have wide bezels around the screens, which can be intrusive for a room’s decor. Rear projection models have a distinct advantage in this regard. At least they did until Toshiba showed their latest REGZA models: the 40″ 40RF350U and 46″ 46RF350U. These have bezels less than1″ wide. As a result, you can fit the 40″ model in a space where only a typical 37″ LCD or plasma would fit. Both models have three HDMI inputs, and are scheduled to ship this month.

Olevia's new 65

I’ve often expressed my opinion that LCoS HDTVs have the best overall image quality of any technology, but it has always come at a steep price compared with other technologies. Syntax-Brillian has changed the game, however, with their new 665H model. This 65″ 1080p HDTV lists for $1,999, and comes with a pair of HDMI connectors and a lamp rated at 5,000 hours. It is slated to ship in the fourth quarter of this year, so keep your fingers crossed that it will be ready in time for the holiday shopping season.

Is front projection, direct view, or rear projection best for you? Find out in Professor Poor’s Guide to Buying HDTV, now available in paperback from Amazon or other fine booksellers.

DVRs Upset Traditional TV Business

Most of us grew up hearing the often-repeated mantra, “But first, a word from our sponsors.” Commercial interruptions of broadcast television entertainment has been a fixture of the industry almost from the start. If you’re lucky, you’ll get to watch a soccer game that runs without commercials thanks to the sponsors whose logos appear next to the onscreen scoreboard the whole time.

But that has changed; you can watch just about any show you want without commercials, if you have a digital video recorder (DVR). Even better than the old VHS video tapes, it is easy to find the shows you want to watch and to skip over any parts you don’t want to watch, such as production credits, opening title sequences for series, and of course, commercials.

A new report from MultiMedia Intelligence points out just how much impact this may have. There were about 50 million DVRs in use last year, and that is projected to grow to more than 60 million this year. By 2011, the number is expected to more than double to about 130 million units. That’s 130 million TV sets where the viewer can skip over the commercials, and they probably will do so.

What does this mean for the $185 billion TV advertising industry? If viewers aren’t watching the commericals, then why would advertisers pay to air them? Subscription-based distribution such as cable and satellite generate a little direct revenue for the content providers, but it’s a drop in the bucket compared with the costs. Without advertisers, the cost of video would soar.

In the short term, this problem is exacerbated in the United States by the fact that the industry’s contract with the Writers Guild of America is up for renewal on October 31st, and speculation about a strike and possible production interruption is running high already.

The question of who will pay for your viewing content is going to become more difficult and more important in the next few years, especially as the Internet starts to play a larger role in delivering video content to viewers. Stay tuned….

Truth Patrol: What This Ad Means

HDTV Truth Patrol

This weekend, I found an a sales circular from Target as I was compiling the data for my Weekly Intelligence Report. One item prompted me to single out Target on the wording of one of their items:

Target has advertised a

The ad shows a 37″ Magnavox listed as a “1080i LCD HDTV“. Two out of three ain’t bad in most arenas, but in consumer electronics, a miss is as good as a mile. People are confused enough about their choices without adding to the problem. The fact is that there are no 1080i resolution LCD HDTVs, at least as far as I know. The “i” stands for “interlaced”, and while this is how all CRT (picture tube) televisions work, all LCDs use a progressive scan to create the image. (This is what the “p” represents in 1080p and 720p.) The industry standard practice is to refer to LCD TVs by their native resolution, or by the HDTV resolution that they can display without having to scale the image up or down.

In this case, the Magnavox model has a Wide XGA native resolution of 1366 by 768 pixels. This also is enough pixels to show a 720p HDTV signal. So this model should be advertised as Wide XGA or 720p; either would be okay.

1080i is not okay. It is true that this model can accept a 1080i signal and scale it down to fit the screen, but so will just about every 720p LCD HDTV on the market. At the very least, some copywriter misread the specifications and nobody caught the error. At the worst, someone at Target made a conscious decision to try to make the display sound more capable than it is. The bottom line, however, is that some shoppers will undoubtedly be misled by this description.

Are you confused by the different HDTV resolutions and technologies? Make an informed and confident purchase with now available in paperback from Amazon or other fine booksellers.

