CHOICE guide to digital TV

What will it mean for you?
 
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01 .Digital TV

In its latest announcement about digital TV the Federal Government decreed that analogue TV will be switched off before the end of 2013.

This means your normal analogue TV will go blank if you haven’t invested in a set-top-box by that time.

So, what is digital TV and why have it? 

Video: Digital TV switch - what you need to know.

With broadcasts going digital between now and 2013, Chris Ruggles tells you what you need to know about the DTV switchover.


What is it?

Digital is just another way of transmitting content to your TV. It uses technology that has a few benefits over the analogue system:

  • No interference - It eliminates ghosting and snowy effects caused by interference.
  • Better quality - It can provide very high-quality image and sound (see Standard or high definition?).
  • More channels - Because it’s a more efficient broadcasting mechanism, it allows broadcasters to squeeze more channels into the same space.

How do I get it?

There’s two ways to get digital TV in your living room:

Digital set-top box

The cheapest way to go digital is to keep your current TV (probably a traditional cathode ray tube, CRT) and attach a digital set-top box between it and your aerial. In most cases a new aerial isn’t needed, but some older aerials may need replacing.

The set-top box acts as the tuner (the part that receives the signal for all the channels) for your TV set and you use its remote to change channels, etc. They cost anything from around $50 to $200, depending on the brand and whether you choose a standard (SD) or high-definition (HD) model (see Standard or high definition?).

You can also get set-top boxes with a built in hard drive or DVD writer (see Recording digital TV).

Integrated digital TV

The more expensive option is to buy an integrated digital TV set (IDTV). Basically, this is just a TV with a digital set-top box/tuner built-in. The advantage is that you don’t have the extra remote and menu system to learn and it’s all-in-one, so there’s less clutter.

What can I get now?

As well as the digital broadcast of all the analogue free-to-air channels, you’ll also get a few extras if you go digital now:

  • ABC 2 – offers a mix of new and archival content as well as ABC main channel repeats. ABC3 is mainly children's programs and currently has limited viewing times. ABC24 is based around news and current affairs.
  • SBS World News Channels – broadcasts foreign language content.
  • Extra channels such as community TV in some regions, Australian Christian Channel, Parliament channel and a home shopping channel.
  • Four digital radio channels – ABC’s Dig Radio and Dig Jazz and two SBS multilingual radio services.
  • ONE HD and ONE SD which are produced by the TEN Network and are predominantly sports channels.
  • 7TWO is largely movies and kids programs, 7MATE is a bit blokey and in HD only at present. 
  • Nine's GO! is aimed at a younger audience. GEM is supposedly for the more sophisticated viewer and in HD only at present.
 
 

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As well as improved image and sound quality, digital also allows information other than sound and picture to be sent to your set-top box or digital tuner. This offers new possibilities which, as yet, aren’t fully or freely available in Australia.

Electronic program guides

Lounge roomAn electronic program guide (EPG) is basically a TV guide you can view on your screen. It contains all the usual information that you would get in your print TV guide as well as extras like detailed program summaries.

EPGs make it possible to record programs based on their title without the need to worry about start times or channels.

In theory you’ll never miss beginnings and endings because the EPG works on actual start and end times, and you can set your PVR to record every episode of your favourite program. See Recording digital TV.

However, there are no free, fully functional EPGs at present. Those that are available aren't kept fully up to date and are only occasionally accurate.

It seems the networks see their programming information as too valuable for you to have it in this form.

Interactive programming (iTV)

Digital offers the ability for interactive programming – where you can influence the outcome or communicate with the program. For example, the possibility of buying directly just as you would over the internet, voting on a character’s next move or getting more detailed information at the press of a button on your remote.

However, full interactive TV isn’t currently available in Australia, other than in the form of sending an SMS which you can also do when watching analogue TV. Something to watch out for in the future.

For anyone living in an area with marginal analogue signal quality and putting up with ghosting or snowy pictures, digital TV will probably be a revelation. Even in areas where the signal is normally good, digital can provide some noticeable improvement.

However, it’s not all good news.

