GOING TV DIGITAL BY TED WEBBER
By Ted Webber
We are all aware that our cosy relationship with analogue TV is going to end soon by government fiat. If you are anything like my wife and I, you are quite satisfied with the current offerings on free-to-air analogue TV, particularly on ABC and SBS. The rest of the channels are mainly garbage, and the claim that more channels on digital TV will give more choice is spurious because it will mean only that the intellectually satisfying material will be still more diluted and just spread more widely over the spectrum of many channels. The improved definition available with digital will in no way improve the program content on its own.
However, we do need to come to terms with this so-called technical advance because the analogue signal will be switched off within two years, even if it costs retirees more than they want to pay. Should we go for a large screen with high definition and appropriate tuner costing several thousands of dollars? OK if you have money to burn. Or should we go “lo-tech” and minimum cost with a set-top box (STB) to adapt our existing analogue TV to digital signals? This article explores the second of these options.
The situation is complicated by any wish to record shows or documentaries. We have a hard disk personal video recorder (PVR) for our analogue setup that cost some $800 which is able to record one program while we are viewing another, and to record several hundred hours then dub them onto DVD discs. By careful selection in the dubbing process I can put all the episodes of a particular series onto one DVD, using extended play options. But this machine will not record or playback digital material. Such a machine must have two tuners, and its equivalent digital model in a STB is quite expensive.
Reviews of Set-top Boxes
Several multifunction (i.e. they have some recording functionality) STBs were reviewed in the March 2010 issue of PC User magazine, page 69. They ranged in price from the DigitalView XC-4912 ($49 at Jaycar) to the Strong SRT 5440 ($250) but PC User does not rate them comparatively.
I decided that $49 for the DigitalView (DV) model was not too much to spend on an exploration of this technology, and I have not regretted the purchase. However, the DV manual leaves much to be desired, as we shall see, and in the following writeup I share my experience of setting up and using this particular STB.
The DV offers only standard definition (SD) digital reception, but there is no point in having a high definition (HD) tuner if your existing TV can show only a standard definition picture.
For more STBs and reviews, see http://www.productreview.com.au/c/set-top-boxes-tv-receivers-dvrs.html or http://www.choice.com.au/reviews-and-tests/technology/home-entertainment/digital/hdstb-with-usb-review-and-compare.aspx , though most of these refer to more expensive equipment.
Government Assistance for Pensioners
I should mention here that the Federal Government has instituted a “Household Assistance Scheme” to provide eligible customers with a high-definition STB (see News for Seniors 2010 issue 83 or http://www.digitalready.gov.au/ ) prior to shut down of the analogue signal in each area. This scheme does not appear to include any upgrade of your TV screen or any means of recording programs. Eligibility is limited to those already on a variety of CentreLink approved pensions at the maximum rate. Part-pensioners are excluded.
The Function of a Set-top Box
My expectation of the function of an STB was that it would convert a digital TV signal to analogue and then feed it to the analogue tuner in my existing TV set. This misconception led to a day of frustration when I first connected it according to the diagram in the manual, which nowhere tells you to use an audio-visual input (AV channel) on the TV! In fact, an STB should be viewed as another external tuner which is attached to your TV in the same manner as a PVR, VCR or a DVD player.
The Digital View XC-4912
The DV is a deceptively simple-looking piece of equipment, with just an on/off switch on its front fascia. Note that red is off/standby and blue is on. This switch sometimes did not respond to the remote but a quick touch fixed that. The manual instructs you to insert two AAA batteries in the remote, but this is incorrect: the remote comes with a coin-shaped C2025 battery and all that you need to do is to remove the sliver of plastic insulation from the battery compartment.
External Recording Media
The DV has a USB2 port for connecting an external flash drive or hard disk, so I bought a 1 terabyte (Tb) Western Digital external hard disk (EHD) from the closing down sale of Dick Smith in Horton Parade, Maroochydore, for $79. Since 1 hour of digital recording takes up 2 Gb of recording space, this 1 Tb drive can record up to 500 hours of programs. For just an occasional recording and playback, a 4 Gb flash drive / memory stick was found good for up to 2 hours. I also tried an external DVD drive, but this produced a warning message about unsuitable media.
