Friday, July 24, 2009

TV, computers: the future of video

I've got some big video files I want to watch on my TV: a Joanna Newsom concert, the Chinese Olympics opening ceremony I struggled to download, and the banned Karen Carpenter biopic made with Barbie dolls.
  • I could buy a 16GB USB flash drive, copy the files, and stick it in the Samsung TV. But the Samsung supports very few (if any?) video formats.
  • Instead, the storage device holding the video files could output TV. LG actually makes such a device, the LG XF1, a 500 GB hard drive with HDMI out. It even comes with a remote.
  • I could transfer the files to my Playstation 3 which is permanently hooked up to the TV.
  • I could try turning one of our computers into a media server that the Playstation can access.
  • I could cart my laptop over to the TV and plug it in.
If you give the storage device drive an LCD display, then it replaces the portable DVD player. Portable Media Players like the iPod do this; with a base station they can output to a TV.

My understanding is that Apple's system still revolves around managing files on your computer in iTunes. But if the video file storage device has a display you can expose its computer ability and let the thing do its own downloading and file management. You can even plug it a USB TV tuner so that it can replace the VCR.

The question is whether these mini video file players will be a PMP, a smartphone, or a tiny netbook. Maybe all three will bloom. If it needs a dock to connect to your TV then you'll want a remote control, which is strange now that remotes are like touchscreen phones.

It sounds like Nvidia is thinking this way with their Tegra chip set, which only consumes a few watts even when decoding and outputting HD video. Since it doesn't run Intel's x86 instruction set it won't run desktop Windows. You'd think that makes it the perfect candidate for a micro netbook running Linux, but instead Microsoft's Zune HD is going to use it, and so maybe as a result Nvidia isn't promoting Linux on it.
Archos 7 in DVR cradle
The device I'm envisioning has been around for a while in the Archos series of "heavy-duty" portable media players. They offer a cradle with HDMI out, and even a remote with keyboard to drive the touch-screen device from across the room, yet they've had little success. Maybe I'm missing something.

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Saturday, June 13, 2009

TV: what to do with old videotapes?

With the digital TV transition, my VCR became a boat anchor for recording broadcast television. What, if anything, should I do with all the VHS tapes on the media shelves? I reckon Star Trek: The Next Generation will come out one day on a handful of Blu-ray disks or a single memory chip. Many of the classic bits of broadcast TV are on YouTube, if not I should upload them myself. As with digitizing vinyl if I'm going to do the job I want to do it with quality. The aging PC on which I type this has an ATI All-in-Wonder 9800 Pro card with video-in capability, but it lacks the supposed key feature for quality analog TV digitization, timebase correction.

Also, I've been meaning to give a spare VCR away, this transition makes it even more worthless tech. Another one of spage's laws:
If you don't freecycle something the day you stop using it, it'll be worthless when you finally get around to disposing it.

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TV: what replaces the VCR?

I thought I was set for last night's digital TV transition, I've been watching free digital TV over-the-air for a while. Then I realized... the VCR!!? No more sticking a tape in 5 minutes before you leave in order to record some must-see TV, only to find you overwrote the middle of the Lawrence Welk PBS special after the funny Andy Rooney rant, and then trying to pencil in a meaningful update to the table of contents on the two tape labels and the box to remind you of the random bits of video on the tape worth keeping.

I wonder how many others will be in the same situation? I guess I could get a DTV converter box only for use with the VCR, but tape is so last-century. Once demodulated, the HD signal is fully digital (it's just MPEG-2 1s and 0s), so turning it back into high-frequency modulation of magnetic particles on squeaky spools of plastic film coated with rust seems completely unnecessary. My Samsung LCD TV already has a USB port to read video files from a USB flash drive, it seems it would be a simple software upgrade for it to write video files to USB.

I guess two years ago when electronic companies were planning today's TVs, the bandwidth of HDTV seemed so massive that it would flood any storage device. The digital broadcast TV data rate is 19.4 Mbit/s, which means a 1-hour show fills 8.7 Gigabytes. But nowadays that's half a $25 16GB USB drive. And I think most broadcast "channels" squeeze several digital channels into that bandwidth, so the real rate is less.

