NetGuide NZ - A Guide to Digital TV

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A Guide to Digital TV

Digital television: it’s here now, and around 60% of New Zealand households already have it in some form, either through Freeview or SKY.

All of us will have to make a digital choice within a few years if we want to continue watching the telly. By 2012, or when 75% of households have made the digital switch, a date will be named for the current analogue signal to be turned off.

New Zealand's digital switchover will begin in Hawke's Bay and the West Coast in September 2012, with the rest of the country following suit in three stages before the final deadline of November 2013.

Why is it being done?

Digital television just works better. The picture is clearer, more channels are available, and dodgy reception is a thing of the past.

So what do I need to get Freeview?

There are plenty of options available. Your decision will depend on your budget, your viewing preferences, and possibly where you live. The minimum requirement will be a digital television receiver (sometimes called a set top box). You’ll also need either an aerial capable of receiving the UHF (terrestrial) signal or a satellite dish. Freeview UHF and satellite receivers are now widely available; UHF receivers start at $199, satellite at $169. Be sure to look for the Freeview sticker on any device before purchasing it. To assess what’s best for you (and your pocket), follow the click-through guide ‘Freeview in 4 easy steps’ at www.freeviewnz.tv

What’s the difference between UHF and satellite?

UHF features the latest digital technology, the picture quality is better, and you can use the MyFreeview recording system (more on that later). Through UHF you also get the benefit of seeing programmes in high definition (HD) which has four times the resolution of standard definition (SD) – definitely the best option if you’ve got a big-screen TV. For some people, however, satellite will be the only option, as the UHF signal won’t reach some (mostly remote) areas. At www.freeviewnz.tv you can check to see what is available in your area (click on ‘Coverage Check’). NB: MyFreeview for the satellite platform is coming later this year, while SKY already offers satellite recording through MY SKY HDi (see below).

Can I get a TV set with Freeview built in?

Yes, you can. These are called integrated digital televisions (IDTV). Prices start from around $600. All the major brands are now selling LCD or plasma screens with Freeview built in. Again, look for the Freeview sticker or ask the retailer if it’s Freeview-approved. If you’re in the market for a new TV, this will sort you out. Freeview should work as soon as your new set is plugged in. NB: Even if your new TV has Freeview built in, you’ll still need a satellite receiver if you live in an area where only the satellite signal can be received.

Will my present TV work on Freeview?

Yes, as long as you have a digital receiver, it should plug straight in. You’ll probably notice improved picture quality, even on your old cathode ray (CRT) set. But you won’t get the full benefit of HD viewing unless you have an LCD or plasma TV. For advice on which TV to buy, see tinyurl.com/lcdplas

What does Freeview have to offer?

Up to 13 television channels and four radio channels. You get all the current free-to-air TV channels, plus the new, commercial-free TVNZ digital channels: TVNZ6 (children’s programmes) and TVNZ7 (news, current affairs and documentaries). There’s also Parliament TV, and on Freeview HD (terrestrial) you also get tvCentral (Waikato/Bay of Plenty regional) and Chinese TV8. On Freeview Satellite you also get Te Reo (Maori language), Triangle Stratos (regional, ethnic and educational) and CUE Television (Southland regional and educational). And yes – Prime is available on both Freeview platforms, but not in HD.

The other handy feature of Freeview is the electronic programme guide (EPG). This enables you to view eight days of programme listings on all Freeview channels, and Prime. It also controls programming of the MyFreeview recorder (see below). Freeview also has Teletext, on both the terrestrial and satellite platforms, and the MyFreeview HD recorders let you record programmes with captions included – something the old Teletext system couldn’t do.

Can I watch Freeview on the other sets around my house?

In some cases you’ll need a Freeview receiver for each TV set. However, some models will allow you to run an extra set from the ‘RF Out’ or ‘Composite Out’ connections.

Can we have SKY and Freeview running on the same TV?

Yes, the two systems can run quite happily side by side. You can view the free-to-air channels through SKY, but you can’t view SKY channels on Freeview because they are encoded. The other big choice you make will be your recording option (see below).

What about recording programmes?

For now, your existing videotape or hard drive recorder can record from Freeview, but you’ll notice the difference in picture quality when you play it back. And when the switchover happens, those recorders won’t work anymore – they’re analogue, not digital. This is something to bear in mind when shopping. A retailer might try to sell you a hard drive recorder to go with your new TV. Don’t be fooled: all you’ll be able to do with these after the switchover is play back pre-recorded DVDs. For the best quality (and most user-friendly) Freeview recording, you need a MyFreeview HD digital television recorder (DTR).

What is MyFreeview?

This combined receiver and recorder saves all your favourite programmes to watch when you want. The EPG lets you select the programmes at the touch of a button – you don’t have to set the recording by the clock.

