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Lots of Blu-ray Stuff, Mini-mobile TVs & the Usual Politics

July 15, 2007

Must be a confluence of the Blu-ray stars this week, because I've got seven little bits about that high-definition movie format. Plus something about planning for mobile TV, and a few more bits about your government in-action.

First, I've redone my hopelessly out-of-date buyer's guide section, abandoning the impossible task of revealing each manufacturer's every model. Instead, I attempt to give some general guidance.

Okay, on with the Blu-ray Disc stuff:

1. A new Blu-ray web site has been put up by the likes of Disney, Fox, and Sony, just to remind you that the format war is not over. It puts the latest news about players and movie titles in one place, along with some commentary to keep your interest up. Not bad, actually. www.hollywoodinhidef.com

2. Dan Ramer over at www.dvdfile.com has been looking at both Blu-ray Discs and HD-DVDs ever since they came out and has finally reached a conclusion about which is technically better. He's got a huge screen and a high-end Sony Full-HD projector so he can see the good, the bad, and the ugly.

There will always be differences in the transfer quality among individual titles, but on the whole, here's what he had to say:

"As I review more and more HD discs, I think I've accumulated a sufficiently large sample of data points from both formats. It's very clear to me that BD provides a better viewing experience than HD DVD. The image quality is simply better, sharper, and more film-like. (This is not apparent when studios use the same transfer for both formats.) Audio tends to be a non-issue since both formats support lossless advanced audio CODECs (although the uncompressed PCM tracks on Sony and Buena Vista BDs are truly impressive). So from a selfish craving for the highest possible quality, I must admit that I hope Blu-ray Disc triumphs."

3. Free Blu-ray movies are weapons of choice in this format war. Toshiba has used them, individual manufacturers have used them, and now the Blu-ray people are using them. Buy a Blu-ray player from a select group of manufacturers before the end of September and get five free Blu-ray movies, from this tentative list.

4. The new Sony BDP-S300 has been reviewed by Home Theater Magazine. They like the player, especially at its reduced list price of $499, but there was one surprise.

I had concluded that the player was equipped with an HDMI 1.3 output based on Sony's list of features--to wit, support for the new x.v.YCC color space standard, which the HDMI people have listed as one of the new capabilities that HDMI 1.3 brings.

The reviewer seemed also to be a little surprised to find out that the BDP-S300 comes with HDMI version 1.2. That means that the player cannot output full lossless Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio tracks to an A/V receiver for decoding, and it does not decode them internally.

The reviewer says:

"A future firmware upgrade to the BDP-S300 for Dolby TrueHD playback is always possible--Sony recently provided such an upgrade for its first-gen BDP-S1 player. But until you hear an official announcement to that effect for the BDP-S300, don't assume that such an upgrade will be offered."

The abridged Home Theater review of the Sony BDP-S300 BD player has a link to a longer version of the article published on a sister site.

With that news, I would stay away from the machine and wait for one with HDMI 1.3 outputs, unless your ambitions for high-end audio are limited, e.g. if you use your TVs built-in speakers or use small satellite speakers.

5. Samsung has announced a new 3rd generation BD player, hot on the heels of the release of its 2nd-gen player--the BD-P1200.

Coming out this fall are the BD-P1400 and the BD-P2400. Both of these 1080p players will have HDMI 1.3 outputs, and will thus pass Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio to a suitably capable A/V receiver, such as the new HDMI 1.3-equipped Onkyos.

Both can output at 24 frames-per-second -- very good if your TV can display at multiples thereof. They of course will also output at 60 fps. Both will upconvert standard DVDs to 1080p.

The BD-P1400 is rumored to list for $549, the BD-P2400 for $599. The difference between the two players is an HQV video processor in the 2400. That processor will do high-level deinterlacing for your standard DVDs and other interlaced source material.

Samsung has not revealed prices yet, nor a specific release date (more on the significance of that below). The new models will be shown at the 2007 IFA consumer electronics show in Berlin (August 31).

6. Sharp's new Blu-ray player, which I mentioned last week, is back up in the air. Turns out the model in question (reported in Europe) will be headed for the domestic Japanese market. (Gotta love the internet!)

The official Sharp-USA word stands--news in the fall. The U.S. model will be the one shown at CES last January, unless it's something different. Why different? Timing is everything, which brings us to . . .

7. Blu-ray will require new player models released after October 31 to incorporate new BD Java interactive technology. The big one is picture-in-picture capability.

This impacts some extras on Blu-ray Discs, not movie playback itself. For example, if you wanted to show the commentators in a window while the movie was running, you'd need this new feature. The currently available BD players can't do this.

