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14 February, 2008

ATT Uverse vs DirecTV (part 2)

I'm back. Sorry about the delay on getting this post out. I could give you an excuse like our 7 year old Technics SX-703 electric piano blue screened on Friday. Then 2 days later my Infrant NAS decide to take up smoking the power supply. But, I won’t indulge you with any of that. Suffice it to say that the excitement is over and I can finally get back to this blog.

I did find time to post a spoiler last night in answer to a comment by BradG. That ended up being the concise version of this blog which will cover my highly valuable impression of U-verse picture quality. Who am I to comment on U-verse picture quality? I am one that has lived with it for over 2 months. Surely, that is long enough for me to grant myself a Bachelors degree in U-verse critiquing.

The instal -
Installation was a snap and took less then 3 hours. Our place is Cat5e pre-wired and since I had already terminated the cable at each of our TVs, install simply consisted of terminating the extra Cat5e line that runs from the side of the house to our closet, plugging in the 2Wire DSL Router (3800HGV-B Gateway) , Motorola Receivers (two VIP1200 and one VIP1216) and connecting the audio and video systems to the U-verse boxes. Piece of cake.

The ATT installer was courteous, knowledgeable and even willing to please. He gave me an extra HDMI cable just in case I needed it. I had to go with component video since my Outlaw Pre/Pro doesn't have HDMI. But a free HDMI cable? How cool is that? When was the last time an installer gave you anything for free? That freebee now has a nice home in my overstuffed box of cables right next to my cherished PhoneNet adapter.

How did the install compare to my fuzzy recollection of the DirecTV install? U-verse was pleasant, DirecTV was an argument. I've used DirecTV at two homes and in both cases I had to convince the installer that putting the antennae where it was easy for them to install was not necessarily the best location from my point of view. For this house, the installer didn't want to mount the dish near the cable access point which happened to be on the roof. I got the feeling he was afraid of heights even though he did carry a ladder. He suggested installing it a lot closer to the ground. I won the argument by pointing out that if he installed it where he wanted then the possums could easily get a satellite feed without paying DirecTV and I'd report him. He finally gave in, but the experience left me scared for life.

A bit about the DSL connection. I signed up for the 6Mbs/1Mbs (that’s megabits per second download / Mbs upload) internet option. Prior to that I had an AT&T DSL connection rated at 3Mb/0.5Mbs. DSLreports typically measured the actual speed a bit less then that.

After installation of U-verse my speed was averaging around 4Mbs/0.9Mbs. That continued to improve as my connection aged like a fine cheese. By 18 hours post install my speed was up to 5.5Mbs/0.9Mbs and it has stayed there pretty consistently.

One interesting point is that the 2Wire router statistics page shows 25Mbs download and 2.0Mbs upload speed. My conclusion is ATT is reserving a good 15Mbs download for video. And check out that Max Download speed! Awesome, though I hear that some places in the U.K. can double that. Keep the 25Mbs in mind when next time I'll go over the number of video streams you can watch and record at any one time.

Picture Quality for Standard Definition -
Standard definition video is better then what we were getting from DirecTV. The picture is not quite DVD quality but it is close. I wonder if the picture improvement is due to the compression technique U-verse uses. If you have done any video compression, you know there is a host of options one can play with. Compression is all about balancing data stream size and video quality. Some methods are better then others. Some boost contrast and "smooth" out the image which gives the impression of a better picture. U-verse may be using a compression technique that boosts contrast. The result is pleasing and in my opinion better then what DirecTV was ever able to produce.

The downside to U-verse on the Standard Def front is what I call stream stutter. This results in a picture that either stops for a split second or breaks up enough to be annoying. Stutter doesn't occur on every show, but it occurs enough to wonder if that claimed 25 Mb/s DSL speed is enough.

Picture Quality for HD -
U-verse HD is o.k. It is not great. It is o.k. It is better then DVD and since I don't have Blu-Ray (I weep for the death of HDDVD), I can't compare that for you. I didn't have DirecTV HD to compare either, but (take this with a huge grain of salt) I've spent some time looking at the DirecTV HD in my local mass merchant consumer electronics store. Based on that I have to give the picture quality prize to DirecTV. The U-verse video seems to lack detail and color punch. Plus, if stutter is unpleasant in Standard Def, it has got to be down right annoying in HD. On average, in any given 1 hour HD show, stutter raises it's ugly head at least once and more like 2 or 3 times. This can break the intense mood that evolves during a 1 hour (40 minute commercial free) viewing of LOST.

U-verse On Demand -
Then there is U-verse OnDemand. This is a great idea - you can browse through a list of HBO, Showtime and Cinemax shows and then start and stop them “On Demand”. Video starts quickly and let's you pause to refill your pint glass. The down side is the video quality. Sound is fine but the video suffers from a major case of motion artifact.

There is so much motion artifact I have to take a Dramamine before launching U-verse OnDemand. Motion artifact is different from the stutter I mentioned earlier. Motion artifact is a result of a compressed image not dealing with rapidly changing scenes. If there is a quick pan to the left or right, the picture does a quick jump as if it just dropped a few frames. If you ever played with those flip books as a kid, OnDemand is the digital version of those flip books. This is so serious that I now think twice before starting any U-verse On Demand show. In fact, on one series “The Tudors”, we decided to forgo the “free” U-verse version and buy the DVD.

Conclusion on Picture Quality -
So there you have it. I'm not as impressed with U-verse picture quality as I thought I'd be. Standard Def is very good, HD is O.K., Streaming stutter is borderline high. OnDemand is not worth the bits it comes through on. I fear AT&T will continue to have these issues unless they can optimize their compression technique and eliminate stutter and motion artifact. My sense is they have a long up hill battle to overcome. A battle that may require greater bandwidth and more capable hardware.

Next time I'll give you my impression of the DVR capability and why and how we are still using TiVo with U-verse. If there is anything else you'd like me to cover, let me know.

Cio, e tutto per oggi! 

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