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17/11/2015 UHD TV - What You Need To Know

I had been thinking of upgrading from a 50"/127cm TV to a 60"/150cm for quite a while - about two years in fact! Initially I was going to go for a good HD screen, the Panasonic TH-60AS700A at around $2000 which could eventually be bought as a remainder or run-out at $1499. I didn't move fast enough and they all sold through.

The positive side of this was that the new UHD TV TH-60CX700A started to sell for $2000, so I got that instead. Yes, I know it will go for even less as it nears the end of its run, but I had to have it now. It has performed very well indeed, making our theatre room more theatre-like and giving superb pictures. I have no 4k sources as yet, but it does a great job on everything else, from DVD or blu-ray.

Since the sets have reached the more affordable level and are readily available, you might like to read this piece from Techradar on what you need to know. It gives a very clear explanation of all the aspects. There's now no reason why you should buy anything of a lesser standard if you're shopping for a new set of 55" or larger. Unless money is really tight and you just need a new set and HD will do! I understand these things.

Things You Find on Netflix #1

Not just another old war story, and I've seen just about all of those.

The debonair gentleman pictured above was none other than Herman Goering's brother Albert. In the Nazi era this made him very well connected indeed, but in reality there were some very important differences between the two men. Herman was at the top of the Nazi totem pole, second only to Hitler. Albert was more of a businessman and engineer.

But the most important difference was that while Herman and the rest of the Nazi hierarchy were intent on their Final Solution, Albert was quietly working to save lives, in the same way as Oscar Schindler or Raoul Wallenberg, by getting them out of the country, getting them jobs in safer places, and in some cases (it's said) even springing them from concentration camps! The other difference I'll leave to the show to tell you about.

You can find this amazing story titled Goering's Last Secret among the documentaries on Netflix. It's worth watching right to the end, and I'll not give too much away, but as Herman's brother he was in the first instance able to do things nobody else would have got away with, but after the war ended it was a different story. The show includes interviews with survivors that he helped, and even Albert's daughter.

26/3/2015 - The latest appraisal from Adam Turner at SMH Tech. "A new golden era."

UPDATE: 24/3/2015

It's here. The Australian does a quick comparison of what all the streaming companies are offering. Which one you choose will depend on which programs are the most desirable for you. I've signed up for the free one-month trial of Netflix, but this first month might be a bit light-on in terms of available programs. I'm a bit hard to please and a limited choice isn't going to convince me to sign up for the paid version.

More on how each of the streaming services functions and how they impact on your monthly download allowance, from Adam Turner at SMH Tech Pages.

8/3/2015 - Netflix to Start, but wait ...

Netflix in Australia starting up 24/3/2015, and it has been eagerly awaited by many people. However, the situation remains far from clear just how we are to access all the things we might like to, due to the fragmentation of the offerings from the various suppliers.

Adam Turner from the SMH offers some up-to-date advice on all this streaming video stuff, as well as tips on how to get Netflix through your Apple TV.

Community TV Shunted To Internet at End of 2015

The Minister For Communications, Malcolm Turnbull, has outlined the plan to shift all the community TV stations out of the digital TV spectrum as at the end of 2015. Apparently the license runs out according to legislation as at December 2014, so they're giving a year to adjust. Probably comes as a shock to the stattions, who might have reasonably expected a renewal!

The spectrum freed up will become available as a sixth channel for existing operators, or an upgrade to HD for some existing channels. How the ABC arrived at the conclusion that their HD channel should be the News 24 Hour one remains a mystery, but hopefully this will allow them to make the main channel HD as well.

Analogue off, Ultra-HD on!

The turn-off of analogue TV is looming large now, at the same time as TVs are making another leap in resolution up to the Ultra-HD specification (3840x2160), with 4 times as many pixels as "normal" HD. Anyone who hasn't upgraded their TV to date is probably not going to understand the terminology, and will fall straight into a new HD set at a price way lower than if they'd done it back when plasmas and LCD screens were in their first fabulous five years, say up until around 2004/5.

The clarity of the new Ultra-HD sets, particularly at the 84" size I saw yesterday, is amazing. Admittedly it was a special reel of lovely European architectural and landscape images, just right for the purpose, but even so, standing just three metres back from that large screen the detail was striking. Pixels were not drawing any attention to themselves. Faster motion might upset that impression, however.

Just as small screens can look good without being 1920x1080 (HD), your average sized 42 or 50 inch screen isn't going to show as much benefit as the60, 65 and upwards. These larger sizes are pretty affordable, and may become more so for a while as they are relegated to second-best! You can score a pretty good 60" HD screen for around $2200, but the 4k versions will cost more like double that. The really big ones (like the 84") are currently in the $15-16k range, while a 65" 4k set will set you back a mere $7699 for the Panasonic LCD/LED backlit model, TH-L65WT600A, or under $7k for the Samsung Series 9 65 inch F9000 UHD TV.

For the time being, and who knows how long this will take, anyone buying a 4k TV will be continuing to watch HD material rather than 4k Ultra-HD. Blu-ray is not about to be upgraded, even if disc capacity was expanded by multi-layering to do it. The increase in data flow means that we will have to download Ultra-HD material and store it on a hard drive.

Tech progress in consumer electronics often goes in fits and starts, with one branch of the technology moving ahead of the other. It's too early to say how this one will pan out, but I assume that all new movies for some time now will have been shot in Ultra-HD, so eventually it'll be a matter of how to move them around. But don't hold your breath on that one.

You can find some further thoughts on 4k TV here.

Direct Delivery TV Ripe For Explosion

Am I alone in thinking the whole TV via broadband and/or cable is about to blow up big time? There are so many bits and pieces around or coming soon which will make it easier and easier to get plenty of viewing without signing up for a content aggregation of the Foxtel type.

Google's Chromecast - click for review, a dongle for plugging into your bigscreen and surfing everything the web has to offer, is so successful already that Apple will probably have to do something similar. There are rumours of a new Apple TV widget, perhaps due to be announced at the next release date. Sony's new PS Vita is another one! I may get a Chromecast - the Boxee Box isn't doing it for me!

Note: even Chromecast, which sells for $35 in the USA, isn't sold here unless you pay at east double that for a grey import! But back to the main topic. If you buy a new TV now, it probably has the web browser in it, and may be wirelessly connected as well - although I still prefer wired connection for video. The challenge to all service providers is that nearly everyone will soon be able to access web-based content, so who are they going to use?

The big names like Foxtel are finding it more and more difficult to add more subscribers without offering easier terms. No contract was one move. Cheaper offers have been floated. All points to some anguish. But their offers so far are pretty weak. They really add up to "we'll give you a poor selection for a lot less, but by the time you get a few better bits added, it still costs!"

Sorry, but we now live in a world where we can have all the music ever recorded for $12/month, in premium service, from companies like Spotify. And $12/month is about all a TV viewing service is worth. A lot of people are time poor, and it's not as if there's nothing to watch on FTA and You Tube. I have a huge backlog of stuff on my FTA hard drive, and there are whole shows and movies on You Tube any time.

I expect 2014 is going to be the year things blow up big time and we go a step further along the road which the record companies have already trod, but the video-retentives have been too faint-hearted to follow. In the UK, Virgin cable is making an alliance with Netflix. Content providers like Netflix are going to increasingly also produce exclusive programs and market them themselves or just through associates. In Australia, the ABC is going to lose its traditional BBC link. So, we have a certain amountof ring-fencing going on, but ultimately there are only so many subscription services any of us wants to pay for.

At some stage the model really needs to evolve further, so it's a case of who you buy your streams from based on their service quality or ease of use, not who's got exclusives. The Apple pay-per-view is ok for light users, but they too need to evolve towards a more smorgasbord monthly package approach.

As I'm always saying, Australia is hampered by its relatively small population, so we tend to get stuff later unless we do the old workaround with geo-limiting. But we are also fairly spendy on entertainment, so make up for it that way. Netflix and others may end up being overtaken before they even arrive, just as Rhapsody was. Get a move on, guys. Tempt me.

UPDATE - Adam Turner give this summary as at 11/12/2013 in the SMH: Attack Of The Netflix Clones.