BD players coming out after October 31 must also incorporate at least 256 Mb of persistent memory. Players having an internet connection must boost memory to 1 Gb.

Producers of Blu-ray discs may fret about how their special features will play on various new players until they are actually in the hands of consumers. Which brings us back to the upcoming Samsung and Sharp players, set for fall release.

I suspect the manufacturers are still deciding whether to release before October 31, and leave out the BD Java interactive technology. Go for the simpler implementation or the picture-in-picture feature? Will it make a difference to consumers? Will consumers even know about BD Java interactive technology?

As always, stay tuned.

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The Advanced Television Systems Committee (ATSC), the same people who developed the new U.S. digital TV standard, are now working to expand that standard for supplemental small-screen mobile and handheld services. The new standard will allow existing TV broadcasters to use part of their TV channel bandwidth to add mobile sub-channels for a panoply of new services:

  • Free (advertiser-supported) television content delivered in real-time, e.g. simulcast versions of their regular programs,
  • Mobile and handheld subscription-based programming, video-on-demand, pay-per-view, etc.,
  • Downloaded video content,
  • Datacasting,
  • Interactive TV, and
  • Mobile navigation data.

The ATSC must ensure that existing TV receivers are not affected by a new mobile video stream (although current TVs will not be able to receive the new content). The tricky requirement is that new mobile services that use part of each broadcaster's 6 MHz bandwidth (19.39 Mbps 8-VSB data rate) do not degrade their primary service--that is, regular TV, in particular high-definition programming.

I'm concerned that with broadcasters already robbing bandwidth from high-definition programs in order to transmit standard-definition sub-channels at the same time, any further erosion of high-definition data-rates will unduly degrade the quality of high-definition content.

The only possible escape would be to go to a more efficient video protocol, i.e. moving from MPEG-2 to MPEG-4, for example. That would likely obsolete existing digital TV receivers, unless there could be a universal firmware upgrade. All of this gets very messy.

If this new mobile standard goes through, I'm guessing ATSC will be swept along with broadcasters' wishes for new service offerings. A degradation of high-definition signals would likely be accepted.

Maybe they'll give up their sub-channels. (!)

In any case, broadcasters want to announce these mobile and handheld services by the end of the transition to digital TV. They've been having trouble getting ready to make the final switch-over to all-digital; they want more on their plates?

- - -

And now, time for some political story-telling:

The Senate Commerce Committee is going to hold another digital TV transition hearing: "Preparing Consumers for the Digital Television Transition" - July 26. "The Committee will explore U.S. readiness for and the consumer impact of the nationwide transition from analog television broadcasting to digital television (DTV) broadcasting."

Again. I'll get you a link to the web-cast next week. Will they actually decide to do something?

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If you read my report on the Senate media violence hearing, you know how much Senator Rockefeller wants to eliminate unrefined and undignified content from the visual media. Well, in response to the court holding that the FCC cannot penalize networks for an unexpected "fleeting expletive" that makes its way on the air when unsuspecting children might be listening in, he has introduced a bill to give the FCC that specific authority. The bill is co-sponsored by Inouye, Stevens, and Pryor. Under the bill, the FCC may determine that "a single word or image may be considered indecent."

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Congressman Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) has introduced a curious "National Digital Television Consumer Education Act." It would do several things:

1. Direct the FCC to create yet another Federal Advisory Committee to guide the transition. (The FCC already has one.)

2. Mandates consumer warning labels for analog-only TVs. (The FCC has regulations already in effect that do exactly that.)

3. Requires television broadcasters to air two minutes of public service announcements per day about the DTV transition, beginning November 1. (This is good; the FCC is considering the same requirement)

4. Give $20 million to the Association of Public Television Stations "for the purpose of coordinating and leading a nationwide consumer education and outreach campaign regarding America's conversion to digital television." (The grant does not specify that the money would actually be spent on advertising, only "coordinating and leading.")

This last item seems to be the real purpose behind the proposed bill, notwithstanding that Congress has already charged both the FCC and the NTIA to run consumer education programs.

APTS President and CEO John Lawson has been lobbying Congress hard for those $millions for years. It's no wonder that Lawson put out a statement "applauding" Engel's leadership in promoting DTV consumer education. His statement apparently failed to mention that APTS gets $20 million.

Also strange that while Lawson has been decrying the need for public education on the transition, I've never seen a single DTV public service announcement aired on any public television channel.

As for Congressman Engel, his little June 5 speech before Congress in favor of his bill described items 2 and 4 above, but conveniently failed to mention at all the $20 million for public television's lobby.

I suppose that's how they do business.

In any event, the bill was referred to Chairman Dingell's Energy and Commerce Committee about five weeks ago and no further action has been taken.