News

Are you all set for HDTV? Mysteries of set-top boxes

Lou Dolinar
Newsday (MCT)

Are you ready for 2009?

That's when broadcasters will pull the plug on old-fashioned standard definition TV, and with few exceptions, we'll all be moving to the brave new world of digital HDTV.

The switch has been accompanied by a more interesting trend: the proliferation of sophisticated digital set-top boxes. As I noted here a couple of weeks ago, current top-of-the-line offerings from cable and satellite providers are really computers, with an operating system (usually Linux), built-in programming, plus hard drives and memory and networking. With a lot of people upgrading to HDTV over the holidays, now's a good time to look at some of the basics you should know to get the most out of your latest computer acquisition.

Rooftop antennas and basic cable can get a handful of HDTV channels. To get a full selection, though, you need to convert to a digital set-top box, which acts as a tuner. (Just to confuse you: Not all HDTV sets incorporate tuners, and thus can't work with an antenna or basic cable. If you do have a built-in tuner, analog cable can give you all the local broadcasters and many digital signals that are non-encoded).

Plan ahead. Cablevision says more than 80 percent of its customers have gone digital. The rest can pick up replacement boxes at Cablevision stores; the non-tech savvy can ask for a service call. Verizon FIOS is digital HDTV from the get-go but requires an installer visit. Older satellite receivers are digital, too, but may have to be replaced to get all HDTV channels - check your particular mode - and that in turn may require a service call.

Besides reading your manual, register online and look for online FAQs. Look through your channel list and video on-demand setup for tutorials, too. Digital set-top boxes are real computers, much more feature-rich - and complicated - than you may be used to, and are upgraded with new services frequently. The providers have online material that updates and covers the areas that the manuals skip. Videos are also a good source of information: Both Dish and Verizon FIOS have tutorials available on demand. Your online account also gives access to billing and service upgrades. Some providers, like DirectTV, also sponsor online discussion groups. Cablevision's is particularly good (groups.yahoo.com/group/cablevision_digital): Even though it is run by users, company technicians take part in discussions.

Lock up the bad stuff from the kids. The proliferation of services generally has meant there's more than one menu you'll need to patrol. My Dish receiver, for example, has three types of pay per view (streaming, satellite on demand, Internet on demand), each of which has to be locked separately. That's in addition to any limits I would put on specific channels.

Organize your channels. It is crazy-making to have to page through a hundred channels, which is sort of middle-range service with most digital boxes, to find the one you want. Fortunately, digital boxes allow you to set up collections of channels, usually called favorites, just like you have folders of bookmarks in your browser.

Program the remote that comes with the set-top box, but don't get your hopes up too high. Rarely will these remotes control all the functions of your TV, VCR, and DVD player - at which point you're back to using multiple remotes or buying a high-end aftermarket universal remote. Most set-top systems allow you to integrate volume control with the remote's set-top box function. This is a great convenience, but enabling it isn't always simple and/or well documented.

Learn how to control aspect ratios. What's being broadcast doesn't necessarily fit the dimensions of your screen. Fumble with the remote, and you may inadvertently stretch or shrink the picture, or even make it unviewable. I find it simplest to set a standard "wide" aspect ratio on the TV, then use my satellite box if I need to adjust. You should experiment to get the best picture.

Investigate non-TV features. Your set-top box probably does lots of things you don't expect. Most can, for example, display slide shows of your digital photos from a plug-in USB key. All have excellent selections of commercial-free audio, which easily connect to a high-quality audio system. Both Cablevision and FIOS offer interactive, Internet-like functions via the TV, including games and online bill payment, optional service upgrades and software updates. And you usually can get weather updates customized for your ZIP code. Digital set-top boxes usually don't restrict you to a single set, either, and offer options for distributing video around your house, including material you have stored on your digital video recorder. This can be pretty sophisticated stuff: Some DirectTV receivers can network to PCs to play the music and photos you have stored there.

Learn how to do a system reset. Since set-top boxes are really computers, they can do what computers do: freeze or crash. When that happens, you can often fix a problem simply by restarting. Procedures vary among brands, so check yours. DirectTV, for example, has a good old-fashioned reset switch on the front of the box; Dish and Cablevision require you to turn off the receiver, then unplug it briefly to clear the memory before you restart.

Get a DVR, a no-brainer since one can be rented for $5 to $10 a month, and learn how to use it. The incentive is greater in high def. The usual fuzzy reruns - think Saturday afternoon John Wayne westerns - have had scenes restored and been digitally remastered for HDTV. Oversize add-on hard drives for DVRs, which allow you to lock up recorded shows from deletion, make it possible to archive hundreds of these classics in the cleanest possible format.

And one more thing ...

Make sure you are watching HDTV. Studies have shown that many consumers misconfigure their systems to display standard definition TV and never notice they're not getting the real deal.

It is surprisingly easy to make this mistake, since HDTV sets and digital boxes greatly improve the quality of all channels, not just HDTV.

Usually, an installing technician will take care of tweaking settings, but if you change sets or self-install, HDTV may not get automatically enabled: The digital box, the set and the cables connecting them have to be set up specifically for the whole thing to work.

If the quality of your picture doesn't come close to what you saw in the store, you've probably misconfigured your system.

HDNet probably has the most consistent HD signal and is the best test channel if your system carries it.

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