They Have More HD!

News that the BBC is to launch five new HD channels, using spectrum freed up by the cessation of analogue broadcasts, holds promise of more goodies to come our way in 2014 here in Australia. Our own analogue TV shutdown looms at the end of 2013, and this will also free up spectrum for the regional expansion of DAB+ radio, long overdue.

It also begs the question why, when HD is so limited, did the ABC decide to devote its HD channel to news instead of to regular ABC1 programming, where the better picture quality would be used on programs that really benefit from it. Documentaries, drama, gardening shows, movies; all those programs would look better. Instead we get news presenters in glorious HD sitting in their studio set, while much of the news footage from local places or from around the world doesn't justify the higher quality. Standard definition would be fine for all that.

Spectrum management is challenging, but sometimes here it moves mysteriously and very slowly.

While on the subject of the BBC, it emerged back in April that the first-run rights for a lot of popular BBC shows will move to Foxtel and away from the ABC. As I've said before, the trend is to exclusivity in order to win market share. This is a principle that doesn't apply to the retail trade so much - competitiveness and lower prices (and the margins are not the concern of the customer, retailers survive by whatever means they can) are the golden rule there.

Downton Abbey Closed To Public?

The exclusivity we've been noticing creeping into the marketplace has just (in America) snagged one of the most popular TV series, Downton Abbey. The new series will be an exclusive to Amamzon's Prime Instant Video, and if the story is correct, the whole series might go behind Amazon's pay wall.

Netflix To Be Devalued?

Will Netflix ever arrive, and will it still be the force it is now? Once again I'm impressed with Adam Turner, who has an article at Business Spectator where he questions the future of services like Netflix in terms of the upcoming fragmentation of video program channels. What does that mean?

Simply put, it means that the content providers are starting to stitch up exclusivity deals with internet and cable service providers. A notable one is the HBO/Foxtel deal, which will mean that Foxtel alone will have first-release rights to HBO's popular offerings from next year.

You'll see other examples of this, where a film or TV program producer might have an arrangement with a TV network, but certain content will only stream to Samsung TV sets! As Adam Turner says in the linked article, this is perhaps not the way to convince people to use legitimate channels. Bypassing them and getting your programs by other means has been epidemic, and can only be countered by making it easier to use legit channels, not harder.

I had hoped that one reasonably priced provider would suffice. But even my cosy arrangement with Apple TV could be threatened by this new paradigm. I use Apple TV for the ease-of-use and relatively low financial damage on a user-pays-per-movie-hire basis. We don't watch a lot of movies, so it costs only about $12/month anyway. Another $12/month goes on Spotify Premium, and now $49 a year or around $4/month for the upgraded version of as well. Foxtel has made its basic package cheaper, with the Essentials at $47/month, but I'm not going there for the time being. No urgent need. I think they can eventually do even better, even if it has to be as part of a package with the Bigpond ISP deal.

The other way into Netflix is to convince the system that you're in the USA. According to Turner, they are not now so hard-nosed about rejecting Australian credit cards, so that route remains open for now.

It's always been the case that content providers want to get a return on their product for as long as possible. Hollywood has been super-protective of their stuff, and the heavy tactics used back in Laserdisc days are legendary. Region coding remains a bugbear to this day, not so much with DVD, but still with Blu-ray.

A modern business model, however, should have as its basic elements (i) increased availability of new and old catalogue items, (ii) ease of use, and (iii) prices that you don't have to anguish about, leading to increased legit use, not increased illegit use. Surely that can be done, and the means of doing it are there now.

UPDATE: Adam Turner reports that Netflix is too busy going into Europe to worry about Australia, and it's got so bad that he says even Choice is giving advice on how to gt around geo-blocking, which stops Australian from accessing Netflix and other things in the USA. Spotify has set up in Australia, Netflix should too.

Paying For Channels We Don't Use

Foxtel's 2012 agreement to be the sole source for first-run HBO programs (starting next year) via its cable packages is an important plank in maintaining the core strategy of cable TV suppliers here and in the USA. What core strategy? Well, it's to maximize income by not letting us choose just the channels we actually use. By enforcing a "bundle" approach, the cable companies can guarantee higher overall income for themselves and for the various content providers.

You see, out of the total market of subscribers, if left to their own devices and allowed to choose just this and that, some channels would only realize 20 - 40% of the income that bundling ensures for them. To put this another way, up to eighty percent of their revenue is coming in from subscribers who don't even watch their channel.

Dustin Rowles of Warming Glow has done the maths, and it came out like this. Firstly he costs the individual channels. Some cost more than others, of course. Then he adds up the total for the channels he regularly uses. The bottom line is that instead of $60/month, his bill would be $17.62 before taxes and fees. "I suspect most of our cable bills would look much more like $20 a month instead of $60 a month, and that's exactly what the cable industry doesn't want, which is why we'll never get an a la carte model."

Commenters at the foot of that page offer differing views. One says that it's only because of the bundling that those individual channel prices hold, and otherwise they'd individually cost more. Maybe. Another says "Can you imagine going to the grocery store for some milk … and only being able to buy milk in a bundle with eggs, tampons, batteries, an avacado, shoelaces, and a can opener?"

Individual usage patterns make the bundle better or worse value. Someone who watches something every evening does better out of it than someone who watches maybe one movie a week. The light user can get away with four or five movie hires a month, and the convenience of Apple TV/iTunes, for an average cost of about $25/month. Netflix would cut this in half while increasing availability exponentially, but we're not legally enabled, here in backwater Australia, to do that. Furthermore, as Adam Turner pointed out in his recent newspaper article, Foxtel might enforce some items being withdrawn from our local iTunes Store based on those exclusive first-run contracts they have. This will take effect in 2014.

Turner also points out that while we get a pretty good go via free-to-air, the broadcasters muck around with start times, too many ads, and have driven Australians to the forefront of illegal bit-torrent usage.

I'm not holding my breath for a change. The Foxtel Essentials Pack at $47/month is probably as good as it's going to get for now. But the difference in value between what's offered in the music world now for a low monthly fee, and what's offered by the cable monopoly is stark. And it's galling to realize that the beaut little Apple TV when sold in America includes easy access to Netflix!

I'll give Adam Turner the last word, from the linked article: To win over more Australian homes, Foxtel needs to offer better value for money. One option is to make its plans more affordable, while another option is to lock away more content so people need to pay to watch their favourite shows. Wielding a big cheque book, Foxtel seems determined to go down the second path.

Is Apple's TV Set Imminent?

Talk of Apple's actual TV set rather than just the little box is on again, but this time it's LG stepping in to say now might not be a good time! They would say that, wouldn't they? It'll never be the right time for a red-hot competitor to enter the already highly competitive (to the point of loss-making) flat screen market.

LG referred to "the tough market conditions and complex procedure and skills required to make a smart TV." Yeah, right, that'd be way too tough for Apple! Really, the tough part is that for Apple to make a set it has to have more things in it than just what other networked TVs have, as well as more than the Apple TV widget has now.

Additionally, the TV market is very fashion-driven. People are impressed for a while with the idea of 3D, then they say they're bored with that, what else have you got? This next 12 months will be no different, with one-upmanship on the 4k front as well as possible new OLED screens making a debut - but at what price and size?

It takes no time at all in the TV market for last year's model to look chubby compared to this year's. Slimmer bezels will give way to none at all. Being able to connect to the internet will give way to more apps and games, and now there are more clever ways of controlling sets with voice or gesture. It's never-ending!

So, you could understand why Apple is probably dithering a bit, waiting to be sure they have something that doesn't just work well, but goes that extra mile in some way, and also looks absolutely drop-dead gorgeous. It's a big ask. But eventually they'll do it, and after that they'll do what they always do - bring out a new model next year. Once the ball starts rolling, it will be on for everyone, including LG.

To date, Samsung have been the one to take it up to Apple on most fronts, including the all-important phone front. I expect they'll be continuing to look to their own prime position in this market, as will Panasonic. All of them will be looking to mke sure their new offerings have that bit extra this year and next, just in case the Apple tiger gets loose.

Old TV Series Live Again!

