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National Zoo photo by Jessie Cohen

It's In the Mail

March 2, 2008

So late last Monday when I checked the status of my converter box coupons yet another time, the message had changed from we're "preparing" to mail them to: "Your coupons have been mailed. You should receive them within two to three weeks if you haven't already."

Two to three weeks?! I'm assuming they would not send them at bulk/junk mail rates. Pre-sorted first class, most likely (hopefully!). Since it's been five days and the coupons have not shown up in my mail box, I'm assuming someone is playing fast and loose with the truth. It's getting to be a little irritating, since boxes have been in stores for a couple of weeks now.

Amazon.com has a listing for a Philco TB100HH9 DTV coupon-eligible converter box, but you can't use your coupon to buy it. It's selling from Beach Audio (on Amazon's site) for $70.99 plus $9.52 shipping. Now that's no bargain! And there's no warning that you can buy a cheaper/better converter box elsewhere and get $40 off using a government coupon!

The only NTIA-certified on-line retailer listed on the dtv2009.gov site is dtv.bsat.net. They're selling two off-brand boxes: the Artec T3A-PRO for $49.50 and the CoShip 9900T for $51.99. But you get to use your coupons.

Word is out that the $40 Echostar TR-40 converter box (free with coupon) will not be available until June or July.


So if the converter box program is not working as well as we would have hoped, who can you blame? The NTIA chief (John Kneuer) who set it up resigned suddenly in November. Now his deputy and replacement--Meredith Baker--has also resigned.


You may recall that I mentioned last week that the FCC's Consumer Education Initiative draft final rules had been removed from the agency's list of items circulating among the Commissioners. But the final rules were not adopted last week. Where did they go?

On Thursday, Commissioner Copps (at an FCC workshop) revealed that they were "on the cusp" of coming out -- whatever that means.


The cable industry continues to shake down consumers, using the transition as its excuse. Behold, another comment submitted to the FCC from a woman in Kansas:

"I would like to express my concern that there is a lack of real information on what consumers can expect as the switch to digital television takes place. It was my understanding that as long as I had cable services I would not notice a change. However, my cable company, Cox Communication, told me that I had to subscribe to digital cable, at a higher cost, to continue to receive my cable programming after the transition next February.

"I bought a new TV yesterday to replace my bedroom TV. I quickly learned that a 26" LCD HDTV will provide 21" picture, if I want a distortion free picture. If I want a larger picture, I am going to have to purchase a 32 or 37" TV to replace the picture size I had with my old 27" RCA that died this week.

"I know the FCC is sending out coupons for a box so that the old analog TV can receive the digital braodcast. Will these boxes pick up only over the air signals, or will they work with my standard cable?

"The problem is, all the "experts" are salesmen at the electronics stores and the cable companies which is a problem. I don't trust them. I need expert advice on how to move forward from someone who is not trying to sell me something."

The comment continues, but you get the point. The reason she is getting a smaller picture than her new digital TV set's screen size is that the cable company will only send 4:3 analog pictures to her at the regular basic tier rate (no widescreen digital network programming). I submitted comments to the FCC months ago pointing out that tactic in response to their "viewability" rulemaking, but they ended up adopting the cable industry's plan.

You're better off dropping cable and buying an antenna. High-definition programming for free.


Sony just bought a one-third interest in Sharp's new 10th generation LCD plant, now under contruction in Osaka. That $3.5 billion plant is optimized for large screen sizes (up to 60") and the latest technologies (e.g. LED backlights), and will start kicking out TVs in March 2010. The deal will drive down costs for both manufacturers, and likely will result in better performing HDTVs.

Sony will also start to buy Sharp LCD panels later this year from Sharp's 8th-gen plant, which has been in operation for just a year and a half. Sony's shift to Sharp is seen as a blow to Samsung, which has had a joint-venture with Sony to manufacture LCD panels. It's a Korea versus Japan thing.

Toshiba also recently announced a deal to buy Sharp LCD panels.


And there's Blu-ray news:

At its line show last week, Sony presented two new players (ex-Sapphire 3 and 4 prototypes): the BDP-S350 (out this summer for about $400), and the BDP-S550 (this fall for about $500).

The photo shows the BDP-S550. The BDP-S350 looks exactly the same except thinner. The S350 will be BD-Live (Profile 2.0) ready and will have an Ethernet port, but will need a firmware upgrade to make it BD-Live capable. The S550 will be BD-Live capable when it arrives in the fall.

Both models also feature an external port for local storage, so users can add optional USB flash-based memory. The BDP-S550 ships with a 1GB storage device.

Both players have 7.1 channel Dolby TrueHD and Dolby Digital Plus decoding and bitstream output, as well as DTS-HD High Resolution Audio and Master Audio bitstream output. The BDP-S550 adds DTS-HD High Resolution Audio and DTS-HD Master Audio decoding as well as 7.1 channel analog audio output.


Samsung's previously announced BD-P1500 Blu-ray player will go on sale in Europe in April, and don't be surprised if we see it here in the U.S. as well. The $400 machine will bitstream the two lossless audio signals and will have an ethernet port.


Now that the format war is over, Dan Ramer (www.dvdfile.com) has a good state-of-BD article out: "Blu-ray Disc Report Card".


And finally, pulling up the rear, Sony and Yamaha have announced new A/V receivers.

Sony showed two receivers at its line show last week that will support both Dolby True-HD and DTS-HD Master Audio. They feature 1080/24p True Cinema video pass-through, and will upscale standard definition video sources to 1080p via HDMI.

The STR-DG920 (shown) will come out in June for $600, and the STR-DG820 in May ($400). Both 7.1 channel receivers have 110 watts per channel, with four HDMI inputs.

Yamaha has two new receivers with HDMI 1.3 that can decode all high-definition audio formats. The RX-V863 retails for $999 and the RX-V663 sells for $549.


Until next week . . .

Comments are due Monday on the FCC's further proposed rule on cable carriage of digital television broadcast signals, post-transition (relating to special exceptions for smaller cable companies). True to form, on February 6 the FCC started circulating internally their draft final rule. Why wait for comments?

And I'll still be waiting for my coupons. Sigh.