The most fundamental requirement for digital TV is of course having an antenna that receives a digital signal. However, if you receive a good analogue signal already you will probably have no difficulty in this respect. Analogue signals can “get by” with minor degradation which may be apparent as snow on the screen, but digital signals are all or nothing. On the south side of Buderim Mountain, we needed a booster for analogue reception on most channels, some of which still tended to snow. The SD digital reception, still using the same antenna and booster, is much improved.
I previously tried a Pinnacle USB TV decoder on my computer which gives full HD reception on some channels, but only broken up pictures on other channels, particularly SBS. It appears that High Definition is more of a problem in this respect because it requires a much higher bit rate.
Rear view of Digital View XC-4912 (page 6 of manual)
Legend RF cable Radio Frequency (Co-axial). The PVR/VCR is optional.
CVBS Composite Video Broadcast Signal (Video connector)
(unlabelled) Left and right stereo sound using RCA connectors
S-VIDEO Optional alternative to CVBS
Amplifier (2) For optional hi-fi sound
N.B. Any direct recording device such as an external hard drive is not shown in this diagram because it would be connected to the USB port on the front of the STB.
the power connections are not shown.
When connected as shown, three tuners may be utilized at any one time, one digital in the STB, one analogue in the PVR/VCR and one analogue in the TV set. So while the analogue signal persists, you could be viewing a current channel on the TV while recording another one on the PVR/VCR and recording a digital channel via the STB.
After making the connections as shown above, switch on the TV and go to the video channel AV1. Then switch on the STB (blue LED) using the remote or push button and follow the instructions on pages 7 & 8 of the manual. The “Favorites Channel List” is optional; and the sequence in the manual is topsy-turvey – you need to do operation 5 “Channel Scan” before you can select a channel!
Being hard of hearing, my wife and I make extensive use of sub-titles when available. On our analogue TV this means selecting 801 on the teletext menu each time we change the channel, and switching it off again before the channel can be changed.
However, this STB makes sub-titles much more convenient: once switched on they stay on across all channels until cancelled. There is nothing about this in the manual, but just use the SUB-T button on the remote. Similarly, the EPG button brings up an electronic program guide for each channel (item 8 in the manual).
Recording with an external USB flash or Hard Drive
With an external USB flash or hard drive connected, you first need to configure it according to “10.3 PVR Configuration”. The Record Type option is interesting for those who are hard of hearing, because when recording sub-titled programs in the analogue system the sub-titles are lost. The TS option in the STB, however, records sub-titles. Unfortunately, the resulting DVR format can be played back only in the STB. I searched the internet for a suitable format converter and found one called DVR-MS to MP4 but it did not work in this case.
Simple recording from the present time for up to 2 hours (default) is achieved by pressing the red dot record button on the remote. For time-shifting, follow the instructions in the manual.
More useful is the facility to record a future program or programs. This operation needs some experimentation to achieve success, and appears to be unnecessarily complicated!
From the Main Menu, select Setup then Timer as at top of p. 10 of manual “7. Timer” and follow the instructions there. A maximum of 8 recordings can be preset at any one time, so “Timer Number” can be between 1 and 8. This number is not related to the sequence number that appears in the list of previous recordings available in “Media > PVR Manage”. Note that the title of each recording in the PVR Manage list is derived from what was on at the moment of starting the recording, and this may be the tail end of the previous program, not the one intended, so it is a good idea to keep a written list of what you have set up for recording.
“Timer Mode” allows you to specify (say) weekly recording of the same program at the same time. Otherwise, set it to “Once”.
Next, set the date and start time of the program to be recorded, set “Auto Record” on, and enter the duration of the program to the nearest minute, perhaps allowing a few extra minutes in case of overrun.
When setting the date or time, use the up/down arrows on the remote to select the item, then press OK before trying to change a digit, which can be done with the up/down arrows or by entering the digit.
The “Wakeup Channel” refers to the channel you want to record and has nothing to do with an alarm, although it could be used as such no doubt.
The manual has nothing to say about playing a recording. Just go to Media -> PVR Manage, select the recording you want to watch and press OK. It can be fast-forwarded over commercials, paused while you make the coffee or skipped to the next recording just as on a VCR or PVR.