Have you heard of Television Heaven? It's a site where they have a brief review on all the old TV series, going back to the very beginnings of such things.

Danger Man - starring Patrick McGoohan, a brief excerpt - "Very much a harbinger of the spy/adventure series which would dominate 60's television and movie screens worldwide, 'Danger Man' was a slick, professional and exciting package that turned its coolly handsome Irish leading man into a near overnight international star."

39 Episodes of 30 minutes, and 45 of 60 minutes. The first series predated the first Bond movie by a couple of years. McGoohan went on to do one of the uber-cultist series of the era, The Prisoner.

Then, of course, you have The Avengers. "Few television series have transcended their original concept and evolved to actually help shape and define the era in which they flourished. But then of course, there's precious few series quite like The Avengers. "

That's fine, as far as an information resource is concerned. But if you want to actually get your hands on some of these long-gone series, you'll need to email and ask for a price list. They'll send you regular updates too. How about 84 episodes of Allo, Allo for £20, same for 84 episodes of Dad's Army; or Eric Sykes Series 1-7 for £25?

20 Episodes of Dr Finlay's Casebook £12

Monty Python's Flying Circus Series 1-4 £10

Peter Sellers Movie Collection: 9 DVDs, available separately, each with 2 movies @ £4, or 3 for £10.

There's lots more.

The big question remains, how long do we have to wait until all this stuff is readily available instantly via legitimate online libraries?

The Allure Of The Soap

Soaps are often derided, and often deservedly so. But there is a core of appeal in the long-running, "lifelike" series format, and it's called involvement. You want to see what happens to the characters you have started to care about - if it's a well-written and produced series, that is.

I'm not going to waste time on the poorer ones, the low-common-denominator commercial channel ones, even though some lasted forever and may still be meandering along. This is just going to be about those ones that have stood the test of time for a more demanding audience, and perhaps one or two you've never heard of. Like my movie lists, not exhaustive but very selective.

Back in the black & white TV era there were shows like Peyton Place from the USA, and Coronation Street from the UK. I'm not going to talk about those, even though they were the training ground for actors like Mia Farrow and Ryan O'Neal, and no doubt many more. Kylie Minogue got her start through Neighbours too, but I'm not going there, or to Home & Away.

We'll start with the little town of Bellbird, a series that the ABC came up with in the 1960s. It was introduced by a perky theme on flute, with piano accompaniment, and had all the small-town characters that people could so readily relate to. It was written on an ad hoc basis, so the writers had control. This is, of course, a two-edged sword, and soaps have been mercilessly pilloried for the sometimes ridiculous plot twists that can happen. Two movies (which still bear re-watching) made good mileage from this aspect: Soapdish (highly recommended), and "Tootsie". Bellbird was a raging success in those early days of television in the regions, and is still a benchmark for the ABC and the local industry as a whole. It ran for ten years!

Going off at a tangent, the late 1960s also saw the long running adaptation of The Forsyte Saga. It had 26 episodes, covering loosely the John Galsworthy novels from early in the 1900s. Galsworty had started out to satirise the mercantile class, but reportedly grew more fond of them as he progressed. I was at boarding school at the time, so missed most of the first run. I made up for that by reading the books, perhaps the only person in my school who did so. There has been another run over that target recently, with Granada doing a new series in the early 2000s, which I haven't seen.

The early seventies saw a UK production called A Family At War come to our screens, which were still quite small, and still lacking colour. It had a great cast, great writing, and captured the home front particularly well. It had no battles, but plenty of dramatic turns and character development. I'm fairly sure this excellent soap was the inspiration for the Australian series The Sullivans, which was immensely successful and ran from 1976 to 1983, and made its actors household names.

1971 also saw the start of Upstairs, Downstairs, which has had enduring appeal ever since. It is about to have another rebirth, with another "next generation" series starting up soon , along with what looks a lot like a spin-off in the shape of the very successful Downton Abbey. Both of these became essential viewing for the wife in 2012, and will remain so, I'm sure.

Although it was only eleven episodes, the 1981 production of Bridehead Revisited qualifies as a sort of soap, having as its basis the development of a friendship between university aged young men, one of a modest middle-class background, and another of a wealthy upper-crust (in fact titled) family. The grand estate, the beautiful sister, the ardently religious mother and the absent-in-Venice father, complete with Italian mistress, all added spice to a very British story. Thirty years on, this series is still being listed as one of the all-time greats, and it introduced Jeremy Irons to a wide public.

OK, so much for the well-known ones. I'll finish with two lesser-known classics. The first is Clochemerle, adapted by those very adept comedy writers Galton & Simpson, famous for their script work for Hancock's Half Hour and Steptoe & Son. Set and filmed in a small French village, the series told of the personal and political intrigues surrounding the planning for and building of an edifice in the town's main street, namely a public toilet. It's a satirical comedy, and now exists only in poor transfers as far as I'm aware. Let's hope it gets re-processed digitally one day and is restored to pristine quality, or something better than the lousy VCR transfers I've seen to date. This series may have been, like the Not Only But Also series of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, a victim of cost cutting at some stage, or may simply have been lost in anonymous film cans somewhere. The BBC recycled most of the Pete & Dud tapes! Some survived.

Lastly, my all-time number one recommendation, my favourite soap of them all. Edgar Rietz's Heimat. It now stretches to three parts, and I admit I've yet to catch up with the third. Even just the first series, Heimat: A Chronicle Of Germany (11 Episodes) defies description. It is cinematic, and yet it is more of a series, being so ambitious as to try and cover a family from WW1 through until the 1960s. The cinematography is superb, the characters utterly intriguing, and the story unfolds in a somewhat quirky but fascinating way. The ending of the first series has a spiritual element that is absolutely inspiring, being almost casually injected into a real life setting, and drawing the threads together in a final tableau. The depiction of some everyday minor Nazi Party officials as townfolk made good is at once comedic and chilling.

On balance this is a work that has more ups than downs, but there's a gentle set of reminders of the past that apparently struck deeply into the hearts of many Germans who had lived in denial for a long time.

The second series, Chronicle Of A Generation, is the period from 1960 through to the Bader-Meinhoff Gang era in the 70s, and closely follows a group of students, centering on the son of the central character from series one, who attends the Munich Conservetoire to study composition. It is about young frustrated love, music, art and film making. Again it is set against a tapestry of Germany in that period, with glimpses of ordinary folk who greet each other with the words "Gruss Gott", or go to beer halls, eat, drink, sing, and sometimes brawl. It is not without tragedy, and ends on a fleeting moment of fulfillment plus one of sadness at where they all end up. Carole Angier starts her article with these words: " In 1984 there were four world-famous German film directors: Fassbinder, Herzog, Schlondorff and Wenders. The suddenly there was a fifth, Edgar Reitz of Heimat."

You can find all three series on ebay now, in DVD box sets. Go for it! At least try the first one, and if you can stop at one I'll be surprised.

The Video Streaming Frontier

Broad licensing of video content is the one remaining frontier issue that everyone is skating around but not really addressing to my satisfaction. The music industry has accepted that everything is about the numbers achieved with minimal effort. That's why you can now get all the music you can consume, from a vast catalogue, for $10-$12 per month for a "premium" service - meaning no ads and better audio quality. If you don't mind the lesser version with some ads, you can get a lot of stuff for nothing.

Of course, you can get a certain amount of music or video from the free-to-air TV or radio channels, but some things will be held back due to exclusive contracts such as HBO being cable only. FTA radio remains a "linear format". They play what they think you'll like, and you're stuck with it. There's no "skip forward" button.

Being a radio fan from way back, I am noticing that there are genuine fears for the future of broadcast services, since so much will be available to so many over the internet anyway. But there remain certain "advantage" factors that should see broadcast radio continue for quite a while yet. That's meat for a separate article on the Radio Page. Back to my ongoing gripe about video - which is fairly academic for me personally, as I'm reluctant to spend that much time passively absorbing movies in any event. But it's a live issue in the modern wired or wireless world.

