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All About HD DTH - The Basics
The 1982 Asian Games saw color television enter India for the first time. Now, decades later, a similar shift is already beginning. This year's Commonwealth Games will be beamed out in high-definition, prompting Indian DTH operators to rush their HD services to market.

With heavy advertising all around us, CHIP decided to dive in and evaluate each service provider's offerings. In this comparison, we've compared four of the five HD DTH services available across India. We’ve also help explain just how good HD really is and how much of a difference it will make for day-to-day viewing. But in this section let’s get down to understanding the basics first -

What does HD DTH offer?
DTH stands for “direct to home”. Apart from better sound and picture quality, it offers numerous other features like movies on demand, games, interactive learning, etc. It is supposed to give more power to the consumers allowing them to choose what they want to view and pay accordingly, which will soon be implemented. DTH has now gone a step further and is all set to offer its consumers a high-definition experience. Leading the pack was Sun Direct that introduced its DTH HD services way back in April 2009. The rest of the players introduced HD services only this year, at the time of the FIFA World Cup. Cashing in on the popularity of the world cup, many operators launched their DTH HD advertising campaigns, with each one tripping over the other with exciting offers to lure the subscribers.

HD is more of an experience; both visual and audio. With the promised 1920 x 1080 resolution, it is far more realistic than ever before. Pictures look crystal clear in comparison to traditional TV, and digital sound (with possible surround sound as well) takes the experience to another level altogether. Since HDTVs and Blu-ray disc players have been available for a while, DTH now brings this level of quality to broadcast television. This means you catch details that were not easily viewed before, be it the texture of a cricket ball soaring through the air, the fine detailing in the costumes and jewelry in a live performance, or the richness of animal fur and scenic beauty on the nature channels.

What kind of TV do you need to enjoy HD?
The best way to enjoy HD at its best is on a Full HDTV (plasma, LCD or LED) that supports 1920 x 1080i resolution. If your LCD panel’s resolution is lower than this (many 32-inch or smaller sets come with 1366 x 768 pixel screens) then you can still enjoy HD, but at the slightly lower rating of 720p. At this resolution, video will be slightly scaled down and you won’t be able to enjoy the true potential. Older CRT TVs do not support HD at all. They will however support your set-top box and you can view the regular DTH. Ensure the set-top box and TV are connected using an HDMI cable.

HD services in India
Now that that’s out of the way, you should know what kind of services are available in the country.

High definition DTH services are now available everywhere. But is it advisable to hop onto the HD TV broadcast bandwagon just yet? It's difficult to say "yes" without a few reservations. After setting up and analyzing each of the four HD DTH service providers in the market this month, we concluded that HD DTH services in India are a little premature at resent.

If you would like to watch HD nature shows right now, or if you are in the market for a new DTH connection anyway, we would advise you to get the HD box now, to avoid future upgrade costs. This makes sense more if you have an HD-ready LCD television (or are definitely planning to buy one soon), else you won’t be able to enjoy the true HD TV experience. If you have an old-style CRT television set, you will notice little improvement in sharpness and clarity, which might not be worth the extra subscription charges. If you are investing in an HD DTH service, it would be best to ask for demos of each product before you actually buy. Check each set-top box’s connection options, user interface, ease of menu navigation, remote control quality and ergonomics, and finally, the video output quality (on a screen similar to your own). Also pay attention to each service provider’s terms and conditions, package prices and offers before choosing one.

Think about whether you are actually going to watch the HD channels which are currently offered. National Geographic Channel HD and Discovery HD World aren't everyone's first choices, and the content they show is different to what you see on the regular NGC and Discovery channels. So your favorite shows may not be available in HD and you might be better off waiting till there's content that suits you better. Also, increasing competition between DTH service providers will definitely benefit the customer in a little while.

If you watch Zee TV and Zee Cinema a lot, Dish TrueHD is the only service that currently offers them in HD. These channels have the exact same content as their standard definition counterparts. Having tested them, we can easily say that the difference between them is overwhelming! On the other hand, the package, which includes four HD channels, costs Rs 100, which is ridiculously expensive compared to the others which offer HD channels for Rs 15 each. All channels will eventually be available from all providers, so If you are not in a hurry and want to wait a little longer, stick with your existing cable operator or DTH, as it presently offers greater value for money at almost half the monthly subscription cost and a higher number of channels as compared to HD DTH services.

Note the service providers' set-top box functions and other features, which might have you pulling your hair out. These include the information bar opacity, interactive services, navigation speed, channel listing and schedules, and favorite channel settings. Tata Sky only lets you set 20 favorite channels, which might not be enough for a regular TV viewer. Reliance BIG TV can also tick you off with its extremely sluggish user interface and opaque information bar, which covers up three quarters of the display. Also, the remote control is bulky and isn't responsive enough. You could find yourself pressing buttons continuously, but the set-top box will just not respond.

Other issues such as an intrusive company logo continuously displayed on the screen and ads that overpower the regular notifications, cause the screen to get cluttered. If the company logo (for example, the Reliance BIG TV logo) if opaque, it can disturb viewers by obstructing important information available in news tickers or match scores. Tata Sky, Dish TV and Airtel have translucent logos and you can at least see through them somewhat. It would be better if we could just turn them off, but no company gives the user that option.

