By Michael Rau
May 5, 2008
As long as we're on the subject of Digital TV and the transition, there're a couple more tidbits I want to mention regarding some of the costs to consumers and what you need to be ready.
If I hadn't been forced to (I'm the world's biggest cheapskate) I wouldn't have done it, but following the demise of my 16-year-old Sharp TV, I broke down a couple of months ago and bought a nice new 37-inch Phillips LCD HDTV that I'm very happy with.
I wanted to take full advantage of its digital capabilities, so I started shopping for an HDMI connector cable. This is the standard common connector now being used for digital video systems.
When I looked at the prices for these cables in the local stores, my jaw hit the ground. The cheapest was over $50 and some were over $200!
I wanted to know why, and following some research, the only conclusion I could reach was that it's all about the hype.
By using “HDMI cable” as a search term, I not only found a bunch of online retailers who offer just about any type of HDMI cable you can imagine, but a plethora of posts about this topic.
The big-box retailers almost exclusively stock what I refer to as “boutique brands”. I don't want to single any particular brand or brands out, but it's probably obvious what brand is most on my mind. It's common retail strategy to draw you into a store with good deals, the nail you on the accessories, but this is the most flagrant example of this I've ever seen.
If you're all about image, you can go out and buy one of these boutique brands. But you should also know that I bought two 15 ft long HDMI-certified cables - one HDMI-to-HDMI and one HDMI-to-DVI (so I can use it as a computer monitor, too) - for $11 each online (plus $9 shipping). The equivalents in the store were 10-20 times as much.
Now that's a rip-off if I ever saw one.
Yes - the boutique-brand manufacturer can probably pull out some laboratory analysis that says their product delivers slightly better performance, and I won't dispute those. But unlike analog signals, digital signals are pretty much either on or off. There's no real in-between. If a digital signal has insufficient strength, there's simply no picture.
I personally can't afford to go out and buy a $200 cable just to do a side-by-side comparison, but many others who've posted online about this topic have. Their conclusions are unanimous: Over distances shorter than 30 feet, there is no discernable difference in quality.
The cables I got online aren't fancy. They're plain black cabling with plain black molded ends (they do have gold-plated connectors, though). They came in a clear, sealed plastic bag package with a bar-code label.
If the boutique branding is important to you, or the appearance of the cable or its packaging matters, and you have money to burn, the big-box retailers eagerly await your business. But if like me, you care about substance over style, I strongly recommend that you acquire your cables online.
I got mine from a company called “MyCableMart” and am very satisfied with the product and service, but there are others offering similar deals. Just search online for “HDMI cable” like I did.
The other thing I wanted to touch on was actually inspired by a reader's email. He wrote to point out that Verizon has been distributing converter boxes for their FiOS service for a while.
This brings up an interesting point. The fact that you have a TV equipped with a digital tuner doesn't mean you'll be able to receive digital service from a secondary terrestrial provider such as Verizon.
All such providers, including cable companies like Cox and Charter, scramble their signals, thus requiring you to have a device to descramble them. The device used to do this is called a CableCard, and resembles a PCMCIA card, such as you might use in a laptop computer. A very few TVs come equipped with a slot to accept such a device, but most, including my new set, don't.
If your set isn't so equipped, the secondary providers all require that you rent a converter box and a CableCard from them. Even if your set has the requisite slot, you still have to rent the CableCard from them.
Look - I understand if these companies feel the need to scramble their programming to curtail signal piracy. But it truly seems ludicrous to me that they then turn around and require you to pay extra to have the signals you're already paying for descrambled. The devices they force you to rent are relatively cheap to manufacture and after the first three or four months of rental fees represent pure profit for the providers.
Consumers with digitally-equipped TVs shouldn't have to pay extra for descrambling. They should be able to pay a flat-fee for the CableCard ($10-20 to cover the cost), plus have some little box like a flash card reader to place inline between their cable-in point and their TV to accommodate the CableCard.
That's my two cents…
Michael Rau is a mass-communications consultant in Virginia Beach. To send feedback or view past columns, go to http://dailypress.asoundidea.com.
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