Is there something inherently different about making video archives available to stream on demand for a more nominal fee? It's being done for music, which people are just as addicted to, and in some cases more so! The mechanisms are all tested and working, so as long as the connection is quick enough (and it doesn't have to be the ultimate speedster one) we could all be enjoying video on demand to a much greater degree than now, for a lot less money. Then I'd buy it, just as I have bought Spotify's premium plan.

Despite what some may think about Foxtel being cheap as part of a Telstra Home Package, I reckon you're still paying about $60 a month for it, plus additional rental fees.

Their market penetration will remain lower than they'd like until they can halve that and offer more flexible packages and no long contract.

In the meantime I can download a movie a week for about $5, and most weeks it will only be one. I also have a hard drive full of free-to-air stuff waiting to be watched. But if I was tempted into Foxtel, who knows, my habits might change.

Apple are still thinking seriously about doing their thing to TV at the next level, and many are tipping that 2013 will be the year it happens. What's stopping them is the licensing of content. It needs to be much more available than it is now. It needs to be as available as music.

The 4k Revolution Starts

The announcement by Sony of a new 84" LED backlit LCD screen with 4k resolution (3840x2100) comes hard on the heels of a similar sized effort by LG. Sharp re active in the bigger screens too, although their 90" model will be Full HD not Ultra 4k. Are we going to notice much difference sitting at normal distances from these screens? Maybe not, but advances in video and audio are often not appreciated until all the pieces fall into place.

To the average consumer, watching a movie might look better on blu-ray than DVD, but how many of them have a sound system that delivers the improved (uncompressed) sound that blu-ray delivers via Dolby True HD or DTS-HD Master Audio? Sadly, there are relatively few of us with systems that good - probably 90% of the population aren't there yet.

We are also in the new age of Hi-res Audio, delivering superb sound at 24bit/192kHz, but again, the proportion of the population who have a system revealing that improvement is vanishingly small. But this shouldn't stop improvements from being sought, achieved, and brought to market.

Casting back into the dim distant past, it was not everybody that had a Super VHS VCR or a TV that accepted it. But when DVD came along, the improvement, particularly on larger screens, was just too much to ignore. To begin with, those new plasma screens that cost a fortune back around 1999/2000 looked good but often had resolutions way below what we now regard as HD, let along Full HD. I often heard people say they still liked CRT better! I don't hear that now.

The new Ultra screens with four times the pixel count of current Full HD will come along by the end of this year, and all the next releases of premium surround sound receivers from the major brands will have allowed for 4k pass through and upscaling. But it will be a while before the software catches up. What will it be? Perhaps blu-ray discs will have to go through one more evolutionary exercise to accommodate additional info by means of extra layers, or there will have to be a smart compression algorithm which losslessly does the deed.

Most big steps in technology take at least two years to become established with even a minority of users, so we are just at the leading edge of this one.

Time for Top Gear Hifi & Home Theatre?

Time For Top Gear Hifi?

For years I've been observing the ways things are sold, and the advance of technology in the selling business. I've touched on this next thing before, but really, it's time! Time for what? Time for a home entertainment technology show along the lines of Top Gear.

The phenomenal success of Top Gear owes much to the personalities involved, but that need not be an insurmountable hurdle for a show about hifi and home theatre (as well as other aspects like multi-room and home automation) to cope with.

We've also seen great rating for shows about home improvements, which adds confidence to the proposal that this would be a popular show. It can be done in a studio (or someone's well set up listening room) as a panel show, which makes production relatively easy and not as expensive as shows which require a lot of location shoots - which Top Gear does.

The basic format is not hard to come up with. A main segment would be the product shoot-out between (for example) several amplifiers, surround receivers or speaker systems. The panel will include three experts - perhaps one from a hifi magazine (well respected editor or reviewer), one with retail background, and one with nuts & bolts industry experience on the manufacturing, wholesaling and marketing side.

We, the viewers, will see them listening, watching, assessing and explaining the pros and cons of the group they are covering this week, and while we may not be able to fully hear or see the subtle differences, even with a good home setup, this is not a problem. We can't feel how a car handles either by watching Top Gear, but we can get their firsthand commentary and be taken along for the ride, so to speak.

Just like the car industry, there are new models coming through year after year (in fact every week or so!), and things will always be evolving. Part of the show may be telling the viewers just what the implications are of the impending upgrade to something like 4k screens, just when we're all getting used to the 2k standard offered by Blu-ray and HD TV.

There's plenty of scope for variations in the type of gear being covered. Stereo, Surround, Projectors, Flat Panels, Speakers, Subwoofers, Online Music Services, Wireless Technology, Home Automation, Systems large and small. There is plenty of material, enough to be going on with forever. Magazines cover this market, just as car mags and bike mags cover theirs. But nothing trumps video these days, and all the pieces are falling into place for new content to be most welcome - it's accessible so many ways, and all that "air time" has to be filled.

What's needed is either a TV channel to be involved (risky as they would probably skew the production too far towards "low common denominator" audiences) or a private film/tv production company to do the groundwork and sell it on to the TV or cable people. What do you think? Comments to me via email (see website home page) or via Facebook.

Photo Finish (ABC TV) - What A Performance!

This week had another very tough job for the amateurs - photographing a live performance. The challenge of doing this in available light - and there wasn't much of it - but with plenty of movement, is considerable. They had two things going for them however. One was that they were given good SLRs to work with. Secondly, they had Prudence Upton as the expert adviser. I was impressed with her very sound advice to each contestant. She came across as a lovely person as well as being drop dead gorgeous herself.

The lady who had to take the modern dance group had very poor lighting, with too much alternation between red and blue, neither of which does anything for skin tones. The action was fast, and her shots were mostly blurry. She was a bit despondent about the results, and I could see why, although the judges loved it. They loved it so much she scored the prize this week.

The chap doing the boat-people play had drama and more set-piece poses to work with, and managed to get some good shots. I felt he was a close run second. Once again the lighting didn't assist, casting a very orange hue over the scene.

The third contestant (experienced in surf shots) started out by moving about too much and was corrected by Prudence. Then he really got into the groove, standing still and using rapid-fire exposures. These cameras can do that easily. The light was better on his stage, so he had a good chance of getting colour balances right, although light levels had to be sacrificed in favour of arresting the movement by faster shutter speeds. His shot of the two performers twirling in mid-air while kissing, with the woman's skirt splaying around in a horizontal fan shape was my winner, having drama, line focus and romance all captured very neatly. It was rather rich of the judges saying the light was a bit dark! The shot couldn't have been captured any other way unless you allowed them post-exposure manipulation.

Incidentally, that's something all professionals have open to them. But all these episodes of Photo Finish kept the amateurs strictly to getting the shot and showing it exactly as it came out. Ansel Adams became famous for the way he produced dramatic images, and his darkroom technique was an integral part of his method. His prints most certainly were not as per the negative.

So, I think my scoring this time would have been the opposite of what I felt the judges were saying. But the series overall has been interesting - it could be made more so by being hosted by Prudence Upton!

Photo Finish (ABC TV) - Unmoved By Mobiles

The evolution of mobile phone cameras has been nothing short of astonishing, but I'm almost equally astonished that anyone uses one as a primary camera, and that he's become a recognized authority on the subject. When all's said and done, the megapixels aren't enough to balance the equation. So, this week's assignment once again took three quite reasonable amateurs and nobbled them. The phone camera is better than the plastic rubbish of a previous episode, but still more of a gimmick in this context than a serious proposition. It's something to use when you just can't have a real camera along, or forgot to take one. It's an "opportunity camera", or one that comes into its own when otherwise you'd have missed a shot altogether. Very valuable in that respect, but that's all.

Then, having equipped them with something way short of the photojournalist's Leica that they thought was ideal for such things last time, they then thrust them into a streetscape lacking the ability to look like a photographer at all. This makes asking people's permission that much harder. A small but decent looking Leica, or even a Fuji X-10 gives you a bit more street cred as a photographer rather than an unknown street-person-come-stalker waving a phone around. And they all struggled to get something worth the time and effort. Kings Cross was a bit quiet during the day, Pitt Street had lots of people but they were mostly in a hurry, and Chinatown was drawn by the shy one who had trouble asking for permission and ended up submitting a photo lacking the key specification - people interacting with the setting.

