HDTV Experiment

October 22, 2004

So we have this big <a href='http://www.sharpusa.com/products/ModelLanding/0,1058,1040,00.html'>LCD TV</a> in the living room. It has been doing a good job of being both a TV and a computer monitor for a few months now. But its untapped Hi-Def capabilities have been disrupting my sleeping patterns (see the previous article).

I've been casually looking at our options in the HD world. Here they are at the moment:

  • Dish Network HD package<br/>
  • pros: cheap addition to our current bill<br/>
  • cons: not many channels, $1000 for the HD PVR
  • Comcast Cable HD<br/>
  • pros: many channels, especially FSBA HD (the local FOX Sports station that broadcasts SF Giants games in HD)<br/>
  • cons: no PVR available
  • VOOM<br/>
  • pros: many channels, not expensive<br/>
  • cons: no PVR, no local sports channel
  • HD TiVo<br/>
  • pros: HD PVR<br/>
  • cons: still need to buy programming, expensive, non-native data storage format

So nothing really looks like a good option. It's all expensive ($1000 for any solution involving a PVR), and none of them are ideal.

Last week, I saw an article that covered a new product from ATI called the "<a href='http://www.ati.com/products/hdtvwonder/index.html'>HDTV Wonder</a>". It's a sub-$200 PCI card that serves as a HD and conventional TV tuner / capture card. It advertises some PVR-like capabilities, and comes with a small indoor HD antenna. I figured for $200, I'd give it a shot..

I was already going to <a href='http://www.centralcomputer.com/'>Central Computer</a> to get a small 5 port switch today (another <a href='http://slimdevices.com/'>SliMP3</a> needed hooking up), and happened to notice they had an HDTV Wonder in stock. No time like the baseball playoffs / World Series to give in to some impulse purchases.

After I got it home, I saw that it requires that yoiu have a video card with at least 64 MB of RAM. Mine had 32MB, so back to Central Computer for the El Cheapo video card Du Jour. I returned with a GeForce FX5200 based card with 128MB of ram -- for $60.

Hooked it all up while the Astros/Cardinals game was going on. I was working quickly to try to catch a glimpse of HD before it was over. No such luck -- I couldn't get the local FOX station tuned with the included antenna. Of course, no problemo at all getting the Telemundo and Univision stations (the spanish language stations have all the dough -- they can afford to place a satellite over every persons home and car!).

After half an hour of running through the "Auto Tune" channel discovery feature of the ATI software several times to try to get the FOX station (with the baseball game), I decided to try a different antenna. Over to the 'Shack to see what they had. Dropped another $50 on an amplified dish-shaped HTDV antenna, brought it home, and hooked it up.

It sucked even worse than the simple antenna that was included in the tuner card's box. It's going back to the 'Shack tomorrow.

Back to the original free antenna. This time I decided to try a high quality coax cable to connect it to the tuner card. This made a HUGE difference! The cable that comes with it is the push-on style and pretty thin and flimsy. I used a cable that we got from a Comcast installation of days past -- with nice screw-on ends and heavy gauge wire. The signal strength of every channel seemed to double.

When I went to the channel list screen to confirm my hunch of a better signal (there's a signal strength meter on that screen), the local FOX channel had magically appeared. All right! Now we're in business.

I tuned in the NBC station in time to see some of ER in HD. Now we're talking! I didn't expect HD to be this good. Watched that slack-jawed for a while. Then Jay Leno came on.

Compare these two screen grabs to see the difference between regular TV and HDTV (why doesn't anyone have something like this online already?!?!?!)::

<table><tr><td> <a href='/blog_images/sdtv.jpg'><img src='/blog_images/sdtv_small.jpg' alt='click to enlarge'/></a> </td><td> <a href='/blog_images/hdtv.jpg'><img src='/blog_images/hdtv_small.jpg' alt='click to enlarge'/></a> </td></tr> <tr><th>Regular TV</th><th>HDTV (1080i)</th></tr></table>

Holy Crap!!! Sweet Tapdancin Mother of Broadcasting!!!

So for $260, I think I have something that fits the bill. There is lots more HD on cable / satellite, but I think I'll wait until their PVRs are less expensive before making a move that way.

One other thing to note ... DTV (digital TV) hasn't really gotten much mention that I've heard. DTV is standard definition TV but broadcast digitally, so there is no interference or static.

HTDV stations broadcast in DTV when they don't have HD content to show. DTV on the ATI card is head and shoulders better than the signal that comes from the Dish Network box. It's sharper, the colors are truer, and the audio is clearer and less compressed.

Here's another comparison:

<table><tr><td> <a href='/blog_images/sdtv2.jpg'><img src='/blog_images/sdtv2_small.jpg' alt='click to enlarge'/></a> </td><td> <a href='/blog_images/dtv.jpg'><img src='/blog_images/dtv_small.jpg' alt='click to enlarge'/></a> </td></tr> <tr><th>Regular TV</th><th>DTV (480i)</th></tr></table>

So you heard it here first -- DTV is cool too.