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.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009


Last year I mentioned trying out the Blockbuster video on-demand box made by 2Wire, and it turned out to be a failure. No sooner did they finally get the streaming video consistent did a couple major studios drop the new rental library from the Blockbuster On Demand service from this player, although not the Web site service for PCs.

However using the box set on a secure 802.11g wireless connection to a router only one room away and connected to a 5 Mbps cable modem connection, I did notice the Blockbuster VOD box was capable of downloading at 3-4 Mbps bit rates. I was particular over this box because I would be more comfortable with a box that cached the content that I could play offline with little breakup. Ironically, that was not the case, so I was not becoming as skeptical of streaming content over these set top boxes.

So a couple months ago I went ahead and get the Roku digital video player (http://www.roku.com/) which sells for $99 plus shipping and handling, and I think the timing to get it was just right, because it is about to become the game changer in bringing Internet video on demand to the living room. When I purchased it, Netflix, which was the original partner with this device, and Amazon Video on Demand was available, and just this week MLB.TV premium was added, the first live streaming channel on the Roku device. Additionally, several more Roku channels are on the way, following partnerships with Web video podcast aggregator sites Blip.TV and Mediafly.com, which would allow Roku users to finally enjoy original Web series on the TV set. While there are other devices like XBox, Playstation, and networked Blu-Ray players, they are about three times the cost of the Roku player, and the AppleTV box is twice the cost of the Roku.

So, with an affordable device now available and becoming capable of streaming a wide variety of online content, Web video is about to take a significant step forward over the next several months. And, this Roku box works, if you use the right equipment with it. I have my Roku player connected via a standard length HDMI cable to a 32" 720p monitor, and no surround sound equipment. This is the best setup to have with the Roku player, or any other Web video STB, because the top format this player is capable of is 720p HD and two-channel stereo. True home theater enthusiasts may find the Roku quality a bit disappointing if it is connected to a large 1080p HDTV, marketed as "true HD", and surround sound equipment.

Also, for best results, I would recommend a minimum 5 Mbps Internet connection, and preferably 10 Mbps or better. However, I have had solid 720p picture quality on my 5 Mbps connection. Now, an MPEG-2 720p HDTV over the air broadcast is somewhere between 7 and 8 Mbps (1080i being 10-12 Mbps), but the broadcast also includes 5.1 surround sound. So, I believe the Roku 720p HD can work well with a 3-4 Mbps connection since its compression may be more like a more efficient H.264 or MPEG-4 compression, and stereo sound, so not as much bandwidth would be required for the Roku HD stream. Additionally, while I have had success with a fairly close 802.11g wireless connection, if you plan to place this device further from your router, a hard wired connection, if possible, should be used, since computer cables can reject electrical noise and interference that can otherwise cause trouble for digital video transmitted wirelessly.

That said, when I linked my Roku player to my Netflix account, the first thing I streamed was the series premiere of NBC's The Office, which was available in 720p HD. Because I was watching on a 720p monitor, the picture quality looked just about as good as if I was watching the broadcast HDTV on this same monitor. Now I am catching up on some shows I have missed that are available on Netflix's Instant Play, which does have a limited library for now, and to see the new video releases, you would have to rely on the standard Netflix queue with discs by mail, or order them for $1.99 to $4.99 for HD from Amazon on Demand.

One other observation on how the Roku player works - it relies on a buffer play where the content streams in little segments. When the program begins, the player downloads the first segment before the program appears on your TV, which takes just under a minute if the connection is good. While this segment plays from the buffer, the player downloads the next segment, starting when the previous one ends, thus giving the illusion of a continuous stream with a consistent picture quality. The user can also skip these segments as sort of a fast forward or reverse with thumbnails as a visual clue. Once the segment is selected, the segment is downloaded (takes another minute, so patience is a virtue with this device), and the stream continues. Fortunately if I were to stop a program to do something else, like answer a phone call from friends or family, the player does store the segment where you left off, and once you return to the program, you can start right where you left off, or start the show all over again.

The MLB.TV channel that became available this week for Roku works about the same way with archived games, up to one week, as well as live games. A viewer can go back to a point in a live game and watch on a delay, as well as streaming it live, whose 720p HD picture quality, while not spectacular, is still pretty good.

So with these options and original Internet video on the way, the Roku player could become the paradigm shift for TV viewing habits. Right now my video sources are my over the air antenna and my Roku player. If the Roku can add ESPN360, preferably in time for next summer's FIFA World Cup of soccer, that would be all the more reason to stray from paying for cable, satellite, or telco TV, which would make me think that cable providers may need to reconsider their pricing tiers for high speed Internet and digital video to stay profitable or competitive.

I do have one beef with MLB.TV premium - my address is in the Chicago market but right on the Wisconsin border. Apparently the local games that are blacked out from the service are based on the IP address of the provider; well, I think mine must be in Wisconsin because I can get Cubs and White Sox games on MLB.TV Premium, but not the Milwaukee Brewers, strange since I have a cable modem, and my cable provider has Chicago stations and the regional Chicago sports network for my address, and no more Milwaukee stations after the DTV transition. Go figure. That aside though, my Roku is giving me so many options that surfing cable/satellite channels has become a waste of time and money for me since my off air antenna DTV setup is working out just fine after the transition.

UPDATE (8-19-09) - I was able to get around the blackout issue noted above; the trick is to log on to your MLB.com account on a PC sharing a router connection with the Roku player. Then go to the premium TV section and attempt to view the out of market game that is incorrectly blacked out. By completing a secure form that includes giving your credit card number and zip code, confirming a legitimate home address and market, the site would then link the IP with the right home market, and the Roku player would then play the out-of-market games you are entitled to stream live. And of course, if you miss a home game live, you can see it on the Roku on tape delay once the game is archived about 90 minutes after the end of the game.


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