Geek TV

Digital TV: SD vs HD

I’ve been looking at Topfield PVRs. Looks like one can get a dual-tuner standard definition (SD) model for about $300-350 (retail), whereas it’s about $750 for a high definition (HD) one. You can also get a single-tuner HD model for about $399, but sometimes I want to be able to record multiple programmes at once. I also want the ability to transfer recordings onto the computer, which rules out some of the cheaper Topfield models.

Given I’m feeling a little impoverished at the moment, and I don’t have a TV which is HD (and am unlikely to upgrade in the near future; and even if I did it’s not likely to be big enough that the difference is noticeable), I’ve been pondering why people spend the extra money for HD.

In Melbourne, what’s on SD vs HD, and what’s planned? Pulling together info from Wikipedia and an SMH article as a guide, here’s what can be received on SD:

  • All the existing analogue channels (except community Channel 31): ABC1, 7, 9, 10, SBS1
  • ABC2 (only on SD)
  • SBS2 (on SD or HD)
  • Channel 10’s ONE sports channel (on SD or HD)
  • Channel 9’s Go entertainment channel, which launches next week
  • ABC3 kids’ channel starting in December
  • Channel 7’s second channel, starting later in the year
  • Future SBS3 and SBS4 are expected to be SD

What’s only available on HD:

  • ABC1 HD, which shows things such as the News and Stateline from Sydney, and other NSW programming such as Saturday afternoon rugby and very occasionally state elections
  • 9 HD, which with the introduction of Go on SD has ceased having anything different to 9 SD.
  • 7 HD, which has a teensy bit of alternative programming, mostly during the daytime, and late at night, which I’m betting will go the way of 9 HD when they launch their second channel.

There is talk of future ABC channels: ABC4 (news and current affairs), ABC5 (education) and ABC6 (“best of overseas” — eg repeats!). It’s not yet clear if they would be SD or HD, but I’m sensing a pattern here, and I bet they’ll all be SD.

So unless you have a big screen (and most of those come with HD tuners anyway), where is the incentive to buy an HD PVR or STB?

One other factor in choice: Freeview certification. Apparently at some stage in the future they may switch from MPEG2 to MPEG4. I’m betting this won’t happen for years (they’d be crazy to do it with so few digital receivers supporting it). To get Freeview certification (phase one) a device has to support MPEG4 (fair enough) and not have ad skip (in Topfield terms this is called “Trick Play”).

(Looking back at some of the old posts on this topic, I’ll happily await people with Topfields leaving comments praising them, and expect Nathan to tell me to build an HTPC! Honestly Nathan, I love the idea, but I don’t have the time to do it properly.)

By Daniel Bowen

Transport blogger / campaigner and spokesperson for the Public Transport Users Association / professional geek.
Bunurong land, Melbourne, Australia.
Opinions on this blog are all mine.

18 replies on “Digital TV: SD vs HD”

SBS2 is SD only. SBS simulcasts SBS1 on its HD channel.

All of the new channels will be SD – each ”channel’ is only 7MHz wide in Australia. This bandwidth can only accomodate one HD channel and two SD channels – although when Mark Scott, MD of the ABC, was speaking about ABC3 on 774 a few weeks ago, he claimed that the bandwidth can accomodate one HD channel and three SD channels, so it is likely the the HD stream will be considerably reduced in resolution to fit the new channel in.

If ABC4, 5 and 6 ever eventuate, they will have to take a new chunk of bandwidth, probably from the analogue channels being freed up.

Grab a copy of Windows 7 when it comes out – the Media Centre in that is so much better than the version in Vista. Our poor old DVR hardly gets any work these days and all I had to do was add a $35 tuner card to the PC.

I have the TF7100 HD dual tuner but I also still have a CRT TV. Definitely get a dual tuner, I’d be lost without it. Also planned on downloading to the PC, but you have to format your HDD that you plug in to the Topfield in some Unix format (ext2) which then Windows doesn’t like. I’m sure it’s not hard to sort out but I haven’t bothered (yes, I work in IT but I’m completely deficient at some things).

Whilst my PVR is non-Freeview compliant, I regard the ‘trick’ buttons as lifesavers. You can’t skip ads with one touch, but you can skip forwards by 30 secs and back by 10 – gold.

On the other hand, I bought my unti in Feb (for about $600) and last month it died. I turned it off then back on again and it just never tuned back in. Luckily, I was able to get it replaced rather than repaired and had the option of upgrading to the freeview model but chose not to. We’ll see if that comes back to bite me, but I doubt it will for some time…

Are there PVRs with MPEG4 ability but no Freeview certification? If so, they’d probably be the pick of the bunch. But at this stage I intend to get a twin-tuner SD PVR and it probably doesn’t matter if it’s only MPEG2 – switching off MPEG2 transmission any time in the next 10 years would make redundant a significant proportion of TVs and set-top-boxes.

ROFL Daniel. What’s the point of me commenting if you’re going to make my comments for me? :D Meanwhile Tony has basically re-iterated my oft given advice above anyway.

But you are right, the SD topfields are probably pretty good value.

But walk into JB Hifi on Lonsdale and look at the HD screen pictures. I was in their the other day and they really are just beautiful. My own 32″ LCD is 1366*768, so not quite HD but more than SD, and I could really tell the difference. Though like yourself it’s not enough to make me upgrade I’ll probably wait until my existing LCD dies.