The MyFreeview recorders can record between 60 and 100 hours of television in HD quality, depending on the model. They can record two channels at once while you watch a third recording, and in some cases you can watch a third channel live. You can pause, rewind and replay live television. If there’s a whole series you want to watch, you can set MyFreeview to record every episode and it will do the lot without any further prompting from you – even if the show is scheduled at different times or is off air for a few weeks. It will also look for repeats or alternative scheduling of programmes if you miss something. MyFreeview includes a two-minute start and 10-minute end buffer to avoid missing part of the programme.

Two MyFreeview models – Magic TV and Homecast – are working all the time, storing live TV (this is known as ‘caching’). This means, if you spot a programme already underway and you’d like to see all of it, you can watch it from the start right away. Magic TV also lets you store the programme in its entirety for viewing when you wish.

Coming around the middle of next year is a new feature in the EPG which will guarantee 100% accuracy in recording. The EPG will signal MyFreeview to start and finish recording your selected programme exactly when it happens, rather than having those ‘buffer zones’ at the front and back of the recording cycle.

MyFreeview HD DTRs are priced from $799. You can see the range available, and the approved retailers, on the Freeview Web site. Next month we’ll have a buyers’ guide to the various Freeview DTRs.

Can I install these devices myself?

Probably, yes. Once plugged in, the Freeview device will automatically line up all the channels for you, ready to watch. The Freeview Web site has a set-up guide and a list of approved installers if you don’t want to do it yourself. If your aerial or cabling needs sorting (these would be the likely causes of any picture problems with Freeview), you’ll need professional help.

Are there any other digital recorders available?

Just one at present: the Panasonic Blu-ray DMR-BW850 (see September NetGuide, pg 22). It’s not actually Freeview-approved yet, so if you’re thinking of buying one, be sure to ask the retailer whether it will work with Freeview. Also, it won’t work with the Freeview EPG, so you’d have to use the timer to set your TV recordings. It’s pricey at around $2000, but there will be others soon, and the price will drop.

Are there any disadvantages with Freeview?

You can’t view SKY channels and TAB Trackside.

Can Freeview and SKY devices record each other’s programmes?

As mentioned above, the free-to-air channels available on Freeview Satellite all work through SKY, but MyFreeview can’t record SKY programmes. The free-to-air channels will record on MY SKY HDi (see below for more).

Can I burn programmes recorded on MyFreeview to a DVD to keep?

Sharing of HD content (ie: transferring it to other media, such as discs or external hard drives) is still the subject of copyright negotiations with international suppliers. Some HD content will be protected as ‘copy once’ or ‘copy never’, but which content this will apply to is not yet clear. There is no protection on SD content. Freeview, like SKY (see below), is planning on developing an approved external hard drive which will allow users to keep favourite programmes.

SKY

SKY transmits on both the analogue UHF and digital satellite platforms. The UHF service offers just four channels and is no longer offered to new subscribers. It’s due to be switched off next March, by which time all customers will be migrated to the satellite platform.

SKY leases and installs its own equipment, and the digital satellite service is available nationwide. To view the SKY channels, you need a SKY decoder. Installation of the standard decoder is free, and for $11.74 a week you get the Basic package which includes the decoder, the SKYWATCH programme guide and 49 channels, including CNN, MTV, BBC World News and ESPN. You can then add other channels according to your viewing preferences, eg: sports channels from $3.87 a week, movies from $4.56 a week, etc. There are 111 channels in all, including niche-audience channels (children, food, fashion, etc.). There are also pay-per-view options for recent-release movies (15-20 a week, refreshed regularly) and special events. Rental contracts are for a minimum of 12 months and there is an early disconnection fee if you choose to discontinue the service within that time. See www.skytv.co.nz for more. If you get SKY, you can also view the Freeview satellite platform channels.

What are the advantages of SKY?

If you’re into live sport, this is the place to be. As mentioned above, there’s also a huge variety of entertainment, news, information and lifestyle channels. You also get TAB Trackside, which is not on Freeview. Faulty equipment is replaced free.

Can I watch SKY on other sets around the house?

Yes. For this you need SKY Multiroom, which gets you a second standard digital decoder installed in another room in your home for $25 a month.

Does SKY broadcast in HD?

Yes. To get this you need MY SKY HDi, a more sophisticated decoder incorporating a PDR (personal digital recorder). This costs $49 to install and then $15 a month, or you can pay a one-off $599 fee. You need to have one of the SKY packages (Basic plus sport, movies, etc) and then pay another $10 a month if you want to see SKY programmes in HD widescreen format. Currently you can view SKY Movies 1, SKY Movie Greats, SKY Sport 1 and 2 and TVNZ ONE and 2, and TV3, in HD. Teletext operates on those last three channels.

What recording features does MY SKY HDi offer?

