While I work here at TWICE and know much of the industry, I don't claim to be our publication's expert on HDTV and related subjects. That's why Greg Tarr writes about it.
So, when the time came 1 ½ years ago to replace my nearly 25-year-old RCA 25-inch console — which had died one day after years of faithful service — my wife and I marched off to P.C. Richard. We were armed with information from members of our staff, and all the latest data about the newest TV sets collected from the Internet. I was prepared to work with the retail salesmen to purchase a television capable of handling what I considered the ultimate in high-tech TV watching — a high-definition-ready unit.
My co-workers did their best to supply me with all the latest information on high-definition viewing, and seemed unconcerned there would be any serious problems ahead. But their nonchalance has proven to be vastly understated.
My wife and I went home with a 50-inch, 16:9 format Cinema Series Toshiba that was more than ready to serve up the best in digital viewing. At the time, late in 2001, my intention was to purchase a high-def converter box from Toshiba and set up a satellite dish outside my house. But the tall trees in the area precluded any thought of a home satellite system, and my HD-ready Toshiba TV continued to supply an analog picture provided by the local cable company, Cablevision.
For the next 14 months, I continued to remain frustrated with my fair-to-middling TV picture, due to Cablevision's analog performance. Cablevision provided digital service in most all its trading areas, except ours. Then, this past January, Cablevision introduced its digital iO programming to my hometown. The fact I cooled my heels on a two-month waiting list before Cablevision installed two brand-new decoder boxes — one for my state-of-the-art 24-inch Toshiba table model and one for the 50-inch king of the house high-def set — did not diffuse my excitement. Digital capability was about to change my life. And TV viewing, expectedly, would never be the same.
Earlier this month, a Cablevision service provider arrived with the two new converter boxes. My first disappointment was that a digital signal was only going to be available for a new bank of stations. All my old channels, about 98 of them, would remain analog. Now, I have to assume some of the responsibility for not realizing that not all viewing was going to be digital. But I was so taken in by Cablevision's promotion for digital service, I never realized only a number of new digital channels would be provided, while the old ones remained the same.
The Cablevision technician, with what turned out to be limited experience in doing this type of installation, and not enough English to effectively communicate with me, began to install the wiring and converter box for the high-def set. We had left the smaller Toshiba with the sound on, following box installation, and it was making extremely loud noises, heard across the house.
When I asked about this, the technician said, "Oh, we have some problems installing digital with Toshiba sets." I have no idea if his analysis was correct, but he called his supervisor, who said additional cables usually solve the noise problem, but the cable company did not supply these. The technician basically told me the noise problem was mine to solve. By the time I ushered him out of the house, the high-def set did seem to work well, yet I was left with no idea how to solve the noise situation on the smaller digital TV.
I did remember that Greg Tarr had warned me that proper digital reception needed cables beyond the coaxial connection. When I find myself victim of my lack of knowledge about CE products, as well as the overwhelmingly difficult procedures consumers need to know to complete electronic installations, I fall back on my old reliable instructor — RadioShack. Off I went to the local RadioShack outlet, where I purchased composite wires for the digital Toshiba, but when I installed them, the same loud sound intermittently interrupted the audio reception. Back to RadioShack, where the owner told me to go home, get my user's manuals for the Toshiba and the cable box and come back to the store. I did, and he skimmed the manuals for the source of trouble.
"Try pushing this video button on your TV remote so a number of instructions come up on the screen," he told me. "You have wired the set from the box into Video 1, but I don't think the TV can read this." I followed his instructions to the letter and the problem was solved. RadioShack had done the job Cablevision should have completed before they left that afternoon.
Adding to my misery, the new converter box for the digital TV was not working properly, stemming from the time the installer had left. A day later, the TV and remote did not interface. Two calls to Cablevision convinced them the box was malfunctioning. When I complained loud and long about the horrible hours spent fulfilling my digital dream, Cablevision said they would come to my house between 8 and 6 the following Sunday to replace the box. I confirmed this appointment, but they didn't show that day. When I called them, they claimed they had called earlier, with no answer. We were home all day.
Now, I doubt this scenario is typical of all digital/high-def cable installations, but in my case, it did emphasize how consumers lacking the ins and outs of current technology need some extra hand-holding.
Cablevision said all-digital service would be available to me in about 1 ½ years, if I can wait that long before I either cut down some trees, or possibly move.
The quest for a quality digital signal burns bright, even if I will never comprehend the manual that comes with the cable boxes. It would take more of my time at RadioShack to convert these instructions into laymen's terms.
As the HDTV rollout continues, many consumers will be disappointed, resulting in product returns, if my experience is commonplace. Here is an opportunity for retailers getting into the sale of cable equipment to become more knowledgeable, with the hope of providing consumers solutions to the problems cable companies create.
Long-time trade journalist Jeff Malester is TWICE's business editor, who in addition to covering the financial side of consumer electronics and major appliance companies, also covers the accessories market.