Tuesday, October 24, 2006

First Foray into HDTV

I met up with a few Canadian based MVPs yesterday at the Canadian Regional MVP summit event yesterday. Among these people was Peter Near, a fellow Media Center MVP who has recently delved into the HDTV world (you can read about his experiences here). He planted into my mind the idea of using the ATSC tuner in my new HDTV to receive the wide variety of free off-air HDTV programming is available in the Greater Toronto.

So how does this work? First, lets start off with a little primer on this technology.

The FCC has notified U.S. television broadcasters that the standard for transmitting TV over-the-air shall change from analog to digital. Analog NTSC transmissions have been mandated to cease in the United States by by February 17, 2009. Canada's equivilant to the FCC, the CTRC, will also have an analog transmission shutdown date in the future, although the date has not been determined yet. Peter notes that it is to Canadian broadcaster's advantage to make the switch sooner rather than later, so that they can simulcast shows that US stations broadcast (as long as it is the same content). Simply put, if the Canadian broadcaster can't broadcast in HD, they can't substitute their own ads from the US HDTV channels, and as a result, the Canadian broadcaster would loose out on ad revenue.

Note that while digital signal does not imply high definition, with the many shows that are shot in high definition, broadcasters have the option of transmitting the high definition content when it is available.

See the following table to see the differences between analog television, digital television and high definition television.

Pixel count253,000+/-<480,000920,000 @ 720p
2,000,000 + @ 1080i
Horizontal(scanning lines)480i (336 visible)480i / 480p720p or 1080i
Aspect Ratio4x3 4x3 or 16x916x9
Progressive ScanNoYesYes
Interlaced ScanYesYesYes
Audio2 Channel2 channel digitalDolby Digital
Broadcast Format1 analog12 Digital6 Digital

So now that the broadcasters are sending these signals over the air, what do you need to receive these signals?

You'll need:

  1. An antenna to receive the signal
  2. An off-air receiver (these are essentially built into all modern HDTV's that you can buy nowadays)

The most difficult part for most people will be setting up the antenna. When I first tested this, I used an FM Antenna mounted upon a contraption on top of my parent's clothes hanger. Basically, this contraption is a tomato plant cage with a bamboo pole across the top where the FM Antenna is stretched out upon. This whole thing rests on top of the clothes hanger.

See here for a couple of pictures.

Obviously, this ghetto setup won't do, so we purchased a Channel Master 4228 antenna, and a pipe to attach the antenna to. I choose this antenna over a smaller one because I figured since it was going to be ugly anyways, it might as well be a bit bigger and ugly. You can see the antenna in the following picture (it is temporarily driven into the middle of my dad's garden).


After this, all that is needed is to plug the cable into the television.

What's the payoff? Basically, I receive CBC, CBC French, CityTV, CTV, SunTV, OMNI1 and OMNI2 digital signals for free. Many of the primetime shows are shown in High Definition (think all three CSI series, ER, Lost, Grey's Anatomy, Hockey Night in Canada etc, etc).

The next step for me is to mount this antenna onto the chimney (and set up a ground block). This should allow me to receive digital signals from Buffalo (i.e. the local ABC, NBC and CBS affiliates among others) based on this list of all the stations from the Toronto, Ontario & Buffalo, New York HDTV Channel Map.

Receiving these signals is free, and could potentially have even better quality than Digital TV offerings from Rogers or Bell, due to the fact that these off the air signals are less compressed (unlike Rogers or Bell who have to compress the signal). The only downside to this is that stations that don't broadcast off-the-air are unavailable, such as Sportsnet, TSN or other speciality channels.

If you are willing, you should give this a try. With most people already having digital tv capable televisions, the missing piece of the puzzle is likely the antenna. Depending on your location, you may be in prime position to take advantage of this. If you are concerned about your choices in antennas, there are other 'less-ugly' options that you can choose from.

Also keep in mind that the receiver does not have to be a TV per se. You could pump the antenna into an HDTV card for your computer, and then do stuff like record HDTV within Media Center or some other software. I'll go into this topic in a later blog posting.

I'll post back once I finish this whole project with my results.

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Anonymous said...


Unknown said...

this looks like a lot of work... but awesome none the less.

Anonymous said...

good post...too bad I already purchased everything from Rogers!

Anonymous said...

I did pretty much the same thing Just over a year ago with great results! More people should know about this - no need to pay monthly fees to a cable or satelite provider.

I used the exact same high gain UHF antenna. My off air receiver is a "Digital Stream HD3150". I display the picture with a HDTV projector (Panasonic PT-500, the current model is the PT-900) on to a 106" screen.

I started out by put the antenna in my attic just to see if it would really work and have found, much to my sirprise that it worked so well I have not needed to move it outside. This really has not been that much work either.

If you are a sports fan, NASCAR, FOOTBALL, Hockey night in Canada, etc. are all broadcast in HD and can be recieved like this. Once you watch it this way you will never want to go back.


Anonymous said...

That's pretty cool. I just bought a 52' with a built in ATSC tuner. I originally thought that these HDTV antennae were much smaller than the one you pictured, ie, roughly the size of an average Bell ExpressVu dish...
Do you guys think the reception will suffer?

Jason Tsang said...

The BEV dishes (nowadays) are 20 inch dishes. You can get a CM4221 antenna that is closer to the same size. You won't get as much gain though, some of the further stations might be a stretch for you.

I figured since it was going to be ugly anyways, might as well go big and ugly. :)