Digital Television

Digital technology is the reason why modern large screen televisions can be hung like a picture on the wall. It is also the reason why you can take your music collection in your pocket anywhere you go. But making electronics smaller is only one of the many reasons why everything in today’s world is transitioning to digital.

Since the late 1920s, television has been broadcasted in the analog spectrum in North America. But digital television is revolutionizing the way we watch television today and carries many more promises for the future of television. Digital transmission makes more efficient use of the broadcast spectrum than analog, allowing broadcasters to send more information using the same amount of bandwidth. This in turn, is now allowing broadcasters to send high-definition programming with 5.1 channels of sound. But on top of this, digital television services enhance our viewing experience by the inclusion of onscreen television guides (programming schedules) with extended information, program reminders, video on demand, time-shifting, digital music channels and parental control. Pay-per-view programming is also service that’s offered by all television providers, although it is not exclusive to digital television. The digital signal eliminates analog broadcasting artifacts including “ghosting” and “snow” in video, and static noise in audio. Although digital television has some of its own problems: MPEG compression artifacts, such as “blocking” of the video and it may fail to work completely in areas where the signal is not strong enough.

Will analog television be switched off one day? Yes, in the United States, a legislation is currently pending that will mandate the analog switch-off for 2009, three years after the date originally suggested by the FCC (Federal Communications Commission). Canadian broadcasters have not received any pressure from the government but are following in the footsteps of US broadcasters.

Digital television signals can make their way into your house in one of three ways: over-the-air, through cable or from a satellite. In order to receive digital over-the-air signals, your television will have to have an ATSC tuner built-in (typically found in the latest, larger screen television sets). Alternatively, you can use an external ATSC tuner, if you have an HDTV-compatible (or HDTV-ready) television, although only a handful of external ATSC tuners are available in Canada.

To get digital television through cable, antenna or satellite you will need a receiver supplied by the service provider. You may also need a satellite dish or an antenna installed outside your home. Aside from decoding standard digital channels, a receiver may also decode HDTV channels and have a built-in PVR (Personal Video Recorder, also called a Digital Video Recorder). Higher-end receivers may also come with more than one tuner built-in.

In order to enjoy high-definition channels in your home, you will need a high-definition television, capable of displaying 720p or 1080i resolution signals. Many television sets are capable of accepting 720p and 1080i signals but downscale these signals to the television’s native resolution. In order to truly display the 720p signal, the vertical resolution of the television must be at least 720 pixels, and at least 1080 pixels to display the 1080i signal. The chart below compares various television standards, their resolution and the screen ratio.

A PVR is basically a hard drive that’s built into the receiver. It allows you to record programming just like a VCR or DVD recorder without having to use tapes or discs. Time-shifting is a term used to describe the recording of programming to a storage medium so that it can be viewed at a more convenient time than the original program. All PVRs allow time-shifting. Some television providers misleadingly claim that their basic receivers also allow time-shifting. You can “time-shift” programming with receiver that doesn’t have a PVR built-in by watching a show at a later time on a channel from a different time zone. This is not true time-shifting. A receiver with a built-in PVR may also allow you to pause, rewind and fast-forward TV. Fast-forwarding is possible only if the program has already been recorded on to the hard drive.

Every digital television provider offers a slightly different choice of channels and service. Let’s take a closer look at what services are currently available in Ontario and Québec. This way, when you’re ready to cross into the digital television realm, you’ll know what to look for. The exact choice of channels can vary even from the same provider depending on the region in which you live, so if you’re looking to get specific channels, make sure that the company offers these channels in your area.

Before You Choose a Provider

This article will teach you all the basics about digital television, let you know what service providers are available in Ontario and Québec and provide information about their equipment. You should still contact the provider and ask them for complete details about their service, as the details may be different depending on the area in which you live.

Often, television providers require that you sign a one year contract with them but there are some that don’t have this requirement. They may also try to sway you into a two year contract by offering some programming credit and a free satellite dish/antenna installation. Some providers don’t ask for contracts but have other requirements. For example, you won’t be asked by Starchoice to sign a contract, but if you decide to cancel their service within the first year, they will charge you $200 or ask you to hand in your receiver.

In order to receive digital television you will need a digital television receiver and may also need a satellite dish or an antenna. This equipment can be purchased or rented from the provider. Some providers do not rent equipment, in which case you will have to purchase it. If a provider offers a choice between purchasing and renting, renting may come with additional benefits such as a lifetime warranty and on the spot replacement. If you purchase the hardware it usually comes with a one year warranty. Of course, renting equipment has monthly costs associated with it. After a couple of years, the renting costs may surpass the purchase price of the receiver, so it might make more sense to buy it if you plan to stay with the service for longer than two years.

Most receivers are designed to be connected to a single television only, meaning that for every television on which you would like to watch digital television you will need a separate receiver. Some higher-end receivers with dual tuners allow two televisions to be connected to them (even if the televisions are in different rooms).