As with all other media, the digitization of TV means any small rectangular box with computer chips can now work with video, and indeed cameras, computers, phones, and videogame consoles all do. (The future of video is a bigger discussion than the VCR replacement...) The tuning of over-the-air broadcasts has become the province of digital TV capture "cards" for computers such as the Pinnacle PCTV HD Pro stick; plug an antenna into it, plug it into a PC's USB slot, and watch or record broadcast TV. But that means dedicating a computer computer to recording TV programs, something I tried without success with my desktop. The capture card is already a computer, it could just write the 1s and 0s to an attached USB flash drive without requiring a PC. You would need some simple interface (it couldn't be worse than the VCR's flashing "12:00" UI) to tell the capture card to record a show. You could have a keypad and LCD phone-like UI on the capture card to program it; or the capture card could show its UI on the TV screen, but that would require plugging it into an HDMI input on your TV in addition to the USB slot. Either way it's getting fiddly again.

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Saturday, November 22, 2008

TV: Deadwood

We don't pay for high-def TV, so I've never seen "The Sopranos". The material is available in the racks of DVDs of most cable shows, the issue is which are worthy of hours of the time they consume. A few years ago we got into Six Feet Under's great first season, but like almost any American TV show that has to keep going, the second season petered out into soap opera machinery — who sleeps with who, which relationships fall apart, what quirky plot points happen, etc. — and we stopped watching. (Unlike the insanely great Prime Suspect non-series, where between 1992 and 2006 a long TV movie would appears about the same characters, and not an hour feels like it was produced only because season 3's commitment was for 12 hours.)

Deadwood felt like it might be fall into TV series doldroms. We rented it as a travelogue after some exposure to South Dakota. Great start as you meet the characters (including an incandescent Calamity Jane), but after Wild Bill Hickok departs you're afear'd maybe it'll just be a collection of characters fightin' and whorin' and dyin' in a Western town. I'm glad we stuck with it, because the language is so great and the characters strong enough.

It's not perfect, David Milch doesn't walk on water no matter how many kisses are bestowed on his ass in the DVD extra features. The pathetic co-dependence of the two whores Trixie and Joanie on their masters is depressing and phony when it happens twice; you never see the mining that delivered vast wealth to the town; the Gem saloon in real life had vaudeville acts and singers, not just faro and whores. But I'm still eagerly watching.


Saturday, August 23, 2008

TV high-def for free

We got a new TV but no set-top box. It's fun to explain it to people.
"We watch high-definition TV programs."
"No, we don't pay for cable or a satellite"
"We use a technology where we get digital TV for free"
"No, there's no box, just a metal gizmo on the roof"
"We own the metal thing, there's no monthly fee"
"The technical term for the metal gizmo is 'rabbit ears'"
I've gone for 10 minutes before people realize what I'm talking about:
On a recent TV, you can watch high-definition digital TV signals sent over the air by existing TV stations for free.
I wonder how many people have a recent TV and just assume they have to pay someone to watch TV. Must be nice for cable and satellite companies! In February 2009 the regular analog TV stations will disappear, leaving only the digital signals, but despite all the public service announcements people don't understand broadcast TV will continue to be free.

Each TV station has one to five digital TV channels. The first tends to be their regular analog broadcast in better quality. The others are all over the place. Fox's Channel 2-2 shows LATV, which is cheesy Latin music videos along with a scroll of incoherent text messages. The CBS and NBC affiliates rebroadcast their nightly news over and over. PBS has a world channel, an all-British TV channel, and a kids channel. So it's almost like having basic cable with 57 channels (and nothin' on – Bruce Springsteen).

Each station must be transmitting a coded representation of the day's schedule, because you can find out more info about what's on each digital channel and see what's on later in the day. But before you can scroll through the day's programming for all channels, you have to tune in to each channel to receive this. So it's sort of like a cable box's interactive program guide.

Almost, sort-of. But it beats paying a company money every month for the rest of your life.

