There are two ways to receive available HD cable channels: a cable-company-supplied set-top box (usually rented) or a rented CableCARD. Some HDTVs with built-in (unencrypted) QAM cable-tuning features can receive digital broadcast signals (from CBS, ABC, PBS, etc.) via cable without set-top boxes or CableCARDs, but all other encrypted HD channels will require either a set-top box or an internal decoder card. Cable operators like to push their cableboxes, because these also allow subscribers to order pay-per-view (PPV) programming as well as video-on-demand (VOD), generating high revenues for the cable provider. However, you may purchase an HD set that accepts CableCARD. CableCARDs are PCMCIA-type circuit boards that slide into compatible HDTVs and decode all analog and digital (including HDTV) cable channels. The advantages: lower rental charges (for example, in my market Cablevision charges $5.24/month for a cablebox, but only $1.25/month for CableCARD), the convenience of a single remote for all TV functions, and better picture quality with analog channels owing to a direct connection to the television’s circuitry.
CableCARDs are one-way devices so that interactive services such as PPV and VOD are not offered. However, many cable systems allow you to order PPV programs or movies by phone. The cable companies’ interactive guides will not appear (as they do with cableboxes), so many manufacturers are offering CableCARD sets with TV Guide On Screen, a free interactive guide that may also allow you to program recordings on suitable recording devices, much as you would with TiVo.
At present, there are two HDTV satellite providers: DISHNetwork (Echostar) and DirecTV. Dish offers HDNet, HDNet Movies, ESPN HD, Discovery HD, HBO HD, Showtime HD, TNT HD, and ten former VOOM HD channels (Ultra, Monsters, Rave, Equator, Gallery, Anamania, Rush, HD News, Guy TV, and Majestic). Dish also offers a pay-per-view HD channel and CBS in markets with CBS-owned-and-operated stations. DISHNetwork settop boxes also incorporate built-in HDTV ATSC over-theair tuners.
DirecTV’s HD offerings include ESPN, Discovery, HDNet, HDNet Movies, Universal HD, NFL games, PPV Movies. DirecTV also offers HD programs from CBS, NBC, ABC, and Fox in markets where those networks own and operate local stations. DirecTV boxes also have built-in ATSC tuners.
Satellite reception requires a small, dish-type antenna (sometimes two for DISHNetwork) and an unobstructed view of the sky where the satellite is orbiting. In the fall of 2005, DirecTV plans to launch local-tolocal market HD over its new satellites using MPEG4 compression (all current HDTVs and STBs use MPEG2). MPEG4 is a more robust form of compression than MPEG2, allowing satellite companies to squeeze more HD channels into the same amount of bandwidth. It will require a new dish and new HD set-top boxes. DirecTV is expected to announce a program for upgrading before launching the new local channels. DirecTV has also stated it will add more HD channels after it begins the roll-out of its local-to-local HD service; the addition of the new MPEG4 channels will be followed by a transition to MPEG4 for current HD channels
Both companies offer hard-drive-equipped HD set-top boxes, though neither features the FireWire interfaces needed for archiving HD content on tape or removable disc.
Today, two types of devices can be used to record high-definition programs: HD-compatible hard-drive recorders and D-VHS tape recorders. A third type, the HD-disc recorder, is expected in 2006; these will use blue-laser technology to record and play back HD content on DVD-sized discs. Two (incompatible) formats are expected: HD DVD and Blu-ray (see Robert Harley’s in-depth discussion of these formats on page 16).
Hard-drive recorders can be freestanding components (e.g., the RCA DVR10 or Toshiba Symbio), or built-in models that come with certain new-generation televisions (e.g., certain Mitsubishi DLP RPTVs and LG plasma flat panels), or cable and satellite set-top boxes. Today, the only way to transfer high-definition content from a source box to an external recorder such as RCA’s hard-drive recorder, JVC’s D-VHS tape recorder, or the coming HD disc recorders is via a FireWire (IEEE1394) interface. FireWire also offers the only widely supported mechanism for transferring copy-protected (5C or DTCP) content from one recording device to another. HD program material passes through the FireWire interface in the form of an MPEG2-compressed data streams—the same compression format currently used for HD programs broadcast over the air or transmitted via satellite and cable. The HD MPEG2 stream is recorded verbatim, so the copy is identical to the original, with no degradation whatsoever.
The FireWire format used for HDTV is S400, which differs from the FireWire S200 interfaces found in standard- definition camcorders and other components. Contact component manufacturers if you have questions about compatibility between FireWire S200- and S400-equipped products.