So you’re ready for a high-definition home theater. In all likelihood your purchasing decisions will depend on which HD channels you want to watch (and are capable of receiving) and whether you want to record and archive HD programs and distribute them to multiple displays in your home. Let’s begin by looking at the basics of accessing HDTV programming. Today, there are three readily-available sources of HD signals: free terrestrial over-the-air broadcasts, pay cable, and pay satellite. We’ll consider each option in turn.
According to the FCC, over-theair digital signals are being broadcast today by 1525 out of 1687 licensed stations, including 840 that—industry analysts at Decisionmark say—are HDTV-capable. The affiliates of the six major commercial networks (CBS, NBC, FOX, ABC, UPN, WB) and PBS offer HDTV on many of their stations. In other words, free HDTV programming is out there, but for most users the big question is whether adequate reception is possible in their specific locations.
Over-the-air reception is dependent on a number of factors, but if you can get it you are assured of the highest-quality picture, because you will receive 100% of the bits the local broadcaster originally sent out. By contrast, satellite and (in some markets) cable HD providers have been known to lower the HD bit-rate from the original broadcast—to cram more channels into their systems, degrading picture quality in the process.
Here are the basics of HD reception. As of July 1, 2005, all televisions with built-in analog NTSC tuners and diagonal screen sizes 36" or larger are required to include digital over-the-air tuners (called ATSC tuners). High-definition TVs (sets with vertical resolution of 720 lines/pixels or higher) must also include digital ATSC tuners. When shopping, just make sure the set you are looking at is a current 2005 model, as stores may still be offering closeouts on last year’s big-screen models, which might not have digital HD tuners.
You will also need a good antenna. Your options are indoor models (much like the “rabbit ear” antennas of yesteryear) and outdoor models. Use the following basic guidelines to find out if good reception is possible. First, determine the distance between your home and local broadcast towers. As a general rule, good indoor reception usually occurs up to 20–30 miles from a tower (though other factors such as interference, the type of building you’re in, and transmitter power also come into play).
A good outdoor antenna could extend reception range to 60–70 miles. Ideally, your view of the broadcaster’s transmitter antenna should be unobstructed, since any large object between you and the transmitter can degrade (or even prevent) signal reception. Assuming you are close enough to the towers and have no problems with major obstructions, you should be able to receive overthe- air HDTV programming.
Next you may want to determine whether your local digital stations’ primary frequencies are in the VHF band (channels 2–13) or the UHF band (channels 14–69). To do this easily, go to the Web site CheckHD.com and select the anten-na guide page. Enter your zip code and you will get all the information about stations in your area, as well as a colorcoded recommendation of the type of antenna most suitable for your location. In many spots, all the digital stations are in the UHF band, which means you may select a UHF-only antenna, which is smaller and cheaper than a combination VHF/UHF antenna. However, be aware that many local network analog stations are currently operating in the VHF band, and that all broadcasters have the right to change their digital station frequencies back to those now used by their analog stations once the digital transition is complete (around January 1, 2009). An additional tip: Placing antennas high up generally gives better reception. If you need an outdoor antenna, there are many fine models from specialty companies like Winegard and Channel Master. In difficult reception areas, an antenna installer equipped with a spectrum analyzer can determine if good reception is possible. An antenna preamplifier may also help lock in stations in borderline reception situations (in fact, some indoor models feature builtin, switch-selectable signal amplifiers).
All of the country’s top 20 cable systems today offer some HDTV channels, though not necessarily in all the towns their systems cover. Many cable providers offer premium channels, such as HBO and Showtime HD, as well as one or more of the following: ESPN-HD, HDNet, HDNet Movies, Universal HD, TNT HD and Discovery HD. The other channels offered (on select systems) are regional sports (e.g., YES) and INHD/INHD 2—two channels, owned by a cable-company consortium, that provide a wide variety of programming, including movies, sports, original material, music, and other genres. Check with your cable company to determine which channels are offered on your system. Viewers in apartment buildings and condos may find cable is their only viable HD choice, since tenants are generally not allowed to mount outdoor antennas in “common areas” or on the landlord’s property.