Format issues

Digital TV is broadcast in 16:9 widescreen format, which is similar to most DVDs, but very different from most CRT TVs’ 4:3 format. Widescreen is nice to look at, but it reduces the effective area of picture on a 4:3 screen, leaving black bars at the top and bottom.

In other words, digital TV shrinks your TV picture. Unfortunately, the only practical solutions are to buy a widescreen set or put up with the black bars.

Limited coverage

Like all digital technologies TV tends to be an all-or-nothing proposition. Digital signals don’t degrade gently and if you’re just outside the limit of a transmitter you won’t get any watchable picture, or you’ll get one that’s constantly turning into a blocky mess.

Some older set-top boxes we’ve tested also produce very loud noises in these conditions that could do damage to your speakers and will certainly frighten the cat! However, more recent ones are much better at handling this problem.

Is your area covered?

‘Black spots’ will need special attention. If you’re living in a very remote or marginal reception area now, you should call the Australian Government Digital Switchover Taskforce on 1800 20 10 13 (freecall within Australia) to find out more about what your options may be. Or view its website for more information.

Aerial problems

If you're getting good reception on analog it's unlikely you'll need to upgrade your aerial.
If your reception is just a little ghosty or snowy, the chances are that digital TV will improve things markedly. But if the signal is very weak or too strong, or if there's a lot of interference you could find it'll make things worse.
Some older aerials may be damaged or not aligned correctly. In this case you'll need to contact an aerial installer. The Government has an Antenna Installer Endorsement scheme which is being rolled out along with the changes. You can contact them via this website.
http://www.digitalready.gov.au/
or call 1800 20 10 13

What do you do if you can't afford it?

The Government has put in place a Household Assistance Scheme to help eligible households with the transition to digital TV. Call 1800 55 64 43 for information on eligibility and to find out when to apply.

To be eligible you have to:

1. Live in a household where you or your partner receives the maximum rate of one of the following payments:

    • Age Pension
    • Disability Support Pension
    • Carer Payment
    • Department of Veteran's Affairs Service Pension, or
    • Department of Veteran's Affairs Income Support Supplement

2. You do not currently have access to digital TV.

3. You live in a TV licence area that is currently switching to digital.

There are two types of digital TV — standard definition (SD) and high definition (HD). Essentially, HD offers better image and sound quality – more like a cinematic experience – than SD.

Standard Definition

Picture

FamilySD is broadcast at nearly the same resolution as analogue TV, 576 horizontal interlaced lines per screen. Interlacing is where every alternate line is newly displayed (1, 3, 5, … then 2, 4, 6, …). The picture appears smooth because the screen is fully refreshed at least 25 times a second, which is too fast for you to see the interlacing.

However, it can mean the edges of some text on the screen appear a bit jagged and some people may notice a bit of flicker on CRT TVs. Some 100Hz TVs can reduce this problem because they have double the picture refresh rate. LCD TVs can come in 100Hz and higher models and Plasma TVs refresh at a much higher rate so flicker isn't an issue with them

Sound

SD usually comes with MPEG stereo sound at close to CD quality. HD can come with surround sound and at around DVD quality.

High Definition

Picture

The Australian Government has decreed that HD can be broadcast at a number of resolutions, beginning with 576p, stepping up to 720p and finally 1080i. The ‘p’ stands for ‘progressive’, which just means the lines are refreshed in one pass, rather than interlaced.

Some commentators argue that 576p isn’t real HD, but the fact remains that it’s within the official description. Whatever the resolution, an HD picture is more stable and potentially has more detail.

Sound

Most programs will have Dolby Digital 2.0 sound, which is a slight improvement on MPEG sound. Both are better than analogue sound because neither suffers from interference. It’s possible to broadcast surround sound with both SD and HD, and if you’ve got the right equipment to play it you’ll get a very similar experience to watching a DVD with surround sound. However, not all programs are made or broadcast with surround sound — it’s usually restricted to movies or special events.

Can you see the difference?