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electronics: LCD TV

I wrote way back in April
Meanwhile, I've only 10 days to buy a TV, a surround system, a PS3, and umpteen cables, to play GTA IV.
Indeed, on the day of the Grand Theft Auto IV midnight launch I finally got an LCD TV and disconnected the Sony Trinitron.old Sony Trinitron, new Samsung in box with PS3I had held off for years watching the never-ending procession of must-have features that has kept the price of a high-end TV above $3000: 720p, 1080i, 1080p, CCFL backlight, LED backlight, low millisecond response, DVI input, HDMI input, 120 Hz refresh, OLED...

Actually buying one was straightforward: Best Buy offered a reasonable Samsung LN40A550 TV with a PS3 and installation for $1599, so I bought the package without bothering to go through the heck of comparing TVs. You don't need 1080 resolution at the distance we sit from the TV, but they didn't have a similar deal on a 720p TV. Best Buy agreed to swap the free installation for free TV calibration, but it took two salesmen 30 minutes of wrestling with their sales computer to print the receipt. I think that wore Chris and Glenn out: I was prepared to fight the hard sell of a service contract and overpriced cables, but it never happened.

Set up was easy, just plug in and go. The TV works fine, no bad pixels. I don't even know which of those fancy features it has (I'm a audiophile, not videophile). The picture looked fine from the start and looks slightly better (softer and warmer) after the Geek Squad finally scheduled a guy to calibrate the TV.

I briefly considered the surround sound part. Best Buy had two stacks of surround-sound receivers, each with a hundred connectors on the back but obviously lightweight construction, and none hooked up to speakers. If and when I ever get surround sound I'll get Magnepan surrounds and center speaker, probably with a semi-audiophile receiver from Integra, NAD, or Rotel.

Plugging in a laptop VGA cable gives you a fantastic 1080x1920 desktop with only the slightest ghosting. So I should be copyright infringing TV shows and movies and surfing YouTube on the laptop while hooked up to the TV. But even though the TV is a computer (Samsung offers Linux source code for it) and a set-top box is another computer, watching TV in the living room doesn't fit with a PC.

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Monday, August 11, 2008

web: life of a Beijing pirate is hard, yarrrr

Even with an outside high-def antenna from AntennaPros, I can't tune in to over-the-air NBC ever since the station moved to San Jose. Curse you, hilly geography!

So no Olympics (or Heroes, or Tonight Show) for me. Yet the opening ceremonies are meant to be the greatest ever!

Ahh, but I hear there be “pirates” a-sailing the IntarWub tubes who make TV booty available to landlubbers. (Though what, exactly, is the piracy in taking something freely broadcast over the air to anyone who can receive it and making it available to others?)

I knew from my experience trying to grab early Joanna Newsom albums how difficult this would be.
  • Google for Olympics 2008 opening ceremony torrent
  • Update to latest BitTorrent program just to be safe.
  • Download the small .torrent file, it opens in BitTorrent.
  • My download speed is close to zero, so I reconfigure my router's port forwarding for my current IP address
  • It starts downloading, dozens of computers world-wide handing me pieces!
  • The torrent contains two files
    1. Beijing.Summer.Olympics.2008.Torch.and.Fireworks.BBC-HD.1080p.H.264.AC3.2.0.mkv (1.12 GB)
    2. Olympic Opening Ceremony [2008] (minus athletes entering).avi (598 MB)
    The first file downloads in a few hours, the second file never gets started.
  • I watch the first file, in Media Player Classic. It's insanely high resolution but choppy as hell and it's only the five minute climax of the guy running around the scroll!
  • Search again, find torrents on The Pirate Bay yarrr, arrrr, together with user reviews. Everyone wants a torrent without commercials and without the irritating commentators, nobody has one. For a bunch of freeloaders we sure are demanding.
  • I settle on Beijing.Olympics.2008.Opening.Ceremony.720p.HDTV.x264-ORENJi, not-quite-so high-def
  • download the .torrent and BitTorrent starts grabbing pieces of the file.
  • It's 5 gigabytes, 53 files 95.3 MB each!
  • The next morning it's all downloaded, but my BitTorrent program continues to offer bits of the file to other users. Arrr, they're not just pirates, they be Communist pirates sharing amongst themselves!
  • Try to play the first file, orenji-x264-beijing.olympics.2008.opening.ceremony.720p.hdtv.x264-orenji.r00, but no luck: Windows Media Player, Media Player Classic, and VLC Player all can't play it. Media Player Classic knows a few details about it like the encoding rate, but there's no sound or video in any of them.
  • Google for x264 "Media Player Classic", figure out it's a variant of H264 video compression, this forum post tells me I need ffdshow plus Haali Matroska Splitter
  • I download and install those decoder packs, adding to the half-dozen media-playing bits and pieces on my computer. Both have dozens of setup options for which formats they should own and mostly incomprehensible video settings.
  • Again, try to play that first 95MB file, nothing doing.
  • I look more closely, there's also a orenji-x264-beijing.olympics.2008.opening.ceremony.720p.hdtv.x264-orenji.rar file, which sounds like a compressed file.
  • Try opening this, 7-Zip volunteers to open it.
  • Indeed, it's a compressed file, so I extract the original file blahblah.mkv
  • 15 minutes later, it's still extracting.
  • The original file is 5,157,477 kB!! 5GB! And there are 50 of these! I'll need to dedicate a hard drive just for this one TV program!
And even with these encoders, the sound is staticky and choppy; I guess not only is my disk too small, but my Athlon 64 3000 with 1GB of RAM isn't powerful enough. The insane file sizes and CPU demands demonstrate that high-quality computer video has barely entered the realm of possibility, unlike computer audio where any $40 cellphone or $2 birthday card can play music.

