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High-Definition Smorgasbord? Not Yet

By Daniel Greenberg
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, July 18, 2004; Page F07

More than half a decade after its arrival, one of the most common complaints about high-definition television is that there's still not enough of it to watch. Over-the-air HDTV is free to watch but scarce outside of prime time and often difficult to pull in; the DirecTV and Dish Network satellite services offer only a handful of HD channels; and cable HD is expensive enough to make regular cable look cheap.

And many of the viewers who have grown accustomed to HDTV's sharper resolution and surround sound find regular analog TV intolerably bad by comparison.

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A new satellite provider called Voom is trying to fill this gap with a heaping helping of high definition, starting with its own set of 21 commercial-free channels. Five offer mainstream movie titles (albeit older and less varied than what you'd find on HBO or Showtime); six focus on such narrower movie categories as foreign films, epics or monster flicks.

The other 10 are all over the map. We liked Voom's concert, sports, art and travel channels, but not its news-lite HDNews channel.

This Voom-only programming looked uniformly crisp and clear -- you can see every bead of sweat on the sports channels and every smudge of the bad makeup jobs in old movies.

Voom's menu of other companies' HD content consists of Discovery HD, Bravo HD, TNT HD and ESPN HD; the well-regarded all-high-def HDNet is absent. "PlusPacks" of high- and standard-definition movie channels, including HBO, Showtime and Cinemax, are available for $14.90 each.

To round things out, Voom carries about 80 channels of standard-definition fare, including CNN, MTV and Comedy Central (but not Sci-Fi, HGTV, USA and a few other reasonably obvious sources). Voom's sports selection is particularly weak, since it doesn't offer regional networks like Comcast SportsNet or the extensive sports packages sold by DirecTV and Dish.

Local channels are handled by an over-the-air antenna, mounted by Voom's installers next to its dish. This is Voom's greatest weakness, placing customers at the mercy of sometimes problematic HDTV reception. In our tests near downtown Washington, we pulled in eight HD stations -- but even after extensive tweaking, the District's NBC affiliate, WRC-TV, eluded our antenna's reach.

Tech support offered to send a rep out to adjust the antenna's position; a company spokesman, Ed McLaughlin, suggested that the issue might be WRC's broadcast, saying that "a lot of HD channels are not broadcasting in full strength yet."

Voom's monthly rates compare quite well with other HD options -- $49.90 for its regular package, or $39.90 through this year for customers who subscribe before Aug. 1. Premium-channel bundles, such as an HBO set of two high-def and seven standard channels, cost $15 a month. A mega-bundle of the basic Voom package plus all five PlusPack bundles costs $89.90 a month ($10 less if ordered before Aug. 1).

Like Dish and DirecTV, Voom can be bought online (www.voom.com) or at such retailers as Sears. Unlike those services, you can't get its hardware for free -- its set-top receiver and dish costs $499 to buy or $9.50 a month to rent. Renting may make more sense, since Voom says it plans to offer a TiVo-like digital video recorder around the end of this year. Either way, no contract is required.

The Voom service worked reliably over several weeks of testing, with no more weather-induced interruptions than any other satellite system. We did, however, see some glitches in its on-screen programming guide, a clean, menu-driven interface that features a picture-in-picture glimpse of what's on the current channel. Sometimes the receiver froze up and had to be rebooted by unplugging it.

If you don't own an HDTV, Voom does nothing for you. But if you do, this service has a lot to offer. It will have a lot more to offer if it can work on over-the-air reception and start lowering its start-up purchase costs.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company