September 30, 2007

Sky HD bugs

Wary that the other man's grass is often of a greener hue, I've been checking out a few Digital spy threads on the Sky HD offering. Check this out Sky HD bugs - 38 pages and counting, lots more bugs than I'd thought. I know the V+ box ain't perfect (I've had a recording fail this weekend) but it sounds like Sky customers have it even worse. Of course, Sky HD has 250k customers compared with VM's 120k (figures from the last numbers released by both companies) so the correspondence on Sky HD will be more voluminous, but then VM don't charge you £10 a month for the service either.

4HD on its way?

Channel 4 have announced the HD simulcast of its main channel will appear on Sky in December 2007, and one hopes on Virgin Media around the same time. It's easier to broadcast a new channel on satellite (effectively you only have to secure the EPG position with Sky, the transmission can be sorted without Sky) whereas with cable Virgin Media have to work a wee bit harder. Fingers crossed for "4HD" on Virgin before Christmas, and with ITV also promising HD output in time for Euro 2008, things are finally looking up.
Here's the Channel 4 press release:

Channel 4 is to launch a high definition TV (HDTV) service for British viewers, which will be available on the Sky Digital platform from launch in December.

Channel 4 HD will be a simulcast of the core Channel 4 schedule with a proportion of programmes produced and transmitted in the HD format. The Channel 4 Group is committed to increasing its investment in HD production and the proportion of its schedule transmitted in high definition over time.

The new HD simulcast will initially be available to subscribers to Sky HD, but will also be made available on other platforms in future.

That last bit's my emphasis. "Other platforms" would be Virgin Media, the forthcoming FreeSat and IPTV services. Here's how the BBC reported the arrival of "4HD", and also reported an update on the BBC HD trial's likely future:

Channel 4 to launch HDTV service
America Ferrera as Ugly Betty
Channel 4's Ugly Betty is already shown in high definition in the US

Channel 4 is to be broadcast in high definition later this year, the first time a UK terrestrial broadcaster has simulcast its output in this way.

Viewers with a compatible TV and Sky HD box will be able to watch Channel 4 HD without paying an extra subscription.

However, only programmes recorded using high-definition techniques will be screened in HD, a format which promises better-quality pictures and sound.

Other shows will be seen in standard definition, a Channel 4 spokesman said.

He added that the proportion of programmes shown in HD would increase over time.

The BBC has offered a trial HD service since last year, but this free service carries a customised selection of programmes, rather than simulcasting an existing service.

Channel 4 said it "anticipated" that its HD service would launch in December.

Expanded BBC service

The announcement came a day after the BBC Trust - the body which must be consulted before any new BBC channel can begin - indicated it was in favour of a permanent BBC HD service.

BBC executives have proposed a daily nine-hour schedule - from 1500 to 0000 - on satellite, cable and Freeview.

Michael Palin in Gdansk, Poland
Michael Palin's latest travel series is being screened on BBC HD
However, this would only be possible on Freeview once analogue signals had been switched off across the UK in 2012, owing to the lack of space on the airwaves.

An interim measure - if approved - would see BBC HD on Freeview between 0200 and 0600 daily.

But BBC Four, BBC Parliament and three BBCi services would have to be taken off air during those times to provide the necessary bandwidth.

The trust set down several conditions for the overall HD service, saying it was important to broadcast material from a variety of channels during peak-time evening viewing, rather than simply simulcasting BBC One.

However, it concluded overall that the service "would deliver a medium to high level of public value".

A further set of provisional conclusions on BBC HD will be published by the trust next Tuesday, and the public will then be able to submit their views during a month-long consultation process.

A final announcement on the service will then be published in November.

September 29, 2007

Video On Demand - TV HD

Here's a list of what's currently available, free of charge, in HD via On Demand. This is for those on the ex-NTL platform - if you're in an ex-Telewest area, please check MadDonna's site for details of your listings.

To find the listings for HD VOD, go into TV On Demand via the TV Guide, then select 6. More On Demand, and 2. High Definition.

1. Free TV HD
This is all BBC stuff at the moment. It's not a bad selection, but there are the odd omissions (such as episode 3 of Sorted and a missing Planet Earth episode that's on the ex-Telewest network). The BBC stuff does get changed but I haven't yet sussed how frequently. Hopefully we'll see an expansion in months to come; it's been five pages of pretty much the same fayre for a while now.
Diana - Last Days of a Princess
Galapagos Episodes 1 - 3
Hotel Babylon (Series 1) - (Episodes 1 - 6)
Planet Earth: Great Plains
Planet Earth: Ice World
Planet Earth: Jungles
Planet Earth: Shallow Seas
Sorted Episodes 1, 2, 4, 5, 6
The Blue Planet: Coasts
The Blue Planet: Coral Seas
The Blue Planet: Frozen Seas
The Blue Planet: Introduction
The Blue Planet: Open Oceans
The Blue Planet: Seasonal Seas
The Blue Planet: The Deep
The Blue Planet: Tidal Seas
Wild Weather Cold
Wild Weather Heat
Wild Weather Wet
Wild Weather Wind

2. Flextech Films HD
I'll list these when I get around to it. A lot of the older Bond films are on here in HD, and a selection of recent releases such as Miss Potter and Venus.

