Friday, 7 November 2008

What's wrong with this picture?

A year ago I have reported the rather frustrating adventures we've had to endure when we tried to incorporate the services of a high definition set top box into our home theater. It seemed as if there's more to set top boxes than meets the eye and that there are a lot of aspects to consider when choosing one. Paying more money did seem to make a difference even if the various boxes seem similar on paper.
A year has past with us settling for standard definition digital transmissions. It didn't bother us much because we hardly watch TV off the air, but there was still a sense of shame: we have such a capable screen in a very nicely set up environment that not having a high definition picture to match is a shame. Not only that, high definition digital is much less prone to dropouts than standard definition digital, so even if you only watch the news the experience is still nicer.
Well, a year has past since, and now we seem to be under attack by a new round of cheap high definition set top boxes. Aldi started the attack with a $90 special, but reviews have immediately condemned its offering to be too problematic: apparently, Aldi sold set top boxes using old firmware that caused significant lip sync issues (that is, the sound and the picture don't match). Dick Smith, it was reported, was selling the same set top box for $10 more but with the new firmware, so we got Dick's offer instead.
Our first impressions was that things have significantly improved since last year: Unlike last year's model, this one actually works and seem to be good in the usability department, too. The 5.1 Dolby Digital sound and the picture were too good to ignore. That, however, was the first impression; the second impression, coming two seconds after the first, was that of severe lip sync issues and a thin white stripe running along the top of the screen. Great! At least Dick Smith offers two weeks money back guarantee, no questions asked (one of the reasons why I went there in the first place).
Stickers on the set top box advised not to hurry and return it in case of trouble but rather call their support line first. And so I did; hey, it was a free call!
I was told the lip sync problem has been reported on several models and that it could be solved if I bring the box to their service center where they can load it up with the latest firmware. Great! Exactly what you want out of a brand new purchase - to go and have it repaired before you even begin to use it. Would they compensate me for my time? The thing I find more annoying is that it seems as if the lip sync problems start when you adjust the sound to Dolby Digital from its default mode of PCM; most people are not aware of the lip sync problem simply because they never do that.
As for the white stripe, after some playing around while over the phone we have discovered that the stripe appears only when the set top box is set to 720p mode, as opposed to its default of 1080i. The woman that answered my call seemed happy: "Set it up to 1080i and the problem has been solved". When I insisted that I actually prefer 720p to 1080i she was obviously shaken: "Why?"

I'll tell you why. I'll tell you why I'm annoyed to encounter such ignorance from someone who is supposed to act as a guide.
Back in the fifties, when the NTSC and PAL analog standards were set, they did not have the technical capability to cram all the picture information required to compose a frame into the bandwidth available. So they came up with a nice compression method: instead of showing you all of the frame's lines and refresh the frame every 1/30 of a second, they would show you half of the frame lines each time and refresh the frame every 1/60 of a second. With this nifty trick, called interlacing (the source of the "i" from 1080i), you would only see the 1st, 3rd, 5th etc line the first time around, and then you would only see the 2nd, 4th 6th etc lines. As you might imagine, and as your eyes have witnessed throughout most of your TV watching career, this causes some judder and skipping in the picture; you might not notice the alternating lines, but you do notice flicker, especially when you're close to the screen. Think about the effects interlacing would have on an diagonally moving object to see where the problem lies.
A progressive picture (the "p" from 720p or 1080p) doesn't stoop that low: it just shows you all of the lines all of the time, saving the flickers to Flickr.
The thing is, with today's technology there is no justification for interlacing anymore. It's not like we're short on bandwidth or anything similar; the fact that interlacing still exists just acts as evidence for the fact the market is not as sophisticated as it can be, acting more like a blind watchmaker (to use Richard Dawkins' analogy for evolution). Just like evolution got us eyes where the light sensors are facing backwards, so does the market get to build us interlacing solutions we no longer require.
The fact of the matter is simple, as your eyes as well as all the experts would tell you: a 720p picture is much better looking and nicer on the eye than 1080i. Exceptions might take place with your TV automatically turning the 1080i picture into a 1080p picture through its line doubling circuitry, but that's as if you give your TV an intentionally broken puzzle and ask it to solve it before it shows it to you instead of giving your TV the pre-assembled puzzle you've had in your hands all along.
So yes, I was annoyed at that lady. Not to mention that my TV's native resolution is 720p.

To be fair, this mentality of selling you stuff that doesn't really work and stuff that hasn't really been tested is not exclusive to cheap set top boxes. It is quite common in high tech gadgetry.
In their race to compete with the now dead HD-DVD high definition disks, Blu-ray player makers have often released products that simply don't work or work very badly. One of the areas where many players have been reported to fail is playing at a 720p setting, simply because the manufacturers do not have time to test it as they rush to market focusing on 1080 playback.
Another example is the receiver I have recently purchased. Today's receivers pose as hi-fi equipment but in fact they are computers with amplification circuitry on the side, and as all other computers they need their own operating system. For some reason or another, to do with their market branding, hi-fi equipment makers refuse to let us manage their products the way we manage our computers, i.e., let us control what we have installed and how we use them; they have their own firmware versions instead. Well, the receiver I have bought came with firmware version 34; originally, it was out to market with version 32, only that this version had so many features not working or working improperly (creating various unwanted noises) that the manufacturer had to quickly come up with something. By now they are up to firmware version 37, with 39 in the works in order to address some new bugs introduced by 37.
Thing is, as an owner of such a device, what am I to do? The answer seems to be not to fix anything until I find it broken. But this answer does not address the real problem on our hands here, which is the manufacturers being so eager to take our money they don't even bother to make sure they sell us a working product. If, for comparison's sakes, you were to go to a hospital and get yourself a botch job done on you the way these companies do, someone would go to jail; yet these companies are able to cruise along instead as they take their clients for a ride on their waves of ignorance.

Another problem I read about with regards to set top boxes is their life expectancy. Generally speaking, people report their set top boxes don't last long after their one year warranties expire, a symptom of the way consumer products are no longer built to last but rather built so that you would buy a replacement as soon as the manufacturer can get away with it. Case in point: the iPod, where Apple manages to get away with bad quality and devices dying left and right through deft marketing.
Or take our very own rear projection TV. When the time comes and we need to replace its lamp, Sony will charge us $800 for it. However, today we can put our hands on flatscreen TVs of similar size and high quality (albeit not the very latest) for around $1800 if not less; not to mention that these newer TV's already have high definition tuners built in, saving you the cost of a set top box. What incentive do we have to keep our still very well functioning TV would be very small indeed as, once again, we get taken for a ride by greed.

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