Satellite vs. Blu-ray: DISHing up 1080p Page 2


Apples to Apples So that I could compare the quality of the DISH 1080p service to a Blu-ray disc, DISH Network set me up with a high-def satellite dish and a VIP722 receiver/DVR. Having just missed the 1080p run of 10,000 B.C., I was able to view only one 1080p movie on DISH: Speed Racer, which I also rented on Blu-ray. If I insisted on watching another 1080p title to make this a more comprehensive review, I'd have to wait till November.

The VIP722 doesn't offer a 1080p setting in its setup menu; the only way to get 1080p is by using the VOD service, which employs a special applet to deliver 1080p output. I wanted to use HDMI cables to connect both my Samsung Blu-ray player and the VIP722 to my Denon receiver, then connect the receiver to my Samsung 57-inch LCD flat-panel TV. This way, I'd be able to compare the sound of the DISH version with the Blu-ray version. However, after performing a 15-second internal test, the VIP722 wouldn't recognize the Denon receiver as 1080p-capable (a problem I haven't experienced with other source devices). The DISH receiver did at least offer me the chance to downconvert the movie to regular high-def, which I passed on. I ended up having to connect the receiver and the Blu-ray player straight to my TV through HDMI in order to get 1080p output from both sources.

DISH 1080p immediately impressed me. Speed Racer's brilliant colors and intricate details looked fantastic whether I was watching the satellite or the disc. Flipping back and forth between the two sources while sitting at a normal viewing distance, I could detect only subtle differences. In fact, I couldn't be sure I was seeing any difference at all, since the movie's frantic action made it hard to judge picture quality. Even if I was seeing a difference, I wasn't sure which source was better.

But ferreting out differences is my gig, so I moved closer. From the way-too-intimate viewing distance of about 4 feet, I started to notice a subtle graininess in the DISH 1080p picture, especially in scenes of slow, steady motion. I could see the difference mainly in fairly static shots (of which Speed Racer has few), especially during close-ups, when actors spoke for at least 10 seconds (again, a rarity in Speed Racer).

Of course, different movies will yield different results, but the fact that there wasn't a substantial difference in picture quality between the satellite and the disc bodes well for DISH's new service.

In comparison, DISH's regular high-def VOD offerings can't approach Blu-ray's picture quality. When I watched P.S. I Love You through DISH's regular high-def VOD service, it couldn't match the detail of the Blu-ray. Of course, if you're using a 1080p TV, the appearance of DISH's regular high-def VOD will depend on the quality of the upconversion chips in your TV or receiver. DISH's 1080p service, though, isn't at the mercy of your system's upconversion.

Low-Def Sound For now, at least, the DISH 1080p service offers only regular Dolby Digital 5.1. The company won't comment on whether or not it plans to upgrade to the lossless 7.1-channel DTS-HD Master Audio or Dolby TrueHD found on many Blu-ray discs.

As it turns out, it doesn't really matter that I couldn't compare the soundtracks of the DISH 1080p Speed Racer with the Blu-ray version, because (I later learned) the Blu-ray has only a standard Dolby Digital soundtrack. My past comparisons of the lossless formats with regular Dolby Digital have shown in most cases a subtle improvement that would probably be appreciated only by audio enthusiasts with high-quality sound systems.

The DISH Decision Obviously, one 1080p movie per month won't persuade an informed buyer to choose DISH Network, though it may snare those consumers who'll buy anything that boasts a big number in the ad (as in, most consumers). It's unclear how devoted DISH will be to 1080p; company spokesperson Francie Bauer would say only that adding more 1080p content is "a top priority."

However, if you already have a DISH high-def receiver, 1080p is a great added feature that demands no extra money or effort from you. And you've got to give DISH credit for beating its competitors to the 1080p punch.

DirecTV has announced no specific 1080p plans, only that it will offer 1080p "later this year." Three major cable TV companies I recently interviewed told me they'd offer 1080p when consumers demanded it, and when 1080p content became available. (No, I didn't inform them that every major movie is now mastered in 1080p - Mom always told me that no one likes a know-it-all.)

So even though DISH Network's 1080p service may not deliver a wealth of exciting entertainment options right now, it at least appears to be a harbinger of good things to come.