Monday, 22 June 2009

Today’s Freeview boxes won’t pick up HD

“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!


  1. Does this mean that the current (although stupid) labelling of HD Ready and Full HD (for 720p and 1080p respectively), will be changed to reflect the lack of being 'HD Ready'? I'm sure people would welcome a more honest '720p' and '1080p' branding without the unnecessary wording they currently have. Or are we going to get another catchy brand like 'Freeview HD Ready' to plaster on devices?

    I'm also wondering if the take-up of HD signals will be as poor as they currently are on FreeSat or Virgin Media (counting live channels)... 2 for Freeview, 1 for Virgin Media. If they aren't taking the opportunity now, without Sky part-funding them as with Channel4 HD on Sky (which will therefore never be available through another service), then what's the point of investing so much for more over-the-air HD channels?

    Personally, I'd rather see some more campaigning for opening up of the Cable and Sky boxes to more competition, and having a connection added to them (eg. Firewire as in the USA) to enable homebrew PVRs and PCs to view the content.

  2. I'm afraid the 'HD Ready' is as loose a term as your kettle is 'water ready' or your garden grass is 'lawnmower ready'.

    'HD ready' means that the TV is capable of showing HD content once you can actually receive some - mainly through a set-top box.

    Manufacturers do often show the '1080p' etc functionality as a label stuck on the side of TVs in shops, but alarmingly few people investing in HD know what that means. It doesn't help much either - many new TVs supporting 1080 actually have a pixel resolution of 1388 x 768, so can't show off the full 1920x1080 picture to the full. However they can 'pick it up and show it'.

    I had to search out a true 1920x1080 TV when I decided to make the investment and it is noticeably better. Live Wimbledon on BBC HD through my Freesat box is absolutely stunning - I feel I could step through the screen and be there.

    As usually new technology specifications serve only to confuse.

    Alas, Freeview HD will only be able to offer up to 4 channels only because no bandwidth has been allocated for any more. The BBC get bandwidth gifted thanks to its public ownership, and ITV , C4 and others have to bid for one of the remaining free channels.

  3. I know you're mainly the person, so you might not have too much influence in the technology products in Tesco, but as the biggest retailer in the country couldn't Tesco do more to give an honest buying experience and put more real details on the product labels in the shops (and online)? What I mean is, couldn't Tesco force the manufacturers to be clearer about their products and have some standard characteristics printed on the price tag in the store, namely the resolution (of each input if they differ, eg. VGA vs HDMI inputs), refresh time, etc. I currently have to look online on my mobile while I'm in-store if I ever want to know something.

    I bought my 1080p TV from somewhere other than Tesco because they were knowledgeable and gave as much details as possible about their products. I'm not expecting the staff at Tesco to be too knowledgeable, but to be armed with enough information on display would be nice.

  4. Hi Duncan,

    Yes we are in the process of bringing more expertise and knowledge of the high-tech products we sell for the benefits of customers.

    We have to be honest and say we originally kind-of sold such gear like we did baked beans(!). Stick it in the trolley and enjoy our no-questions refund if it didn't work out for you!

    However the electrical and entertainment teams are rolling out a new project based on the "Tesco Digital' brand. Stores with 'Tesco Digital' do offer experts that can answer questions about products from computers to everything TV and digital radio.

    They will have access to a knowledge-base to find out things they don't know (your question about what the maximum resolution available through the VGA socket is on an HDTV definitely in that league). They'll even know how to join one product to another with all the right leads.

    This is coming to store near you soon if it isn't there already so check them out.

  5. With a company the size of Tesco one would have thought that you could introduce a process such as they have in Japan for use with product details where they use a new style 2D barcode label on every product and then anybody with a camera and web enabled mobile phone (e.g. staff and half the population) can be taken direct to a website where all the latest relavant info could be displyed. Very little cost and huge customer benefit and thus sales benefit?


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