Finally, some of the television providers also offer home telephone, cell phone and Internet services. You can save yourself some money by ordering multiple services from the same company.

The Providers

Bell ExpressVu is Canada’s largest satellite provider. A satellite receiver and a satellite dish are required to receive ExpressVu services. Bell ExpressVu offers a large selection of specialty channels and 24 high-definition channels. With Bell ExpressVu, customers get a choice of five different satellite receivers. Bell’s onscreen programming guide and Interactive TV services (games, trivia, weather forecasts, etc.) are available with every receiver in their line-up. The basic 4120 ($99) has a single tuner that allows you to receive digital television. It has composite and S-Video outputs and a digital audio output (for 5.1 channel sound). The 5920 model ($299) is a receiver with a built-in PVR (Personal Video Recorder). It has a 120 GB hard drive that can record up 80 hours of programming and allows you to time-shift your favorite programming. The 6120 model (also $299) does not have a built-in PVR, but allows you to receive HDTV channels through its component and DVI outputs. The next step up is Bell’s 5220 model ($599) which features dual tuners and a PVR with a 180 GB hard drive capable of storing 120 hours of programming. It includes one IR and one UHF remote to accommodate watching separate TVs in different parts of your home. When used with a single television, it can provide PIP (Picture-In-Picture) even if the television itself does not have this feature. Since it has a dual tuner, the 5220 can record two programs while watching a third pre-recorded program. Bell’s flagship 9220 receiver is a dual HDTV tuner with a built-in PVR. Its giant 270 GB hard drive offers enough space for 180 hours of regular programming or 25 hours of high-definition programming. Two televisions can also be connected to the 9220.

Starchoice is another Canada-wide digital television provider. Their service is also based on satellite technology, so you will need a satellite receiver and a dish in order to get their service. Starchoice offers roughly the same number of specialty channels as Bell ExpressVu but currently offers only 8 high-definition channels. Their entry-level DSR205 ($79) is a compact receiver capable of decoding digital television and surround sound. The DSR315 ($99) is a full size receiver with Dolby Digital capability and an S-video output. The next step up is the DSR505 HD ($199) receiver. This full featured high-definition receiver offers component and DVI video outputs, Dolby Digital sound output and an advanced onscreen guide. It is also MPEG4 upgradeable for future technology enhancements. At the top end, the DVR530 HD ($699) has all the features of the DSR505 HD with the addition of a second HD tuner and a 160 GB hard drive, making it a PVR (or DVR, for Digital Video Recorder, as Starchoice calls it). If you are interested in experiencing high-definition programming, Starchoice appears to be the least expensive provider to go with.

Look Communications brings digital television to Ontario and Québec homes with a digital antenna system. The system requires an antenna to be mounted outside your house and a digital receiver. Look Communications does not offer any high-definition channels currently but is expected to do so in the near future. This provider offers a single, basic digital television receiver for $150.

Cogeco offers their digital television service through cable in Montréal, parts of Québec and parts of Ontario. Cogeco services are not available in Toronto. A satellite dish is not required for this service, only a digital receiver. Their receiver line-up consists of three different models: an STD (!) Receiver, a Home Theatre Receiver and an HD/DVR Receiver. The receivers are not labeled by model number on the company’s website. The STD Receiver ($159) is a basic digital cable receiver. It offers a standard Cogeco Interactive Program Guide and a composite video output. Their mid-range Home Theatre Receiver ($259) adds a channel display and full feature access on the receiver’s front panel. It also features a Dolby Digital 5.1 output as well as an S-video output. At the top of the heap, the HD/DVR Receiver ($799) has all of the features of the mid-range model plus a 120 GB hard drive offering the functionality of a PVR, a component video output and an advanced Interactive Program Guide.

Rogers digital television is a cable based service available in Ontario and parts of Québec with the exception of Montréal. This means that no antenna or satellite dish installation is required. The cable already comes into your house so the only thing that you need is one of the four digital receivers offered by Rogers. Similar to the Bell ExpressVu, the Rogers line-up offers a wide selection of receivers: a Standard Definition Digital Terminal ($99), a Personal Video Recorder ($399), a High Definition Digital Terminal ($299) without a PVR and a High Definition Personal Video Recorder ($599).

Vidéotron’s Illico digital television service is well known in Québec. Like Rogers, this service comes to your house through the television cable, so no dishes or antennas are required. There are also four receivers in the Illico line-up: a Standard Terminal ($99), a High Definition Terminal ($249), a Digital Personal Video Recorder ($349) as well as a High Definition Personal Video Recorder ($549).

Last but not least, digital cable television is also offered by Shaw Communications in parts of Ontario and Québec through cable. The Shaw inventory consists of three receiver choices: a Digital Terminal ($99), a High Definition Digital Terminal ($239) and a High Definition + PVR Terminal ($589).