ALL ABOUT HD DTH
Francis D'sa | 22 October 2010
A WHOLE NEW WORLD OF QUALITY AND CLARITY HAS JUST OPENED UP FOR TV VIEWERS.
By Francis D'sa and Priyanka Tilve
The 1982 Asian Games saw color television enter India for the first time. Now, decades later, a similar shift is already beginning. This year's Commonwealth Games will be beamed out in high-definition, prompting Indian DTH operators to rush their HD services to market. With heavy advertising all around us, CHIP decided to dive in and evaluate each service provider's offerings and demystify the jargon and buzzwords that surround HD. In this comparison, we've compared four of the five HD DTH services available across India. How good is HD, really? How much of a difference will it make for day-to-day viewing? Will it be too expensive to go in for now?
HD is an all-consuming experience, which has to be seen and heard to be truly understood. The answers to all these questions await you on the following pages.
What does HD offer?
DTH, which stands for “direct to home”, has revolutionalised our television viewing experience. Apart from better sound and picture quality, it offers numerous other features like movies on demand, games, interactive learning, etc. It is supposed to give more power to the consumers allowing them to choose what they want to view and pay accordingly, which will soon be implemented. DTH has also dented the monopoly of cable operators, putting the broadcaster directly in touch with consumers. Now DTH has taken a step further and is all set to offer its consumers a high-definition experience.
Leading the pack was Sun Direct that introduced its DTH HD services way back in April 2009. The rest of the players in the market were slow to jump into the bandwagon and introduced HD services only this year, at the time of the FIFA World Cup. Cashing in on the popularity of the world cup, many operators launched their DTH HD advertising campaigns, with each one tripping over the other with exciting offers to lure the subscribers. But what exactly is different?
HD is more of an experience; both visual and audio. With the promised 1920x1080 resolution, it is far more realistic than ever before. Pictures look crystal clear in comparison to traditional TV, and digital sound (with possible surround sound as well) takes the experience to another level altogether. While HDTVs and Blu-ray disc players have been available for a while, DTH now brings this level of quality to broadcast television. This means you catch detail that was never possible before, be it the texture of a cricket ball that has been hit for a six, the fine detailing in the costumes and jewelry in a live performance, or the richness of animal fur and scenic beauty on the nature channels. You have to experience it to understand the difference.
What kind of TV do you need to enjoy HD?
The best way to enjoy HD at its best is on a Full HDTV (plasma or LCD) that supports 1920 x 1080i resolution. If your LCD panel’s resolution is lower than this (many 32-inch or smaller sets come with 1366x768 pixel screens) then you can still enjoy HD, but at the slightly lower rating of 720p. At this resolution, video will be slightly scaled down and you won’t be able to enjoy the true potential. Older CRT TVs do not support HD at all. They will however support your set-top box and you can view the regular DTH. Ensure the set-top box and TV are connected using an HDMI cable.
What is the HD market like?
Most of the major DTH operators in the market have launched their HD services with a bang. They introduced these offerings timed with Wimbledon and the FIFA World Cup, to tempt subscribers. The main attraction on the horizon is that the 2010 Commonwealth Games to be held in Delhi as well as the Micromax One Day cricket series in Sri Lanka will be available in HD with select operators.
At this nascent stage apart from these major sporting events there are only a handful of other channels available in HD, and this varies between operators. As of today, Dish TV provides the largest number of HD channels: Zee TV HD, Zee Cinema HD, Discovery HD World and National Geographic HD. Both Zee channels beam the same content in HD as their standard counterparts, while the National Geographic and Discovery channels are more like showcases with unique content. All operators’ HD channels are clubbed together in an upgrade pack and the cost ranges from Rs. 15/- per month for one channel to Rs. 100/- per month for four channels.
If you are a new customer, several offers encourage subscribers to buy HD. As with any DTH connection, the price includes the cost of the set-top box plus installations charges and will also a free subscription for a few days or months depending on the operator.
