DirecTV wants to be king of the HDTV providers, offering a total of around 50 high definition channels beginning next month (September) and up to one hundred HD channels by the end of 2007 (according to its press releases) and confirmed to the HDGURUâ„¢ by a DirecTV spokesperson.

DirecTV says in order to receive any of these new additional channels, you must discontinue use of your current HD DirecTV Receiver or HD DirecTV TiVo DVR (which only accept MPEG2 video compression) and change its own branded H20 and HR20 DVR HD (MPEG2/MPEG4) satellite receivers. In addition, you will need to upgrade your satellite dish to its 5LNB model to connect to the new set top boxes. What DirecTV doesn’t tell you is that the new receivers now add something to the image you don’t want or need, namely black vertical stripes that may permanently damage your expensive HDTV screen when viewing its standard definition 4:3 programming!

The image above clearly shows the offending black strips. This screen shot is of the DirecTV broadcast of our local NBC station WNBC, NY. Stripes appear on all standard def channels (except the DirecTV barker channel) when using either of my two DirecTV + HDDVR s (HR20) on my connected HDTVs. They are a plasma and CRT based rear projector. I had the new DirecTV equipment installed this past Thursday in preparation for the launch of its new HD channels. (At his local Circuit City, The HD Guru also confirmed that this problem occurs using the DirecTV H20 model after he had the DirecTV representative switch the box over to standard definition channels on the store’s demo set top box.)

What’s the problem with black stripes on the screen?

Keep a 4:3 standard definition program on a phosphor-based screen (plasma or CRT rear or direct view) too long and your HDTV can suffer from uneven phosphor wear, commonly called “burn in”. This burn-in can leave two vertical areas permanently on the image when you view content that is active across the entire screen such as the HD channels or widescreen DVDs, Blu-ray discs or HD DVDs. A high definition capable satellite receiver properly displaying a 4:3 standard definition channel, should place the gray bars directly adjacent to the left and right sides of the program material to prevent “burn in”.

While the latest plasma displays are less prone to burn-in than previous generation sets, they are not immune under the conditions that occur when using the new DirecTV HD set top boxes. That’s because black stripes “on- screen” indicate no light is being produced by the phosphors within the stripe area. With no light produced, there is no wear, however all phosphors very slowly diminish their brightness as they emit light. At some point the unused black area when lit up will be noticeably brighter (lighter) than the surrounding areas, and be seen as two brighter vertical stripes when you switch to full screen content such as a high definition program.

The HD Guru called DirecTV customer service regarding this serious design flaw and was informed that currently there is no fix to the problem! The HD Guru advises the following:

Avoid purchasing one of these units until DirecTV comes up with a fix, or:

Do not view 4:3 content using these boxes or:

Turn the picture (contrast) control down to less the 50% of maximum, in the “standard,” “movie” or “custom” modes of your HDTV and view as 4:3 (“pillar box” mode with gray bands as pictured above) no more than 15% of your viewing time.
Only use lamp-based projection TVs such as a DLP or LCoS
(LCD flat panels do not have phosphors on the screen but there is some evidence of other issues when displaying fixed images i.e. black stripes for extended periods of time)

There are two other aspect ratios available on the DirecTV boxes; they are called “Stretch” and “Crop”. The former stretches the image horizontally distorting it, and the latter enlarges the image horizontally and vertically. Unfortunately, viewing either of my two HDTVs (a 2007 Panasonic Plasma and an older Mitsubishi CRT rear projector) revealed these other aspect ratios would not usually eliminate this problem but instead move the black stripes to the left and right edge of the image. Perhaps some TVs may overscan the image enough to fill the screen in one of these modes, but if not, you will risk the same burn-in problem occurring at the edges.

The HD Guru called a DirecTV spokesman to inquire as to when and if DirecTV will remedy this flaw. To date there has been no response. The HD Guru will follow up when he receives a reply.

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