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HDTV Programming: Cable vs. OTA

Previous to buying this system, I got my programming via DIRECTV satellite, which provides all-digital programming. Unfortunately, DIRECTV's high-definition offerings are somewhat paltry, and included zero local or network stations. I opted to disconnect the satellite in favor of something with more HDTV options.

The primary alternative to satellite is cable, which in my area is provided by Bright House. My local cable company offered a few more national HDTV stations than DIRECTV did, as well as my local channels in high-def. Easy choice—but not necessarily a good one.

First, to that issue of high-definition local channels. Bright House, unfortunately, has agreements with only three local stations to carry their HD channels. So I get the local CBS, NBC, and PBS high-def stations—but not the local ABC, Fox, UPN, or WB stations. This sucks.

On the plus side, the HDTV stations I do receive look terrific. The picture is amazing, and the Dolby Digital sound comes in exactly as it should. I don't notice a lot of digital compression artifacts (although there are some), and there's zero interruption by weather and other elements. What I get, I like.

But then there are the other 200 or so channels on cable. Let me make this clear—I hate cable. The first 70 or so stations (which include all the popular channels) are pure analog, which makes them almost unwatchable on a 60-inch screen. The digital stations are a little better, although there's little programming there you really want to watch. I also hate my cable system's electronic program guide, which has graphics that look as if they were designed on a 25-year-old Commodore 64 computer. I hate it!

I receive my cable via a Scientific Atlanta 8300HD set top box. The 8300 is a high-def box, of course, that also functions as a DVR. It's the most anemic DVR I've ever seen, with an illogical menu system and dearth of advanced features. You can seldom get it to do what you want it to do, short of making simple one-time-only recordings. I've used both TiVo and a Panasonic DVR with the TV Guide EPG, and both were far superior to this box. Again, I hate cable.

Then there's the quality issue. My first 8300HD crapped out after about a month. First, there were a lot of dropouts when playing back recordings. Next, it started not recording some programs. Then it quit recording and playing back altogether. Fortunately, I was able to swap it for a new unit, which at least works. I still hate it, but at least it works.

I tried to connect the cable directly to my Sony TV via CableCARD, but the cable installer couldn't get it to work. Oh, the CableCARD inserted and configured properly and looked as if it should be working, but it wouldn't display any digital programming at all. I suppose I could have done my own troubleshooting of the problem (the cable guy certainly wasn't capable), but I realized I needed the 8300HD for the program guide (as lousy as it is), and decided to punt on the CableCARD thing for now. Maybe some day when I have more free time...

But what about those local stations that my cable company doesn't yet offer in high def? Well, I do have ATSC tuners (for over-the-air HDTV) in both my TV and Media Center PC, so I tried hooking up an HDTV antenna to see what would happen, Unfortunately, I live too far from the transmitting antennas to always get a strong enough signal, at least without manually fiddling with the indoor antenna I purchased, so I'm less than happy with this solution. When I can get a strong signal, everything works fine and looks quite good. When the signal drops below a certain level, however, it does bad things to my Media Center PC—freezing the picture and such. The better solution would be to install a good outdoor antenna, but I'm not quite ready for that yet.

What I'm waiting for is DIRECTV's expansion of its HDTV offerings later in 2005. Assuming the successful launch of two new satellites, DIRECTV will then have the capacity for literally thousands of new HD channels, including (theoretically) all the local channels in high def. Unfortunately, I doubt that my city (Indianapolis) will be first on DIRECTV's offering list, but I'm hoping it'll have something for me the first of next year. Until then, I'll settle for the less-than-perfect combination of cable and OTA reception, and count myself among the casualties of early adopterhood.

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