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Widescreen HD Gets Toasted by Cell Phones

You might not have noticed that Steve Jobs changed his mind. Let me put that another way: You might not have noticed that the most important thing about HDTV is NTSC.

Yes, I'm talking about the transition here, but not the one from analog to digital. That one is moving along, even if it ain't as fast as some folks had imagined. Okay, so it's moving at about the pace of a tranquilized snail with no heart to go on, but it's moving.

Even the Media Bureau staff of Our Beloved Commish, also known as the FCC, in their February report "Concerning Over-the-Air Broadcast Television Viewers," said, "assuming an outside useful life for analog sets, the switch-over date could be set for 25 years from the date the DTV tuner mandate is fully effective in 2007 (i.e., 2032)." It ain't yet a sure thing that the 2007 date will include TV sets below 13 inches, but I'm reasonably convinced the DTV transition will be pretty far along by 2032.

That's the transition from analog to digital. The transition from plain old ordinary TV (POOT) to HDTV (huditvee) is a horse of a different resolution. First of all, unlike the rules and regulations of Our Beloved Commish forcing broadcasters to transmit digitally and TV makers to put in digital reception and the law requiring analog to shut down, there ain't a single rule, regulation, law, executive order, edict, bull or fatwa requiring any U.S. broadcaster to transmit any HD.

Now, then, that doesn't mean there ain't an HDTV transition going on. Broadcasters are moving that way on account of it making their pictures look better. I don't mean "look better" on HDTV sets. I mean "look better" period.

Chip-camera makers discovered a long time ago that oversampling increases sharpness. HDTV is one heck of a lot of oversampling over NTSC, and now there are even oversampled HDTV cameras, like the Panavision Genesis. That means that HDTV-shot stuff looks sharper than NTSC-shot stuff even on a 10-inch set fed from a worn out six-hour VHS tape.


"But, Mario, aren't more and more people buying HDTVs?"

Hey, I'll grant that a bunch of folks are buying things labeled as HDTVs. As for how good the labels are, that's a whole other story.

I saw a store's ad just today that called Sony's 15-inch KLV-S15G10 an HDTV. I don't think that was Sony's fault. Sony doesn't call that 4:3 480-line model HDTV on its Web site. Heck, even the ad said it was "480p." But it also said it was "HDTV."

Nope, I can't blame Sony for that one. But, while I was on Sony's Web site doing my due diligence as an imaginary journalist, I happened to scroll a smidge to the 19-inch MFM-HT95. Sony sure-enough labels it as HDTV.

Now, then, near as I can recall, roughly from the beginning of modern time, HDTV has had two characteristics: more resolution and a wider screen. Being ancient, I remember the battles between Hollywood creative types wanting 2:1 and the forces of HD engineering wanting 16:9, and, being beyond ancient, I can even remember the earlier change from Japan's 5:3 to 16:9.

Well, now, Sony's MFM-HT95 is 5:4. Yes, you have calculated correctly. That ain't even as wide as POOT, though it does match a 1936 British standard that was called "high definition" back then, even though it had only around 377 active scanning lines.

That made me want to poke around Sony's Web site some more. The MFM-HT95 is 5:4; it's also 1280 x 1024. The KLV-S19A10 is 1280 x 768. Yes, your math is correct; it's 5:3. The VPL-HS51 is 1280 x 720 and good old 16:9. The KDL-40XBR1 is also 16:9, but it's 1366 x 768. The KDE-42XS955 is 16:9, but it's 1024 x 1024. Finally, the KD-SR60XBR1 is 16:9 at good old 1920 x 1080. My, my.

Oh, if you think your 1920 x 1080 HDTV camera has a pixel-for-pixel match with that last TV, guess again. TV manufacturers figure there ought to be some overscan in the picture to get rid of garbage at the edges, so they blow it up a bit.

Hey, I don't mean to pick on Sony. Panasonic's CT-32HL15 is labeled as HDTV; it's got a 4:3 screen. So is Toshiba's 32HF73, also labeled as HD. You can learn a lot by surfing manufacturer Web sites.

"But, Mario, what about Steve Jobs?"

It's his bagels, of course. Whenever Apple's head was asked about adding video to an iPod, he scoffed at the idea of anyone watching a movie on a teeny screen. Last year, he said if they added video, they might as well add toasting elements.

"I want it to brown my bagels when I'm listening to my music," he told a media conference call.

So he's changed his mind. The video iPod has a 2.5-inch screen that's 320 x 240. Yes, that's less than NTSC. And it ain't alone. The low-end model of EchoStar's Pocket DISH has a 2.2-inch screen that's 220 x 176 (though it looks square to me).

Hey, the idea of folks watching TV on tiny screens ain't exactly new. You might have noticed the TV-on-mobile-phones booth at NAB this year, you might own a little Casio or Epson LCD TV, or, if you're of an archeological age, like me, maybe you remember Sinclair's world-traveling Tiny Telly or the even older and smaller-screened Panasonic tube TVs.

What's new is Apple's deal to offer ABC TV shows at $2 a pop at 2.5 inches in the age of HDTV, on a 4:3 screen in the supposed age of 16:9, and at 320 x 240 when the world is theoretically heading towards 1920 x 1080. If your HD is shot so it looks good even on an iPod, you'll probably have an audience in any medium. If you think everyone is going to watch your stuff at 16:9 1920 x 1080, remember Jobs's word from last year: toast.