OTA HDTV Reception Q&A

Updates on the DTV transition and how to receive over-the-air digital television for free.

Location: Richmond, IL, United States

Hello there! I created this blog to share the information about over-the-air HDTV reception you have been wearily searching the Web or calling technical lines for, whether you have decided for less expensive means to get your favorite TV shows, or still adjusting from the over the air broadcast DTV transition that occurred on June 12, 2009. After working for a leading antenna manufacturer for almost 5 years, during which time I've shared my expertise with those who asked on the phone and by email at work, I decided to do the same in the Blogosphere! Confused about getting your local HD channels? Just click through the archives, some of the most useful information is in the early posts from 2005-06. If you want to get in touch with me with antenna related questions, just leave a comment anywhere on this site.

Monday, October 31, 2005


This time I wish to let you know about recording DTV and HDTV, and some exciting new ways to take at least RECORDED DTV with you outside. Surely you are aware of PVRs, or personal video recorders, allowing people to record television digitally as well as pause and replay up to half an hour of live television on most units. To record longer, you would have to press the record button and let it run, or use an electronic program guide to record a show. HDTV can be recorded; however, the amount of HDTV you can keep is pretty limited, as I will explain shortly.
PVR capablities are being offered by digital cable and satellite TV. However, there are also PVRs available where you can record off-air terrestrial DTV. There are stand-alone terrestrial STBs, one I know is made by LG Electronics, or, what I use, an HP z557 Digital Entertainment PC using Microsoft Windows XP with Media Center. My Media Center PC has a dual analog cable tuner and a single off-air ATSC tuner, allowing me to record up to two shows from analog cable and one from off-air DTV simultaneously. And now fresh-off-the line Media Center PCs will have a dual-ATSC tuner allowing recording up to two off-air HDTV shows -- you would have to check to see if the PC has "Media Center Update Rollup 2". Satellite HDTV PVRs have dual-satellite and dual-terrestrial tuners.

One advantage I have found with my Media Center PC is that I am using a high-speed cable modem with it in addition to an off-air antenna for HDTV. I only have analog cable, and not digital cable, so I am not using a digital cable box. But, Media Center software allows the user to connect to the Internet to download an electronic program guide with scheduled listings up to 14 days in advance. Incredibly, this download not only provides me analog cable listings, but also programming on the HD channels I am getting over the air, even though I have found with my old HD terrestrial tuner that I was only getting programming information for just one to two days depending on the PSIP information being broadcasted over the air. So now I am finding my cable provider is doing a better job providing me off-air HDTV scheduled programming information than the broadcasters, even though I am not getting digital cable service! I would not expect to get this convenience with a terrestiral HDTV PVR whose program guide relies solely on informtion sent by the broadcasters.

On a side note, my high-speed cable modem and Media Center software are providing me access to exciting Internet-based broadband "channels" like ESPN 360 and MTV Overdrive, allowing me to access streaming video on demand of sports news, highlights, entertaiment news, and music videos of my choice based on what is available. The video quality of the streams are about what you would expect from a streaming video, far below HDTV quality, but decent video quality nonetheless over a high-speed broadband connection.

Now just a PC, the amount of content in addiiton to quality tht you would be capable of storing would depend on the size of the hard drive, which would rnge from 100 to 300 GB. If you read my previous article in this blog, you will get information on how picture quality, or resolution, of digital video depends on the bit rate of the video. My Media Center PC has four different bit rates to record a show, ranging from 2.75 MB/s (fair) to 6.09 MB/s (Best). DVD quality would be about 3-4 MB/s, while 1080i HDTV would have about 12 MB/s, so the best I can do in terms of HD recording would be 720p. The tradeoff here is disk space versus picture quality; the more near-HD quality programming you do, the less programming you will be able to record. You can store lots more hours of programming on the fair setting, but the resolution will be reduced.

I can observe this from personal experience -- I digitally recorded the Major League Baseball World Series off Fox HD on a "good" setting, about 3.25 MB/s. I was watching the coverage both live and recorded with my Media Center PC connected to an analog 480i TV set through an S-video connection. Yes I may not be getting the full crispness by ot watching it on a 1080i HDTV, but I can tell you that live HD still looks quite stunning even on an analog set if S-video output is used. Watching segments on the recording, the picture quality was still quite good, but not quite as good as the live broadcast.

I then ended up reducing the resolution even more by encoding the recorded HDTV to fit on a single DVD, and even by cutting out the commercials I still had a good three hours for a game (For 2 and 4, anyway, I didn't get all of game 3 as it went well past 6 hours and I had to end it sometme). So I had to select an even lower bitrate just to fit a game on a single 4.7 GB DVD. By now the pure color of the live broadcast was noticeably down; however, the sound was still good and the picture was static-free, so I did get a nice copy for my own personal preservation -- by the way, if you want a copy, forget it -- I don't think I'll be able to get prior written consent from Major League Baseball.