Pretty much the same features as MyFreeview. You can pause and rewind live TV, record all episodes of a favourite show with one command, and record two channels at once while watching a third (recorded or live). But in addition, MY SKY HDi also offers things like programme search and bookmark reminders. See www.myskyhdi.co.nz for more. Then there’s remote recording via your PC – this free service gives you access to MY SKY through the SKY Web site using a Smart Card number (see www.skytv.co.nz/remote-record.aspx).

Are there any disadvantages?

The hard drive on the MY SKY recorder isn’t as big as some available with MyFreeview. It’ll hold 100-120 hours in SD format or 30-40 hours in HD. Some space on the hard drive is used for the exclusive pay-per-view content (see above).

Can I burn copies of recorded programmes onto a DVD or copy them to other media?

All SKY content is copy-protected at present, so if you want to keep a particular programme long-term you have to leave it on the MY SKY’s hard drive. You can prevent these shows being deleted or recorded over by using a personal PIN number. However, this will use up space on your hard drive if you make a habit of it. SKY is working on development of an approved external hard drive, on which you can keep copies of those special programmes. Content from the free-to-air channels in SD format is not copy-protected.

Web-based media

New Zealand is still in the early stages of getting multimedia content via the Internet. Ziln TV is the most recent offering (see October NetGuide, page 18). SKY took its online platform down for a revamp (see below for more about this) and the only online feature it currently offers is remote recording (see above). TVNZ has its ondemand Web-based replay service, but development of other online TV services (also known as Internet Protocol Television or IPTV) has been hampered by our relatively slow broadband service and the data caps imposed by ISPs, which can make watching online video for any length of time expensive. Our broadband speeds, however, are improving and in the longer term the government’s high-speed fibre rollout will make them even faster. In the future we are likely to see interactive TV, with your remote letting you do things like shop online, enter competitions and vote in polls. The new online media kid on the block is TiVo.

What is TiVo?

TiVo is the next-generation multimedia device. Its arrival in New Zealand, from November, has been brought about by a partnership between Telecom and Hybrid Television Services, which is owned by Australia’s Seven Media Group and TVNZ.

So what does TiVo do?

TiVo is a digital video recorder that allows viewers to receive all free-to-air terrestrial television and radio channels. However, its special feature is its Internet connectivity. Through broadband, it will offer movies, services and games. It is compatible with Freeview HD (not the satellite version), enabling viewers to record programmes, pause and rewind live TV, watch movies and TV on demand, and access their own digital music and photo albums. Other features include the ‘record two shows while watching a third’ functionality, a 14-day EPG, ‘Season Pass’ for recording a whole series, a ‘Wish List’ that automatically records programmes featuring favourite actors, directors or even topics, and remote scheduling using the Internet. For more, go to www.mytivo.co.nz

Some of those features are also available on MyFreeview and MY SKY, aren’t they?

Yes, it’s the Internet broadband content that makes TiVo stand out. The only specific content announced so far is pay-per-view movies and TV on demand.

Where does the Internet connection come from?

You have to have a Telecom broadband connection to access the broadband content and services. Telecom is sweetening the deal by removing data caps for TiVo content – no risk of running up a big ISP bill.

What will TiVo cost?

The device costs $899, or $920 with a wireless adaptor which allows you to programme TiVo from other rooms in your house if you have a wireless network. It will be sold through Telecom retail stores, customer service channels at 123 and online at www.telecom.co.nz/mytivo Telecom will also offer a deferred payment option to Telecom Broadband customers.

So it’s a toss-up between getting this and MyFreeview?

Essentially, yes. MyFreeview is simpler to use, but TiVo gives you more options for choosing programmes to record. However, MyFreeview lets you watch a live programme while recording two others – TiVo only lets you watch a third recorded programme. TiVo will let you transfer some content that isn’t copy-protected to keep on a third-party device, like a DVD or external hard drive. Free-to-air content can be transferred to a portable device like a PSP or iTouch.

Will TiVo let me watch streamed video, like YouTube or TVNZondemand?

Web video that is downloaded to the PC, eg: video podcasts, can be shared with the TiVo media device and played on the TV through the Home Networking package (pricing to be announced). TiVo does not, however, work as a streamer for Web sites like YouTube.

Does TiVo work with SKY?

No, but TiVo will run comfortably alongside MY SKY on one TV set.

Is TiVo easy to install?

We’re advised it should be just ‘plug and play’ for most users, or any competent TV installer should be able to help.

What are the others doing about Web content?

Freeview receivers have Ethernet connections built in, and it hopes to introduce Web-based features sometime next year. Initially it will give users access to free on-demand content like catch-up TV.

The revamp of SKY’s online service is still ‘work in progress’; proposals are being discussed about funding options and how to make best use of MY SKY’s Internet capabilities.

TelstraClear is also planning a service similar to TiVo. Details were still under wraps at press time.

This article originally appeared in the November 2009 issue of NetGuide. If you're looking for other digital TV options, you may like to take a look at these articles on AppleTVSony's PlayTV and the recent launch of iSKY.

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