Existing DTH subscribers who wish to upgrade will have to buy a new set-top box for HD, which can process the heavier signals and provide the required audio and video output ports. Keeping this in mind the operators are offering special discounted rates for existing subscribers. Dish TV users will get a discount of Rs 400 on the Dish TruHD Box, which is priced at Rs 2,990 along with a free subscription to the Platinum and HD packs for two months.
Existing Reliance Big TV subscribers can buy the HD DVR box at a discounted rate of Rs 4,490 as opposed to the official rate of Rs 4,990 for new subscribers, with the option of an offer priced at Rs 5,490 which includes the Diamond pack and the National Geographic HD channel free for three months. At the time of going to press, Reliance has just added Star Plus HD to its offerings.
Airtel digital TV subscribers can go HD at a discounted price of Rs 2,250. Tata Sky on the other hand does not provide any discounts and their existing subscribers will have to purchase the HD set-top box by paying the full price of Rs 2,599. Moreover, Tata Sky Plus customers who have paid for their set-top boxes with the live pause and recording features have no option—they will lose this functionality or sacrifice HD till a combo set-top box is offered. However, if you buy during the ongoing offer period then you will be entitled to a free one-year subscription to the HD Gold Package.
Should you buy now?
Existing DTH customers might not want to buy now with only four channels available. Besides the HD market is still at a nascent stage. Eventually as the market grows and more players make an entry the prices will get more competitive, with more channels and features to enjoy.
On the other hand if you are a new customer planning to buy DTH, then it makes sense for you to go for HD. Clearly HD is the future of television as already a lot of programs and movies are in HD and this trend will only gain momentum. Following in the footsteps of Zee, most popular Indian TV channels are expected to go HD in the span of a year. So if you are planning to buy new DTH connection then you might as well go for the HD set-top box now and add the HD package whenever you feel like later.
Before buying there are a couple of things you should keep in mind. You need to check and compare the offer packages of all the operators as well as the features they offer. If you have an DTH DVR (with video recording capabilities) and want the same in HD make sure that the operator you opt for is providing an HD DVR set top box. The add-on features also play a crucial role. For instance, Tata Sky apart from its usual Actve services provides a channel called Showcase HD where you can pay and watch HD movies on demand. Apart from Tata Sky, Reliance Big TV provides more than 10 free movie channels, which are catagorised as Drama, Action, Romance, Regional etc. However these are not in HD. Finally, before zeroing in on an operator it’s a good idea to visit a retail outlet where you will be able to experience the HD first hand.
What is HD?
HD is defined primarily by video resolution, which is substantially higher than that of traditional television broadcasts. It provides for between one and two million pixels per frame that is roughly five times that of standard definition television. However, high definition is not defined by only one set of specifications; it is instead a family of video characteristics.
Initially, HD referred to a video signal that consisted of 720 horizontal lines from top to bottom and 1280 vertical lines from side to side. Compare this to the 480 horizontal lines you find on a conventional DVD movie. Obviously, the greater the number of lines of resolution, the greater is the amount of detail that can be captured and displayed. Therefore, the first thing you will notice when viewing HD is a sharper image. HD has now come to encompass one more resolution option: 1080 vertical lines and 1920 lines of horizontal resolution. Every manufacturer references only the horizontal resolution when referring to HD products—either 720 or 1080.
HD is also defined by the video frame rate—this includes 23.98, 24, 29.97, 30, 59.94, and 60 frames per second. The frame rate chosen depends upon the video standard used—either PAL or NTSC. Next, you will come across another video term—progressive scan or interlaced scan. This is referred to with either a ‘p’ or an ‘i’ respectively written after the numeric resolution value. Progressive scan implies that the video frame on your screen is created by sequentially ‘drawing’ one scan line after another. On the other hand, an interlaced picture is created by first drawing all even numbered lines, and then interleaving the odd numbered lines on the screen.
The primary benefit of progressive scanning is a more stable picture with less flickering—this is especially evident when viewing video on a large screen. On HD-compliant products such as Blu-ray players, this specification is mentioned along with the resolution supported—720p, 1080i and 1080p in order of increasing quality. 1080p is often referred to as “Full HD”.
