S-A's Box Aims for Clearer Picture


Scientific-Atlanta Inc. is rolling out the successor to its Explorer 3100 high-definition television set-top, which will feature a faster processor and the ability for consumers to resize the enhanced picture on their set.

The Explorer 3250HD set-top will feature a 166 megahertz processor, a 30 percent jump over its predecessor's 130 MHZ processor. "That will improve the overall operation of the set-top," said Jim Kiker, S-A's director of Explorer set-tops.

The new box has the same amount of application and program memory — 40 megabytes — as the 3100 and will cost roughly the same price. The memory breaks down to eight megabytes for flash, 16 mega-bytes for DRAM for applications and 16 megabytes of DRAM for Moving Picture Experts Group decoding, high definition TV and graphics.

But the stretch and zoom capabilities in the new box is a breakthrough that will help consumers better utilize their HDTV sets, according to Kiker.

He said the size of the on-screen picture will be controlled through an on-screen menu or through remote control keys. On a wide-screen HDTV set, consumers will be able to "stretch" the sides of the video for a full horizontal image or stretch all four sides of the video with the zoom feature to fill the screen — while still maintaining the original aspect ratio. Those features can eliminate the bars associated with HDTV picture conversion that viewers sometime see.

"That's a really neat feature because you can change the scan rate from the user interface," Kiker said. "You could be watching a channel in 1080i, and change it to 480i." Some DBS products, he said, force consumers to flip a switch on the back of the box to make that conversion.

Kiker said half the HDTV sets in use today are utilizing the standard 4 by 3 sizing, while the balance are using the wide-screen format. But the overall trend is toward more wide-screen sets, he said. Still, Kiker believes that "every TV out there can benefit from stretch and zoom."

"We also have an HDTV setup wizard," he said. "It walks the subscriber through a setup process, helping them set up the aspect ratio and the scan rates that their TV supports. The average person doesn't understand what 1080i is. The setup wizard cycles through the various scan rates. If you can see the graphics, you know TV supports that format. It's a real simple way for a person to know their TV supports all the scan rates."

The new set-top also comes with optional copy-protection interfaces: both the Digital Visual Interface (DVI) specification with high bandwidth digital copy protection and the 1394 with 5C, which was the basis of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association accord with the Consumer Electronics Association. "There's a very strong interest [among MSOs] with DVI and 1394," Kiker said.

Kiker also noted that current purchase orders in the queue for the Explorer 3100 will shift to the 3250 once it ships in the second quarter.

Some cable operators, Cox Communications and Charter Communications among them, are selling the Explorer 3170HD set-top at retail, which is essentially the 3100 with a few cables added, Kiker said.

S-A plans to follow course with the 3250, developing an offshoot box that would serve as its retail cousin.

In S-A's last fiscal quarter, the company said it shipped 43,000 HD set-tops. Its total shipped count stands at 230,000.