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Publisher's Letter

High-definition TV in limbo until the Olympics

This month, we highlight the end of analog television broadcasting (planned for December 2009) and outline what you can do to pick up the High-Definition TV broadcasts that are now available. In brief, if you want to keep watching "free-to-air" TV, you have three options. The first and most expensive is to purchase an HD TV, either LCD or plasma display. The second is to buy an HD personal video recorder (PVR) and hook that up to your analog TV set and third, the cheapest option, is to purchase an HD set top box (STB) and hook that up to your analog TV.

We would recommend one of the latter two options to most people because they will save a lot of money. Most people have two or more quite useable analog TV sets in their home and they should be capable of giving many more years of service. So there is no hurry to go and buy the latest HDTV. Remember that whatever HDTV set you buy now will be much cheaper in a year or two and that is particularly important to the majority of people who make most of these purchases on credit and then take years to pay them off. Better to save your dollars now and then buy a bigger and better HDTV set for cash in a few years’ time.

People may wonder why they should buy a high-definition PVR or STB when they only have an analog set with a picture quality that is well below the state of the art. Why not just wait until the end of analog broadcasting and then get a PVR, STB or whatever? There are several reasons. The first is that the networks are now broadcasting some programs only in HD format and a standard definition STB will not pick them up. Second, an HD STB will provide a composite video output to allow an old analog TV to show the program, even though the picture quality will no better than if you watched a DVD through the same set.

In spite of the above, it has to be said that the current selection of HDTV programs is very limited and generally not worth watching. Most of the time, the programs on the HDTV channels are identical to the standard definition (SD) programs on the same networks. The only networks that bother to put out useful programs are the ABC and SBS. (By the way, all those people who reckon that they cannot pick up SBS will have no problems when they go over to digital reception – see next month’s issue).

Many documentaries on SBS and ABC are magnificent on the big screen and they are even better in HDTV, with far more visual impact than on a small screen.

As far as commercial network programming is concerned, the quality of all digital programs, whether standard definition or high definition is generally woeful, unless you are interested in sport. Even then, while the video might be good, especially on a really big screen or projector, some of the commentary can be utterly banal. In fact, in my own home, the comment which applies to most commercial network programming is that it probably causes brain damage!

In truth, while some programs are very good, most digital TV air space is wasted and probably will remain so until the Beijing Olympics in August this year.

Leo Simpson

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