  • To actually see a difference between HD and SD you need a screen that has a resolution equal to or better than the broadcast resolution and that can display progressively.
  • LCD TVs are usually at HD resolution, but some older plasma TVs can come in both SD and HD resolutions, so if you want HD you’ll need to check what the model you’re thinking of buying has. Just to confuse the issue some more, currently there are two HD screen resolutions available;
    • 768 x 1366 is mainly on TVs under 100cm, but some cheaper big TVs may have this resolution. On smaller TVs (under 94cm) it's very difficult to see the difference between this and higher resolution screens when sitting at normal viewing distance.
    • 1080 x 1920 is often called "True HD" because it's closer to Blu-ray, or the highest broadcast HD specification.
    • Traditional CRT TVs are normally SD only, but it was possible for a while to get HD models. They’ve been largely displaced by LCD and plasma sets.

    Labelling scheme

    The Federal Government has introduced a labelling scheme to try to make it easier to tell whether a TV or set-top-box is capable of delivering an SD or HD broadcast. It doesn't mean the screen is necesarily HD or SD. You'll need to check this when purchasing.

    There are three labels:

    Capable stickerThis label indicates it's an analogue device, which will need a digital device to make it work once the analogue signal is switched off. In most cases this means it'll be only capable of displaying an SD picture.

     

     

    Ready stickerThis label indicates that the TV or set top box can receive Standard Definition digital free-to-air shows. With Standard Definition, you will receive the same free-to-air shows you currently receive on analog TV and any extra SD digital channels. So even if its screen is HD, it can't receive the HD channels.

     

     

    Ready stickerThis label indicates that the TV or set top box can receive High Definition digital TV. With High Definition broadcasts, you are able to receive the full range of channels, including those that are unavailable in Standard Definition. However, it may have the lower 768 x 1366 resolution screen. Depending on it size, this may be an issue. Check before you buy.

    There are a number of ways of recording digital TV and some offer benefits over what we’re used to.

    Can I use my VCR?

    The VCR was once an almost essential part of our entertainment equipment. Digital TV can be recorded on video tape, but the quality is reduced and some VCRs have trouble with the widescreen format.

    Widescreen TV squished up to fill the top and bottom of a 4:3 format makes for some very thin people.

    DVD recorders

    DVD recorders generally do a better job of managing the widescreen format and can record a lot more per disc than you can get on a video tape. Also, many can do clever things like record and play at the same time, so you can watch the beginning of the show whose end you’re still recording (often called time-shifting).

    However, if the DVD recorder doesn't include a digital receiver, you’ll need to co-ordinate the timer on the recorder with the set-top box and make sure they’re both on the right channel to successfully record a particular program.

    What about DVRs?

    A set-top box with a hard disc drive (also called digital video recorders, DVR) is the digital replacement for the VCR. The difference is that the digital TV formatting and quality are maintained, you get the benefit of features like time shifting and you don’t have to worry about co-ordinating timers.

    They can often record in excess of 24 hours of SD TV. They’re more expensive than the basic set-top box, and you'll pay more for models with two HD tuners.

    More than one tuner makes it possible to watch and record different channels at the same time.

    If you’ve also bought a functional EPG (such as the one now available from TiVo or IceTV) or have a Freeview box, you can program the PVR to record every episode of your favourite programs with relative ease. In fact most DVRs can use even the free to air EPG to record programs, but the information in the EPG isn't always accurate.

    Confusing DVD formats

    DVD manufacturers seem to have a need to confuse the market. First they introduced a variety of confusing formats — DVD -R, +R, RAM — that have only marginal differences except for the fact they don’t work together. Then they arbitrarily split the world into regions and encode DVDs so they’ll only play on DVD players set to a particular region.

    Blu-ray DVD has the advantage of increased storage capacity, which makes it possible to put really high-quality images and sound on a single disc. Blu-ray is currently the only way to see HD movies other than free-to-air broadcast, but you’ll need a special player.

    Choice campaigns on the removal of DVD region encoding.

    Freeview is essentially an advertising campaign to sell the idea of free-to-air digital TV, run by the current free-to-air broadcasters.

    It will provide an EPG, but it's yet to be seen if it's going to be accurate or updated in a timely manner.

    There's also a labelling scheme, which will be attached to products that meet certain criteria. This is to ensure the EPG will work and may provide some futureproofing, but that doesn't mean products that don't have the label won't work in the future or with the EPG.

    See Why would you want Freeview? for more information.

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