Gotta love digital recorders. I got a BeyonWiz DP S1 with dual HD tuners a few years ago. I do love it but wouldnt recommend it to others. Wireless networking (with encryption on) is rubbish and so is DVD playback. Consider subscribing to ICETV with your new box through. I love having my box automatically record my shows anytime they are one Especially these days when networks start/stop/change when series are shown. Its a nice surprise to see a favourite show just appear in my recordings. Also to be able to schedule a show to record through the web is nice when you’ve forgotten to tape something, you can still do it from any old web browser.

Given how reluctant our Toppy is to connect with the tv, that it lost all channels last night, that it is now scanning channels and has been stuck on 62% for fifteen minutes, don’t expect much praise from me. The 30sec forward button is great and Liz, did you know you can adjust the backward skip too? The selecting programs to record from a tv guide is useful, but ensure to have some padding for commercial channels. Definitely a dual tuner though. Right, enough, I am going to stop the scanning and try again.

I’ve got a Topfield 7100. I’ve only got an SD TV but I still find the HD channels useful because of the different programming. Sure I might not be watching them in super duper HD, but I’m still watching them. Dual tuners is the way to go. My wife and I no longer watch live TV. Everything is programmed in and watched when we feel like it.

Topfield plus IceTV is pretty good. But despite glowing reviews both can still be a bit fiddly. If your device comes with a free trial for IceTV I would definitely give it a good workout before paying money. Oh and they seem to have specials every now and then. I held out until they had a 50% off deal.

I wouldn’t buy a new model Topfield until after it has been on the market for a bit. Mine had horrible problems while they mucked around with the firmware.

I couldn’t live without my topfield and icetv. The HD channels are worth having even if you only have an SD TV. But be prepared to have a love/hate relationship with your device and IceTV. It bugs me that I still have to do so much fiddling with IceTV. And the Topfield still has some annoyances you have to work around. And it is very in-law unfriendly.

As for the whole Freeview certification thing. I wouldn’t bother. The restrictions are too heavy and by the time they switch to mpeg4 you will probably be in the market for a new device anyway.

I’m happy enough with a HD settop box and recording to VCR!

But then I’ve only got a tiny telly and watch programs only once.

(The stuff I *really* like I end up getting on DVD, sans ads, etc.)

Ours is a little older Topfield 5000PVRt and so far I’ve been very happy with it – I’ve already told about clock sync issues but we’ve got a workaround which seems to have sorted that out …

I’m not sure about other models of Topfield, however the 5000PVRt that we have doesn’t have an ethernet port, just the USB2.0 port. In order to get stuff off our unit we generally record it onto our DVD-RW player via the s-video port[1] …

More recently I bought a fanless small form-factor PC[2] with laptop harddrive to allow me to spool data off the Topfield over to my server – at 700kB/s the USB port isn’t exactly quick either … for those who have them, how fast do network-enabled models transfer data from the unit? It’s bad enough with SD streams, can’t imagine the glacial slowness that an HD stream would take …

[1] way to go analogue loop hole … :)

I helped my sister install her topfield box on the weekend. it worked with a bit of faffing about it got all the channels you could record stuff but since i’m used to my interface i thought theirs was ugly and not terribly intuitive.

What I’m wondering about is if there’s any way to get the Aussie chanels while in Europe. I’d love to be able to get the ABC, for one thing, but even cable TV, which seems to have chanels from every corner of the globe, including the chanel with the daily reading from the Koran, does not have any Aussie chanels. If seems like most countries have some sort of rule against offering free-to-air chanels outside of their borders – except for Germany, whose free-to-air chanels are all available at least around the whole of the EU.

Phil, yeah. I haven’t spotted non-Freeview PVRs with MPEG4, but it’s worth doing a little more digging on this.

Craig, but that’s my exact point: there is hardly any unique programming on HD (nothing on channel 9 or 10/One, a teensy bit on ABC1, nothing on SBS, very little on 7 and it’ll probably disappear soon), so why bother with it if you don’t have a big screen?

Konrad: Obviously a number of the radio stations webcast, but TV is a little more scarce. Channel 9’s 6pm news is shown live online, and I think so is the ABC’s midday news, and ch9, ch7 and the ABC put a number of their news stories online afterwards. I don’t know of any other live broadcasts of Aussie TV. There’s also ABC iView to catch repeats of programmes, but I think that’s restricted to IP addresses inside Australia.

Daniel: To be honest I’ve got HD because it came with the box that I wanted. That being said, I have been surprised that there is some unique stuff on the HD channels that we have ended up watching. To be fair it tends to be older repeats. But my wife never watched Scrubs the first time around and appreciates that IceTV keeps grabbing them for her.

I guess my point was that the HD channels look fine on an SD TV. So if there is anything on the HD channels that you want then it is worth getting a HD box even if you only have an SD TV. It doesn’t degrade to lower then SD :)

I love my Toppy and my four-year-old uses it just fine, so I can’t see that it isn’t relatively intuative to use.

Before I bought it, I went through all the pros and cons of the various dual-tuner HD recorders (Tivo, Beyonwiz, etc). All of them had their problems and I have fallen victim to the biggest problem with Topfields – their reliability! It has been back to Topfield for repairs but that was fairly painless.

Even with that, I’d still say go for it.

Hi, I think the PVR2HD model PVR costing $549 from Radio Parts in Melbourne should do what you want…. but may not transfer to a PC???


At the moment, I’m just using a HD set top box (STD5HD from Radio Parts for $149) and using the old VCR to record.

>> the bandwidth can accomodate one HD channel and three SD channels, so it is likely the the HD stream will be considerably reduced in resolution to fit the new channel in.

You mean they’ll use heavy “compression”, like the bastards at channel 7…

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