The Monster TV Face Off The Future of HDTV Connections
As usual, the future is uncertain. The terrestrial (over-the-air) HDTV transmission format has been chosen and is here to stay, but there are a few outstanding questions in regards to connections for satellite or cable systems. Namely, how will we connect these HDTV set-top boxes to an HD-ready TV? Until now, we've used analog connections with either three-wire (Y/Pb/Pr) or five-wire (RGBHV) cables. However, because of copyright concerns, the studios are pushing for a more-secure digital connection. And, since they control what content the cable and satellite providers can offer, they're getting their way. The studios are pushing for either DVI or IEEE 1394 connections, both of which offer digital video and audio and can potentially control information on a single wire.
For studios, DVI (Digital Visual Interface) is preferable because, like its PC counterpart, it transmits a full-bandwidth digital signal from the set-top box to the display. Even if you could get around the copy protection, there isn't a consumer (and possibly not even a professional) system that could record the signal. VCRs have always been a subject of studio paranoia, and the implementation of DVI would more or less eliminate the prospect of an HD-VCR. Satellite and cable providers have rallied behind DVI because it works well with their interactive program guides, and some manufacturers like that it's less expensive to implement in a display than 1394. It's important to note that the consumer version of the DVI format is incompatible with the PC version.
Other TV manufacturers favor IEEE 1394, even though its implementation would require that an extra component—the MPEG decoder—reside in the display itself. With the decoder in the display, the 1394 cable only needs to carry the compressed digital bitstream, which can travel longer distances. This also creates opportunities to network a number of components using a single wire that would also carry audio and control data. If our review of the Mitsubishi WS-55859 (February 2002) is any indication, new components would acclimate themselves to the system almost automatically. Better yet, the compressed signal could be recorded as an MPEG data stream on D-VHS or DVD-R devices.
Only two manufacturers have actually committed to one of the two formats. Sony and Mitsubishi have both included 1394 inputs on their newer displays, in addition to analog connections. Mitsubishi has gone so far as to offer an upgrade module, which will cost less than $1,000, for any of their existing HD-capable sets. RCA has gotten around the problem by including a satellite receiver within the display itself. When asked, other manufacturers have made generic comments like, "We're watching the situation carefully and will follow whatever standard is adopted." In all likelihood, future displays will include both connections: a DVI jack for set-top boxes and a 1394 port for digital recorders and other devices.
So, should you wait to buy until a favored TV includes a digital connection, which might be a year or two away? Under normal circumstances, we'd say no. The slight improvement this might make wouldn't necessarily be worth the HD programming that you'd miss in the meantime. Should you buy a set purely because it has a digital connection? Again, probably not. It will be a while before enough components have digital outputs to go with it, anyway. However, thanks again to the studios' hyperinflated copy-protection paranoia, set-top boxes with digital connections won't include analog outputs. Satellite and cable providers have also promised to disable or downconvert the analog HD signal from any existing box when the digital connection becomes available. If your set only has analog inputs, your HD options may be limited to terrestrial broadcasts. Granted, these are by far the best HD signals available; but, then again, how many of us receive adequate antenna signals? (See www.antennaweb.org to find out if you can use an antenna at your location.)
Again, the future is uncertain. Once all components have digital connections, life will be grand. The transition to that point, however, may get ugly. We have no idea if the abovementioned events will come to pass, but we have no reason to believe otherwise. If enough consumers complain to the studios, the satellite or cable companies, or their congressman, there may be enough incentive to "grandfather" products that offer analog connections for those sets that lack digital inputs. Otherwise, current HD displays may be only mildly more future-compatible than the NTSC-only models that they replace. For many people, their next big-screen purchase may just be a means of making DVD look better. For them, connection options are not a concern. Those people who are interested in receiving HD programming both now and in the future will want to weigh their options carefully.