Hard News by Russell Brown


Buy now: spend the recession inside!

I laid hands yesterday on one of the Freeview HD decoders that officially arrive in the shops on April 2. The HD service is terrestrial -- you simply connect your existing aerial cable to the decoder. And it is … amazing.

It helps, naturally, that I went out and bought a new television on Saturday. The choice was made easier after I measured up our entertainment unit and determined that it would accommodate a set not larger than 32". I decided that the Sony Bravia D-Series was the best-equipped LCD set in that size. (Well, actually, I wasn't prepared to drop $6500 on a Loewe.) It was stocked at most places at $2300, but I found it for $1776 at the Appliance Shed outlet store in Glenfield.

We've since viewed content in various formats. Oddly, the worst of it was a movie on Blu-Ray: Talladega Nights, which looked odd and garish, with the HD resolution largely serving to highlight shortcomings in set design and makeup. I downloaded a couple of HD (720p) TV torrents: the latest episodes of Lost, which looked very good, and Torchwood, which looked positively sumptuous.

But the most striking experience has been watching Freeview HD. The transmitters are all on ahead of launch, and although TV3 won't start broadcasting HD until April 1, we watched House last night and sat there gawping in the dark.

I checked this morning with TV3 and, no, it wasn't an HD broadcast; they haven't even been supplied with an HD version of the series. But because the bitrate is very high, and because the decoder upconverts the standard-definition picture to your set's highest resolution, even the SD programming looks very good. Better than the Freeview satellite service, and a lot better than most of the Sky channels. Also, programmes that are irritatingly letterboxed on SD services often satisfyingly fill the screen on Freeview HD.

It goes without saying that HDTV does not improve the quality of the script in a drama or the performance of TV news reporting. But it is compelling to look at, and it does constitute a competitive offering.

TV3 will have more HD content initially, an hour or two a night of US and Australian drama. The fact that TV3 is broadcasting in 1080i resolution while TVNZ has opted for 720p seems messy, but, with unconverting, unlikely to have a major impact on the viewing experience.

The there will be no HD on TV One and TV 2 until the Olympics (it would be fair to surmise that there are quite a few people there who, no matter what brutality the Chinese government is visiting on Tibet, are praying against an Olympic boycott).

Thereafter, HD programming will ramp up for the rest of the year, although there are no short-term plans to go HD with channel 6 and 7. I gather the delay on the main channels is down to the wait for a new file-based content system to come online. Sky is also promising HD later in the year (yay! sport!), but it appears it will carry a price premium, and upgrading decoders will be quite a task.

It's not all good. The price of the decoder is, as Peter Griffin has been pointing out in the Herald, daunting: around $500 for the sole approved model, and you'll still have to buy your own HDMI cable if you want the best picture. This is the price of the decision to go for MPEG4 video, which is relatively new in consumer equipment, over MPEG 2, the staple in digital television for more than a decade. There simply aren't that many factories in China making boxes to that spec.

Freeview NZ, a consortium of the major free-to-air broadcasters, has handled that in two ways. The first: follow the French, and try and stick to their particular DVB-T spec. There's a problem there in that the French (bizarrely) didn't specify any middleware -- that's the software that brings you the electronic programme guide on your decoder, among other things. Freeview has specified MHEG-5, which is also used on Freeview boxes in Britain.

Secondly, Freeview has made its spec available to anyone else who wants it. Hong Kong has already accepted the spec and Singapore, Taiwan and several other Asian countries are considering it. Ireland and Norway's specs are very close. It seems likely that, if Australia picks up the Freeview model, as rumours suggest, it will also adopt our spec. The promise is that in two years' time we'll be awash in Freeview-compatible boxes (and PC cards, which Freeview will bless) and that scale and competition will sharply reduce prices.

If that happens, I'd expect there to be a range of Freeview-compatible devices available, including some very small ones, and perhaps even some mobile phones packing DVB-T chipsets. Look out for them around the Viaduct in 2012.

Griffin's story this morning suggests that the Zinwell is overpriced right now, given the uncertified boxes already available in Asia. I'm told there are two or three more devices awaiting Freeview certification at Freeview's British-based testing company.

For now, if you have a fancy set and you're in a position to do so, you might as well look at one of the new decoders. If you're in a major population centre and you have a UHF aerial, you should be able to get the service. There are coverage maps here. It's also worth noting that the small indoor aerials, which cost tens of dollars, are apparently quite effective.

And if you don't have a fancy HD set and don't want to upgrade right now? I have been assured by the Freeview people that your decoder will work with an older TV set, so long as it has component or s-video inputs. If it is composite only (that's the single yellow plug with the red and white for audio), forget it. The HD decoder doesn't support that.

Update: Apparently, composite is fine, so forget what I said. Also, bear in mid that digital integrated TVs (ie: a TV with a Freeview HD decoder built-in) are coming some time in the next six months.


The blogsphere continues to blossom. Fresh this week: The Hand Mirror, a group home for some of the country's best feminist bloggers, including Deborah, Stef the Ex-Expat (who has sprung into view with some tremendous posts on her own blog lately) and someone whose prose style might seem familiar. Cool.


Now that the Prime Minister has been moved to upgrade her criticism of Chinese actions in Tibet from tepid to mild (which is basically where the rest of the West is at with it too, while Russia urges the Chinese leadership to do anything necessary to "curtail unlawful actions"), it's important to keep the issue urgent. But hating on China itself sometimes seems to me to be the acceptable face of xenophobia. China isn't going away. I was recently given a copy of Caijing, an annual strategic journal translated into English for the first time, and it brings home quite how much is happening in that vast country. The authors' calls for reform are cautious, but consistent. Not engaging with that doesn't seem to be an option.


Wow, is this my week for upsetting baby-boomers?

Various readers kept me posted on Bill Ralston's repeated abusive outbursts on his Radio Live show (he fills in for Paul Henry) yesterday. The invective was targeted in part at bloggers in general, but mostly at me, personally. It didn't seem like something I should listen to, but I gather the following is a partial list of terms: "half-wit", "wanker", "dick" "worst commentator", "no background in journalism", "does no research", "ignorant blogger ... who believes strange things", "feeds like vermin off the work of other journalists".

Two readers, including another journalist, described him as "frothing at the mouth". There was also a promise to dish it out to me in his next Herald on Sunday column. I sincerely hope he's calmed down by then.

So. Bill …

Yes, I was somewhat critical of your Herald on Sunday column: not greatly so, and I think the criticism was borne out by the day's events. Keith was much harsher on another of your recent columns. The HoS gave him his own "Fact Check" slot shortly afterwards. You are, naturally, at liberty to criticise either of us.

On the other hand, I've also praised you warmly, here and to your face, for other work in the past few months. I've cheerfully made time to front up as a commentator on your show. And I've certainly never uttered the kind of sustained personal abuse you did yesterday.

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