Too Much Information on HDTV
After too much time as somebody else's technology adviser, I have decided to take the HDTV plunge myself. I wrote the original version of the following in response to a question from a friend who'd gotten an HDTV set for Christmas and didn't know how to go about getting HDTV programming on it. What follows is my usual sort of too-much-information dump on what is actually available and how you can get it, if local HDTV broadcasts aren't enough. Some of the information about local channels and cable service is specific to DC, but the general idea probably translates outside the Beltway.

There are four HDTV *programming* options available right now (excluding FiOS, which is not available here), singularly or in combination. They are:

Over-the-air (OTA) local channels: these are available with a rooftop antenna, and for these channels the highest quaility will be available this way, even if they're offered in HD by a satellite or cable provider. Once you get the hardware in place, they're also free.

DirecTV: As an add-on to its Total Choice packages, DirecTV offers an HD package for an additional $9.99 per month, which adds ESPN HD, ESPN2 HD, Universal HD, Discovery HD Theater, HDNet, and HDNet Movies to the standard set of channels. They also have HBO and Showtime HD, which are available to subscribers to those networks regardless of whether they subscribe to the aforementioned HD package. DirecTV also provides HD signals for local channels in DC, but the quality is reduced as compared to OTA reception.

Dish: Instead of offering HD as an add-on, Dish offers separate HD packages that appear to correspond to their SD packages and cost $20 more ($15 more for DishHD Platinum, which corresponds to the "America's 'Everything' Pak"). DishHD includes the same set of HD channels as DirecTV with the same HBO/Showtime setup, plus a lineup of channels from VOOM (which was a short-lived standalone HDTV satellite company, and which now exists as an HD content provider: news article with channel info). Like DirecTV, Dish provides HD locals for DC, and like DirecTV, the quality is reduced compared to OTA. Note also that the VOOM channels have a reduced horizontal resolution derogatorily known as HDLite; this may or may not matter to you.

Comcast: From what I can find online, Comcast appears to have the most limited HD lineup, with Discovery HD Theater, INHD, INHD2 (apparently their answer to HDNet), and Comcast SportsNet HD. They had Universal HD during the Olympics, but dropped it in some areas afterward. I honestly can't tell if it's available or not in DC. HBO and Showtime HD are again available to subscribers of those networks, and local channels are available in HD (I don't know about the quality of cable's HD locals).

In order to watch any of that HDTV programming, you may need new hardware depending on what TV you have, and you might also need a new contract:

OTA: If your TV has an integrated ATSC/8VSB tuner (if it's reasonably new it probably does; a few years ago so-called HDTV 'monitors' without tuners were more common) then all you need is a good rooftop antenna. For my location it looks like a "Small Multi-directional" antenna is the way to go (antenna types are described at AntennaWeb -- they also have a handy tool that recommends an antenna type based on your address). It's possible to get an amplified antenna, but HDTV receivers are sensitive to being overloaded, and all the major local channels are within 6 miles, so as far as I can tell the unamplified antenna is the better choice. So that's what I bought. I also bought the mounting bracket that will allow it to attach to my existing satellite dish arm, and the "splitters" that will work with the multi-switch I already have, so I should be able to integrate this and have live local HDTV as soon as it arrives. In conjunction with my existing DirecTV/TiVo, this may be enough for me.

DirecTV: DirecTV presents a problem, as they have just changed to a new "lease" model (as opposed to their old "sale") model for hardware, and they're also in the process of switching HD technology from MPEG2 to MPEG4. Buying, er, leasing a new DirecTV receiver right now also comes with a two-year commitment, and nasty penalties if you cancel, and you also have to return the hardware to them when they do. Also, in order to receive half of their current HD programming, I'd need to upgrade the dish on the roof (I have a two-LNB model; the "Sat C" kit to upgrade it myself costs $40 online). The good news is, DirecTV will do that for "free" with the aforementioned two-year commitment, which is also the bad news. You can get a non-DVR HD receiver for $99.

