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THE NEW VIDEO CONTENT OPTIONS

by George McKechnie

The exceptional resolution and contrast available in today’s high performance TVs (and projectors) would be wasted without high definition video sources.  In recent years, suppliers of video content (and the manufacturers who make the technology to play it) have been playing a catch-up game: TV manufacturers develop and release a new higher resolution video format, then the source vendors (video disc players, cable and satellite providers, and now streaming services) work hard to develop equipment and content that can fully exploit the potential of the new standard.

Blu-ray players, for example, were released on the heels of the success of high-definition (1080p) TV.  Now that Ultra High Definition (UHD, or 4K) TV is a reality, the Blu-ray Consortium (which licenses and regulates the manufacture of Blu-ray players and discs) is in the process of upgrading their format to the new UHD standard.  UHD video streaming will soon follow, as will higher-resolution Cable and Satellite services—although for these providers, delivering 4K content will be considerably more difficult, as it will involve costly infrastructure upgrades.

Rather than waiting for these sources to become available, manufacturers of UHD TVs have added technology to their sets that can up-convert lower-resolution signals to near UHD quality—making them very useful now.  So far, the rate of consumer adoption for 4K TVs has grown much faster than predicted, and the prices have fallen more rapidly than expected, to the point that UHD has already become the de facto standard for the industry.

On the audio side, notable improvements have occurred as well: Surround Sound has morphed from 5.1 to 9.2.  Some manufacturers have even implemented a 11.2 surround sound platform.  Recently, Dolby Labs unveiled their new Atmos system, a major surround sound upgrade.  Also, uncompressed streaming of digital audio content is increasingly available, as are higher-resolution digital audio devices to play back this superior-sounding music.  For more on audio topics, see other Secrets of Smart Home Entertainment reports.

PROLIFERATING SOURCES

The choices available for buying video content is expanding rapidly each year, and competition in this sector is red hot.  Consumers are increasingly turning away from cable and satellite providers, toward established broadband-based video delivery systems—like Netflix and Amazon On Demand.  These companies are, in turn, being disrupted by upstarts like blip and mgo.  For consumers, it is the best of times (for value and choice) and the worst of times (for understanding options and making informed decisions).  With time, the competitive landscape should become more settled, and the choices clearer.

Two important areas that are inhibiting the wholesale transition of consumers from cable and satellite services to the broadband delivery of content are sports and local news.  Until the disruptors find ways to deliver this content, many consumers will feel torn between the old and the new—wanting the lower cost and broader choices that come with video streaming, but unwilling to give up professional sports and local programming.

Discs

In just a few years, Blu-ray players have all but replaced DVD machines in the marketplace.  They can provide a true High Definition signal (1080p, vs 480p for DVDs), and are downward compatible—playing DVD and even CD discs.   A diminishing number of consumers continue to purchase DVDs, mostly those who do not yet own the latest high definition (1080p or even 4k) TVs.  Some manufacturers offer “universal” players which, in addition to the above formats, play the now-discontinued but very high quality SACD (Super-Audio CD) and DVD-Audio formats.

The current Blu-ray standard (so-called 1080p—for progressive scan) offers true HDTV (High Definition) resolution, and provides much higher image quality than the older DVD format.   But to deliver this resolution, a Blu-ray player must be connected via an HDMI (digital) cable to a TV capable of displaying a 1080p image.  Most current 1080p TVs also accept the lower-quality 720p analog signal (also known as 1080i, for interlaced) via the old component-video connection—also referred to as RGB (for Red-Green-Blue).  A third wiring format, Composite, combines rudimentary analog video and audio feeds in a single coax cable.  But it is now so obsolete and low performance that it has no place in discussions of Great Home Entertainment.

The Blu-ray Consortium (which licenses the format) recently stopped allowing manufacturers to include an analog (RGB) video output on Blu-ray machines.  This older technology (see An Insiders Guide to Home Theater) cannot accommodate the watermark and handshake safeguards which movie studios now require manufacturers to implement, to prevent consumers from pirating their intellectual property by copying discs in the analog format.  As a result, many older flat-panel TVs cannot accept the HDMI-only output of newer Blu-ray players.  Converters are available, but they add cost and degrade the signal.

