Time and Tellies

Seven years today. Where did all that time go? On this day in 1999 the moon didn’t fly out of its orbit. In fact nothing of global note appeared to have happened at all. Nothing at all according to the BBC On This Day page. Even Wikipedia says the only thing that happened was the death of a Japanese businessman named Akio Morita, a co-founder of the Sony Corporation.

So, what’s so special about the 3rd of October 1999, then? It was the day I moved into my own place, a full month after taking ownership of it. Yes, it really did take me an entire month to decorate the place, no room was untouched. The first two weeks I had off work and the rest of that Original Decor 2Original Decor 1month I spent every, non-working, waking moment there stripping off the two or three layers of (almost universally dreadful) wallpaper and painting. It was a long and tough month but at least I had the luxury of going back to my parent’s place each night. I also didn’t have to work around the furniture as that was all either in my ‘old’ room or my parent’s garage waiting to be transported to the house once I’d finished decorating. I think it was three transit vans full of furniture and assorted junk when the time came. It’s amazing how much furniture I had in my old room, even now it is spread over my new bedroom, computer room, TV room and spare bedroom. Only the living room, kitchen, bathroom and downstairs toilet have escaped its influence and they are full of items bought especially and stored in the garage.

Since then nothing much has changed. I’ve added a couple of bookcases to the living room, a new cooker and sink. No real changes. Time has stood still. That’s about to change, at least for the TV room.

HDTV is here. Almost. If you know where to look. And if you are willing to pay. For two years now, around this time of year, I’ve looked at the state of flat panel TVs. Two years ago almost all panels (certainly those less than about £3k) were not high def. They were 852×480, those 480 lines were somewhat less than PAL with its 576 (480 lines being the old American NTSC standard). That was no good. So I came back a year later to find the HD ReadyHD Ready‘ logo appearing on TVs. At last, I thought, flat panels that are really HD. Well, yes and no. The logo meant they would be compatible with High Def images, with support for the hateful HDCP (High-Bandwidth Digital Content Protection) DRM, and the panel must have at least 720 physical lines. I should probably explain for a second here. In simple terms there are two different HD resolutions, 720 lines and 1080 lines. There is also the question of progressive scan or interlaced but I won’t complicate matters with that just now. Last year there were no panels (certainly below £10k) that could show 1080 HD without scaling the picture down to a smaller number of lines. Well, as you can guess, that meant I returned to my TV buying slumber.

So here we are now, rapidly approaching the end of 2006. Christmas is sneaking up on us again and my eye turns back to flat panel TVs. My existing TV, an excellent 28″ Panasonic 4×3 (non-widescreen) CRT screen (though it does support widescreen with the press of a button, giving the unavoidable letterbox black lines at the top and bottom). It’s a good TV. A great TV, even. It’s also at least 10 years old. I almost certainly bought it in 1995, during my sandwich year at university (it was a big sandwich!) This was before widescreen TVs really took off, though it was (thankfully) future proof enough to support that. The biggest selling point, besides its sheer size compared to my old 15″ portable, was its Dolby Pro Logic Surround Sound! That was a neat scheme where the TV would infer the Front Left, Front Right, Front Centre and Rear Mono speakers from nothing more than a standard two channel (stereo) audio source. It wasn’t what we think of as true surround sound now (as in 5.1, 7.1, etc) but it was quite a step up from standard NICAM stereo. That almost cinema experience in my own bedroom! Of course nowadays those speakers are set to zero volume and I use a proper 5.1 amp with Dolby Digital and DTS. Still, it was the best you could get at the time and the TV cost a cool £1200. In todays money that is apparently worth about £1550. Not too much short of what I’m looking to pay for its replacement. That’s why I’m being so careful, ideally the replacement should itself last at least ten years.

Are we there yet? Maybe. With the Wii set to burst forth, as mentioned in my last blog post, I now have even more incentive to upgrade. Okay, so the Wii doesn’t do HD but it does do 480p, which my TV can’t handle, and, more crucially, I’ll need more space in front of my TV to wave my Wiimote around! My current TV is deep. Very deep. Far too deep to be able to stand in front of it and have a decent distance so I can both look down at the screen and flail about. I could be wrong but I suspect the Wii will, at least a good portion of the time, encourage me to stand up to play.

Down at both Comet and Currys at the local retail park they have at least one Plasma screen that says it can do 1080 (only 1080i from what I can tell, not 1080p). That may be enough. There are, allegedly, a few more ‘Full HD’ sets on the way in the next month or so. This may, at last, be the time. The only problem is the one set I have seen had particularly bad handling of non-HD (SD, or Standard Definition) video. SD is, well, all I have right now. The new VHS/Betamax war between the two new competing High Def DVD standards (Blu-ray and HD-DVD) mean I’m not going near either for the time being. Back in the early 1980s we had a Betamax, it was a better (and more expensive) system but we were on the losing side that time. I’m not repeating that mistake if I can help it. Then there’s TV broadcasts. No HD worth talking about there either. Some movie channels and sports. Big whoop. The BBC are starting to talk about it, I believe this new Robin Hood series will be available in HD, for a price. A price? Yes, unless you are one of the lucky 450 homes around the Crystal Palace transmitter that have been brought into the Freeview HD trial, you will have to pay for either a Satellite or Cable subscription to get at HD broadcasts. Despite swearing not to go back to a TV subscription package again I must admit I find myself considering the Telewest TVDrive. This will (almost) replace my aging TiVo, that can’t do HD, and also upscales SD to HD where HD versions of a programme don’t exist. The upscaling won’t make SD look anywhere near as good as real HD but it may do a better job than that Plasma TV I looked at. That leaves the problem of the old SD DVDs. Simple: get a DVD player that upscales to HD too. Indeed, get a DVD player that can also record and I’ve effectively replaced my ability to grab programmes off my TiVo to the computer and, finally, do away with any need for a VHS video recorder (which I’ve only used in recent years to record stuff off for other people anyway).

So, there we go. A Wii. A Plasma TV. A DVD Recorder. A Telewest TVDrive. New, more cinema style, seating for the TV room. Expensive. It won’t all happen this year, that’s for sure. But it’s a dream. Extravagant? Yes, I suppose so. Still, my last extravagantly expensive TV (back when I was earning less than half what I am now) has more than paid for itself. So long as the chairs and TV, the most expensive parts of that, last about the same I’ll be happy. The TVDrive will hopefully one day, in a few years time, be replaced by a 3rd or 4th generation TiVo and Freeview HD. The DVD Recorder will be replaced by a Blu-ray/HD DVD drive or, maybe, something else completely that uses the Internet, perhaps.

I do wonder how the average Jo(e) Bloggs can get a handle on the complexities of it all. I’ve spent a not inconsiderable amount of time investigating all this, both the technologies themselves and the relative merits of various bits of kit. And I haven’t even mentioned complications that are the connector standards, such as SCART (aka Euroconnector), HDMI, DVI, Composite, Component, S-Video, etc. It’s a mess. I also suspect a lot of people who have spent thousands of pounds on a ‘HD Ready’ screen will protest very loudly when the ‘Full HD’ logo starts to appear and makes their purchases obsolete. I know people are already complaining that they’ve bought expensive kit and there are virtually no HD broadcasts yet, despite ‘HD Ready’ TVs being around for over a year.

Me? I’ve already cleared my TV room of all those old VHS tapes and various other bits of junk, ready for the change. I think I’m going in with all the facts I need. Time will tell if that’s true.

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