Satellite vs. Blu-ray: DISHing up 1080p

Audio and video often seem like nothing more than numbers games. So much is specified in some kind of figure: 7.1 channels, 200 watts, 800 lumens, 90 decibels. Sure, it's simplistic and pandering, but on the whole it's good. If could deliver this level of precision, I'd be a much happier man.

For the last two years, the hot numeric specification has been 1080p, which refers to a progressive-scanned video image measuring 1,080 pixels vertically and 1,920 pixels horizontally. Almost every one of today's top video displays can display 1080p resolution. But the only sources of native 1080p content have been Blu-ray Discs, and videogames on Playstation 3 and Xbox 360.

Thanks to a recent technological effort by DISH Network, you can now get 1080p straight out of a high-definition satellite receiver. If you have a high-def DISH receiver with DVR and MPEG-4 capabilities, DISH's new 1080p video-on-demand service has already been "pushed out" to your receiver as a software update. It's part of DISH's Turbo-HD service, which DISH says is the only 100-percent high-def TV service available.

DISH describes its 1080p service as "Blu-ray Disc quality." Gertrude Stein's famous quote "1080p is 1080p is 1080p" notwithstanding, can DISH's service really deliver the same excellence as Blu-ray?

Is 1080p 1080p? DISH's high-def service starts with good technology. Like most recent Blu-ray releases, DISH 1080p uses a variant of the MPEG-4 video codec, which is more or less the state-of-the-art in consumer video. But the "pipe" into which the data must be squeezed isn't the same. The DISH 1080p service uses satellite transmission, while Blu-ray stores all its data on a disc. Both have variable bandwidth, and both face tradeoffs. The more bandwidth DISH devotes to its 1080p service, the less that's available for other channels. And the more bandwidth the Blu-ray producer devotes to the picture, the less is available for extras.

DISH minimizes its bandwidth problem by limiting 1080p service to video-on-demand, and by sending each 1080p VOD movie out to the receivers in the middle of the night when the system sees lower demand. The movie's automatically recorded in real time on each receiver's internal hard drive, and the next morning, shows up in the program guide on channel 501. When you purchase the pay-per-view movie through the program guide, it's actually playing straight off the receiver's internal hard drive.

I am Legend, DISH's first 1080p title, came out at the special rate of $2.99. The two subsequent titles (10,000 B.C. and Speed Racer) cost $6.99 each - same as the network's existing high-def VOD titles. Once you rent them, you can watch them as many times as you want for 24 hours. To date, each title has been available for one month, then disappears from the program guide.