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October 23, 2006

Free TV!

Filed under HDTV

I have decided to make a *big* switch in my life. For the first time since I was in college, I am not paying for TV. I'm now using an antenna ("rabbit ears") to watch TV.

I was using a bastardized version of DirecTV for apartments via AT&T Home Entertainment. It is the same programming as DirecTV, but with a few differences.

One difference is AT&T customer service is *terrible*. When I called about setting up HD programming, I was told I could not get HBO or Showtime in HD (not true). I was told that one of the few HD channels I could get was MSNBC (not true). I was told I could not get the local channels in HD (not true).

Another difference between DirecTV and AT&T HE is support for DVR's. AT&T will not provide you with a DVR, you must get one yourself. They also will only support you after you follow the instructions on this web page. I used the directions to setup my NTSC dual tuner TiVo with success.

Since I was getting HD channels, I needed a new DVR that could record HD. I bought a DirecTV HR-20. I followed the instructions on the web page and all I got was an error message: "no signal found." AT&T would only help me via email on the issue. I was getting about a 4-5 day delay between emails. None of the emails helped me. Most ended with, "Please consult your DVR manual. We consider this issue closed." After nearly 2 weeks WITHOUT service, I decided I needed to get away from these people. Why am I paying them more than $110 a month when I can't get any help and my service wasn't even working?

Going without service made me realize something...I really do not need all those channels. Most of the TV I watch is on the local channels or on DVD via Netflix.

One of the great things about HDTV is over the air (OTA) reception. Before cable, we all got our TV via rabbit ears and it looked terrible. HD is different. You basically either get a perfect picture, or you don't get anything. Another nice benefit of OTA HD channels...most broadcast in 5.1 surround sound, just like you get with DVD's.

I am able to pickup all the local channels in HD: ABC, NBC, CBS, FOX, PBS, CW (which hosts The Tube on a sub-channel) and about 4 others.

So there are some big holes with my plan. I'm a big Mavericks fan, and only a handful of games are on the local channels. Most are on Fox Sports Southwest. I also don't have ESPN anymore, which means no more Monday Night Football...although I have class on Monday night, so it really isn't a problem.

There are a few things I can do. If there is a game I want to see and I don't have a channel for it, I'll just plan on going to a sports bar to catch it. When the Soprano's come back on, I'm going to watch those in the community TV room or just wait for it to come out on DVD.

I still need to get a DVR for the local channels. I returned the DirecTV HD DVR because it will only work with DirecTV service. I'm planning on picking up a Media Center PC, probably this one when it comes out (which should be sometime in October).

Another benefit of dropping satellite/cable...I only have a few channels, but most of them are HD channels, so I spend most of my time with HD content.

One channel I now get OTA that I didn't get before is "The Tube." This channel is like MTV in its early years, but better. It is all music videos with no commercials. The video quality is pretty poor (you can see a lot of compression artifacts), but the music comes out as Dolby Digital 5.1. The music selection is all over the place...I saw Duran Duran with "The Reflex" and that was followed by a Harry Connick Jr. video about hurricane Katrina. It is a great channel to leave on when you aren't really watching TV.

Comments (14)


Another advantage for OTA: quality. DirecTV and cable both compress the video information more to conserve bandwidth. (The cable companies also want to force you to rent a cable box from them, but that's another story). Consumer Reports did a study a few years ago, and had nothing good to say about cable HD boxes, and a pretty GOOD impression of DirecTV. I can say from experience, cable-based HD sucks! Our TV is a few years old, but it can handle some HD content via the component inputs and resizing the scan area on the CRT (yeah, laugh, its a TUBE!). I've watched a bit of HD stuff on it over the past few months, mainly football games, and the artifacts drive me nuts. If I were in the market for HD and saw that picture on a $2,000 TV, I'd turn heels and run!

One more point about OTA, and that is crazy people. I lived in Denver for 5 years and they are no closer to getting HD OTA than a caveman. The reason? Lookout Mountain is the location for an array of over 11 substantion broadcast towers, and it sits above Denver to the west, where some fancy subdivisions have sprung up. The TV stations have all banded together to build one super antenna to replace them all. A "grass roots" group gained control of the county governemnt and won't let them procede, concerned that if the antena fell, it would fall on its side and roll down the mountain like a giant log in a Road Runner cartoon, crushing hundreds of homes and devastating the landscape.

Go figure.