TATA Sky HD
One of the first DTH service providers, Tata Sky has been known for its DTH service for a few years now. Presently, the company broadcasts only two infotainment channels and one pay-per-view channel in HD, but promises many more in the near future. The set-top box is compact and looks elegant compared to its bulky, non-HD sibling. Its little IR remote control is highly responsive, rugged and ergonomically designed with a very firm grip. It features average-sized buttons and a good layout, which makes all the functions very easy to locate and access without too much trouble. The HD STB performs at par with others in terms of video quality.
The user interface is very simple and easy to navigate, and the color scheme is soothing and very readable. Finding your favorite program through the guide and setting up favorites and schedules is also very simple. The UI is translucent and covers just a quarter of the screen area. The company logo is translucent enough too and almost blends in to with background video. Even though Tata Sky supplies upgraded firmware on the HD STBs, the company has not yet managed to increase the number of favorite channels, which still stands at a low 20. Another downside is that unlike the competition, the remote is not universal.
It takes an average of two seconds to change between channels. The overall sensitivity of the remote and the navigation speed of the interface have helped Tata Sky’s STB earn the highest score when compared to the competition. New customers can enjoy a low price with two months' free subscription to the HD channels. Existing subscribers can upgrade, but do not get any buy-back for their old hardware.
Verdict The performance and usability are outstanding.
For Great ergonomics, simple and speedy user interface, easy to operate.
Against Only 20 favorite channels, no universal remote.
The term TruHD seems a little misleading even though it delivers video broadcast resolutions similar to other HD DTH providers. The only added advantage Dish TV has over the others is the additional HD channels it offers: Zee TV HD and Zee Cinema HD. The set-top box has a diamond-finish glossy front panel, which scores a tad low on aesthetics. The hardware is similar to what is provided by other services, but this one has its share of pros and cons. On the plus side, the rear panel sports an optical S/PDIF port, which can deliver higher quality audio with minimal distortion. But the front control panel sports only power and channel up/down buttons, due to which using or setting-up the STB without the remote control is next to impossible.
The remote control is pretty large and not very well designed; the number keys are on the top, making it a little awkward when changing channels directly using the channel numbers. However, the remote control sensitivity is good and it features a few functions that other STB remote controls don’t: the sleep timer, language and account hotkeys are very convenient. Similar to that of Tata Sky, the user interface is simple and easy to navigate through. The favorite channels are easy to set up and you can set as many as you like. The information bar has a blue background with white text, making it easily legible. The startup time of the STB is quite long, taking almost 68 seconds to power up. And the ergonomically deficient remote and control panel make things a bit sluggish. Evaluating the overall features, performance and ergonomics, this one comes in second place in the Value rankings.
Verdict Dish TruHD is also a good choice as the company currently offers the largest number of HD channels.
For Optical audio out, more HD channels, sleep timer.
Against Poorly designed remote control, prone to scratches, deficient control panel on the STB.
Reliance BIG TV HD DVR
Reliance is the first and only service provider to offer a combined HD and DVR product with the ability to record and pause live HD broadcasts. The STB is all-black and has a matte finish, which is resistant to scratches and dust. The box is bulky, thanks to the internal 160 GB hard drive, which can hold up to 200 hours of recorded video or 30 minutes of paused live TV. Sadly, the drive can't be upgraded and videos can't be transferred to another device.
The IR remote control is fully functional and universal, but is very large. Though the layout is good, the remote can be quite confusing for first-time users. It can be programmed to operate the STB, a television or a DVD player with just the press of a button. Though the STB features five categories of favorites (each can be given a custom name) with unlimited channels in each, the remote doesn't have the ‘Favorites’ button! The user interface is informative and easy to follow, but very sluggish and it takes a lot of time to search for features and channels. With the interface being so slow, if you accidentally press an interactive service button, getting back to your TV show can take 30 seconds or more. We also found that the opaque information bar takes up almost half the screen and completely obstructs the video. Only National Geographic HD, is currently offered, but more are promised soon.
