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Is it time to go HD?

Want to know whether HD is worth it yet? Here is our look at what's changed in the world of high-def lately — and what's on the horizon.

Fields of flowers:even prettier in HD.

High-definition displays — whether plasma, LCD or rear-projection — offer startling clarity in vision and sound. 2008 is the year that the Olympics will be broadcast in HD for the first time in Australia — and at a reasonable time. Also, with pay TV making tentative steps into high-def it's a good time to investigate what a new HD TV can do for you.

Costs and HD standards | Foxtel, fuzziness and format fights

With such audiovisual splendour on offer, why aren't more people fronting up to their local malls and throwing down the cash for a high-def telly?

The response that immediately comes to mind is that they're just too darn expensive, but with 1080p 32-inch LCDs (with an in-built HD tuner) costing around AU$2,000 nowadays, you'll hardly need to sell an organ on eBay to raise the funds. So why the reluctance?

Holding out on high-def involves a whole heap of issues, from broadcast standards to lawsuits and competing formats. Want to know whether HD is worth it yet? Here is our look at what's changed in the world of high-def lately — and what's on the horizon.

Sounds good in theory, but...
If you've wandered around the TV section of a superstore lately, you would have seen some pretty impressive pictures on the screens therein. No matter the flavour — Blu-ray disc or an HD TV channel — high-definition images can be very impressive. Getting into HD is not always a simple case of buy screen, take home, plug in, however.

Since HD televisions first appeared in Australia, the purchasing hand of many a buyer has been stayed by one or more of the following thoughts:

  • The equipment is too expensive
  • There isn't that much HD content on television anyway
  • A lot of HD TV doesn't look that different to SD TV
  • Is it true that Foxtel broadcasts in high definition?
  • The analog switch-off date keeps getting extended, so it's not as if HD — or even digital TV — is a pressing necessity
  • I live in a rural area and can't get a proper HD signal

Now that Blu-ray has won the format war should I buy a new player?

Sony may have won a format war at last, but hardware is still nowhere near as affordable as a DVD player. Is it worth the effort?

Here we'll take a look at each of these concerns, and how they apply in 2008.

The equipment is too expensive
This was certainly the case several years ago, but prices have taken a swift nosedive since. Televisions are thousands of dollars cheaper than they were, and most now incorporate an HD tuner — meaning there's no need to purchase an HD set-top box.

The area where prices are still high is for the next generation of DVD — Blu-ray. Stand-alone Blu-ray players still hover around the AU$800 mark but can go for over two grand, yet there are inexpensive ways to get into this high-def format.

There isn't that much HD content on television anyway
The government requirement for television networks is 1,040 hours of high-definition content per year, which equates to 20 hours per week. At present, there are no sub-classifications in place; that is, there is no prescribed amount of HD programming by genre, time slot or country of origin. Commercial networks must broadcast 20 hours per week of native HD content, while the ABC and SBS can upscale content in order to meet the requirements.

What kinds of programs make up those 20 hours? Here's a selection of what's currently broadcast in HD on the commercial channels:

  Seven Nine Ten Local
  • Sunrise
  • The Morning Show
  • All local news programs
  • Today Tonight
  • Home and Away
  • All Saints
  • Today
  • Mornings With Kerri-Anne
  • Fresh
  • A Current Affair
  • McLeod's Daughters
  • Sea Patrol
  • The Footy Show (NRL)
  • Australia's Funniest Home Videos
  • 9am with David and Kim
  • Totally Wild
  • Prime-time AFL games
Imported
  • Ugly Betty
  • Grey's Anatomy
  • Alias
  • 8 Simple Rules
  • My Wife and Kids
  • Lost
  • Las Vegas
  • Criminal Minds
  • Boston Legal
  • ER
  • C.S.I. (and its spin-offs, Miami and New York)
  • Cold Case
  • Without A Trace
  • Law & Order (plus Criminal Intent and SVU)
  • House
  • NCIS
  • Numb3rs
  • Torchwood
  • The Late Show With David Letterman

With a new government has come some big changes for digital TV, especially with the dissolution of Digital Broadcasting Australia (DBA). The DBA website used to be a great resource for finding out about digital TV, and now we have to be content with the confusing information found on the Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy's website.

With the official launches of Nine, Ten and Seven's HD channels earlier this year, the amount of quality HD programming is increasing — particularly with Ten broadcasting HD documentaries in the afternoons. However, it's worth noting that not all content shown is broadcast in HD and is simply a retransmission of the SD channel. In a related fashion, studio-produced HD programs such as news and current affairs can mix HD, SD and even camera-phone footage, and as a result the difference in image quality between studio shot material to in-the-field footage can be very noticeable.

For the armchair sports fans, upcoming high-def sports broadcasts include the AFL grand final, NASCAR racing, and the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

For more on HD flavours,see our guide.

A lot of HD TV doesn't look that different to SD TV
This has been the cause of much grumbling among audiovisual aficionados. Standards Australia recognises three formats under the "high-definition broadcast" banner: 576p, 720p, and 1080i. To read about the differences between these standards, see our guide to HD TV resolution.

The point of contention lies with 576p — given standard-definition pictures are broadcast in 576i, you need to be pretty eagle-eyed to spot the difference between the two. In fact, other countries do not consider 576p to be worthy of the high-definition name, referring to it instead as "enhanced definition".