I agree about OTA HD. Why pay your cable or satellite provider an extra $10 for what you can get over the air for free. Plus the OTA is not compressed.

I haven't paid for cable/satellite for over 2 years. I think the cost have gotten to high. I think HD OTA is a hidden gem that isn't discussed enough.

Mavs games are shown locally in Dallas on UPN 21. :)


Actually, OTA is compressed. For example, ABC/WFAA uses some of their bandwidth for a 24 hour weather channel (8.2) and a 24 hour video camera from DFW (8.3). Those two sub-channels are taking away bandwidth from the 1080i HD channel. Without compression, WFAA would not be able to show 8.1 in 1080i.

Bandwidth becomes an important aspect of image quality. I wish my set would show me how much bandwidth a particular channel is using so you could easily tell which channels are giving you the best picture quality. Based on the number of sub-channels, I'd say CBS is doing the best job since they don't waste any space on sub-channels.

As for Mavs games, out of 82 games, only 34 are on KTXA (formerly UPN). The rest are on Fox Sports SW and TNT, which you can't get OTA.

I found a nice article on OTA compression. It says OTA is compressed using MPEG-2 (just like DVD's). A channel has 19mbs of bandwidth. To get the best quality OTA, all 19mbs should be used for the HD channel, and not for sub-channels.

Watching football this weekend, I could tell the difference between football on CBS (0 sub-channels) and football on FOX (1 sub-channel). You definitely see more compression artifacts on FOX, but they are not that bad and you really have to look for them.

Here is some nice info on HD OTA (ATSC).

According to the article, the max bandwidth for 1080 ATSC is 1080p/30 fps or 1080i/60 fps. Assuming 24 bits per pixel, that works out to 1.4 Gb/s.

The best for 720 ATSC is 720p/60 fps. That works out to be 1.3 Gb/s.

Considering 19 Mb/s is the max bandwidth for OTA HD, then the best quality HD content will need to be compressed by about a factor of 100.

For comparison, DVD's maximum is 10 Mb/s.

HD DVD's max is 36 Mb/s.

Blu-Ray's max is 54 Mb/s.

So even the next generation DVD formats will have to compress HD in order to fit it into their maximum bandwidth.


If the game is on ESPN you could always watch it on http://channelking.com/ or any other website like that.


"DirecTV and cable both compress the video information MORE to conserve bandwidth."

Just in case any stray readers were thinking I spent my spare time endeavoring to make neumonic memory devices from stone knives and bear skins--



When's that Media Center PC coming out? I want it.

I read the HP DEC (Digital Entertainment Center) z560 *should* be out in October. The z565 came out a couple of weeks ago. The difference between the two: faster CPU, twice the RAM, more than double the hard drive space for an extra grand.

I actually decided against getting the DEC yesterday. Instead I got an HD TiVo. I just got it setup last night...so far I'm really happy with it.


Have you tried the media center extender on the XBox? I'm wondering how well that works.

I used the music and photo part and it worked well. There were a few times where the xbox could not see my pc, and restarting the computer fixed it. If you have a media center pc, you can also stream tv shows that were recorded by your tuner, even HD ones which is pretty cool. You can also use the programming guide and view live tv.

I've read the Xbox as an extender works almost identitally to a media center pc. I thought about going down this route but there were a couple of issues:

1. I don't want my desktop pc to be responsible for recording tv...if I want to reboot, I don't want to have to wait for a period when there is no tv to record. I want my DVR to work 24/7 and be 100% reliable. I wouldn't trust a PC for this job, especially one that is doing double duty as my main PC.

2. Noise...my biggest complaint about the 360 is that the fan is loud. When you crank the sound up, you don't hear it, but during dialog you can, and I hate that. I don't notice it when I'm playing games, but I would notice it when watching movies/tv shows.

That said, it would be very nice and elegant to have a setup with just an Xbox plugged into a TV, and still be able to:
Play games
watch DVD's (via 360 internal drive)
watch HD-DVD's (via 360 external drive)
listen to FM radio (via media center pc)
watch TV/pause (via media center pc)
listen to mp3 (via media center pc)


I did the music thing off of the pc. I wasn't impressed with the interface. Very cumbersome. If they just used the Windows Media Player it would be all good.

If you connect your Xbox 360 to a Media Center PC, you get the "10 Foot Interface", which works very nice for music and videos. Here is a review of the 360 used as a "Media Center Extender" or MCX.


Wow, this is, like, your most popular posting...EVER!

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