The Multimedia Home UK vs USA
What is Home Multimedia?
For the purpose of this article, in the absence of being able to find a satisfactory definition, my broad ranging concept of home Multimedia is the inclusion of home entertainment technologies such as TVs and Radios, and the Internet via computers, laptops and other smart devices, to access and use a wide range of audio and visual media and for communication.
Is There a Difference Between the UK and USA?
From the work I did in multimedia when I worked in ITC (Information and Communication Technology) I quickly learned about the distinct differences between the European PAL and American NTSC TV formats.
In more recent years, with the digital age and the introduction of DAB in Europe, there’s also been the divergence of radio technologies between Europe and America; not to mention the difference in European and American mobile phones (cell phones).
In Europe all mobile phones (cell phones) are just the skin for the GSM system using a SIM card; so if you buy a new phone you can just take the SIM card out of your old phone and put it into the new one. The other advantage of the GSM system is that it’s universal across Europe, so when on holiday you can use your mobile anywhere within Europe. Whereas I understand most Americans use CDMA, which is more restrictive and less flexible in coverage and use.
Whereas PAL is superior to NTSC and I think the European DAB (Digital audio broadcasting) system has its advantages, I’m sure there are other technological differences between Europe and America where there are pros and cons in each system.
Convergence of Technologies in the Home
In the 21st century we’ve seen a convergence of technologies that blurs the waters and makes some of the comparisons between different technologies all the more difficult; various convergences of technologies including:-
- Internet TV.
- Radio channels being broadcast through the TV.
- TV and Radio on the computer.
- Internet, TV and Radio on mobile phones.
- Skype on the Internet as an alternative to landline phones.
My expertise and knowledge in this area comes predominantly from:-
- My work in multimedia and ICT before I took early retirement
- Multimedia and IT (Information Technology) are two of my hobbies, and
- My son, who graduated with his degree in ‘BA Broadcast Media Hons.’ at Bath Spa University in 2011.
Within the confines of my knowledge, this article is an overview of some of the technologic differences in home multimedia, with some background information as to their origins and development.
PAL vs NTSC
I know these are old technologies in that they were designed for analogue TV, and in the UK the full transition from analogue to digital TV was completed in 2012. However, in Europe and most of the world PAL forms the basis for digital transmission (for backwards compatibility) e.g. 25fps (frames per second), and when I’m editing videos in post-production for YouTube I still use PAL, even if it’s in HD (High Definition).
PAL (Phase Alternating Line) of 625-lines was first introduced in Britain as the ‘Standard’ for broadcasting in colour in 1969, replacing the old ‘black and white’ 405-line transmission. Whereas in America NTSC format of 525-lines, originally developed for ‘black and white’ in 1941, rather than being replaced to accommodate colour was just upgraded; with the consequence that it doesn’t handle colour as well as PAL.
This first became apparent to me when I was handling both formats at work and at home; and became very irritating when trying to convert NTSC to PAL because it’s easier to downgrade the quality than it is to upgrade it.
The other times I’ve been aware of the differences in quality of formats is when:-
- I purchased a copy of ‘The 10th Kingdom’ on DVD in Region 2 format, but only available in NTSC., and
- With the introduction of HD (High Definition) on TV.
At the time HD TV channels were coming on-line and HD DVD (Blu-ray) was becoming available we already had a high-end 50 inch plasma TV. Consequently, because the quality of PAL is so high when viewed on a high-end plasma TV the leap to High Definition isn’t that great; it’s not as stark as the difference between VHS and DVD.
For friends of ours who only have LED TVs, or even some with cheaper plasma TVs, the difference between PAL and HD is more significant; although neither PAL or HD on their sets match the standard (quality) that we get from our TV (Viera Panasonic).
During that time many Americans I was conversing with over the Internet were complaining of the poor quality of their cable TV and to them HD was a big transformation in quality. Whereas I wasn’t that bothered then, and I’m still not that bothered now.
These days on our cable TV most channels are broadcast in both Standard PAL and HD. I’ll record films and TV series we watch in HD, but generally most other programmes we just record in Standard PAL, simply because it’s a good quality and it takes up far less space on our TiVo box.
The video below shows the stark difference between NTSC and PAL; although unless your laptop or computer has a high-end graphic card and you view the video 'full screen' you may not notice a great deal of difference.
What’s better NTSC or PAL
TV and Radio
From what I understand, America doesn’t seem to have DAB radio (Digital audio broadcasting) nor does it have Freeview TV.
TV in Britain
Prior to the 1990s Britain only had five terrestrial TV channels, BBC1, BB2, ITV, C4 & C5; all received through an aerial on the roof. Then in the early 1990s Sky introduced satellite TV which required purchasing a satellite dish and decoder from the company and paying a monthly fee to watch a wide range of TV channels.
Shortly after Sky started broadcasting several cable companies started to lay optic fibre under the streets in the big cities and towns; and offered a monthly rental service of their set top boxes in direct competition to Sky. The various cable companies gradually merged and in 2006 were taken over by Virgin Media.
Although Sky (satellite TV) and Virgin Media (cable TV) are in direct competition with each other they share most of their channels with each other (an internal financial arrangement between the two companies which is too complex to explain here). Therefore, regardless to whether you subscribe to Sky or Virgin you get most of the same channels on both services.