Uh-oh! Comcast Throttles Bandwidth

We’ve hit a speedbump on the way to Internet TV. It’s probably not the first, and certainly won’t be the last. The Washington Post reported Friday that some Comcast customers have had their accounts cancelled because they were using too much bandwidth. According to the article, the company won’t reveal its download limits, but they are believed to be about the equivalent of 1,000 songs a day or four feature-length films. The company does say that they send a warning notice to a user a month in advance of taking any action, to give them the opportunity to upgrade their service or change their usage pattern.

The way cable Internet connections work is that that all the subscribers in one area are essentially workstations on the same local network. If one user initiates lots of file transfers, then it can slow down performance for others on the same segment. And regardless of the topology used by any Internet provider, there are also bandwidth limits to their servers, routers, and Internet connection.

One part of the problem is that many Internet contracts appear to promise “unlimited” access to the Internet. Most personal accounts prohibit the operation of a commercial server, however, because that can use lots of bandwidth. Until recently, only commercial servers tended to have the huge volume of hits that would demand appreciable bandwidth.

That has changed. Now, video over the Internet — especially high resolution content — places enormous demands on the system bandwidth. High-speed connections make it practical for users to download such content in a reasonable length of time. But it can tie up the service provider’s resources, and this apparently is what drives Comcast to try to limit some users.

Comcast’s actions are not unique. There are reports that users of Verizon’s wireless BroadbandAccess service have had their accounts cancelled for using too much bandwidth. And some industry analysts report that we may start encountering more instances of bandwidth bottlenecks as demand for Internet access continues to grow rapidly.

All of this is important news for TV viewers who are interested in IPTV services such as Joost, or hope to download rental movies from NetFlix or Blockbuster. As the content moves from standard definition to HD, the amount of bandwidth required increases by roughly a factor of four. So let’s hope that Internet providers are making the investments necessary to increase the capacity of their networks, so that we call can enjoy the IPTV services as they develop. If you have any doubts about your usage, now might be a good time to contact your provider and get a clarification of their bandwidth policy.

End of the Optical Disc?

The tiny module next to the hard disk is a low-cost solid-state storage device that could be used to hold movies in addition to computer data.

As I have mentioned before, memory costs have dropped so low that it’s now reasonable to think of solid-state memory devices to take the place of magnetic and optical storage discs. The USB thumb drive is a perfect example; it has no moving parts, requires no batteries, is lightweight and portable.

Now SanDisk has announced a module that can be incorporated into a circuitboard design, such as a computer motherboard. The uSSD will be available with capacities up to 8 MB when it starts shipping in the fourth quarter of this year. At about 1 by 1.5 inches, the tiny device could also be incorporated into the controller for a portable movie player. At 8 GB, it could hold the contents of up to two standard DVDs. SanDisk has other devices with up to 64 GB capacity, which would be sufficient to hold two or three high-definition movies.

Imagine that instead of managing your Netflix or Blockbuster movie rentals from your computer, you had a little portable movie player. When you’re ready for a new movie, you connect it to the Internet, and overnight it downloads your next title (or titles). When you want to watch it, you can watch on the device, or you can connect it to any display including your big HDTV and watch the movie there. Does that sound appealing?

If Netflix or Blockbuster had a system like that, they would have no postage to pay, and no physical inventory of discs to manage. The consumer has no disc or card or other piece that could be damaged or lost; everything is right in the player. And as an interesting side note, this makes the whole problem of HD DVD vs. Blu-ray just blow away like dust. I expect that this is what the future holds for movie rentals.

HDTV Cost per Hour Down 11%

Are you ready for some football? Sports appears to be one of the greatest driving forces behind the adoption of HDTV, and football is probably the most influential of all. So it’s little wonder that this is the time of year when the thoughts of football fans turn not to the kick-off for the season opener, but rather to the task of convincing their significant other (or themselves) that they really should get an HDTV now.

As a public service last year, I ran the numbers and calculated the hourly cost of watching an HDTV. This was well-received, so I’ve decided that it’s now time to update that figure. In time for tonight’s opening kick-off to start the NFL’s regular season, here is “Professor Poor’s HDTV Hourly Cost Index for 2007” which I’ll call the PPHHCI2007 for short.

Using data derived from Nielsen Media Research’s benchmark figures, I assume that two people will watch the new screen for an average of 4.5 hours per day. Based on a comprehensive review of cable and satellite services, I estimate an average monthly cost of $65 for high-definition service. (This assumes that you buy more than just the basic package in most cases, and takes into account that some people will watch high-definition programming over the air for free.) And this year, I’ve refined the model to assume a 42″ LCD or plasma flat panel HDTV. Using figures from Pacific Media Associates, I figure that the average price paid for the HDTV to be $1,497. (Many people will get their 42″ set for less than $1,000.) Finally, I assume that you’ll keep the set for five years. (The fact is that many people keep their sets much longer, but I want to make this a conservative estimate.)