At ths point I should menton that broadcast HDTV and the recording uses the MPEG-2 video compression. There is also now the MPEG-4 compression which supposedly can maintain picture quality at a lower bitrate, and would require less disc space as a result. Perhaps in time MPEG-4 will be used for terrestrial HD broadcasting and recording; and DirecTV is planning to use MPEG-4 to provide dozens of satellite HDTV as well as local-to-local HDTV in the future, for those subs who have a receiver that can decode MPEG-4 I think I may have seen this potential already from an exciting new addition to Apple's popular iPod, the VIDEO iPod, which was released earlier this month.

I don't have an iPod, but I do have iTunes software on my HP Media Center PC, and I am capable of purchasing, downloading, and viewing videos from iTunes on my TV using the same S-video connection to my PC. With this new video iPod, Apple's iTunes is now allowing customers to purchase recently aired episodes of popular TV shows as well as short films and music videos to download and view on a PC or video iPod used with that PC. So I thought I'd try it out -- once I got my new Media Center PC with iTnes pre-installed, I upgraded the iTunes software online to the newest version allowing downloading and playback of the new iTunes videos; see I ordered the PC literally a couple days after Apple announced the new service, and since the PC was shipped same-day from stock (10-17-05, the same week as Apple's video iPod release), HP clearly couldn't get the new software loaded themselves on my machine.

So when I did get the new iTunes loaded, the video content I could purchase where short films from Pixar as well as current season episodes of Lost, Desperate Housewives, and Night Stalker, all ABC shows. Since I have seen all the Lost episodes this year but I don't watch Housewives as much, I decided to go with a download of Housewives. Each uncut, commercial-free episode is $1.99 per download, compared with $0.99 for an audio track. The 45 minute episode took 200 MB of disk space, and mind you, it took me about 15 minutes to download it on a high-speed cable broadband conenction, so broadband Internet service is a MUST if you wish to use this service, unless you have an awful amount of patience.

So this file relates to an average bitrate of under 100 Kb/s, way below DVD quality. But I have to tell you, on my 480i TV, the picture quality of the TV show ws surprisngly good, better than streaming broadband video on these brodband channels I mentioned. Even the animated title sequence looked amazing. Now I haven't reserached it, but I'm willing to go all in by saying Apple's iPod videos and player use MPEG-4 and not MPEG-2. My current Windows Media Player which uses a completely different HD-quality codec of its own would not play it, only the iTunes software. I'm also pretty certain the deocding is similar to Apple Quicktime video with MPEG-4 compression. Otherwise, the picture quality of the show would not be as good as I saw it, it did seem quite close to as if I would have seen it on DVD. And if the picture quality was surprisingly good on a 480i 27" TV, imagine how it must look on a small 3" screen on these new iPods. In addition, one could pacakge an entire season of a single TV show on an iPod with 10 GB or more. Apple's Quicktime 7 player uses the latest MPEG-4 video codec standard, H.264, being internationally recognized as an efficient compression of high-quality video, and it's a good bet the iPod videos are being encoded with this standard. Those who decide to purchase Quicktime 7 Pro with video editing software could use this to compress recorded HD on a PC more efficiently while maintaining picture quality' unfortunately, the only way to view such video files right now would be with Quicktime 7 or on a video iPod, and not on Windows Media Player nor a standalone DVD player, using MPEG-2 compression. Supposedly, the H.264 MPEG-4 standard will be used for HD DVDs, so when such players become more widely available, then PC videophiles may start making home HD videos with Quicktime Pro to play on an HD DVD player.

The same week the Apple video iPod came out, Dish Network introudced the PocketDish, a handheld mobile device where a user can carry videos, pictures, and audio files on this device and enjoy them anywhere. Whle Dish encourages PocketDish users to connect the device to a Dish network receiver and transfer programming recorded on the PVR from Dish Network, you don't need to be a Dish Netowrk subscriber to use a PocketDish, just a means to transfer video files. They can be done either with a high-speed USB connection to a PC, or maybe a memory card. It certainly would be easy for me to use such a device with my Media Center PC, as I could record a show, compress it to save space, and then transfer it to the mobile device via USB, which has a connection on the front panel for great convenience. Unfortunately I do not know if the Pocketdish can play MPEG-4 videos like the new video iPod, which may be a disadvantage.

So now thanks to recordable DTV, as long as you are aware of disk space and recording bitrate, you could either record a show off-air or through cable, or buy a commercial-free download in case the recording didin't work out, and enjoy it on your PC monitor, or transfer it to a mobile device and take a lot of your favorite entertainment with you. I think this new method may actually encourage people to use public transportation more, so they can download a favorite show, transfer it to their iPod, and watch on the bus, train, or plane instead of fighting traffic in the car where watching something else would be distracting to the driver. I also figure people at parties or recretional activities will share their favorite music, TV, or pictures with each other with mobile devices, a new form of personal expression that just may become the norm before too long. The thing is, will video-on-demand and the Apple video iPod begin to distance a consumer from broadcast TV possibly the same way iTunes may have started to distance consumer from broadcast FM radio? Maybe not, since live sports and breaking news still will allow the general public to tune in. Nonetheless, as video compression improves, memory devices become greater in capacity, and brodband Internet gets faster and more affordable, there could be quite a paradigm shift on the horizon in terms of the consumer getting and enjoying video and audio entertainment. What do you think? Please let me know, and check out my archives for info on getting HDTV over-the-air if you just stumbled onto this blog for the first time.