First Look: Va-Va-Voom! Page 2

It's All About the Programming Voom's sizzle is the wide range of its HDTV programming, all presented in the 1080i (interlaced) format. Among the exclusives are ten movie channels called HD Cinema10, each showing one movie a day repeated over 24 hours, or 70 different movies each month. With 35 new titles added every month, Voom expects to have a total of 500 movies in its library by the end of 2004. So far, most are from the 1950s through the mid-1990s, and the wider-format movies are panned and scanned to fill a 16:9 screen even if the original aspect ratio was closer to 2.35:1. (Voom says it's re-examining this policy.) voom back

Besides NewsBytes, which currently contains only weather but is supposed to add live newscasts and footage in high-def by the time you read this, other exclusive high-def channels are devoted to sports, music, art, animation, fashion, and the like. (For a complete list, see "HDTV Channel Feast" PDF.) My favorite was Rave, Voom's main music channel, which shows both music videos and hour-long concerts. It offers an eclectic mix of country, pop, rap, heavy metal, and classic rock, with performers like Cheap Trick, Metallica, Beyoncé, 50 Cent, Sheryl Crow, Ringo Starr, and Marilyn Manson.

Rave's concerts are usually videotaped in high-def, while many of the music videos were shot on 35mm film. Voom distinguishes these with the labels "produced in high-definition" and "converted to high-definition," respectively. Regardless of how the footage was recorded, what I saw was consistently characterized by razor-sharp images, and the excellent audio delivered rich, full-bodied sound. The wide screen and cranked-up volume almost fooled me into thinking I was sitting in the front row of a concert hall, with the crowd noise behind me and the performer right in front of me. The only thing missing was that funny smell wafting over from a few seats away.

There's also an all-monsters channel with sci-fright flicks from the '50s and '60s. Another channel, Animania, similarly relies heavily on that period with cartoons like Felix the Cat and Mr. Magoo, though it offers more artsy programs, too. Cartoons in high-definition look richer in color and smoother than anything I saw as a kid. It reminded me of the first time I saw a familiar black-and-white cartoon in color. High-def makes old look almost new again.

One of the more intriguing channels is Treasure HD, which is aimed at collectors and presents collectibles as if you're sitting front row center at an auction - garments can be seen down to the finest thread. In a segment on Statue of Liberty collectibles, I was enamored with the quality of the vitreous finish on one of the foot-high antique statues, a detail that would be lost in a conventional TV picture. The channel will soon feature real-time bidding.

Another visual delight is Ultra HD, a channel dedicated to fashion and food. I found myself gawking at the beautiful runway models in their ultra-sheer garments, though I suppose female viewers will be more into the latest fashions from Milan, Paris, London, and New York. The channel also features profiles of chi-chi restaurants.

Gallery HD took me to art museums throughout the world, with experts putting the works shown into historical context. The brushstrokes, texture, and style are presented with a clarity and realism that can only be exceeded by an actual visit.

There are also premium channels for movies and sports. As of late January they included Showtime HD East and West (the same content 3 hours apart), The Movie Channel HD, Starz HD East and West, Discovery HD Theater, and NFL HD (during football season). By March 1, Voom plans to add HBO HD East and West, Cinemax HD East and West, ESPN HD, Bravo HD, Playboy HD pay-per-view, a Movie/Special Event pay-per-view, and NBA HD (during basketball season). These offerings were still in flux as we went to press, so the lineup might change by the time you read this.

How Good Is It? The picture quality of Voom's Cinema10 movie channels varied greatly. While some film transfers looked spectacular (I'm still amazed that the movie studios allow us to have a better experience at home than in many $10-a-seat theaters), others looked soft, and several even looked grainy and dirty. Obviously, Voom doesn't have quality standards for its movie transfers. I discussed this with a Voom executive, who claimed the company is interested in developing guidelines for minimum picture quality - something that could be accomplished over the next couple of months.

On the other hand, the channels mainly using original video content - like Rave, Treasure HD, and Gallery HD - really showed off HDTV's potential. I'd give most of Voom's original programs either an A or B for picture quality. The music videos on Rave had consistently high production values. As for sound, Voom passes along Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtracks from content providers who offer them. All 21 of Voom's exclusive HD channels can provide 5.1-channel playback.

Once I was set up for local reception, over-the-air picture quality was comparable with other HDTV tuners I've used. And Voom does a good job of integrating local program information in its onscreen guide, which makes switching between, say, your local ABC digital channel and Showtime HD via satellite transparent.

With some exceptions, Voom provides very good to excellent high-definition images, and it offers the most HDTV channels you can find. The inclusion of an over-the-air HDTV tuner and antenna installation - assuming local reception is as important to you as satellite reception - help to maximize your high-def programming options. So the answer to the question, to Voom or not to Voom, really depends on how much HDTV programming you want.

While cable companies and the other satellite services still count their HDTV channels in the single digits, Voom's aggressive embrace of high-definition is a refreshing alternative. For 24/7 high-def programming, the new bird in the sky is way ahead of everyone else.