The Kings Cross lady was in luck when she launched into the pavement café group and got a character shot of the older man with that dissipated, up-the-Cross persona. Having given the three these lousy devices (good as they may be as a stop-gap) I thought it a bit rich to then complain that the guy up the Cross was a bit underexposed, a bit poorly lit. It wasn't supposed to be about the technicalities, and what do you do about it anyway when one half of the shot is lit street and the other half is under an awning?

The Pitt Street guy had some people who were photogenic enough, but posing was not what the judges were looking for. The third photographer in Chinatown should have gone with the girls holding restaurant menus out front of their eatery. It's unique to that area, and I thought had great potential. But no, she went with the stone lion.

In the end the usual suspense while the Andrew does that commercial TV thing and waits a full several second mid-sentence after saying "and the winner is" had no suspense at all. It was bleeding obvious that only one photo was in with a chance.

Not their worst episode, but I hope they have a much better idea for any future ones. Or are the ideas running out?

Photo Finish (ABC TV) - Leica Lovers

This week it was photojournalism, and each contestant was given a good rangefinder camera - that means not an SLR, so no through-the-lens viewfinding - but a good one, in fact probably a madly overpriced one - a Leica digital. It's like having a Mercedes when a Subaru would do, particularly as two out of the three were not altogether comfortable with the format. I used to have a Yashica for a while and got some good shots with it. But they settled into it as things went along. At least they were digital cameras with the opportunity to review on the small screen how they were going.

The three set assignments had the common theme of "Who Cares", but were quite different. One in an aged people's home, one at a homeless youth project run by the Salvos, and one at the RSPCA - presumably the Yagoona shelter. The winning shot had to focus on the carer to a great degree.

Each situation required the contestant to put the subjects at ease, and this was going to be tougher for the one at the youth project, as they were likely to be more suspicious and self-conscious. In the end, each got some good shots, and captured what was happening on the day, and the people who were caring. The wrap-up at the end of the show had some good moments, and some puzzles.

As each contestant stood and received the judges appraisal, one was a bit puzzling to my ear. Anne Locksley said that the picture of the youth and youth worker "required a lot of analysis", or rather "unpacking" was the word she used. I would have thought that was a good thing. A picture should draw you back to think about what's going on, what that scene really means. We don't always have the little nun Sister Wendy or Betty Churcher to explain it all to us, and wondering just what context certain facial expressions may stem from is part of the intrigue that art offers. Who knows exactly what Mona Lisa was smiling reservedly about?

The chap who covered the old people's home was good - in fact I thought he captured several really good shots. But it was a toss-up who'd win out of these first two, him and the woman covering the youth project.

The third contestant's cute kitten photos didn't win the judges, as she knew they wouldn't, but submitted one anyway. If only she'd got one she liked of the greyhounds all chasing around in that grassy yard - they were splendid. I liked the greyhound relaxing in the wading pool, but again, probably too cute and not photo journalistic enough. A group shot of all those cast-off racing animals would have done nicely.

The argument for using a smaller camera in order to be less intrusive may have merit, but not having a reliable through-the-lens focus control is always a disadvantage in the absence of auto-focus. Capturing ad hoc moments is hard enough, but getting everything right while you're doing it is a tough assignment, and the contestants did pretty well on the whole.

Even Cartier-Bresson, famous for his photo-journalistic black and white prints - captured on a Leica with 50mm standard lens - didn't always maintain strict focus if it suited his purposes to blur something. His reputation for capturing events at "the decisive moment" was dented somewhat when the famous "kiss" photo was revealed to be posed. Unless you see hid rolls of film unedited it's hard to say how many shots he took which were not so good! The most famous lament of the still photographer in film days was "who put all those dud shots on my roll?"

The highest praise I've ever had was when picking up a roll of film from a processing shop, the chap there asked how long I'd taken to shoot that roll of 36. I think it was a couple of weeks, but anyway, he said that I had an amazingly good hit rate! That doesn't always happen, that's for sure, and in these digital days you can waste more shots at no extra cost.

Photo Finish (ABC TV) - A Model Episode

Phew! After last week's debacle this was top class. Again, three good contestants, issued with good SLRs, a studio, lighting, lovely models, wardrobe, hair and makeup people, props. They really laid it on for this group. Of course, that hard part is getting to grips with fashion photography, which many of us amateurs just don't do. But perhaps we've all seen the results often enough to fake it!

The lady doing the 1960s era had a simply gorgeous model, whose eyes could have almost won the prize for her if I'd been judging. She also had a good lot of props, but didn't use them sufficiently. I would have liked to see more of the yellow scooter (echoes of Roman Holiday), or the round black and red cushions of the unusual chair. But she did capture an excellent look.

An odd comment from Andrew - he said the glasses the model had pushed up on top of here head were off-putting because they had no glass in them! Who supplied the props, Andrew? That comment was perhaps a bit unfair.

The 1950s guy spent more time waiting around for hair and makeup than anyone else, giving himself less time to work with the model, but in the end his preparation of a second set of props and a change of wardrobe paid off. The combination of blue dress and other objects against a simple timber background worked really well. He lost points for not making her look as good as she was, perhaps fair comment, but he did well.

The youngest and most daunted one this week started out by overstocking her set with props, and was corrected by the expert. I was concerned that she was not introducing enough variations in her posing of the model, but surprise, surprise, she came up with a brilliant shot, and emerged the winner. Another odd comment from Andrew, who was taken aback by the sexuality of the shot - even though the model was fully dressed! Anyone in any doubt about how well this picture captured the mood of the times need only watch a doco on Rod Stewart and his band from that time. Again, the model was beautiful!

I hope they can now maintain this standard. A really enjoyable show this week.

Photo Finish (ABC TV) - A Day At The Races

Number Four in the series. Despite the enthusiasm of the makers of this program for the junky plastic cameras they made the contestants use this week, I have difficulty in enjoying this approach. By all means, have a session where film is used. Make it a rangefinder if you like, so they have to frame the shot not through the lens but through the slightly offset viewfinder. Do without motor drive and auto-focus. We all used to do that. Go black and white instead of colour. You can do all these things and have a chance of capturing maybe three good shots out of thirty frames on a roll of film.

But to hand them three different pieces of plastic junk and then send them to the races at Randwick seemed cruel and unusual. The result was that they all had problems, lots of double exposures or mistakes with viewfinders, focus, and light leakage. Wide angle has its uses, but framing it is tricky even with an SLR. This assignment really needed just one decent film camera. Yes, make it a rangefinder if you must, with a standard lens. But what they did meant that we saw nothing good at the end of the shoot. Not the contestant's fault. They are all competent amateurs, in fact damn good at it.

If you want people to "have a go, have a bit of fun with film", great. Give then half decent cameras. But this was a disaster that they brought upon themselves and their show, so they had to make it look like it was all chuckles and fun times. The contestants were good natured enough to take it all well. I'd have been ropable.

I hope that they can be more sensible next week. Have they run out of viable scenarios, or can they get this show back on track? This was less Marx Brothers than three stooges - but not funny - so the next one better not be a night at the opera with a cheap video cam. In summary, I liked the contestants, all good runners, but they were nobbled at the starting gate.

Photo Finish (ABC TV)- Wedding Day

OK, so that's two out of three episodes that the youngest, prettiest woman has got the prize. That is now a trend. Last week I thought they narrowly escaped doing the same thing, after gushing over the nice young woman's close-up of ice crystals. The winning photo this week suffered from the too-warm glow you get when shooting in a room with downlights and not using flash (I again sympathise, not liking flash that much), and was notable for fuzzy detail, but certainly captured a moment. Technically it was the worst of the three, selected by the contestants themselves - another trap for beginners! Only being able to select one photo is another artificial restraint placed on the format of this show in order to make it more tense, more tabloid television.

I sympathised as well with all the contestants this week, who were rightly terrified of being flung into a wedding shoot at no notice. I'm not a "people" photographer either, preferring landscape, macro-nature and things that stay still! Architecture poses patiently too. I found it curious that the instructions from the panel were to capture the ritual, but that traditional shots were not welcome. Ritual is all about tradition. Everyone dressing up is about formality. Weddings, even ones where the bride wears red, follow a format. Perhaps this week's expert had a hand in that instruction, as her own shots show a strange view of the world.