The unit takes nearly a minute to power up when off and 16 seconds to resume from standby. Finally, the hard drive is always spinning, which wastes power and heats up quite a bit.
Verdict If you are specifically looking for recording and pausing live HD TV, this is the only choice right now. For everything else, other providers offer better services.
For HD recording, universal remote, unlimited favorites, affordable pricing.
Against Very sluggish interface, intrusive menu, information bar and company logo.
Airtel Digital TV (HD)
Apart from the bezel, the Airtel set-top box is identical to the Tata Sky STB. A closer look reveals that the OEM manufacturer for both companies is the same, with just the user interface software being different. The Airtel STB is elegant and features a semi-programmable remote control; you can only control your television set using its five programmable buttons. The remote is sleek and comfortable, but not scratch-resistant. The buttons are large enough, but a few important ones such as Mute, Info and Guide, are uncomfortably out of reach. The user interface is slightly sluggish, but the remote control’s sensitivity is good. The user interface is neatly designed, with certain functions popping up in the corner rather than taking you to a different new screen.
Airtel offers a very good application called Widgets, which runs on screen with constant live updates such as world time, market tickers, news feeds and sports highlights without disturbing the live TV. When you switch off the STB and power it back on, it goes to the channel you were last watching. Airtel is the only service to offer this feature.
There are a few irritations though. While watching TV, a program information bar automatically pops up at the beginning of every new program and after three quarters of the program. There are four favorite categories with a maximum of 15 channels each, giving you a total of 60 programmable favorites. Only an HDMI cable comes bundled, unlike other providers who also bundle composite and component video cables. If your TV does not feature an HDMI port, you would need to purchase the cables separately. Airtel also offers the best buyback offer for existing customers.
Verdict A few niggles aside, our overall experience with Airtel HD DTH was pleasant.
For Good user interface, semi-programmable remote control.
Against Irritating info bar pop-ups, composite/component cables not bundled, few PPV channels.
“Apart from being a path breaking technology, HD will also be a lifestyle enabler that will significantly change TV viewing trends in India. Most of the content today is being shot in HD format. Typically sports, movies, nature/wildlife, action channels will be the first to come onto HD. Forty percent of TV sales in India are LCDs which is only expected to grow this year. Coupled with multiple high interest sports events like IPL, FIFA World Cup and the Commonwealth Games in 2010, HD is being adopted more and more by consumers. Moreover the price of the HD box has come as a pleasant surprise to customers, enabling more of them to have future-ready technology. All our studies and experience shows that HD is here to stay. In all metro markets, HD today constitutes 15-20 percent of our monthly customer additions. We launched with ESPN FIFA and Wimbledon HD feeds and currently have National Geographic HD. We are working continuously to add new channels in keeping with changing viewing patters and availability of content. We see India having about 6-8 HD channels over the next 18 months.”
CMO DTH Services,
HD service in India
High definition DTH services are now available everywhere. But is it advisable to hop onto the HD TV broadcast bandwagon just yet? It's difficult to say "yes" without a few reservations. After setting up and analyzing each of the four HD DTH service providers in the market this month, we concluded that HD DTH services in India are a little premature at present.
If you would like to watch HD nature shos right now, or if you are in the market for a new DTH connection anyway, we would advise you to get the HD box now, to avoid future upgrade costs. This makes sense more if you have an HD-ready LCD television (or are definitely planning to buy one soon), else you won’t be able to enjoy the true HD TV experience. If you have a old-style CRT television set, you will notice little improvement in sharpness and clarity, which might not be worth the extra subscription charges.
If you are investing in an HD DTH service, it would be best to ask for demos of each product before you actually buy. Check each set-top box’s connection options, user interface, ease of menu navigation, remote control quality and ergonomics, and finally, the video output quality (on a screen similar to your own). Also pay attention to each service provider’s terms and conditions, package prices and offers before choosing one.
