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Sunday, May 24, 2009

Tech: Observations On FiOS After Two Days

We finally made the jump to Verizon FiOS after much deliberation. The deciding factors were In Time-Warner's defense, we did hear back from a VP within the company after I started having problems, but the followup wasn't there, and again, I got the impression nobody cared. The level of caring went right back up again after I called TW to disconnect my service; TW then shunted me to the "customer retention department". There, I was showered with reasons why I should stay, and a reminder that I was still under the state's grace period for making contracts (within the first few days of my switchover I could still cancel my FiOS committment).

So, about FiOS. Two weeks ago, an installer ran fiber to our demarc at the top of our house, and Friday we got a different pair of installers to do the actual connection. There were some mechanical difficulties (the connector they use for fiber is about an inch around or more, which means it didn't go into the 3/4" conduit of our house), but they managed to overcome those. The installation went cleanly, and by the afternoon we had a working system. (I almost have e-mail back, but we'll see how that goes; one of the consequences of running my own sendmail server.)

The DVR is significantly dumber, if much flashier — far too much drilling down to find things, more than even the Scientific Atlanta unit we had previously; often times the organization is essentially random (browsing is not by alpha order in parts, which is weird). However, the remote is better: Helen reports she was able to program the remote so it can control the volume on the receiver rather than on the TV or the DVR even if the remote is set to the set-top box (STB as an acronym is weird). Also, the remote is backlit, handy when you're working in low light. Also, the remote is much faster at the "turn everything on" function, which we use all the time. Minor nit: there's no "Live" button to turn on the DVR back to live, though there does appear to be an equivalent not named that.

Virtually all the channels appear in HD, though the quality seems to vary. We get some channels in HD that we didn't under Time Warner, in particular WGN America, which is a big deal for Helen. The installers kindly gave us HDMI cables for our TVs, and the improvement in broadcast quality is noticeable and impressive; we're getting 1080i on some channels that we were only getting 720p previously.

No matter what else happens, given that our phone service is coming off this line, I have to believe Verizon will take better care of us than the "entertainment" attitude that Time-Warner gave us.


Considering the balls dropped can't blame you. I'm sorry we let you down.
Hey, you know, it's no one person's fault here, certainly not yours, but we ended up paying less per month with Verizon than we were on business class and cable. What amazes me is that nobody has thought about this at Verizon, either.
I'm still unsure as to why some areas give people access to Verizon FiOS, while my area only allows you to get AT&T U-Verse. Is this a holdover from the days when certain areas were exclusive land line rights?

I noticed that TW in my neighborhood (South Pasadena) finally lists the MLB Network as being available. It was supposed to become available in February, then March, then they stopped giving a date. I was told that Adelphia was to blame.
Ugh... just realized I left a sentence out of my reply. It's the part about displays of multiple programs that was an issue on the DVR, and Verizon/Motorola hasn't figured it out, either.

Bob — yes, that's exactly it. Verizon serves my neighborhood in Rossmoor; AT&T used to be Pac*Bell then SBC, and in those neighborhoods, you can get U-Verse. U-Verse plants a fiber drop to the neighborhood, and then runs 20 Mb/s to the home at cable lengths up to 5,000 feet. One of the things that I've heard is that U-Verse doesn't allow a customer to watch more than two HD channels at once, which means that if you have two DVRs in your house, you can only be watching two programs but you can't be recording a third.
Also, Dan -- I wanted to thank you personally for your help in these matters. I do appreciate it.
I've only run into the multiple HD channel problem once. It basically meant that I had to choose between which show would be recorded in HD and which in SD.

