What is it?
High Definition or HD broadcasting is the next step in video display quality. It offers between 25 and 50 per cent higher resolution than even DVD; looks absolutely stunning; and is a must have technology for the digital home.
High Definition television was pioneered in Japan and the US simultaneously, with Australia following close behind and Europe adamant that it never heard the starting gun. In the US, the current 525-line NTSC broadcast format was always fairly ropey and the country’s propensity for big screen TVs simply made the poor quality images look worse than ever.
HDTV in the UK
Europe and the UK in particular, we benefited from a higher resolution 625-line PAL TV system. Smaller screen TVs and the theory that a quality TV experience is the EastEnders omnibus and a tube of Pringles, has kept HDTV on the back burner - until recently. Sky sniffed a revenue opportunity in pay-per-view and subscription HDTV and has announced bold plans for an HD service in 2006, while the Blu-ray and HD DVD camps are signing up film publishers to offer Hollywood blockbusters in HD quality.
It’s going to cost you...
HDTV is cool; it’s undeniably sexy; and it’s a huge advance in the home entertainment viewing experience. But it’s not simply an ’add-on’ format, it’s a giant step change. This means that you’ll need new source equipment to receive it, new display devices to show it and even new interconnect leads to bring HD transmissions to your home.
For example, a subscription to cable or satellite HD service will require a new decoder box, while Blu-ray or HD DVD playback will require a new player. But it’s the display device that has caused most of the industry kafuffle around HD. Put simply, you need an HD-ready TV and if you bought a new TV - even a super-de-duper, wallet-buster of a plasma - before the beginning of this year, the chances of it being HD-ready are slim.
The problem is one of connectivity. While DVI and HDMI connections were a feature on some TVs last year, few of them offered the High-bandwidth Digital Content Protection (HDCP) designed to protect HD content. Without HDCP, even an HDMI/DVI-equipped TV won’t be able to display protected HD content (i.e. most HD content).
On a positive note, virtually every new TV with DVI or HDMI connection available today is HDCP enabled.
What resolution is HD?
There are a number of video formats that can legitimately be called HD which are, thankfully, more complementary than competitive.
The base line for HD video is a widescreen image (16:9 ratio) of 720 horizontal lines scanned in a single sweep at 50 frames per second - i.e. progressively - and thus known as 720p. Compared to our stalwart PAL broadcast signal of 575 visible lines, 720p offers some 25 per cent better resolution and does not suffer traditional PAL interlace flicker. 720p looks good, is not too bandwidth hungry for broadcasters and is the system of choice of the European Broadcast Union.
All TVs on the market sporting the new HD-Ready logo will be able to produce a true 720p image.
The ultimate picture?
The ultimate in HD technology as it stands today is a progressively scanned 1920 x 1080 pixel image. 1080p is the native resolution of professional digital TV and film cameras thus creating a format that is, literally, exactly what the director saw as he filmed. The concept of direct camera to TV transfer is highly appealing but the data-rate implications are huge. Thus, 1080p is simply unlikely to happen as a mainstream broadcast HD format.
While true 1080 line plasma, LCD and DLP TVs are still not readily available and few broadcasters are likely to adopt the 1080p format in the foreseeable future, it is still seen as the pinnacle of HDTV technology. Thankfully any device capable of sourcing 1080p video, such as a media PC, will be just as capable of scaling the signal down to 720p until true 1080p displays are available.
What devices currently support HDTV?
Since the beginning of 2005 the vast majority of new top-of-the-range flat panel and rear projection TVs support HDTV. Sadly that leaves around 90 per cent of all of the plasma and LCD TVs sold over the last five years up standard definition creek without so much as an HDMI paddle.
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