Neil Turner's Blog

Blogging about technology and randomness since 2002

High Definition

I have to say that I am quite impressed at the adoption of HDTV in the UK right now. Statistics show that in the run up to Christmas, a quarter of all TVs sold were ‘HD-ready’, in that if hooked up to a tuning device capable of receiving HD broadcasts, they would be able to ouput in high definition.
I know that HD is becoming big in the US, but (and correct me if I’m wrong), my understanding was that this was down to major differences in the TV system used over there. In the UK and Europe, we use the PAL system, which displays 576 visible lines, as opposed to the US and Japan’s NTSC system which is only capable of 480 visible lines, this reducing picture quality. We’ve then had the move to digital television, which started in earnest in the late nineties and now means that the majority of households have at least one digital receiver, either through cable, satellite or terrestrial. With this, came a switch to widescreen (i.e. 16:9 aspect ratio as opposed to 4:3) and now a lot of screens sold today are widescreen, with channels like BBC One having broadcast shows in widescreen since 1997. As well as bringing more channels, digital television brought improved picture and sound quality, though the number of lines stayed the same.
I’ve made a point about mentioning this because digital TV already supplies a lot of the benefits that HD does – widescreen, better picture and better sound. In the past, consumers haven’t adopted a format that isn’t substantially better than what was currently on offer – we still buy audio CDs instead of DVD Audio or Super Audio CDs, for example. Yet we don’t buy video or audio cassette types because audio CDs and DVDs offered better sound (and picture), better ease of use, smaller size and more features – a clear advantage.
And yet HD does actually seem to be taking off here, even if there are no HD broadcasts being made as yet (Sky will start later this year though). HD will improve picture quality even more than digital television has, but the benefits over digital TV aren’t as great as over analogue NTSC, for example. I suppose the electronics companies and retailers have learned how to ensure that HD is successful, such as making the equipment readily available early and demonstrating its benefits, and the fact that any new equipment should also work fine with existing non-HD equipment. But I’m stull slightly surprised at its take-up, especially as we’re still migrating from analogue to digital, never mind from digitial to digital HD.
Despite the first HD broadcasts being made this year, the big switch is unlikely to be made this decade. From what I’ve read, terrestrial HD services will not start until the analogue terrestrial signal is switched off, which will not be completed until 2012. Most people get digital television through an aerial, so even if Sky and NTL get their acts together HD broadcasts will probably not be in the majority of households for another ten years or so, by my reckoning. But HD has made a surprisingly good start here so I could be wrong.
HDTV UK is a blog tracking consumer HD news in the UK so I’ll be subscribing to that.


  1. Most ppl get digital through an aerial? I’m sorry but sky still have far more subscribers than there are users of freeview. Also, the BBC have already started offering HDTV content via Telewest’s Teleport service via their HDTV/PVR Box called TV-Drive for some reason.
    About terrestrial channels not going HD until 2012, this isn’t surprising. There isn’t any point in a channel going fully HD until they have enough HD content, including back-catalogue for the entire day to be HD. I’m pretty sure that in america, they don’t have the major channels in HD, instead they have HD Versions of channels, such as (and i’m guessing actually) “Fox HD”. So what you are likely to see very soon are BBC HD, ITV HD etc. Showing only new content, and the odd show simucast on say BBC One and BBC HD.
    Lastly, sure NTSC is inferior but a lot people in the UK have the idea that NTSC looks dreadful and blurred. This isn’t the case. Imported US shows such as friends look terrible because of the conversion from NTSC to PAL. If you were to visit the US you’d probably have to concentrate to notice the TV isn’t quite as good quality as at home.

  2. Okay, I checked my facts. Ofcom estimates that Freeview is used by 7 million homes, and Sky recently passed 8 million subscribers. So Sky does have more subscribers but Freeview is growing faster.
    The reason for 2012 is that the spectrum space that analogue TV occupies will then be used for HD Freeview. But you’re probably right, there won’t be enough HD content available until then to justify HD versions of, say, BBC One, until then.

  3. As you say HDTV is pretty big over here, pretty much all the “free” networks (abc, cbs, fox, nbc, upn, wb and pbs) brodcast in HD (though not all programs are proper HD)
    The big “analog” shutoff occurs next year, then people will need either digital tv’s or digital cable, this doesn’t nessesarily mean HD, only digital, but prime time tv will most likely be in HD
    (ps. you’ve set HD to be an acronym for hard drive :P)

  4. Contrary to what another commenter said, the digital switchover here in the US isn’t scheduled until 2009, and your average Joe isn’t rushing to meet it.
    I have a sneaky suspicion that my cable operater is intentionally letting the reception go south for several analog channels to encourage people to switch to the digital service. I got the “House” DVD set for Christmas and was immediately taken with being able to watch it without snow or wavy lines for once. We are not amused, Adelphia.

  5. Neil the difference in quality between Sky Digital and a HD Picture is astounding. I would have been like you thinking it wouldn’t be that big a difference but I was so wrong!
    We got a new TV here (37″ Sharp Aquos) and my brother got an XBox 360 for Christmas and it just looks amazing. You can also play back HD quality stuff downloaded from XBox Live etc. It’s just amazing. The picture quality is way better.
    You’re right though about the adoption in the US being quicker because of their previously poorer quality, but regardless you’d definitely notice the improvement of HD over SD.
    The only problem is that there are a couple of HD display qualities out there. The XBox outputs in 720p or 1080i. The Sky HD boxes will do 720p. The holy grail is 1080p and we’re starting to see a lot of TV’s capable of that now.
    i & p stand for interlaced and progressive BTW!