It's cruel and unnecessary to hand out SLRs that one contestant found difficult to get started with - signifying no early advice re the camera. This looks like manufacturing drama, again for the sake of creating a show that would almost be more at home on a commercial station. It was a sign of maturity that the lady concerned, like the one who left most of her gear in the car on Mount Wellington last week, transcended this bit of a setback and went on to capture what I thought were a lot of excellent shots, even though some of the outdoor or naturally lit ones ended up having a touch too much fill flash in them - but that's what you have to do to be sure of avoiding great back lighting and dark, badly lit people.

Once again the show was interesting, but I felt the artificiality and tension creation was uppermost. There should be room for a few more photos to be submitted too. Rushing doesn't help, and leaving contestants wondering about unfamiliar cameras is not a good look. I'd have given the prize to the lady from Bourke, whose photo was full of interest, emotion and colour, as well as having a great internal structure and framing. But, it's always intersting to see what sort of things the contestants come up with, and we get glimpses of quite a few of their efforts. I'll be back for more.

Photo Finish (ABC TV) - Snow Complications

A much tougher assignment in the second program. The three amateurs (although one has studio experience, and only one was more of the point-and-shoot variety) were flung onto Mount Wellington above Hobart. The climate there is often cold, cloudy, and/or windy and it'd be a wonder if none of them got a dose of flu at least out of that escapade. There was snow, rain, hail and wind on the day.

But they all enjoyed it, and I did too, as landscape is my thing. Everyone got some good shots of trees, waterfalls and snow through to ice clinging to rocks and plants. There was a surfeit of good material there if the hike in steep, slippery, rocky and inclement conditions - and pneumonia for afters - didn't kill you.

One lady forgot her second lens, her lens cover, tripod and sundry other things, so had just the SLR and one lens to play with - and she didn't hav any experience with that sort of camera. Not a big problem however, as they are very good at just taking and adjusting to lighting on the run automatically. An SLR these days (and for the last 15-20 years actually) will work very well as a point-and shoot.

The end of the show when they line up for the judges is a bit formulaic, and this time I had the terrible feeling as they gushed over the photo of icy crystals that for the second time in two weeks the prize would go to the prettiest one. But, this time they agreed - as I did - that the lady who forgot a lot of her gear had the goods.

It was a very fine shot with many things in it to keep the viewer busy. Given the venue, it had more in it than the others, more of what that mountain has to offer, a sweep of landscape. In the final analysis, as a competitor, choosing the right one out of the hundreds you take in this sort of outing is part of the competition.

I have to admit that despite my misgivings about some aspects, this is a show that presses a few of my buttons too, and I'll be back next week for more.

Photo Finish (ABC TV) The Eyes Have It ... Oh, Wait

The ABC's new series aimed at keen amateur photographers owes much to the UK TV series Star Portraits, hosted by Rolf Harris, where each week he had three painters do a portrait of a celebrity. This new series uses three aspiring photographers, and episode one set them the task of doing a portrait of a well-known person. Each had an hour and a studio to themselves to accomplish this, and could take as many shots as they wished on some nice Hasselblad digital cameras, arranging the lights, the subject and the props as they saw fit.

Just like in the Rolf Harris artist series, the host pops in at half time to see how they're doing, and brings a professional photographer along to offer a bit of advice. It's competitive, and you know that they're going to string out the announcement of the winner for as long as possible - which they did, right down to the long breathless pause - just like the commercial people do in Dancing With The Stars.

After seeing the somewhat precious promotions for the show I nearly didn't watch it, even though I'm a keen amateur photographer. But as it turned out I was washing up and followed the progress of the three hopefuls through to the end. They had some basic experience and did quite well, but the results were patchy. I didn't agree with the judges either!

A couple of things struck me as less than fair about the way the judges first briefed then debriefed the contestants/students. In the beginning they were briefed that the people they were photographing might bring some favourite objects with them. It was implied that these might be useful props. Sure enough they did have things with them, some more obvious than others. Christa Hughes was dressed in a cabaret costume - she's a singer - and had various makeup gear with her, which figured in the final result. I may have missed Vince Colosimo bringing it in, but his was a small ornament, a carnival carousel. Dick Smith brought a couple of things including a large-ish kids aeroplane, which he was happy to pose with, and a statuette. In the end the picture of him that was submitted to the judges (only one was allowed) had no prop at all.

So, after an hour of trying different things, each submitted their picture and stood by for the adjudication. Strangely, since these were portraits, two out of the three didn't get what I would have thought a vital ingredient: the eyes. The one that did, the Vince Colosimo portrait, copped a comment from one judge that the little carousel ornament was "a distraction", which I thought (a) it wasn't, and (b) they had primed the contestants to use the props brought by their celebs if they wanted to. The photographer got marvelously close to Vince, eyes, stubble, you name it, and I would have given that one the prize.

The Dick Smith one got my wooden spoon award, making him looked crumpled and lacking in character, which is hardly accurate. No eyes. The Christa Hughes one was quite passable, with her at the theatrical makeup table, but again no eye contact. Having mentioned that, they gave it first place.

We'll see how it goes next time, but unfortunately the feel is more Master Chef than I'd like it to be. It has that distinctly commercial slant to it.

The show runs on ABC TV, Thursday nights at 8pm. It is hosted by Andrew Gunsberg and Anne Loxley. Next show will be Landscape in Tasmania, which should be nice.

Tales Of Gadgets And Men

It was 45 years ago today, that Our World showed us the Beatles live and at play.

The video on YouTube starts in shaky black and white but cuts across to better picture (in colour) part way through. As well as the Beatles themselves, you see George Martin and staff in the control room re-running the master tape for another layer of sound to go on and build the rich arrangement including string orchestra and brass. I remember getting up early to watch it. The recording gear now looks really old, of course, but we have some great recordings from that era.

Actually, the studio gear reminds me of pictures of Frank Sinatra's home hifi, which would have been pretty awesome in its day!

The same "world first" live relay also crossed to Italy where Zeffirelli was directing a new movie being filmed, based on Shakespeare's "Romeo & Julliet", starring the very young (but appropriately so) Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting. It was not only the first film to use actors the right age, but was notable for the colouful flair that Zeffirelli brought to it and for the lovely music of Nino Rota. Released in 1968, it took until 1969 I think to reach Australian cinemas.

Back in those days for most of us a gadget was a transistor radio or an electric can opener. TV sets were all small by today's standards, but the truly small "gadget" TV had been under development since the early 1960s. Video recorders had reached TV studios, enabling "action replay" during football games, but they didn't reach consumer level with a vengeance until the mid 1970s.

Audio cassettes also had their genesis in that period, and came to full fruition during the 1970s. What began as a dictating machine to replace the old magnetic disc Dictaphones was refined into a passable hifi component, even achieving good hifi standards in the form of the better three-head machines. Reel-to-reel suffered accordingly, although it was always superior. VCRs went into stereo hifi mode using the high-speed rotating heads to get spectacular results.

Gadgets have come a long way since those days, with the smartphone now becoming the one to rule them all in so many ways. Stephen Fry's new program about his 100 favourite gadgets (ABC1 Thursday 9.30pm) will tap into that boyish enthusiasm we all have for such things, and is likely to attract a wide audience. I'll report back on it later this week, along with the next episode in the ABC's Photo Finish.

TV's Future: Ice-cream Sandwich or much, much worse?

Looking through what the TV manufacturers are pinning their hopes on this year, we see the word "smart" coming up again and again. What do they mean by it? Is internet access of a limited nature (YouTube, iView) enough to do it? For me it has to be full browsing, and easy. What are the most critical things people are looking for in their next TV set?

Judging by the spruikers for the various manufacturers, you'd have to say "smart TV" is where it's at. Who's going to be the smartest is really the buzz at present. Never mind that most still can't surf the web anywhere like as well as your computer or iPad does. Rest assured, they are working on it, and voice command is also coming, using the microphone in the remote to overcome the noise of the TV itself!

