SAN FRANCISCO (05/03/2000) - The future of TV may be high-definition and digital, but many viewers still face a huge roadblock: the $3000 to $6000 budget-busting price of any TV capable of displaying HDTV.
Pinnacle Data Systems Inc. is crafting an end run around the roadblock. Several companies have announced products that will let you view HDTV on your PC, but Pinnacle is poised to be the first to actually ship. Its PC-HDTV, a PCI add-in card, is scheduled for release in late June with a list price of $399. To use it, you'll need a PC with at least a Pentium II-300 running Windows 98.
HDTV is a dizzying mishmash of 18 different formats. The most common are 1080i (with a resolution of 1920 by 1080), 720p (1280 by 720) and 480p (720 by 480).
The "i" and "p" in the formats refer to "interlaced" or "progressive" scan, indicating how the receiver generates the picture. CBS and NBC use 1080i; ABC, 720p; and Fox, 480p.
PC-HDTV automatically detects the format of an HDTV signal and matches it to the capabilities of your display. What you'll see depends on your monitor. Most monitors manufactured in the last three years will comfortably display 720p. To see the full resolution of the 1080i signal, you'll need a 19- or 21-inch display.
PC-HDTV's composite NTSC and S-Video outputs let you hook up a standard TV receiver, but you won't be able to view the full resolution on it. It also provides a high-resolution RGB output for digital TV monitors or video projectors. The board also has a Dolby AC-3 5:1 digital-audio output to connect to an external stereo system, for surround sound.
PC-HDTV comes with some of the sophisticated features offered by external boxes such as TiVo and ReplayTV. It supports time-shift recording and the capability to create your own instant replay scenes.
Up on the Roof
Ironically, HDTV may cause a resurgence in the rooftop antennas remembered by those of us who grew up in the dim precable days. HDTV isn't available on cable--it's broadcast on UHF channels, so you need a rooftop antenna to receive it. And the old, corroded antenna that's been in the weather for 20 years just won't cut it.
Digital or not, UHF signals are relatively short-range and are highly susceptible to obstructions like hills. Also, a digital HDTV signal doesn't degrade into snow like an analog signal. When the receiver can't get enough bits to digitally create the picture, you get nothing.
The bottom line is, you need a good antenna to receive HDTV. The Consumer Electronics Association, an industry group, provides a resource. Its Web site, Antenna Web, offers information to help you choose.
It's also essential that you find out whether HDTV is available in your location before you consider buying PC-HDTV. One place to check is the Titan TV Web site.
Meanwhile, only a limited amount of original programming is shot in true HDTV.
Much of the current HDTV content is actually standard video converted to HDTV, which doesn't use the full resolution. And the networks produce only their most popular programming in HDTV.
Still, if you want to test the world of digital television without a huge investment, Pinnacle's PC-HDTV is revving up to be the first on the road.