Think about whether you are actually going to watch the HD channels which are currently offered. National Geographic Channel HD and Discovery HD World aren't everyone's first choices, and the content they show is different to what you see on the regular NGC and Discovery channels. So your favorite shows may not be available in HD and you might be better off waiting till there's content that suits you better. Also, increasing competition between DTH service providers will definitely benefit the customer in a little while. If you watch Zee TV and Zee Cinema a lot, Dish TrueHD is the only service that currently offers them in HD. These channels have exact same content as their standard definition counterparts. Having tested them, we can easily say that the difference between them is overwhelming! On the other hand, the package, which includes four HD channels, costs Rs 100, which is ridiculously expensive compared to the others which offer HD channels for Rs 15 each. All channels will eventually be available from all providers, so If you are not in a hurry and want to wait a little longer, stick with your existing cable operator or DTH, as it presently offers greater value for money at almost half the monthly subscription cost and a higher number of channels as compared to HD DTH services.
Note the service providers' set-top box functions and other features, which might have you pulling your hair out. These include the information bar opacity, interactive services, navigation speed, channel listing and schedules, and favorite channel settings. Tata Sky only lets you set 20 favorite channels, which might not be enough for a regular TV viewer. Reliance BIG TV can also tick you off with its extremely sluggish user interface and opaque information bar, which covers up three quarters of the display. Also, the remote control is bulky and isn't responsive enough. You could find yourself pressing buttons continuously, but the set-top box will just not respond. Other issues such as an intrusive company logo continuously displayed on the screen and ads that overpower the regular notifications, cause the screen to get cluttered. If the company logo (for example, the Reliance BIG TV logo) if opaque, it can disturb viewers by obstructing important information available in news tickers or match scores. Tata Sky, Dish TV and Airtel have translucent logos and you can at least see through them somewhat. It would be better if we could just turn them off, but no company gives the user that option.
Reliance also has the DVR function, which is a great move, as you don’t need to spend for another set-top box if you want to record or pause TV. This is where Tata Sky and Airtel fall behind. Both released these boxes a while ago and customers flocked to buy them. But they don’t support HD broadcasts and don't have HDMI output, so customers are left feeling cheated. Only one feature can be enjoyed at a time, until combo boxes come out (which will be another upgrade expense). Reliance BIG TV wins on this count. If any of the others have plans to introduce combo boxes, they aren't informing customers who buy plain HD boxes today.
Reliance BIG TV features a Select service button, which brings up a good feature that others lack. This is a single screen showing feeds from 12 different movie channels so you can see what is showing on all of them at the same time. But this page is presently restricted to only movies and not any other channel type. Tata Sky offers a few useful interactive services, such as news, sports, cooking, games etc. Tata Sky is also the only service to offer HD movies on demand on the ‘Showcase HD’ channel at very reasonable prices.
We did not get the opportunity to evaluate Sun Direct DTH HD service due to the company declining to participate, while Videocon DTH has not yet boarded the HD train. Sun Direct is presently the only HD DTH service provider which offers Colors and a few southern regional channels in HD apart from the regular NGC and Discovery. It is also only available on a yearly subscription basis at present.
We noted that most of the service providers’ set-top boxes feature USB and network ports, but on asking about their purpose, the companies stated that the ports are reserved for hardware fault-finding and upgrade purposes. If only these STBs featured the option to play digital movies and audio files! The network ports also hint at the possibility of implementing Internet connections via DTH infrastructure in the near future, but this is totally uncertain.
Finally, all the STBs allow you to switch the resolution to lower than 1080i if your TV doesn't support HD. Eventually, non-HD boxes will be phased out for simplicity. Choosing a lower resolution will give you a scaled down version of the HD broadcast, but the clarity and performance will be the same.
Features and choices will only improve. It's easiest to stay with an existing DTH provider if you have one already. Consumers can be glad that there are plenty of choices for them and they aren't locked in, like in the days of local cable-wallah monopolies!