But that's not all that's there in the mix. Picture quality and size of screen, together with how slim it looks, are still there somewhere on the shopping list. Décor should never be underestimated, and having one that's bigger, higher resolution or slimmer than the friends and neighbours have is always a priority in a capital city social scene. More about that social aspect later.

New technology can be an ace or a fizzer. Which is it for 3D? I think we're past the initial stage of "gee-whiz, look at that, the fish swims right off the screen", the equivalent of the stereo trains or ping-pong balls. Then there's OLED, that has been about to revolutionise the screen for years but somehow keeps on costing too much or having developmental issues. Still on the menu though according to some spokespersons for up-and-coming Koreans like LG.

Sure, there are resolution improvements in the pipeline, to 4k and even 8k somewhere in the future, as Panasonic unveil their giant 145" 8k screen. But who'd put money on that sort of thing gaining precedence over the more trivial aspects like "sharing" stuff, swarming on some YouTube video, or larger scale skype sessions with video?

I'm going to make the call that TVs are heading in the same direction as phones, and that the short attention span and social networking that has already caused the phone industry to go closer each year to a complete nervous breakdown from the pressure of weekly one-upmanship upgrades to operating systems is going to infect TV next. Did you know, or do you care, that there's maybe a new version of ice-cream sandwich about to appear in the bowels of some smart phone next week? It doesn't matter what the quality of the content is, as long as you can stream it to your TV from the next room from your damned phone, while simultaneously chatting to your "friends" about it.

Reading the roundups in the industry mags does still reveal some interest in picture quality as a driver of consumer interest, but you get the distinct impression that it's not the main event any more. We've seen it before with audio - plug your MP3 player into your sound system, stream it, Bluetooth it, network it, but don't complain about the quality unless you're prepared to attend to the source as well as the delivery system.

Stand by for the "socialization" of TV in a whole new sense, far removed from the old idea of simply grouping yourselves comfortably around the room to enjoy a good show. It's going to be more like a Facebook session. Depending on your point of view it's either ice-cream sandwich or that other one. That's life.

Boxee vs. Apple TV

I've tried Boxee, I've now also set up Apple TV, and yes, there's no contest in terms of user interface and interoperability. Apple knows all about that. Apple TV's interface is clearly superior, and the easy sharing of the iTunes library smoothes the way. But once again I have to make a derogatory comment about Australia always getting the shitty end of the stick when it comes to access to things like Netflix.

Perhaps this is going to change, Netflix is in expansion mode. In the US the Apple TV is sold with the implicit understanding that the offerings of Apple's iTunes Store will be supplemented by those of Netflix, the online movie service. Here it's not, even though as usual there are way of tricking it up - but why should we have to?

Sure, we have some local movie services, but let's not pretend they have all the things they should have. We were made to wait for online music services (see my article on that here) and now we're being shafted again, having to wait goodness knows how long for a proper online movie service (not that there should be just one, but one would be good) because of someone's foot-dragging in the licensing area.

Come on! This is the way it is going to be, and whoever you are that's in the way, get smart and sign up. The you can sit back and watch the money tick, tick tick into your bank account while we get to seek out and watch those things we are interested in, not just some pathetic tiny subset of the vast riches of the movie industry from a century of production.

Update - Suddenly Yesterday It Died

The thrills of IPTV are there for the asking, to a degree. Get a Boxee and an Apple TV, then the world of online stuff is all yours. Right? Not quite. There are some thrills, but a few spills coming your way, more than likely.

Boxee have issued new firmware, and after not using "the thing" for a while I noticed it was downloading. I left it to do that, but later when I went back to see how it had changed, I found it had changed to completely dead. Nothing on the screen.

No panic. Apple TV is there as back up. So let's see, what does the web have to offer me in terms of advice? Lots. It seems all I have to do is press the on/off button for between 6 and 8 seconds while standing on one leg and it'll come back to life.

Well, it did, sort of. It started flashing three red logos at me then one green one, on and on. Back to the advice forums. Eventually I found another button press brought it back to life, but nothing on-screen. Easier to fix this time, just a loose HDMI plug - not very loose, but not entirely home as it should be.

Great, now we have a menu and I can do the reset/restore from boxee.iso, as downloaded, via thumb drive inserted in the back end of Boxee. Reload Navi-X and we're back to square one. Actually, the new interface looks better, but a quick run through the various menus offering TV shows or movies mostly ended up telling me that they were not available. Anti-climax time again. You get sick of that pretty quickly. Might as well pay iTunes for something that works.

I know, there are probably ways of tweaking this experience to make it do the old open sesame, but for the average user, they might as well be like me and just browse via the web browser and find something that works - for me it's usually ABC iView.

YouTube is something I like to be able to put up on the big screen, and both Apple TV and Boxee can do this. So can the TV sets themselves these days, but all of them have the same pretty awful peck & pick alpha-numeric test of skill before you get the title up. Boxee at least has the remote keyboard on the back of it's otherwise minimal remote control, so some brownie points for that.

But I have to say, even if they're selling me a square hockey puck with not much in it, Apple have again scored highly for ease of use. One wrinkle that I found on day one was that unless you change the little triangle ikon at bottom right of screen to "Apple TV Speakers", your bought or hired movies won't come through to the TV in the next room. Then you have to change back to "Computer Speakers" to get sound back at your computer. That's on top of setting the sharing, of course.

Our first HD movie hire took an hour to download, so plan ahead! But it worked like a charm. The movie "Then She Found Me" had a good cast, but the script was rubbish. Should have been much better. I may write a review and put it on the Movies Page!

Big News - Sky TV Breaks The Mold!

The announcement by UK pay TV company Sky that they will be starting a direct-to-consumer internet TV channel is one of those seismic shifts that has been a long time coming. Here in Australia we have been living with Foxtel charging an inordinate amount of money ($77-$132 per month) for their packages, all based on a monopolistic approach to program aggregation and delivery systems. They have only been able to do this because people had no choice, and it's arguable that their total subscriber numbers are held back by it.

It was only a matter of time before the widespread usage of fast broadband - which is going to spread even wider and get even faster - cracked the ice which has blocked progress on this front for quite a while. People are getting used to being able to have as much music as they can handle on tap from web-based libraries for just $10 per month, and paying at least seven times that for Foxtel has been an issue. They virtually admitted this themselves recently by offering six months at half price on a one year contract!

At the risk of becoming repetitive on this topic, Foxtel should go after a much larger audience by offering cheaper rates across the board, and make the packages more flexible so you can choose what you want from their channels. Premium sport and newer movies could remain as an extra. I'd be interested in documentaries, news, current affairs, some old TV series, some movies old and new, and even things like cooking shows and special interests like cars planes and engineering generally. But not all sports are of interest to me, and the ones which are have already been covered by free-to-air TV. I just haven't seen the value in Foxtel's offer to date.

Chances are that if they don't loosen up and adjust, the 60% of Sydney who don't have Foxtel (that's much higher nationwide) will continue to find enough of what they want by other means, and avoid pay TV contracts. Workers only have so many hours a day to spend on TV shows, and the price (plus what's offered) has to be right. Sky's free channel is the first blow in a new stage of the media revolution brought about by the internet.

The Latest on IPTV

IPTV is looming larger with each year that passes, and you might think that 2012 is going to be the year that it finally gets liftoff. Maybe, but there are still a number of issues which have to be resolved, and the likely outcome is that it needs a couple more years to be fully realized. Will 2014 be the year it really goes mainstream, as one guy says at CES?

Rory Cellan-Jones of the BBC takes a trip through Silicon Valley, stopping off at some of the big movers & shakers, and a small one as well, to interview them about what they are up to with their IPTV or Smart TV Plans. Then it's on the CES at Las Vegas. If you want to watch the full program, it runs about 23 minutes.

We all know that the big attraction is varied content, watched when you want to watch it. We have a taste of this now, with all the video material we can call up on our PCs, the movies we can access from internet providers. But is that all of the story?