One main difference between SKY TV and Virgin Media is that you buy the Sky TV box and then pay a subscription for the services, whereas Virgin Media rent their TV box (TiVo) for a nominal monthly rental on top of your subscriptions for the service. I prefer the latter because if and when the TiVo box becomes faulty I can just phone Virgin Media up and they quickly replace it; giving me a full refund for any services lost.
Initially Virgin Media had the TiVo box commissioned for recording three TV channels simultaneously, late last year they had it upgraded to record six TV channels simultaneously while optionally watching something from the hard drive. Currently these new boxes are being rolled out to existing customers for no extra charge.
Virgin Media TiVo - Video Demo
Freeview: Free TV for All
In 2002 Freeview was founded, which in typical British fashion is a free service (owned and run by a consortium of competitors including SKY) that offers most of the main channels broadcast on subscription services e.g. SKY (satellite) and cable (Virgin Media) but for free. The only requirement at that time (before the digital switchover) was to buy a Freeview decoder box for about $50 (a once off payment) and plug it into the old terrestrial aerial.
However, these days all new TVs in the UK are sold with Freeview built in; so if you don’t want to pay a subscription to watch sky or cable you can just plug your TV into an aerial on the roof and get most channels for free anyway.
Freeview has upgraded its system to ‘Freeview Play’ which is now being rolled out on a range of new TVs as standards, and in time will become the norm. The main difference between Freeview and ‘Freeview Play’ is that the new ‘Freeview Play’ now offers a cut down version of what the Virgin Media TiVo box offers. Basically with Freeview Play you can browse the programme schedule by to 8 days forwards or backwards and either set your TV to record an up and coming programme or watch something that you missed on TV within the last week. The Virgin Media TiVo box allows you to move forwards or backwards by up to two weeks.
What is Freeview Play?
When I tried to do research on radios in America I found it confusing because (excluding the Internet) there seems to be different types of radios for receiving different radio stations in different transmission formats e.g. satellite radio or digital terrestrial radio etc.
Whereas in Britain and across Europe (apart from the old analogue FM, which will be phased out) we just have DAB, and in the UK the same radio stations that broadcast in DAB are also available from the internet and on TV through Sky, Virgin and Freeview; so it is truly a universal system with about 50 radio stations to choose from, that’s free to all at the point of use.
For TV in the UK the switchover from analogue to Digital started in 2007 and was completed on schedule on the 24 October 2012; the next big switchover in Britain will be the DAB radio.
DAB radio (Digital audio broadcasting) was founded in the UK in 2006 in preparation for the switchover from analogue to Digital Radio. However, under current government policy, this process (which would take two years) will not start until over 50% of listeners in the UK are using DAB. Currently the figure stands at 46%, and it’s not expected to exceed 50% until about 2018.
What Is DAB?
How fast is your broadband?
Other than TV and Radio, the other big area of home media (entertainment) is the Internet. Through the Internet, whether it is via TV, computer, laptop, smart phone or any other device you the full range of home entertainment at your fingertips e.g. music, video, radio and TV etc.
I’m not sure how the broadband Internet develop in America, or what its current status is there; although I’d be interested in any feedback in the comments. Therefore, all I can do is give a pocket history and current overview of Broadband in the UK, and if you’re from America let you judge how it may differ.
History in the UK
In the early days of the Internet, in the mid to late 1990s, the only option in the UK was dial-up network via the phone line; which was prohibitively expensive, and very slow. In those early days I would spend more in one month on Internet costs than on phone calls for a whole year.
However, in the early 1990s private companies (who would eventually become Virgin Media) where investing in laying down optic fibre cables in all the streets of every major city and large towns; as a prelude to setting up cable TV in opposition with SKY (satellite TV) and digital landline phones in competition with BT (British Telecom).
So when broadband was launched in the UK I was able to subscribe to my cable TV company for the service at a flat monthly fee regardless to usage; and the savings were astronomical. These days I pay the premium rate of £25 ($32) per month to Virgin Media for the best service on offer, 200Mbps with unlimited usage and download; although I could get cheaper rates for lower speeds from Virgin Media or anyone of a multitude of its competitors.
Current Status in the UK
Although I currently get 200Mbps, there are plans in the pipeline to increase this to 300Mbps for no extra charge to Virgin Media customers.
I’ve chosen to get my broadband from Virgin Media because it’s far superior to anything on offer by any of the competitors including Sky TV, BT (British Telecoms) and a multitude of other private companies.
The one big difference between Virgin Media and all its competitors is that Virgin Media has its own dedicate optic fibre network connected to every customers home, while all its competitors are reliant on using the old BT copper wire telephone lines to the homes; albeit BT are in the process of upgrading to optic fibre.
Unlike Virgin Media (with its own optic fibre network) all the other competitors offering a broadband service have to pay BT (British Telecom) for the use of their lines; and because BT is still predominantly copper wire, even where it’s been upgraded to optic fibre the best speeds they can offer is generally about 30Mbps, 8Mbps in rural areas (about 5.3 million people). Albeit BT is currently in the process of upgrading their old copper wire phone lines to optic fibre, and in this respect they have been commissioned by the Government to provide a minimum of 24Mbps connectivity to 95% of the UK by April 2018.