Posted by & filed under Television.

As readers of this blog will know, we’ve had a Telewest TV Drive in the Smith household for a couple of months now. There is no question it has changed our TV viewing habits completely. Other than the news
or, in my case, a live football match, we almost always watch things in time-shift mode. My wife has certainly found the ability to record whole series and watch at a later date to be one of the great advances of 21st century living.

However, one of the reasons my wife agreed to us getting a HD television in the first place was that I’d be banging on to her about the “amazing” picture quality that we’d get. Last week she reminded me of this claim I had made – “so, where is this great HD picture quality then?”. Previously I’d pointed out that in fact there was no HD quality content to watch. That excuse ran out a few weeks ago when Telewest began offering a small selection of progs in HD and the appearance of a BBC HD Channel (admittedly mostly showing an endless loop of BBC HD trailers).

Anyway, there was enough there now for me to try out HD. Or rather to get round the very cumbersome process of getting the TV Drive to output HD pictures. In simple terms, you have to select how you want the TVDrive Box to output the signal eg 4:3, widescreen, HD HDMI, etc. When you select the HD HDMI option, you are then told that it will now test to see if your TV can accept an HDMI signal – trouble is you then have to switch the TV to accept input from a new source ie if you are currently outputting 4:3 on Scart you have to switch to HDMI. Once the test is over, you then have to switch the TV back to Scart – and if you are happy with that, switch back to HDMI and then push the Text button to confirm the setting – if you don’t do it in time, it reverts back to your original setting – and you have to go through the whole process again.

The reason for going into such tedious detail is to spell out how tricky it is to get the HD output working – and I vaguely know what I’m doing. Also, I bet many people will be scared by the worrying warning that says if you try setting HDMI output without being connected to a HD Ready TV, you’ll lose your picture forever and Telewest will kill your first born – or something like that.

Anyway – now that I’d got the HD output working, I tested out BBC HD to see what the difference in picture quality was like – and yes, it is better, but not sure it will be seen by people as being such a vast difference between what they see now.

The other annoyance was that if you then switched to a non-HD channel, you get the picture in 4:3 mode ie with a big black stripe in either side of the picture. I tried using the aspect ratio control to get it to fill the screen – and this where I discovered the fact that you can’t currently adjust the aspect ratio in HD mode with the Telewest box.

According to Telewest: “Unlike standard definition television, HDTV has a native widescreen
format, and your HD television expects to see a widescreen picture. To compensate for this, the TVDrive team chose to add black bars to the left and right of a 4:3 SD channel. We did this for two reasons: (1) our research showed that the majority of people prefer to watch 4×3 programmes
without the image being stretched and (2) it is necessary to keep the video and the graphics plane in tight alignment so that interactive applications such as the multi-screen sports coverage from the BBC looks correct. We understand that many users would like us to offer the ability to zoom
or stretch a 4:3 picture (especially for widescreen programmes shown in 14×9 format) and we’re looking into how best to do this. As stated above,because of the complexity of keeping overlaid graphics in alignment with video this will take us some time to implement.

I have to say I was surprised by reason (1) – perhaps its the Scotsman in me, but I much prefer to have my screen real estate utilised rather than only have some of it displayed. Having said that, there are clearly technical issues around why they have done what they have done.

But – to sum up – we now have the choice of watching everything in non-HD mode (which at least means we get to watch everything in full screen, but defeats the purpose of an HD television) – or watching everything with HDMI output – and having most of the channels with a clipped and unadjustable aspect ratio.

Or I end up going through the previously described rigamarole everytime we want to switch between HDMI and normal – which I know will drive my wife up the wall.

No doubt these are just small stumbles on the way to our nirvana-like HD future – but for the moment, its bloody annoying…..

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