I've had a bit of a go at the early example called Boxee, and am struggling to get overly excited about it. I think it will prove, in the history of IPTV to be something like half way between the Atari console and the Commodore 64 computer - in games terms, compared to what's around now. There's a glimpse of what might come, but it is anything but a smooth, satisfying process using that interface, then finding things don't run as you'd like, or that 90% of the available stuff is not what you're after.

So, the interface is the first hurdle, and this is what Apple will be banking on. Using a tablet as a controller is a sure thing now - everone's doing it, because it is just so much better than old-style remotes. Then there's the content. What do you want, and is it the same as what I want? Probably not the same - let's just say we want it all, and we want it now.

There will have to be ease of navigation from regular TV to Movies (new and old) and onwards to all sorts of special interest channels. News & Current Affairs will be done by all the specialists, including more moves into that line of business by companies that are today principally just newspapers. CNN and Fox have the front running there, but newspapers will have to become, as they are already on their sites, more video-oriented.

When all these competing players come up with a formula that gives us a seamless, no fuss interface, and when this in turn gives us the sort of content that we'll waste hours of our precious time on, only then will it succeed as it should. We may see the beginning of something this year, but I agree, more time needed to get the winning formula together.

TV Screens - Where To Next?

The collapse of TV prices has been spectacular and has involved casualties, with big names like NEC, Fujitsu, Pioneer (and a few others) quitting the market. Some of the remaining ones might not be feeling all that good either. Retailers have seen their profits go down via the lift shaft too.

Now that everyone has got used to large screens costing peanuts compared to five years ago, and a small fraction of what they cost ten years ago, how do you get consumers to pay the big ticket prices for anything again? With Sharp's new 70"/178cm Quattron coming along for $4799 (less for cash, even for just a smile) what is going to make us part with $8,000-10,000 the way we (or at least some of us) used to?

The answers to that appear to be showing up soon at a CES nowhere near us but in Las Vegas to be precise, starting next week. LG are supposed to be showing biggish OLED screens, while Toshiba has already released in Europe a 55"/140cm 4k screen (3840x2160 pixels) which also has glasses-free 3D - but only at 720p. That'll be $10k, thanks very much.

Higher resolution and glasses-free 3D are probably good selling points, as is extreme thinness for OLED, but for how long will those price levels be maintainable? Once the novelty wears off, and those who are able to afford such things in order to one-up the circle of friends and business colleagues, the market will inevitably demand these features at closer to regular price. And that's what happens.

The race for thinner screens is a bit of a red herring too. Unless you're into very flat-on-the-wall looks, or are in the habit of looking at the set side-on, this has limited utility. For most of us, TVs are already so far ahead of the old clunkers we had not that long ago, that we're having fun already.

It still amazes me how much pre-purchase anxiety the average punter puts themselves through when looking at a typical 42" or 50" TV purchase. You can buy such good screens now for next to nothing, but they still sweat over it big-time! Which is the best brand? Has it got refresh rates far in excess of what the human eye can perceive?

Cable TV Still Too Expensive

We are in an unprecedented environment of freely available - at a small monthly charge - music and movies via the net. For $10 a month you can download any amount of music from online library services. Movies need not cost much more. But I have a couple of questions about what's on offer, how useful it is, and about Foxtel in particular.

Firstly, I have to admit I'm not your average consumer of these things, in fact far from mainstream. I'm pretty fussy about what movies I will spend the time on, and when it comes to music I'm more in the classical and jazz vein than popular - and that makes me atypical of the broad community.

Being a user of and being interested in classy sound gear is also a minority pursuit. The vast bulk of the population buy cheaper systems, be they stereo or surround sound, because that's all they think it's worth. Exposure to better sound will make some of them change, but it is still a fact that what we enthusiasts would cruelly call junk is the largest part of the market.

So, I realize that I am speaking for a minority when I make the following observations.

Here we are, able to tailor our music listening and movie watching so precisely to suit each personal taste, and pay very little to do it. By carefully recording shows off air for later viewing, we can also have a store of good viewing at little cost, be it drama or documentary, whatever you like to add to the pile.

But some aspects of the brave new world are not moving fast enough. A while back I observed that if we were all going to be able to take advantage of all these good download services, the cost of our monthly download gigabytes would have to change. Sure enough, this has happened, and we are now getting vastly more download for the same amount of money. That's as it should be. The one that has not adjusted, in my opinion, is Foxtel.

I saw recently that Foxtel has 40% of homes in Sydney connected, which is pretty good going. They want to replicate this success Australia wide. As I said above, I'm not mainstream in my own usage of things, but this is an opinion piece, so what the hell. I can't see myself ever signing up to Foxtel while they charge so much for even a basic set of channels. Right now the best they can come up with is a $55 per month offer, limited to the first six months! After that it's back to $77, then if you want more channels it's extra, and movies on top of that, all the way up to the top "Platinum" package at $122 per month, or $132 for the HD version!

C'mon guys. This is silly. I'd sign up like a shot if I could nominate just the channels I'm actually interested in, and pay a lower fee. Or take the lot and pay a lower fee. Until that happens I'm sorry, but I have too many other things to occupy my time that cost a lot less, or even cost nothing. The monopoly that exists in cable TV has to date ensured no competition - that will come from the internet ultimately. Foxtel should be looking very hard at its pricing and packaging if it wants to survive the next phase of online program distribution.

So, over to you, Foxy. The cable is already here; I use it for broadband. Go on. Try and tempt me.

Mass-market TV Hits Magazine Blind Spot

Magazines are usually a good source of information, but sometimes they appear to be a bit blinkered. Try this quote from Appliance Retailer: "Samsung has reinvigorated the premium end of the flat panel TV market, releasing a new super-premium model at RRP $10,000. This segment of the market, which was dormant following Pioneer's withdrawal from plasma, is being chased by Samsung, which has incorporated some of the most interesting and exciting technologies into this model."

They have completely overlooked the Panasonic 65" VX100 series monitors, which at around $12,000 were described on their release as the best-measuring screens on the market. Then there's Loewe, who have plenty of technically advanced screens at $9000 and beyond, all the way to the Reference at $20,000.

Why Is ABC 24 Hour TV News on HD?

The ABC's 24 hour TV news service has gone to air on their HD channel - but why? All the good stuff that benefits most from HD pictures is on ABC1 - like documentaries that are shot beautifully, dramas of all sorts, great BBC and HBO series, arts programs, gardening - and lots more. Now, instead of being able to enjoy all that at the best visual standard that TV can muster, it will all be at what's called Standard Definition. Standard Def is more or less what you get from DVD. HD is more like what you get from Blu-ray, and is noticeably superior - unless your TV is a pile of rubbish and in urgent need of replacement.

Why couldn't the News 24 program have gone to ABC1,2,3,4 (or anywhere) with ABC HD taking over all the usual programming? What is the great benefit of news on HD? Sure, we'll see every freckle on the presenters in glorious HD, but it will be painfully obvious whenever we're watching the fairly poor video that makes up most "live" news footage. Perhaps that will get better over time as more "on location" stuff is shot on better gear. But there are still problems with this. Firstly, a lot of material comes from other countries, many of whom will take time to catch up with first world equipment standards. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, news is an information service, not a "let's look our best" show. We want the news to be reasonable in the quality department, but to give us the facts and the video in a realistic fashion it does not have to be HD. I hope the answer to this conundrum emerges soon, since it is really bugging me at the moment.

Who Will Win: Cable or Internet TV

Arguments are flying fast over which will die out first, cable TV or internet TV. With cable you pay for all the junk whether you want it or not, while with Internet TV you can be more choosy. I like the idea of a niche, self-tailored cable package which just has access to the stuff I'd actually use, but could be optioned up to include other channels over time.

If you'd like to read more about the arguments for and against the two, just click through to ars technica. It's well worth reading the whole thing and there are links there to the other articles which started the fuss!

TV Episodes for $US1?

It is suggested at Ars Technica that the iPad might be the battering ram needed to achieve $1 per episode TV shows. I have some sympathy for this idea, since it's arguable that making a large amount of entertainment (music or video) available at a price nobody thinks twice about is a sure-fire way to exponentially increase your sales.

It's also been obvious that watching Tv on an iTouch/iPhone sized screen is not really a goer. The iPad takes this idea into the realms of the possible.