The cable-vs.-satellite decision can be crucial for achieving high HDTV enjoyment
By Jonathan Sidener
December 15, 2003
I thought I had it pretty well figured out. I'd spent countless hours in the electronics stores, comparing high-definition televisions, learning the difference between plasma and flat-panel LCD monitors, between DLP (digital light processor) and CRT big screens.
The HDTV fund was coming along. I thought I was on the downhill stretch until I was blindsided by a simple question: cable or satellite?
Watching standard-definition TV on a high-definition monitor is as pointless as driving a Porsche in bumper-to-bumper traffic.
And while there is a growing amount of free HD programming broadcast by local NBC, CBS, ABC and PBS affiliates, the reality is that you're going to have to pay for content if you want to see HBO's Tony Soprano, Sunday Night Football on ESPN or other premium shows in the improved resolution of HDTV.
An HDTV image has about 2 million pixels, providing roughly 10 times the detail of a standard-definition TV picture. A typical big-screen HDTV costs about $1,500, and that doesn't include the requisite high-definition receiver.
The cable-vs.-satellite question poses an increasingly common dilemma. In the past five years, roughly 7 million HDTV sets were sold. Nearly twice as many – 12 million – will be sold in the next 18 months, according to the Consumer Electronics Association.
A significant chunk of those purchases will happen in the next month, the peak HDTV buying season of the holidays, the NFL playoffs and the Super Bowl.
A year ago, the decision would have been easier. Only satellite providers had HDnet, the original 24-hour, high-definition channel. Cable companies were just wiggling their toes in the HDTV river, introducing their HD channels.
But what a difference a year has made. With the addition of two channels, INHD and INHD2, Time Warner Cable and Cox Communications both have six 24-hour HD channels. Earlier this month, Time Warner signed a deal to offer HDnet's sports and movie channels.
DirecTV and DISH Network have seven HD channels each, and a new satellite competitor, VOOM, offers 21 channels, with plans to add 18 more by February.
While this watershed of programming is ultimately good news for couch potatoes, it complicates the decision-making.
There are at least three issues to consider before choosing between cable or satellite service:
Cable and satellite handle local broadcasts differently. Satellite uses over-the-airwaves reception, which involves radio waves and metal antennas.
But if a hill is blocking the signal, satellite hardware won't produce high-definition programs such as "ER," "CSI" and "The Practice." And as San Diegans know, the area's hills and canyons block television signals to many homes.
In contrast, cable uses fiber-optic lines to transmit local broadcasts, the same way premium channels are sent.
You can do a simple test to see if you get the over-the-airwaves signal. Without using your cable or satellite service, attach an antenna to your standard-definition TV. If you can get regular TV reception, you can probably get HDTV reception.
If you can receive the free high-definition signal, cable and satellite come out essentially even on the local programming issue.
More information about HDTV reception is available at http://hdtv.forsandiego.com.Hardware costs
HDTV reception requires a special HD receiver. It's possible to receive high-definition programs from local stations over the airwaves without subscribing to cable or satellite.
But few people choose this option because they still have to buy a receiver, which often costs $600 or more.
Cable and satellite companies subsidize the cost of the receiver to different extents.
Cable companies rent HD receivers to subscribers. Cox charges $9 a month. Time Warner charges $5.60.
Satellite subscribers have to buy the receivers. Both DirecTV and DISH offer deals on HD receivers and dish antennas that bring the cost down to less than $400 for both.
In addition, both offer subsidies on packages that include an HDTV monitor and a receiver for new customers.
DISH has a 41-inch RCA projection TV, receiver and antenna for $1,399, including installation. For more information call (800) 333-DISH. DirecTV has a 52-inch RCA HDTV and receiver for $1,499, available at Best Buy and other retail partners.
While VOOM, which has a nationwide retail deal with Sears, offers by far the most high-definition programming, it also has the highest hardware cost. The company charges $749 for its receiver, antenna and installation.
There are certain channels available only on cable. Others are only on DirecTV and DISH. Still others are only on VOOM.
Both Cox and Time Warner have deals to air INHD and
INHD2, two new high-definition channels of sports, events and movies not available on satellite.
By the end of the year, Time Warner will join DirecTV and DISH in offering HDnet Movies and HDnet, which has exclusive deals with the NHL, NBA and MLB.
Cox, Time Warner, DISH and DirecTV offer ESPN-HD, a 24-hour sports channel that debuted this year. VOOM will not announce the remainder of its lineup until February, but has not yet signed a number of HD channels such as HBO and ESPN.
Jonathan Sidener: (619) 293-1239; jonathan.sidener@
Digital TV: Broadcasters are
under federal mandate to convert television signals from analog to digital by the end of 2006. Not all digital TV is high-definition (HDTV). Some is standard definition, the same resolution as today's analog TV. Some is enhanced definition, 480 lines of resolution, the same resolution as DVDs. And some is high definition, a minimum of 720 lines of resolution.
HDTV monitors: These monitors are capable of displaying the higher resolution image of HDTV when connected to an HDTV
receiver, which is often sold
separately or rented from a cable company.
Plasma TV: A technology to make flat panel monitors. Not all plasma TVs are HDTVs. Some less
expensive models can only display enhanced-definition video.
LCD flat panels: Similar to plasma TV in appearance but these TVs use the same technology as
notebook computer displays.
Direct view HDTVs: These use a cathode-ray picture tube (CRT)
similar to today's standard TV.
CRT projection HDTV: These
technology, lenses and mirrors to project an image onto a big screen.
DLP, LCOS and LCD
projection TVs : These replace CRT with a brighter light source
and new technologies
to create a brighter, sharper image. They are more expensive than CRT projection TVs.