Reliance also has the DVR function, which is a great move, as you don’t need to spend for another set-top box if you want to record or pause TV. This is where Tata Sky and Airtel fall behind. Both released these boxes a while ago and customers flocked to buy them. But they don’t support HD broadcasts and don't have HDMI output, so customers are left feeling cheated. Only one feature can be enjoyed at a time, until combo boxes come out (which will be another upgrade expense). Reliance BIG TV wins on this count. If any of the others have plans to introduce combo boxes, they aren't informing customers who buy plain HD boxes today.

Reliance BIG TV features a Select service button, which brings up a good feature that others lack. This is a single screen showing feeds from 12 different movie channels so you can see what is showing on all of them at the same time. But this page is presently restricted to only movies and not any other channel type. Tata Sky offers a few useful interactive services, such as news, sports, cooking, games etc. Tata Sky is also the only service to offer HD movies on demand on the ‘Showcase HD’ channel at very reasonable prices. Some remote controls are ergonomically designed, while the rest are either too bulky or have oddly placed buttons. We did not get the opportunity to evaluate Sun Direct DTH HD service due to the company declining to participate, while Videocon DTH has not yet boarded the HD train. Sun Direct is presently the only HD DTH service provider which offers Colors and a few southern regional channels in HD apart from the regular NGC and Discovery. It is also only available on a yearly subscription basis at present.

We noted that most of the service providers’ set-top boxes feature USB and network ports, but on asking about their purpose, the companies stated that the ports are reserved for hardware fault-finding and upgrade purposes. If only these STBs featured the option to play digital movies and audio files! The network ports also hint at the possibility of implementing Internet connections via DTH infrastructure in the near future, but this is totally uncertain.

Finally, all the STBs allow you to switch the resolution to lower than 1080i if your TV doesn't support HD. Eventually, non-HD boxes will be phased out for simplicity. Choosing a lower resolution will give you a scaled down version of the HD broadcast, but the clarity and performance will be the same. Features and choices will only improve. It's easiest to stay with an existing DTH provider if you have one already. Consumers can be glad that there are plenty of choices for them and they aren't locked in, like in the days of local cable-wallah monopolies!

What’s out there?
As of today, Dish TV provides the largest number of HD channels: Zee TV HD, Zee Cinema HD, Discovery HD World and National Geographic HD. Both Zee channels beam the same content in HD as their standard counterparts, while the National Geographic and Discovery channels are more like showcases with unique content. All operators’ HD channels are clubbed together in an upgrade pack and the cost ranges from Rs. 15/- per month for one channel to Rs. 100/- per month for four channels.

As with any DTH connection, the price includes the cost of the set-top box plus installations charges and will also a free subscription for a few days or months depending on the operator. Existing DTH subscribers who wish to upgrade will have to buy a new set-top box for HD, which can process the heavier signals and provide the required audio and video output ports. Keeping this in mind the operators are offering special discounted rates for existing subscribers. Dish TV users will get a discount of Rs 400 on the Dish TruHD Box, which is priced at Rs 2,990 along with a free subscription to the Platinum and HD packs for two months.

Existing Reliance Big TV subscribers can buy the HD DVR box at a discounted rate of Rs 4,490 as opposed to the official rate of Rs 4,990 for new subscribers, with the option of an offer priced at Rs 5,490 which includes the Diamond pack and the National Geographic HD channel free for three months. At the time of going to press, Reliance has just added Star Plus HD to its offerings.

Airtel digital TV subscribers can go HD at a discounted price of Rs 2,250. Tata Sky on the other hand does not provide any discounts and their existing subscribers will have to purchase the HD set-top box by paying the full price of Rs 2,599. Moreover, Tata Sky Plus customers who have paid for their set-top boxes with the live pause and recording features have no option—they will lose this functionality or sacrifice HD till a combo set-top box is offered. However, if you buy during the ongoing offer period then you will be entitled to a free one-year subscription to the HD Gold Package.

So should you buy now?
Existing DTH customers might not want to buy now with only four channels available. Besides the HD market is still at a nascent stage. Eventually as the market grows and more players make an entry the prices will get more competitive, with more channels and features to enjoy. On the other hand if you are a new customer planning to buy DTH, then it makes sense for you to go for HD. Clearly HD is the future of television as already a lot of programs and movies are in HD and this trend will only gain momentum.

Following in the footsteps of Zee, most popular Indian TV channels are expected to go HD in the span of a year. So if you are planning to buy new DTH connection then you might as well go for the HD set-top box now and add the HD package whenever you feel like later. Before buying there are a couple of things you should keep in mind. You need to check and compare the offer packages of all the operators as well as the features they offer. If you have an DTH DVR (with video recording capabilities) and want the same in HD make sure that the operator you opt for is providing an HD DVR set top box.

The add-on features also play a crucial role. For instance, Tata Sky apart from its usual Actve services provides a channel called Showcase HD where you can pay and watch HD movies on demand. Apart from Tata Sky, Reliance Big TV provides more than 10 free movie channels, which are categorized as Drama, Action, Romance, Regional etc. However these are not in HD. Finally, before zeroing in on an operator it’s a good idea to visit a retail outlet where you will be able to experience the HD first hand.


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