With U-Verse, you can only schedule and delete programs from the "master" DVR.
I think for most people, this isn't a problem these days, but it strikes me that AT&T is just delaying the day they have to run fiber everywhere, too.
I'll just throw out there that for those who find cable and FiOS DVR's insufficient, there's TiVo HD, which is considerably more robust. The providers tend not to be enthusiastic about it for obvious reasons, but they are required by law to provide digital CableCards to anyone who wants one, which is what enables the TiVo to tune the digital signal. The major drawback is that any kind of two-way content provided by the cable/FiOS company doesn't work, so that means pay-per-view, etc. (I wouldn't think that would affect Extra Innings, but I don't know as I use MLB.TV instead.) But on the upside, you can use Netflix on-demand and Amazon on-demand, as well as a variety of other net content (Onion News Network!), you can easily add 500 GB to it with a specific WD external drive, or for that matter buy the XL version with a 1 GB internal drive, and its programming is much, much, much, much, much more flexible than those SciAtl and Moto boxes.
720p is better than 1080i (1080i is more or less the same as 540p). But you ought to be able to set your system to display whatever the channel is broadcasting in, which is better than converting it. It sounds like you're now probably set up that way, if some channels are one and some are the other, instead of all the same.
IvanX: you can also use the WD 500GB or 1 TB (terabyte = 1000GB) external drive to SciAtl boxes. I'm doing so now with my Cox Cable connection and it works perfectly. The WB hard drives are specifically designed to work with both TiVo and SciAtl.
berkowit28: A delight to find the AppleScript god himself unexpectedly, in such friendly corners. Thanks for the Entourage scripts, man. I have actually used external drives on SciAtl boxes, though I'd forgotten about it; thanks for the reminder. I would certainly dispute whether 720p is better than 1080i; at any rate, I think it's misleading to 1080i call it equivalent to 540p, since that invites an inferior-sounding comparison to 720p, while not recognizing 1080i's 1920 pixels across rather than 720p's 1280 pixels across. (There is no doubt that a 1080i source on a 720p display is inferior to a 720p source, however, though the reverse is not true.)
Ivan X: this thread is probably dead now, but, yes it's me. Hi, glad the scripts helped. Until a couple of weeks ago, I didn't realize I could tune my TV and DVR to 720p when broadcast at that rate - the Cox Cable guys had tuned it permanently to 1080i for all HD channels. It was actually pretty good, as you say, even for channels broadcasting in 720p. But now that I've figured out how to get it to display at whatever rate the channel is broadcasting in, I'd say that the 720p channels are marginally crisper and better, and slightly crisper than the 1080i channels by a very small amount. By and large, the channels devoted to sports (ESPN, ABC, FSN) and nature (DISC, etc.) broadcast in 720p because it's finer.
Have to disagree about the quality of 720p vs. 1080i; the resolution is noticeably better, but the difference is because of the interlacing, you get half the flicker rate. 720p is arguably better for sports because you have a 60 Hz refresh rate on every line, where 1080i is effectively a 30 Hz refresh rate.
What Rob said. 1080i (1920x1080) has a bit over twice as many pixels per frame than 720p (1280x720), so that it has a finer still picture is indisputable; however, as he also says, each frame (1/30th of a second) is divided into two alternating fields, one with the odd lines and one with the even. This makes motion less fluid and more "jaggedy" than a 720p signal, which has a true full-image 60 frames per second -- but at the expense of total pixels which compose the actual image. That's why sports channels use it -- 720p is better for motion. It's more frames, but lower resolution. (However, on TWC NYC, both DISC and YES are 1080i.) However, it's entirely possible that for reasons particular to your setup, to say nothing of your subjective eye, 720p might look better than 1080i on your particular TV, especially if it's a 720p TV (rather than a 1080i or 1080p), which is most TV's 37" and down (and some larger ones as well). This is because a 720p TV gets to make use of all the data in the 720p signal (1280x720, 60 full-frames per second), whereas the 1080i picture (1920x1080, 60 half-frames per second) has to be scaled down to fit, effectively discarding half the data of the image. In general, I prefer to do what you do, which is let the cable box output whatever the signal is broadcast in, because the conversion performed by your TV is almost certainly better than that done by the box. Final note: comparing different channels is a bit apples and oranges, because a bigger factor than screen resolution is quality of digital video compression, which varies widely; I've seen some pretty bad-looking HD channels due to poor quality (or over) compression.
Both our Sharp TVs support 120 Hz full-motion frame rate conversion (i.e. they do interstitial pixel averaging), which means that in practice, you don't notice these issues, so 1080i is very nearly as good as 720p. We first saw this at Ken Crane's, and the difference is overwhelming. The most advanced technology does 240 Hz refresh, which if you asked me is overkill, but then, I haven't seen it, either.
I saw 240 Hz at CES this year. Not as dramatic a difference as 60->120, but still noticeable -- basically, lateral motion is perfectly smooth. Very impressive. (But the thing that really blew my mind was the Samsung 3D TV which you *didn't* need glasses for.)
I have a 1080p TV and can watch Blu-Ray in 1080p. (BTW, I think I read that the new ESPN center in LA is preparing to record and broadcast some shows in 1080p. I wonder if the cable services will be able to handle that amount of data downloading.) I don't actually see much difference between the 720p and 1080i TV broadcasts - although i do for some reason think I see a marginally greater depth perception on the sports channels broadcasting in 720p. I wonder if that somehow correlates with the quicker action refresh you both refer to, so it seems an unusual manifestation of it.
Define "handle", berkowit28. I would think it all depends on the compression algorithm used; FiOS could probably manage it pretty well, but I have my doubts about AT&T U-Verse. Time-Warner would be okay, I imagine, but that's just a guess.

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