3. Music HD
Just the one:
Gorillaz live at the Apollo

4. Pay TV HD
Now this is curious - C4's Brothers & Sisters has appeared, episodes 14 - 18 and 20, though I don't think it is 20 as the info on it relates to episode 2! 99p an episode is the same as the standard definition version. Appears to be added at the C4 pace rather than E4.

So, you ask, where is Lost in HD? Good question - I have no idea!

This week's highlights on BBC HD

With the Beeb's autumn season now in full swing, it's great to see so many of the flagship shows appearing on the HD channel. Three to watch for this week:

New Europe with Michael Palin
(Sundays, 9pm)
The photography in this series has been breathtaking in HD. I hadn't appreciated just what a difference HD can make to documentary filming until this series - even more than Galapagos and Blue Planet, this has been fantastic and a constant revelation. If you find Palin's travalogue patter a little grating, turn down the sound and just marvel at the picture quality. Outstanding

(Wednesdays, 9pm and 10pm)
Whether you're watching at BBC2 or BBC3 pace, the Beeb's top US import is now in its full stride with the introduction of Christopher Ecclestone's invisible man, the stand out character in season one. I'm kicking myself that I first watched this on Sci Fi, where it wasn't even in widescreen let alone HD. Fantastic fantasy that's a real treat each week.

The Tudors
(Fridays, 9pm)
The trailers for this landmark drama on Henry VIII's younger years look mouthwatering, so let's hope they put as much love and attention into the plot as they have the look.

And coming soon: season six of
Spooks ....

Virgin Media High Definition FAQ

My thanks to Shadow TD for allowing me to reprint his outstanding High Definition FAQ from AV Forums in its entirety - as succinct and accurate FAQ as you're likely to find on HD services.

A) Equipment
A.1) What do I need?
A.2) 720? 720 Wide? 1080!! What????
A.3) Connections

B) Content
B.1) Channels
B.2) On Demand
B.3) 5.1 Audio
B.4) Size

C) Costs
C.1) Monthly charges

D) The Future
A.1) What do I need to receive High Definition programming with Virgin Media?

You need a V+ box. Like most other broadcasters, VM have decided to include HD with a PVR service. So the only way to receive HD content is with V+, VM's hard drive recorder. This box has both HDMI and component connections. The HDMI can be adapted to DVI with the relevant adaptor although be aware that DVI does not carry audio so seperate audio cables will be required either to your TV, amp or both. Component video has issues with some content (see B.2). There is no non-pvr HD STB nor are we aware of any plans for one. Obviously you also need a HD television, one with minimum 720 lines of pictures resolution and preferable HDMI, or DVI with HDCP.

A.2) 720? 720 Wide? 1080!! What????
Calm down dear, it's only a FAQ. This tells the box what type of HD signal to output. Try both 720 and 1080 to see which you think gives you a better picture - your TV and your eyes. Note that the menus may look fuzzy/rubbish on 1080 - this is an issues (not quite a bug) with V+ as it stands. The 'Wide' options are there due to the way most TV's currently handle HDMI signals - they are unable to apply any of their 'stretch' or 'stretch and crop' modes to the signal, so 4:3 programs will sit in the middle of the screen and you can't do owt about it. The 'Wide' options apply a stretch but then you end up with fat face syndrome. Experiment to find your preferred setting.

A.3) Connections
As a bit of a final 'gotcha', V+'s analogue outputs (SCART & RF) are disabled when you are using HDMI or component. So you can't use a HD TV and a distribution amp to pump the signal round your house. Sorry.

B.1) Channels
VM currently broadcast only one HD channel - BBC HD. Discussions as to whether this constitutes a proper channel are for other people. VM did also have ITV's HD channel when it was broadcasting but this has ceased. You DO NOT get anything else - no Sky Sports HD or Sky Movies HD. At the moment there have been rumours about National Geographic HD but no concrete information from VM. VM have gone on record (while still ntl:Telewest) saying that they view On Demand as the best way of delivering HD content (spot the irony in the next section).

B.2) On Demand Content
There is a smallish selection of HD content available On Demand - mostly from the BBC. There are also some HD movies available from FilmFlex although the quantity differs depending on whether you are ex-ntl or ex-Telewest. HD FilmFlex Movies and the 'Music' section are subject to HDMI content protection (HDCP) and cannot be viewed over component. They will work over DVI if your TV supports it.

B.3) 5.1 Audio
V+ feature an optical audio output. When connected to a compatible amplifier and the HDMI Audio Override option is turned on, the system is 5.1 enabled. Some BBC HD content and all FilmFlex HD movies are in 5.1. A good way to test is the BBC HD 'barker' reel which broadcasts during the day - this is always in 5.1.

B.4) Size
HD recordings take up roughly 4 times the space on the hard drive than SD recordings. The estimated recording time left bar is for SD content, so be careful when recording HD films from BBC HD.

C.1 Charges
VM do not currently charge a premium for viewing HD channels. HD movies are usually a pound more expensive than their SD counterpart. The V+ box has its own charges which are detailed elsewhere

D) The Future
There is much speculation as to additional channels and also VM's decision to use an MPEG2 stb when Sky went for MPEG4. This is an issue which causes much debate and will not be discussed here, but suffice to say there will be much more room for HD channels when analogue is switched off.