Back in 2005, the then Department of Communications, Information Technology and the Arts called for submissions for its review into high-definition television quota arrangements. One of the issues under consideration was whether 576p should continue to be classified as high definition. In their submissions, Seven and SBS campaigned for 576p, arguing that technical requirements and investments in infrastructure had been made on the assumption that the format would be around for the long haul.

However, despite Seven's position in the 576p crowd, the network quietly began broadcasting its HD content in 1080i in Sydney, Melbourne, Perth and Adelaide last year.

Things are a bit more complicated when it comes to SBS and the ABC. The government has allowed these broadcasters to offer multiple channels, but with multi-channelling comes more bandwidth usage. Each television network is allocated a 7MHz broadcast channel in which to broadcast their HD and SD signals. If the ABC and SBS upped their HD formats to 1080i, they would start running out of room to transmit signals such as the ABC2 channel. There is an ongoing debate over what should take priority — more channels, or higher resolution. The ABC recently upped its HD broadcasts to 720p, while SBS still uses 576p.

Costs and HD standards | Foxtel, fuzziness and format fights

Pay TV doesn't broadcast in high definition
Foxtel has heard the wailing and the teeth-gnashing, and as of 22 June 2008 it will be releasing its Foxtel HD+ service. For cable customers in the eastern states, you'll be able to access all the FTA HD channels plus five additional HD channels consisting of sports and documentary channels. You can read our review of the iQ2 set-top box here.

Until recently, Foxtel only had analog retransmission agreements with Seven and Ten, so the availability of all HD FTA channels is a big deal. If you live in an area without cable access you'll have to wait a little longer for HD+ — satellite customers will only gain FTA (plus a gaggle of new channels TBA) when a new Optus satellite is launched in 2009.

Meanwhile, Austar is reportedly producing a new version of its MyStar set-top box with HD TV tuners on-board. Austar head John Porter told Australian IT in June that he sees the Austar box becoming "format-agnostic". To access HD channels with this box you would need HD FTA coverage in your area.

The analog switch-off date keeps getting extended, so it's not as if HD — or even digital TV — is a pressing necessity
Though digital television was launched seven years ago in Australia, there are still a whole lot of people happily watching the analog version. The slower-than-expected take-up has resulted in the switch-off date being pushed forward to 31 December 2013. Most of us will be flying cars to work by then. Still, as we've said before, digital TV offers a lot more than just a better signal.

I live in a rural area and I don't know if I can get a digital signal
Digital television broadcasts may have become available in your area. Unfortunately, with DBA gone it requires a bit of legwork, but as a starter the ABC lists coverage areas here. Both SBS and the ABC have digital services available to over 94 per cent of the population so it's worth checking.

Channel Nine HD and Ten HD are also available in some regional areas as well — despite competing with the stations' own regionalised versions in Win and Southern Cross TV — so it's worth checking your local TV guide for more information.

Now that Blu-ray has won the format war should I buy a new player?
In February this year, Toshiba announced it was quitting the race after taking quite a kicking as movie houses and retailers threw their weight behind Sony's format.

Most movie houses are ramping up production of Blu-ray and planning simultaneous Blu-ray and DVD schedules — even the once-HD DVD exclusive Paramount.

So, while we wait for movie studios to get up to steam, consumers are still getting a rough deal. Stand-alone Blu-ray players still cost upwards of AU$800, and discs cost in the region of AU$40 with the available catalogue still quite small. Especially when compared to the millions of DVD titles on the market and players for the cost of a Blu-ray disc.

Blu-ray: we know what it is now!

If your curiosity has been piqued by this next-gen format, there is a way to try it out without having to spend a motza on quickly outdated hardware: get yourself a console. The PlayStation 3 plays Blu-ray discs and upscales DVDs to 1080p. Both Blu-ray playback and DVD playback are the best available for the price, making this a home theatre wolf in cheap clothing.

In terms of titles, the number of movies available on Blu-ray has increased significantly since their introduction in 2006. Retailer EzyDVD now lists hundreds of both titles, and stores even feature signs touting that the employees are familiar with the format. It's quite a change from last year, when the phrase "Do you have any Blu-ray movies?" was often met with a blank look.

The bottom line
So, is it time to go HD? Things have certainly improved as far as HD TV is concerned, with television networks broadcasting a greater variety of programming at higher resolutions. Screen prices have fallen fast, and set-top boxes are becoming unnecessary in light of the inclusion of HD tuners.

The big issue surrounding HD TV is the extension of the digital deadline. With over five years left of analog transmissions, there is no immediate need for people to switch to digital, let alone HD. While the early adopters are settling in to watch their 1080p screens every night, there is a whole crowd of analog watchers who see no reason to shift. Still, the humble VCR still seemed pretty sweet until DVD appeared on the scene.

Our advice given the current state of play is to take the HD plunge if you're in need of a new TV. Given all channels must simulcast their programming in SD and HD, it's not as though you'll be forced into high-def before you're ready. Most new televisions feature both an analog and an HD tuner — which is handy if you find there's no coverage in your area.

As far as Blu-ray is concerned, we'd advise sticking with a PS3 as it offers a lot of features and future-proofing. However, we look forward to a time when stand-alone players can finally rub shoulders with Sony's behemoth. After all, who still uses their PS2 now as a DVD player given the high quality of stand-alones?