I have recently been shopping for a set top box (stb) for my Father-in-Law for his birthday. I, as usual, did my research and I was alarmed to discover that the majority of the currently available stb’s will not be able to decode the new TV transmission streams that are likely to be transmitted within the next five years. The current DVB-T standard relies on MPEG-2, the new standard will be MPEG-4 and will gradually become the main transmission stream. So we are seeing not one major transition (Analogue à Digital MPEG-2) but in fact two (Analogue à Digital MPEG-2àMPEG-4). And each transition will require the viewing population to fork out money upgrading their hardware. This also means that existing LCD/Plasma TV with in-built tuners will also need replacement or a new stb.
I mentioned to a salesman (an obviously non-sympathetic commission-driven ear ) that I can’t abide by forced obsolescence within such a short time-frame, and he replied that it wasn’t the 1950’s anymore and the nothing lasts forever.
What annoys me further is that MPEG-4 is already the standard in many countries. This begs the question, why didn’t we just start with MPEG-4? Were the networks scared that the adoption digital technology would be so poor because of the prohibitive hard ware cost?
I believe that the majority of manufacturers are conspiring to avoid detailing the MPEG specs on their packaging for fear that consumers may discriminate by not purchasing the old MPEG-2 stb’s. I further notice that on some packaging there is the statement “Free View phase I compliant” this translates to “this is a soon to be obsolete stb with MPEG-2 decoding capacity”.
This is yet another bit of croc. All the free-to-air stations got together in the fear of losing advertising revenue to cable TV, to promote digital TV. They made up the Freeview certification mark which stb manufacturers are allowed to put on their products in exchange for agreeing to reduce the advertisement skipping functions on the stb’s with recording capacity. The Freeview group has been advertising that with a Freeview stb, viewers will be able to view more channels. This is a misleading statement. Any viewer with a high definition (HD) stb will be able to view all the channels. This has prompted a backlash from the manufactures of non-Freeview stb’s to have to make a positive statement that their stb’s can receive all the available HD channels. This is needlessly confusing viewers/purchasers of stb’s.
Where the Freeview group are coming from in relation to their misleading statement relates to a change in the broadcasting laws than came into force this year. All the networks are now allowed to deliver different programmes on their channels rather than being restricted to duplicate programming across HD and SD channels.
STB’s with USB:
Many stb’s now come with USB ports on them. Sounds great right? Now I can watch all the movies I want to on my portable hard drive or thumb drive. Annoyingly in several stb’s the USB ports are only functional for upgrading the software that runs the stb. There was one stb that I looked at that allowed you to record TV on to a portable hard drive/thumb drive and watch those recorded shows from the drive, but not use the USB for watching movies in other formats or viewing picture file or listening to music files. Are they trying to avoid incurring royalties relating to DivX/MPEG-4 or other DVD/movie file format codecs? I see this as deliberately short-changing consumers by causing them to buy more hardware such as DVD/media players with this capacity.
Anyway I’m not happy. I ended up picking up a soon to be obsolete stb with MPEG-2 decoding capacity. Given that of the 25-30 available models of stb, only five were MPEG-4. Those MPEG-4 stbs were almost twice the price ($189-$260) compared to non MPEG-4 HD stb’s ($88-$166). There are simply not enough non MPEG-4 stb’s for the price to be competitive. The first stb I picked up this morning kept turning itself off after being on for 2 minutes. I returned it, but the guy didn’t believe me and had to set it up in the shop and recreate the fault before refunding my money. I could not believe that a stb would be sold in a faulty state. I went for a different model which was the top rated stb as rated by CHOICE magazine (TEAC HDB841 for $107). Interestingly the Choice article entitled “HD: highly disappointing” stated that: “even the best of the high definition set-top boxes are only adequate” and I am inclined to agree. I think I will have to wait until MPEG-4 becomes more common and price-competitive before setting up my ideal digital home.