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What You Need to Know About Digital Cable

April 12, 2001|JON HEALEY |

The cable TV companies have spent the last three years extending their next-generation service, digital cable, to every major city in the U.S., including almost every community in the Los Angeles metropolitan area.

Despite heavy marketing, however, many consumers remain confused about what digital cable is. One reason is the proliferation of new gear and services that carry the "digital" tag, such as digital TV and digital satellite. These things don't actually work together; they just use the same adjective.

So to help clear up the confusion, here's a list of seven things that every consumer needs to know about digital cable:

1. The main function of digital cable is to deliver more channels.

When direct broadcast satellite services such as DirecTV and DishNetwork emerged in the mid-1990s, they offered far more channels than cable for about the same price. The cable companies eventually responded by converting part of their networks to digital, quickly boosting the number of channels they could offer.

The key difference is that the 1s and 0s of digital signals can be packed into a much smaller space than the electronic waves of analog signals. The cable operators use these compression techniques to squeeze 10 or more digital channels into a single analog channel.

2. Digital cable isn't "digital TV" or HDTV.

Digital TV generally refers to a new type of over-the-air television broadcast that can deliver cinema-quality pictures with far more detail than a conventional TV picture. The highest-quality version is called HDTV, short for high-definition television. To tune in to a digital TV broadcast, you need a digital TV capable of displaying those extra details. Digital cable, however, uses a converter box that's designed to connect to a conventional TV set.

All the major local broadcast stations transmit digital TV signals over the air in addition to their analog ones, but you can't receive the digital signals through cable--not even on the digital tier. The cable companies say there's not enough demand or unique digital programming at this point to justify carrying those channels.

3. Digital means better reception--but not necessarily better pictures.

Digital cable delivers a clear picture free of the distortions that creep into older analog cable systems. But the starting point is still an analog TV signal, not HDTV. So picture quality is, at best, equal to a pristine analog signal. And the improved reception is limited to the digital tier--the other channels are still transmitted in analog.

4. Niche tastes find a home on digital cable.

Although many of the digital channels are devoted to premium movie, pay-per-view and music services, there's a growing number of channels aimed at specialty audiences. A good example is the surge in channels featuring programming in foreign languages. AT&T and Cox, for example, offer entire tiers of digital channels in Spanish. Cox's digital tier also carries Farsi, French, Italian and Scandinavian channels.

To help viewers navigate the vast expanse of programming, digital cable services come with an on-screen program guide that's far superior to conventional cable's scrolling listings. These customizable guides might be the most popular feature of the services.

5. Digital converter boxes pose a problem for active VCR users.

Because the current boxes have only one tuner in them, recording one channel while watching another can be tricky. It's impossible to simultaneously watch and record two digital channels.

But you can watch an analog cable channel while taping a digital channel if you split your cable into two lines with an inexpensive cable splitter. One line runs to your digital converter box, the other into a second input on the back of your TV. If you don't have two TV inputs, you'll need another device as well called an A-B switch.

Things get even trickier if you want to tape shows on different channels while you're away. Because a VCR receives TV signals from the digital converter box, it can record only the channel that the converter box is tuned to at the moment. Unfortunately, the Motorola digital converter boxes currently used by many cable operators can't be programmed to change channels automatically. To overcome that handicap, you need a VCR with an "IR blaster" that simulates the commands sent by the digital converter box's remote control.

6. Digital networks make a host of new services possible, but don't hold your breath.

Despite lots of rhetoric from the cable operators about interactive TV and other gee-whiz services, they've done little besides test the technology. The main exception in the Los Angeles area has been Charter, which is offering video on demand in Pasadena and a simple e-commerce feature to all its digital customers.

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