We've been ordering video on demand movies for our kids lately, and the quality has been quite bad. My apologies for turning this blog into a personal gripe against my local cable company, but let me point out that my cable provider is not some struggling mom and pop operation -- we're talking about Time-Warner in New York City. And everyone in our family is quite used to, and tolerant of, the little hiccups and pixel blocks we see in our Replay PVR running at "standard" quality.
But watching "Yu-Gi-Oh! The Movie" and "Barbie As The Princess and the Pauper" last weekend was almost unbearable. The picture would freeze for several seconds at a time, on numerous occasions in each film -- usually just when the action was reaching a climax! Sometimes even the sound dropped out for a second or two.
A year ago I might have attributed such poor performance to growing pains, but not anymore. Not after seeing the very tools that cable-TV systems can use to catch and troubleshoot these problems, these perennial glitches in their signal delivery. At NAB last week I got to see a bunch of these MPEG stream analysis tools close up and first hand, and they are indeed ready for prime time.
In fact, this week in our Video/Imaging DesignLine How-To area, a Tektronix engineer walks through the process of using the MTS400 to analyze MPEG signals -- see How To Analyze Digital Video Transport Streams with Tektronix' MTS400 . And at NAB I saw several competing products from Leader, DTVinteractive, and K-WILL, among others, in addition to the Tektronix unit (see Test System Finds MPEG Faults).
Though the general mood at NAB was optimistic about these products, I also sensed a certain cynicism among some people who had obviously already been "in the trenches" trying to sell this gear to cable and satellite-TV operators. "They don't care -- yet!" seemed to be the mood.
Which partly explains why design engineers represent such an important chunk of the market for this test gear -- see New Test Gear Helps Cottage Codec Creators.
Yes, we should have called and complained last weekend -- though of course, we didn't. (One can only conjecture whether kids' flix get lower priority, and precisely what bandwidth was being assigned to us... whatever it was, it wasn't enough!)
But with IPTV on the rise, competition from telcos, more satellite spot beams, and even over-the-air DTV taking off, I believe a day of reckoning is coming.
Digital cable TV needs quality control. But for the VOD here and now, it's the only game in town.