Finally, some HDTV that's worth watching.

Finally, some HDTV that's worth watching.

Finally, some HDTV that's worth watching.

The latest gadgets and tech toys.
Nov. 23 2004 12:55 PM

Voom Times

Finally, some HDTV that's worth watching.

When I bought a high-definition television in 2000, I felt a bit like my childhood neighbor who bought a color TV in the early 1960s only to  find out that the only programs in color were Wonderful World of Disney and Bonanza. Now, four years later, most cable companies offer at least a handful of high-def channels. The two main satellite services, DISH Network and DirecTV, have eight and seven, respectively, along with a high-def pay-per-view channel.

Yet the 11.5 million Americans who own an HDTV are still waiting for the revolution that inspired them to spend four figures on a television set in the first place. That is, they're still waiting for the day when there are so many high-def channels that there's always some high-def program on worth watching.

Fred Kaplan Fred Kaplan
Fred Kaplan, Slate's "War Stories" columnist, also writes about home theater for The Perfect Vision and other publications.

That day has arrived in a carrier called VOOM, a Long Island-based satellite service owned by Cablevision. VOOM offers 37 high-definition channels—four times as many as any other single satellite or cable company. Its competitors both offer HBO, Showtime, ESPN, and Discovery Theater in high-definition. VOOM has all of those, plus an additional HBO HD channel, an additional Showtime HD channel, two Starz HD channels, two Cinemax HD channels, and HD versions of The Movie Channel, Bravo, and Encore. It also has 21 unique HD channels, including 10 movie channels, two concert channels, and separate channels for news, world sports, extreme sports, fashion, and classic cartoons.

When VOOM launched a year ago, most of these unique channels were pretty dreadful. The movies in particular were awful. Now a lot of them are really good. In the past month or so, they've included Blood Simple, Z, Twentieth Century, Coup de Torchon, Barry Lyndon, A Hard Day's Night, The Man Who Would Be King, A Clockwork Orange, For a Few Dollars More, the original Manchurian Candidate, and a Woody Allen festival that included Manhattan, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Bananas, and Radio Days.

If you've seen high-definition—any company's high-definition—you know that it's a vast improvement over normal (what they now call "standard-definition") television. First, most HD programs are broadcast in widescreen, so if you have a widescreen television the image will fill the screen rather than being framed by those black letterbox bars on the top and bottom. Second, while a standard TV image is composed of 480 horizontal lines, an HDTV image has 1,080 lines. More lines mean a denser, richer, more detailed, more lifelike picture. Third, many HD shows are carried in Dolby Digital surround sound.

The thing about VOOM, though, is that its picture quality is superior—in some cases, vastly superior—to any high-definition image I've seen on other satellite or cable services. Images appear almost three-dimensional. Colors are more saturated, though not in an exaggerated way. Flesh tones are more nuanced. Blacks are blacker, and contrasts are more subtle. An example: The first day I got VOOM, I watched Hero (the Dustin Hoffman-Geena Davis film, not the Chinese swashbuckler) on Showtime-HD. I'd seen the movie on the same channel, via DISH Network, just a few weeks earlier. In the dark scenes that take place at a nighttime plane crash, VOOM reveals much more detail: more expression on people's faces, more gradations between dark and light, and more delineation between objects and shadows. The effect isn't just some videophile's delight; it makes the picture more vivid and the movie more absorbing.

VOOM has a sharper picture because its transmissions are less compressed. (All digital broadcast signals have to be somewhat compressed; there's only so much bandwidth.) There is a downside to this: The signal is less compressed because VOOM's satellites, unlike those of DirecTV or DISH, do not carry channels for local stations. VOOM's hardware package does include an antenna that can pick up digital broadcasts. In most cities, and a growing number of smaller towns, the network affiliates do transmit digital signals over the airwaves. But if you live outside such areas and want to watch ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS, the WB, Fox, or UPN, then VOOM will not serve your needs. (Click here for a list of towns that have over-the-air digital broadcasts.)

Other practical matters: VOOM has nearly every channel offered by the other satellite services, with a few notable exceptions. In standard definition, it's lacking the Food Channel, though it is scheduled to pick it up soon; in high def, DISH and DirecTV carry Mark Cuban's HDNet and HDNet Movies, which VOOM does not. VOOM's premium service, which includes 120 channels, costs $89.90 a month, about the same as the other satellite carriers. (A more basic option, which has only 50 channels and doesn't include HBO, Showtime, and so forth, is $49.90 a month, but why would you bother?) The hardware is cheaper than some others: $199 for installation plus $9.50 per month if you rent; $499, installation included, if you buy. (Update, Nov. 23: Voom is now running a promotion where you can get the equipment installed for $1 plus a $5 per month rental free if you agree to subscribe to programming for six months.) I'd recommend renting for now. Company spokesmen say that by March, VOOM will offer a new satellite receiver with a built-in high-definition digital video recorder. They also promise that by March they'll expand the lineup to 70 high-definition channels and start showing HD versions of 190 films from Miramax and Dimension. Wait to buy till then.

Another consideration: This is a small company. It has only 26,000 subscribers, as compared to DISH's 10.4 million and DirecTV's 11.6 million. (How many of those subscribers receive high-def services is unknown—the companies don't break out that data—but the number is probably a lot higher than 26,000.) VOOM also got off to a rocky start: a faulty satellite receiver, poor installers, and worse customer service. Those problems seem to be in the past, but some financial analysts suspect that VOOM might not be around for long. Short of that, it could get bought out by one of the giants, in which case its quality might conceivably decline. If you have an HDTV, it's worth giving VOOM a shot—at least on a rental basis—both for your own pleasure and to help secure the future of high definition.