First views of HDTV may be via computer Cheaper: High-technology companies offer circuit boards to let homely PCs show high-definition television.

November 18, 1998|By Michael Stroh | Michael Stroh,SUN STAFF

LAS VEGAS -- High-definition television will hit the airwaves in Baltimore and many other cities next fall. The question is who will be watching it -- and what they'll be using to watch.

With sets priced at $4,000 and up, HDTV is beyond the reach of the average couch potato, and few TV industry analysts believe the technology will take off quickly among consumers.

But several high-technology companies displaying their wares here at the annual Comdex computer show are betting that they deliver on the promise of crisper pictures and better sound with inexpensive circuit boards that transform home computers into HDTV sets.

They're hoping they can establish the PC as a cheap alternative for watching HDTV broadcasts and steal market share from HDTV makers.

"We believe the PC will make its move into the living room as the rightful center of digital information and entertainment in the home," said Ken Plotkin, vice president of marketing at Hauppauge Computer Works.

Hauppauge, a manufacturer of computer video cards, unveiled plans this week for a digital television tuner card for personal computers called WinTV-D. The card will be available in the first half of 1999 and cost less than $200, company officials said.

"Now you don't have to wait until prices on HDTV sets come down. You can start watching digital television right away," said Hauppauge market strategist Andrew Luan.

Real HDTV sets will have much larger screens than the average computer monitor, which measures only 15 to 17 inches diagonally. But Luan says a digital TV tuner card -- combined with a monitor's inherent, high-resolution display capability -- will allow a PC to match a HDTV set's stellar image quality.

Some computer makers are pushing HDTV capability to lure consumers, too. Compaq Computer Corp. this week unveiled plans to make similar hardware for its Presario personal computers. Compaq says its technology could be available as early as next spring and add about $800 to the cost of a computer -- not cheap but still only a fraction of the cost of a dedicated HDTV set.

Meanwhile, Panasonic, Phillips Semiconductors and Intel Corp. have announced that they are working on their digital tuner technology of their own.

The marriage of computers and digital TV sets is a natural one. HDTV technology allows broadcasters to send Web pages and other digital content along with the television picture, much as closed-captioning information is paired with analog television signals today.

Computer makers pushing digital television tuner cards for PCs argue that a computer is better suited to making use of such supplementary digital information than the HDTV sets now making their way to market.

Despite the cheap price tag, some analysts doubt that the PC's ability to double as a digital TV set will cause HDTV to catch fire.

Analysts Raymond Boggs of International Data Corp. of Framingham, Mass., notes that analog TV tuner cards -- circuit boards that allow users to watch standard television or cable programs on their computer monitors when an antenna or cable TV wire is attached -- have been available at low prices for years, but have not attracted a large following.

Also, he says, broadcasters still need to solve many problems on their end, such as creating interesting digital programming that will make people want to watch HDTV.

Federal law requires stations in the top 10 markets to begin high-definition broadcasts by May, and some stations have already begun. In markets 11 through 30, a category that includes Baltimore, digital broadcasts must begin by November 1999, with the rest of the country to follow by 2003.

Pub Date: 11/18/98

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