Dish: Dish hardware has always been leased, although there has always been the option to purchase it (for much more money, of course). Dish is also switching to MPEG4, but they're ahead of DirecTV in this regard. With an 18 month commitment they'll give an instant $49 credit (equal to the activation fee), but you can also sign up with no commitment. To get a non-DVR HD receiver requires an additional $49 charge at startup.

Comcast: To get HD from Comcast you have to sign up for Digital Cable. If your TV has a QAM tuner and a CableCard slot, you do not have to use a "set-top-box," although Comcast still seems to want you to in order to use some of their interactive services. Having never used their interactive services myself, I can't really advise you either way here, but I've never really been happy with any digital cable set-top-boxes that I've seen.

TiVo/DVR: I'm biased in favor of TiVo, and I think this is the biggest reason not to sign up for new HD service right now from anybody. Dish and Comcast both offer non-TiVo HD receivers with DVR features. The new Dish VIP-622 receiver appears to be very good, but it's not TiVo (and will never be). It supports MPEG4 and is thus somewhat future-proof. You can get it for a $299 charge at sign-up. The Comcast DVR (there's only one) does HD, but it's also not TiVo and it's known to be buggy. Comcast has a deal with TiVo to develop TiVo service on Comcast DVRs, but the ETA for this is unknown. Because you never really own your equipment with Comcast, you can get the DVR now and then ask for the TiVo DVR once it comes out, but I have no idea whether they'll charge an upgrade fee for that at the time.

As for DirecTV, you can currently "lease" the HR10-250 HD DVR (which uses TiVo software) for $599 (or less, depending on how nice they are when you call). The HR10-250 does not support MPEG4, and has a limited future. It's also slow and temperamental. It will continue to work for existing HD channels, but new channels (and local HD channels) will be MPEG4-only. DirecTV will be rolling out a new, non-TiVo DVR in July or so. It will support MPEG4, but it's based on the same platform as the new DirecTV DVR, which is known to be very buggy. Eventually DirecTV will probably turn off existing MPEG2 HD channels in favor of MPEG4, but it is impossible to predict what sort of receiver they'll send as part of this "upgrade."

Both the Dish VIP-622 and DirecTV HR10-250 will record OTA digital broadcasts, which are always higher quality than the satellite versions of the same channels, which are recompressed. For this reason a rooftop antenna is suddenly back in style for satellite subscribers who want HD. The forthcoming HD-DVR from DirecTV will also record OTA digital broadcasts as long as you have active DirecTV service, but this feature will be deactivated if your service is. Dish and DirecTV each charge just under $6/mo for DVR service; both give it to you for "free" if you get their most expensive programming package (DishHD Platinum or Total Choice Premium, respectively).

TiVo itself plans to release a standalone HD "Series 3" receiver which can record ATSC/8VSB (digital OTA), QAM (digital cable), and NTSC (analog, both OTA and cable). It won't record DirecTV or Dish signals directly, though. It is rumored to be in the hands of beta testers already, and is expected to be available in July. If Comcast isn't entirely stupid, this will be the TiVo-based recorder they offer, but (1) they're pretty stupid, and (2) all predictions are guaranteed wrong or your money back.

Because I am an addict and am unable to watch TV without a TiVo remote, I have put my money on an HR10-250 (available for $398 from NewEgg), which I plan to use as a standalone manual recorder for local channels until at least July. I won't sign up for DirecTV's HD service anytime soon unless I have to (the order from NewEgg didn't come with any lease requirements, as far as I can tell). I have no idea how well this plan will actually work, but I also know I can sell the thing on eBay if it doesn't work out.

As for service, I personally plan to wait until the TiVo Series 3 and new DirecTV HD-DVR are released, at which point I'll decide if I want to sign up for HD service from DirecTV, Dish, or nobody at all. If I were in a hurry to get lots of HD programming, I'd sign up for Dish, but my thumb is too well trained on the TiVo remote to switch to anybody else's DVR. YMMV.

(18:00, 19 March 2006)