For someone who has had a high definition ready TV for more than a year, I'm showing extreme resilience with my ability to tolerate living with no true high definition source at my disposal. For the last two years we have had digital TV in the shape of an SD (standard definition) set top box connected to our TV (photo on the left). In Australia you can get away with it: all the channels available in high definition are also available in standard definition, and most of the time the high definition channels are broadcasting in standard definition anyway (although that is improving all the time). You may ask what the point of SD digital is when you can get analog anyway and the quality is similar, sort off; the answer would be that SD is in widescreen and that given the digital nature of the picture you miss out on analog noise (but you do get digital artifacts aplenty).
Anyway, this weekend I have surrendered and decided to get the $120 Aldi high definition set top box (model Tevion TEV8200). We bought it yesterday and returned it today, but in the day we've had I have learnt a lot about high definition expectations.
The first thing I noticed was that unlike our old SD box, the HD box will not talk to the VCR. Being that it operates like a computer, it can only output one type of picture at any given time (you can choose between HDMI, component, RGB, or low life composite). A VCR will only accept composite, but you won't buy a HD box to watch composite! Currently, with our SD box, we get away with it: we connect it to the TV using the S-video connector while the VCR is connected to the composite connector. While it's shit quality compared to HDMI or component, it does allow us to time shift easily and on the cheap; an upgrade to HD would mean that the VCR would have to rely on its analog tuner, which - again - means no widescreen. To make a long story short, migrating to a HD box means you need to upgrade your time shifting facilities, and high definition hard disk recorders are stupidly expensive.
The second thing we've noticed with the new HD box was the poor usability. The front panel's display was so bright that you need to wear shades to watch TV; very distracting.
And then we noticed that it doesn't have a clock on display. I know, who wants a clock displayed in front of them while watching a film? But the old SD box had a clock, and it's a mighty useful clock: it's always accurate, setting itself using the signal it receives. It has been the clock we've grown used to adjust our watches to; it's a pity to lose it just because of an inferior design.
The third thing we've noticed with the HD box, once we had it up and running, was the picture quality. Disney's animated Tarazan film on channel 7 broadcast at 1080i looked simply stunning, while Motorcycle Diaries on SBS was on par with DVD quality at 576p. The difference to the SD picture was huge! Not so good was the performance of ABC: Its HD channel only works when they have HD material, so for the rest of the time you have to flick to their SD channel instead. How stupid is that? This leaves you wondering whether you're watching the right ABC channel, which is simply pathetic; ABC could have done what the rest do and simply broadcast SD stuff in SD on its HD channel.
Anyway, the Aldi HD box we got had severe setup issues. Some things wouldn't work, others would jump around. I thought of calling their support line on Monday but then I had a look on the internet and saw that others are reporting similar problems to mine; it's not just a bad sample that landed on us, it's the design that's bad. And so we've returned the HD box and re-installed the old SD box back (and since then I've been complaining about the picture quality to Jo).
The lesson there, I guess, is that the move to high definition is not a trivial "buy a new box" affair. You need to be careful with the box you buy, and you need to be aware of the move's implication. We weren't.