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Columns > David Steinberg - Some Are Mathematicians

Published: 2004/12/31
by David Steinberg

Is High Definition Ready for Prime Time?

It has become a new December ritual for me to buy a piece of hifi equipment that I can’t really afford. Every year I get a little bonus and every year I accidentally spend it twice. This year is no exception. I had to wire a new room for Direct TV. I figured that as long as I had people coming over, I might as well upgrade to high definition.
There are three ways of getting high definition television. The cheapest is to live in an area that broadcasts local networks over the air in HD. All you would need then is a good antenna and a receiver. Cable is the next easiest. You just need a different set top box. To go for a satellite solution, you need a new dish in addition to a new receiver.
All of these solutions are flawed. Over the air broadcasts can be hard to pick up even with a rooftop antenna. Cable has limited bandwidth and compresses the signal to make them less high definition. Direct TV has NFL Sunday Ticket, but doesn’t have the over the air networks unless you’re lucky enough to live in one of a few select cities. To get those broadcasts you have to have the antenna too. Unfortunately, that does not exactly guarantee you reception.
I went for the Direct TV and antenna approach. That seemed to be the setup that would get me the most high definition options. Alas, that was mainly true in theory. As was alluded to above, receiving over the air channels is problematic. The networks come in sporadically at best. In best tradition of Murphy’s Law, the high definition signal works in inverse proportionality to the desirability of the program. Monday Night Football is much less likely to work than the evening news.
Even if you get the relevant networks, it doesn’t mean that you will always be seeing high definition programming. Most of the time ESPN HD is the same exact standard definition feed that ESPN is. There are still glitches where audio and video doesn’t sync up properly; that’s extremely annoying when someone is talking on screen.
So far everything I’ve written is about how bad high definition television is. That’s just the curse of being an early adopter. Yes the technology doesn’t work all of the time and it only gets a few channels – most of which repeat the same programs over and over again. However, when it does work, it is completely worth it. The program that first really blew me away was a broadcast of the Jammys. The picture and the sound made the IT Dvd look like a 4th generation VHS tape.
So sure I find myself choosing to watch crappy games solely because they’re filmed in high definition. Yes, I’m finding nature programs fascinating right now. That’s just a phase. Direct TV is launching new satellites this spring. Cable companies will be forced to find a way to keep up. It’s not there quite yet, but it’s close. Maybe I’m watching reruns of old hockey games, but I can follow it by looking at the players’ reflections in the glass. At least in the short term, that’s a lot of fun.
David Steinberg got his Masters Degree in mathematics from New Mexico State University in 1994. He first discovered the power of live music at the Capitol Centre in 1988 and never has been the same. His Phish stats website is at
He is the stats section editor for
The Phish Companion and is on the board of directors for the Netspace Foundation. You can read more of his thoughts at

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