Turn the crank, and the results say that you can watch your new HDTV for $.33 per hour over the five year period. Last year, the PPHHCI2006 was $.37, so this is an 11% decrease. (Aren’t you glad you waited? You just saved 11%!)

Now, a number of factors could be applied to make the costs lower. For example, I do not assume that you’re already paying for some cable or satellite service; the full subscription cost is included in the index. Also, it’s possible that HD service rates will decrease due to increased competition. Since this accounts for nearly three-quarters of the overall cost, that could result in significant savings. But the intent of the PPHHCI2007 is to give a snapshot for now.

Since a typical football game lasts three hours, you can now tell your significant other that it will cost less than $1 for you to enjoy it on a new HDTV.

So what is your best choice for a new HDTV? You can find out in now available in paperback from Amazon or other fine booksellers.

Satellites and Power Lines

Technology — like politics — can make strange bedfellows. Take the example of DirecTV. What could be more wireless than a satellite TV service? You physically cannot run a wire to a satellite. Still, there are some services that just don’t lend themselves to the current wireless technologies, such as providing telephone service or broadband Internet connections.

That’s why DirecTV has existing partnerships with AT&T, Clearwire, Qwest, and Verizon to bundle satellite TV subscriptions with phone and Internet services. The company also announced a new project last month that will bring a similar combination of services to up to 1.8 million homes in the Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas area using electrical power lines. Working with a company called Current Group, the service will deliver up to 10 Mb per second transfer rates. Unlike some services, the service is symmetrical, meaning that uploads will be just as fast as downloads.

To use the service, you just plug a modem into any power outlet in your home. It provides wired Ethernet and WiFi connections for your home network. So you don’t have to run any new wires.

Broadband over AC power lines sounds like a good idea to me, though it would appear to put all your eggs in one basket. If your power goes out, you’ll probably lose phone service and everything else. But if you have a battery backup for your TV and satellite box, you’ll still be able to watch TV.

Is satellite service best for you? Compare for yourself at hdtvprofessor.com/SatelliteTVService/satellite-comparison.html.

New Updated “Guide to Buying HDTV”

After Labor Day, sales of HDTVs tend to build right through the end of the year. It’s likely that you’re one of the millions of Americans who are considering buying an HDTV soon. And just in time for this increased interest, I am pleased to announce the release of the Second Edition of Professor Poor’s Guide to Buying HDTV, now available in paperback from Amazon or other fine booksellers.

The book has been totally revised for 2007. It still provides a comprehensive overview of all three classes of HDTVs: direct view, rear projection, and front projection. And it still provide detailed explanations of the strengths and weaknesses of the different display technologies, including LCD and plasma flat panels. But all the pricing information has been updated to reflect the current market conditions, and the information about sweet spots and potential new designs has been revised. For example, it is now apparent that we won’t see SED flat panels any time soon, if ever. On the other hand, we can expect to see Laser TVs on the market before the end of this year.

As always, it comes with my lifetime satisfaction guarantee, so you can return it at any time — no questions asked — for a full refund.

Don’t take someone else’s word for what is the best HDTV; make your choice knowing that you’re getting the right HDTV for your needs and budget. Get Professor Poor’s Guide to Buying HDTV, now available in paperback from Amazon or other fine booksellers.

Download Your Movie Rentals

It used to be that you’d have to drive all the way to the video rental store to get your movies to watch at home. DVDs helped change that, because they were much less expensive to mail than the bulky old VHS tape cassettes. And thus NetFlix came into being. Blockbuster saw a bunch of its business flowing right out through the customers’ mailboxes, and so followed suit with a mail-based rental service. And as these two companies grapple for domination of the movie rental market, both are looking to the future, trying to figure out what the next winning strategy will be. Maybe it will involve the Internet.

Last month, Blockbuster announced plans to buy Movielink, an existing service that provides movie rentals through Internet downloads. Netflix already has a movie download feature. The problem with both is that most consumers have not integrated their Internet connection with their televisions. That is changing slowly, but until watching a movie on the Internet is as easy as calling it up from your cable service’s on-demand feature, people will still opt for the walk to their mailbox to get their movies.