In 2014, the consortium announced plans to expand the Blu-ray format to accommodate the new UHD 4K standard.  How rapidly this upgrade will become available is unclear at this point.  But the better than expected adoption rate for 4K TVs suggests that it will be very soon.   Meanwhile, Sony has developed a proprietary 4K device that plays content from their own movie studio only, and is compatible with Sony brand UHD TVs and projectors.  Kaleidescape, a manufacturer of video storage equipment for consumers, has launched a video store that streams 4K video content to their players from many movie studios.   The release of UHD Blu-ray discs and players will occur as soon as the Blu-Ray Consortium finalizes the technical parameters, and licenses studios and manufacturers to incorporate the upgrade into their manufacturing process.

Industry analysts predict that UHD TV will be very successful in the marketplace—unlike 3D, which never achieved broad consumer acceptance.  But it may take a few years for large numbers of consumers to switch over to the new format, because so many of them recently switched over to HD, and aren’t eager to invest again so soon.  These new models (TVs and players) will be downward compatible, capable of playing older Blu-ray discs and perhaps even DVDs.

For now, 1080p Blu-ray players continue to be a viable choice for many consumers who don’t want to rely primarily on video streaming.  Their performance has continued to improve over the past few years, and the price has dropped significantly.  But, as with cars and other consumer goods, there remain real quality differences between entry-level “loss leaders” and premium models—even within a given technology standard.  Digital distortion artifacts from a budget player may be insignificant when viewed on a 32 inch LCD TV, but become really apparent when the Blu-ray output is displayed on a large, high-quality flat panel TV or projector system.  These demanding applications require a player employing a high-precision disc drive system, a well-regulated power supply, superior video processing, and high-quality error correction algorithms.  In Blu-ray as in most areas of A/V, you get what you pay for—only more so with video sources, because what you get is what you see!

Cable, Satellite, and More

For historical reasons (the high up-front costs required to provide infrastructure wiring for an entire a city or town), cable TV providers have always entered into exclusive contracts with geographical jurisdictions.  If Comcast has the contract in your town, other companies like Time Warner or Cox are not allowed to provide service- plus they lack the wiring infrastructure and financial incentive to do so. This is not the case for Satellite companies such as DirecTV and Dish Network—which are generally available anywhere a dish can be aimed at the company’s satellite in the sky.

Availability is even more complicated for systems that rely on a broadband connection to provide TV programming bundled with internet and phone service.  These triple packages may be available in your region and even your town, but not yet in your neighborhood.  One carrier provides high-quality fiber optic-based triple play packages, but only in limited geographical areas.

Although virtually all Cable and Satellite service providers refer to their products as “High Definition,” little actual programming is available from them in true 1080p format.  In fact, some of the providers are unable to provide any 1080p content at this time.  In view of this reality, expanding their systems to accommodate the new UHD (4K) content is likely to be a real challenge.  For current resolution limits on your service, check with your provider.

Because of rapid innovation and intense pricing pressure in this sector, the competitive landscape for video providers will likely continue to shift and expand—within the constraints of federal anti-trust regulations and the marketplace.   In 2015, ATT for example acquired DirecTV, while Comcast announced a pending merger with Time Warner.  Looking ahead, it’s very likely that cable and satellite providers will face even more intense competition from emerging companies that deliver video content to consumers by streaming over the internet.

Streaming

Although video streaming is a relatively new technology, it has already grown dramatically, both in terms of the number of companies that provide the content, and the range of equipment available to receive and manage video content from the internet.  Computers, mobile devices, game consoles, and “smart” TVs can access these streaming services, as can dedicated streaming appliances (like Amazon Fire and Roku) and some Blu-Ray players.

New services are springing up like mushrooms.  A few years ago, companies like Netflix, Amazon (Video On Demand), Hulu Plus, Vudu, and iTunes looked like they would dominate this sector.  But recent startups like blip, mgo, and many others have emerged to challenge the leaders.  In fact, we’re probably at the threshold of a new era, in which streaming (both video and audio) becomes the dominant source of A/V content.  For more information see Video Streaming: A Major Innovation (coming soon).

Summary

The delivery of video content has evolved markedly in the last decade, driven largely by innovations on the video display front.  With the line between audio/video and information technology now dissolving, the broadband pipeline into the home is rapidly becoming the video source of choice for more and more viewers.   Looking forward, it is safe to predict that the delivery of video content will continue to morph into something perhaps unrecognizable just a few years ago—or even today.

Because this content consumes so much bandwidth (often orders of magnitude more than other internet uses), it’s a good idea to check the speed and throughput of your internet connection to your home from your provider, plus the Ethernet or Wi-Fi speed of your own home network.  When poor video streaming performance is encountered, our network connection and home network are almost always involved.  See Building Reliable Home Networks (coming soon)