While riveted into home cinema, multimedia just went portable
CAIRO: In Egypt these days, as elsewhere in the world, many people are obsessed with buying plasma screens, assuming they’re going to suddenly have an amazing viewing experience. What’s wrong with this assumption is that it’s high-definition television, not plasma, which promises a sharper picture. Yet in actual fact even high-definition TV can’t even be put into full use yet, because there’s almost nothing you can watch on them that’s of sufficient quality. The medium simply isn’t ready.
Of the plasma and LCD screens available in Egypt, costing anything upwards of LE 20,000, almost none are actually compatible with high-definition content. The HD-Ready or HDTV-Ready badges indicate that the set is capable of displaying a high-definition picture – if you buy an additional tuning device or set-top box that is external to the television itself. Such a TV is essentially a high-resolution monitor.
An actual HDTV includes that tuner, built in. No additional box is necessary, and the set is capable of receiving and displaying your high-definition programming. So it’s a proper HDTV you need.
But wait – an even bigger hurdle is what you’d do with it.
Television is predominantly analogue in nature, both cable and satellite. To be high-definition, content needs to be created and sent in a different way, namely digital. Only America has, so far, pledged to be broadcasting entirely in digital by 2008. Waiting for high-definition content for your high-definition TV in other parts of the world, including the Middle East, might be a long wait indeed.
DVD movies offer higher resolution than standard TV broadcasts (720 by 480 pixels as opposed to 500 by 480), but they don t offer anything near the 1,920 by 1,080 resolution of a high-definition TV. This means you’ll have to pick a side on the HD-DVD versus Blu-ray brawl.
That’s right – the very companies that brought us DVDs in the first place are now fighting over its evolution. Both standards – the Sony-backed Blu-ray and Toshiba/Microsoft-backed HD-DVD – have been developed to enable recording, playback and rewriting of high-definition video and data. The key to these technologies is the blue-violet laser that is used to write the data to the disc at a much shorter wavelength than the current red laser DVD system (a 405 nanometer wavelength versus DVDs that use a 650 nm wavelength red laser), which makes it possible to read and write smaller units – a next-generation optical disc. As a result, these discs can hold up to 15GB (HD-DVD) and 25GB (Blu-ray) of data on a single-sided single-layer 12 centimeter disc.
This additional storage capacity is being deemed essential when HDTV goes mainstream, in order to allow storage of high-definition TV shows or movies on an optical disc in the same high quality. You can record about 13 hours of standard TV but only a bit more than 2 hours of uncompressed high-definition TV on a 25GB disc. Neither format is compatible with the other however; if you choose to buy now, there’s a one in two chance you’ll have picked the Betamax, and not the VHS, to cite the video standards war of the 1980s.
So what then, could you possibly do with a high-definition TV if you’ve already followed through on your urge to buy one? In theory, you could use one of those next-generation games consoles. Both the PS3 and Xbox 360 not only support high-definition, but can also be considered to have driven its rise in popularity. But where are you going to get one of those from? Neither system is likely to get any kind of support in Egypt for the foreseeable future.
So if you’re too impatient to sit out the settling of all this technology, remember that in Egypt you’ve got a feeble chance at best of getting a proper HDTV or any high-definition television broadcasting to watch on it, a Blu-ray or HD-DVD player or any discs for them, or a games console that is compatible.
So chill for the moment, and instead of focusing on the drool-worthy sharpness of high-definition TV, try indulging your electronic fetish by going small and portable.
The convergence of functionality onto hand-held devices is something that we’re actually seeing now and can take advantage of. Microsoft is due to launch Zune this November to compete with the iPod. Zune players will be sold for about $250 (LE 1500) in much of the world, with content available for purchase at a matching online store. Media-friendly software is already available for the newer Blackberry models. And these lifestyle features are being predicted as next steps for Blackberry hand-sets: stereo sound, better video resolution, expandable memory, and a smaller, lighter design, and maybe even a camera.
We won’t know for a few years which types of hand-held devices will win out as the best providers of all these services – will it be the camera companies that add on phone, PDA, and downloading capabilities; or the iPod-esque downloaders that add communication functionality; or the Nokias or Blackberries that add the music and camera (as Blackberry creators Research In Motion have been moving towards a sleeker mobile phone design with the Pearl).
But if you’re the type who likes to be on the so-called bleeding edge of technology, better to ride the wave with a LE 1500 device that gives you some fun on the go while you await convergence than to be sitting in your living room with a LE 45,000 high-definition TV and almost no content to watch on it for ages to come.
Enjoy your iPod or Blackberry, and I’ll see you in a few years at a sale for high-definition television – by which time not only will there be substantially more content, but, given what we know about technology pricing, it’ll cost a lot less too. I’ll be the one with the smile on my face.