“No, sorry, today’s Freeview boxes won’t pick up HD”. I gave this rather unhelpful comment to a Tesco colleague who is responsible for buying various electronic gadgets such as Freeview set-top boxes.
Our conversation had come about because he wanted to understand more about the forthcoming HD channels that will soon be available through a TV aerial - no doubt called ‘Freeview HD’ when it starts.
The trouble is, I understand that not one Freeview box from any brand sold today, nor any HD TV screen with a built-in Freeview tuner, will be capable of picking up the HD channels.
The buyer was (quite rightly) annoyed because ‘Freeview HD’ will definitely be on air by this next next year, and their marketing will no doubt wish to announce the ability to watch the 2010 Football World Cup in HD through the aerial - an attractive proposition. However customers are buying HD TVs with Freeview built-in right now from Tesco (and all other TV dealers) which won’t be able to pick up any HD signals unaided despite being less than a year old when the World Cup starts.
So why won’t Freeview receivers pick up the new HD signals when they start broadcasting? The answer goes back to 2007 when the BBC ran an HD experiment from London’s Crystal Palace transmitter. They quickly concluded that existing digital transmission standard (a European-agreed format called “Digital Video Broadcasting - Terrestrial” or “DVB-T”) only had the bandwidth to transmit one HD TV channel. Those same DVB-T signals today can carry between 6 and 10 standard definition TV channels each.
So the BBC experiment changed the format to a new transmission standard that allows greater throughput capacity called DVB-T2, and changed the video compression standard from MPEG-2 (also used to compress movies onto the space on a DVD video disc) to a new format called H.264. H.264 is an excellent new compression standard that offers much more profound video compression before picture quality is compromised, and the BBC’s experiment found that combining DVB-T2 and H.264 meant it could carry 4 HD channels with excellent picture and sound quality.
The trouble is, I understand that no consumer Freeview receivers today in Tesco or other mainstream electronics retailers understands DVB-T2 transmissions, and even if they could, would not know how to de-compress the H.264 video in order to display it on the screen.
‘Freeview HD’ boxes will be on the market in the months to come, but we still have to cope with customers whose fairly new HD TVs will be incapable of picking up HD signals unaided when HD broadcasts start. I should point out that all Freeview boxes and Freeview-equipped TVs will still pick up all the standard definition channels now and in the future without problem - it’s only the new HD channels they won’t see.
If you are in the market for a new HD TV but don’t want to pay a subscription yet do want HD channels, you can get this today. You can do as I have, and buy a ‘Freesat’ receiver which picks up the BBC HD and ITV HD channels today as well as most of the Freeview channels (and a few extra ones). TV brand Panasonic has built a Freesat tuner right into its latest TV sets. You will need a satellite dish although an old Sky dish works just fine. Of course if you are happy with paying a subscription for your TV, Sky has an excellent HD offer in Tesco now, and cable customers can get their HD from providers such as Virgin Media.
We’re just left with the ‘irony’ of selling HD TV sets today which are incapable of picking up HD without help. It may not be our fault, but treating customers this way goes against the grain, no matter the great technological reasons why it has had to happen.
This is a salient example of how the rate of technological change is accelerating; after all, TVs built from 1967 can still pick up the analogue signals today unaided until those broadcasts end by 2012. We’ve only had TVs with built-in Freeview for the last 4 years!