Yet clearly there are many people who have mastered this hassle and happily grab a daily buffet of free TV shows and movies from the pirates' distributed digital treasure chest.

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Tuesday, November 28, 2006

stuff: low-quality Hi-Def at Best Buy

Criticizing Best Buy is like shooting fish in a barrel, but their sales effort is so poor they have to hear it over and over.

I want a new TV. It's in a bright room so I want LCD rather than plasma. I don't want to block the fabulous view so 46" is my limit. According to this fine explanation, at my 10-foot viewing distance I won't be able to discern the finer resolution of a 1080p set (1920x1080), so a 720p set (usually 1366x768) is sufficient.

So I go to Best Buy. The TVs are arranged at random, with plasmas next to LCDs. Most are running concert video footage that's 480p at best. A few are playing DVDs. Some have the sharpness control set so high that hair and fur sparkles. None of the sets I want to compare are next to each other. So picture quality comparisons are simply impossible. They are selling a Samsung true 1080p TV for less than the Samsung 720p TV that the salesman recommends to me, and there's no indication of why the lower resolution TV costs more.

Later I go to Best Buy's web site and try to compare. They have a Sony KDL-46S2000 for $1,979.99 and a Sony KDL-46S2010 for $2,519.99. There is absolutely no difference between them in Best Buy's online comparator, and the individual product page for the cheaper set lists many more features. Each TV in the comparator has several features that no other set has, e.g. for "Brightness" the Samsung has "500 cd/m²" and the Sony has nothing, while for "Remote control type" the Sony has "Standard" and the Samsung is blank. ??!

I could read the Plasma and LCD Flat-Panel Displays AVS Forum to get feedback from some impassioned expert users, but most product threads have 400 replies and some have over 2,500 replies!

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Wednesday, February 15, 2006

snow: NBC blind to world-class achievement

Bode Miller came fifth in the Olympic men's downhill. Fifth best skier in the world on the downhill. That is a fantastic achievement!! Instead that jerk Costas portentously intones about how his medal quest has got off to a bad start. Then when he missed a gate in the slalom, that jerk Costas portentously intoned "Ø for 2 in his medal quest". Bode Miller has every right to his attitude "I am so much better than the bozos in the media, I'll engage, ignore, or ridicule them as I see fit".

Then the American women snowboarders come first, second, fourth and sixth. That dominance of the field is staggering! But NBC only has Hannah Teter and Gretchen Bleiler on air, Kelly Clark and and Elena Hight are nowhere to be seen. NBC's commentator was spot on, Kelly Clark threw down the biggest run ever by a woman for her final run, with insane airs that would be the envy of most of the male competitors. She fell on a huge 900 at the end of her run, where most snowboarders are happy just to get a 540. Yet because she has no metal around her neck, she gets no coverage. All four women should have been fêted.

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