April 25, 2009

Why we really, really need HD On Demand and to get off MPeg2 ASAP

Virgin Media's continued use of the inefficient MPeg2 encoding for its high definition services, dictated by the limitations of the SA V+ hardware, has us all worried. An hour of BBC HD recording takes up a shade under 4 hours of the 80 available on your PVR's hard disc. If you're going on holiday and set it to record say 4 hours of HD a week for a fortnight, that's almost half of your disc consumed by just 8 hours of TV. Throw in a high def movie or attempt a series stack of Mad Men and you've got a major problem. And, unlike a Sky box, you cannot (legally) put a larger disc into a V+ as it's Virgin's property. And besides, Sky HD uses MPeg4 - the Sky+ HD overhead for recording high def is a fraction of that the MPeg2-crippled Virgin VIP incurs.
What will it be like when we have C4 HD and the other rumoured HD channels? Once you've got a PVR, there's very little TV you watch 'live' - sport, news, that's about it. I timeshift pretty much everything, and some weeks my V+ struggles with the single HD channel.
So it was disappointing to read that the new Samsung V+ being trialled has the same 160Gb disc as the SA V+, and, despite it having vastly superior MPeg4 encoding capability, Virgin has no plans to utilise it and will be sticking with MPeg2. Sky HD, Freesat HD and even (when it arrives) Freeview HD use Mpeg4, so Virgin really is isolated in the industry with this technology legacy.
To some degree, HD content in iPlayer, ITV Player and 4OD catch up services will help out - if it ever arrives. If I could watch Heroes in HD via iPlayer and it was series stacked, I'd only record the SD version on my V+. Not ideal, but a compromise I could live with.
What would be better would be if, once the additional HD channels are available, they were also available in MPeg4, and we could trade in our SA V+ for the Samsung V+ to decode them for a nominal install fee. (And, yes, I know this would take even more bandwidth, but analogue's almost gone now.) This would create a two-tier HD delivery service in the short term, but would see VM homes with the necessary technology base to move HD services forward into the 21st century. Future HD services could be MPeg4 only, whilst customers with the SA V+ would only have access to the HD taster of BBC HD and a few others also available on Freesat. As the SA V+ estate ages (and it will age pretty quickly - those cheap hard discs won't spin forever) new equipment will be installed and Virgin will have a technology base to move forward with, rather than one that makes you rue the short term technology strategising of a few years ago.
(And if Virgin needs a CIO to make this happen, they know where to find me...)


Anonymous said...

Virgin are so disinterested in HD I can't see them moving to MPEG4/AVC for many years. MPEG 2 is still (sadly) the standard for SD, so they have no reason to look at anything else.

It's really too bad we have such poor competition in this country when it comes to the pay TV market. Sky pretty much own the market now and Virgin have all but given up. Personally I expect they'll drop the TV business entirely within the next 5 years or so they can dedicate more bandwidth to their far more successful broadband offerings. Perhaps TV is just too much trouble for too little profit now.

Afront said...

Excellent post Nialli; I'm stunned that the potential new hardware is still using MPEG2 - this is almost laughably near-sighted.

I'm also finding it increasingly difficult to time-shift my viewing to my convenience, as my little 160 drive is usually almost always nearly full. Even a weekend away means that I have to prioritize HD recordings to pre-watch before I go, otherwise there's no space to record anything while I'm gone.