Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Geek Super Bowl Preview: Television

First up is everyone's favorite waster of time, the boob tube...television.

Both Sunflower and U-Verse offer a comprehensive set of television packages, roughly divided into four tiers, ranging from a low end featuring over-the-air stations plus a few basic cable channels to high-end packages featuring hundreds of channels, including premium networks. We are going to be comparing the mid-range offerings of the two providers - plans that offer, in my opinion, the most "bang for the buck" -- You get all the popular cable networks, a decent amount of sports, music channels, and all the usual non-premium channels you expect to get with cable TV.

Sunflower calls this level of service "Bronze" and AT&T calls it "U-200".

Price-wise, both are fairly similar. U-Verse's U-200 is $64 per month, plus extra fees for things like HD service and additional televisions (the service includes 1 set-top box/DVR). Sunflower's Bronze service is $56 a month, plus extra fees for additional HD-DVRs and set top boxes (Bronze service includes 1 standard definition set-top box). We actually use a Tivo currently with our Sunflower service, so we do not need to rent a DVR, but to keep comparisons equal, this is what it would cost to equip a typical home with 3 TVs with each provider, if you rent the DVRs and set-top boxes:

DescriptionSunflower BronzeAT&T U-200
Base Package$56$64
HD Feenone/included$10
TV #1 - HD - DVR$10 additional fee to upgrade to HD DVRnone/included
TV #2 - HD - no DVR$10 set top box$7 set top box
TV #3 - Standard Definition - No DVR$5 set top box$7 set top box

So, roughly the same. Obviously adding or changing a TV here or there might make a $10 difference either way, and your price may change if you don't need a set top box (which is an option for Sunflower, see below for technical details), but it is fair to say you will likely spend close to the same amount of money, if you have three or less TV sets in your home, perhaps with a slight edge in price to Sunflower.

Before I got any further, I need to digress into geek-ville. The fact is that fundamentally, cable-based TV (which Sunflower provides) and IP-based TV (which U-Verse provides) are fundamentally different "behind the scenes" and these technical differences explain much of the limitations, and advantages of each service.

Warning....several paragraphs of technical stuff ahead. But I really try to explain it in a non technical way :-)

Cable providers generally broadcast all their channels all the time. This basically means that all the channels your service provides are always flowing through the wires into your house, even when the TV is off. When you are tuned to ESPN, VH-1 and hundreds of other channels are being pumped into your house along side of it. Since this "river" of programming is always flowing, you can generally plug in as many TVs as you want into the coax outlets in your home, and access programming freely, as easy as simply "plugging in."

This has changed a little bit in recent years, as cable companies have moved towards digital programming. Many TVs need a digital box to pick up the new digital cable channels, but fundamentally, you can basically plug any TV into the wall and get some cable channels. Sunflower offers a bunch of "basic" channels without requiring any type of box, and you can pick up the entire gamut of their lineup with a modern TiVo (which is what we use), or by using any newer TV that can tune in digital cable ("QAM").

The down side of this ease of use is that there is limited interactivity. Sunflower (and other cable providers) offer video-on-demand, where you can interactively order programming. This requires a digital box, and often uses a technology called switched digital video, where the "river" of incoming programming is actually switched and controlled "upstream" in response to the users' requests. Traditional cable television is gradually moving towards this more interactive, switched digital future, but for now, a great benefit of traditional cable TV, as provided by Sunflower in Lawrence, is that anything can plug into it...new TVs, old TVs, digital and analog tuner cards for computers, and so on. A set-top box might get you added features, but it is not a requirement....yet.

So, here comes AT&T with their U-Verse system. They faced a big problem.
At its core, the coaxial cable that Sunflower (and other cable services around the country) offer has much more capacity then the copper phone wire used by AT&T. So, how can AT&T possibly provide hundreds of channels over a pipe that is many times narrower then coaxial cable? Their answer is that rather then provide the "stream" of hundreds of channels to your home, they instead only transmit the channels you are actively watching or recording. So if your TV is on Comedy Central and the kids are watching Nickelodeon, those are the only two channels that flow into your house at the time. Change a channel, and AT&T transmits this request "upstream" to the fiber box in your neighborhood, which switches the channel and starts sending you the new channel you requested.

Because every channel change and other request is sent "upstream," the AT&T system allows for some fairly sophisticated interactive features, such as a variety of "applications" that can be run on the TV,as well as sophisticated time-and-place shifting of the channels you are watching. This enables features such as pausing a show in one room of the house and "picking it up" in another room, or instantly transmitting recorded shows between TVs.

While the U-Verse system represents an elegant technical solution to a tricky problem, it is not without its own downsides. First is the limited bandwidth. AT&T claims that they support up to two HD channels and two standard definition channels at the same time. This means if you have 5 TVs in your house, two of them must be watching the same channel. Furthermore, since the U-Verse system requires its own custom set-top boxes to function, each TV must have one of these boxes installed. In addition to the cost of rental, this means you can't just "plug in" to U-Verse or use your own equipment (such as a TiVo or computer tuner card); You need to use AT&Ts equipment.

U-Verse and traditional cable TV cannot co-exist on the same physical wires. During our trial, we will continue to use our home's coaxial cable for Sunflower, while running U-Verse over a set of parallel CAT-5e ethernet cables, which will be installed as part of the U-Verse installation.

We have a television set with two HDMI inputs. One input will have our TiVo HD, connected to Sunflower, while the other will have the AT&T U-Verse box. This will give us the ability to see the same programming provided from both sources, and compare the quality. Both U-Verse and Sunflower compress their HD signals, but the compression may differ. We plan to watch a mixture of shows -- sports, movies, action, talk shows, and even some standard def programming to fairly compare the two services.

OK, most of the super geeky stuff is out of the way...

Keep in mind, its not just the channel list and content we are comparing. Part of it is ease of use. We love our TiVo and its famous UI. Will the U-Verse box be like a Mac user switching to Windows? How easy will it be to do basic tasks like skipping commercials, setting up a season pass, or finding a favorite show.

I am also interested in how U-Verse handles local channels. Their channel lineup contains the main Kansas City over-the-air networks, but none of the local Lawrence or KU channels Sunflower offers, or any of the Topeka stations. I am also wondering how U-Verse is for sports. I am an avid college football fan, and look forward to being able to watch KU play this fall. It will certainly be a test to see if KU (and other teams I follow) are available on U-Verse as well as Sunflower.

We will find out and let you know, because in the end, it's not about U-Verse or cable...it's about watching The Office and Mythbusters (and Rock Chalk Jayhawk!)

Still to come, previews of the Internet side of the game, as well as some quick looks at the phone and customer service.

1 comment:

  1. Hell Yes I believe Sunflower is kickin Butt.