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, 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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Tuesday, January 22, 2008

cellphone: bought the wrong phone (Sanyo Katana DLX)

After 3 1/2 years with the Samsung sph-i500, the smallest and best and only PalmOS-based flip phone PDA, I knocked it into the bath[**]. I've wanted to replace it for 2 years, now I must. All I want is
  1. flip phone so I don't wreck the screen walking into things while it's in my pocket
  2. a phone dial pad, not a teeny-weeny typewriter keyboard
  3. touchscreen and handwriting recognition
  4. music player
  5. extendable applications
  6. quality cameraphone
  7. infra-red so I can use it as a backup remote control e.g. with Novii remote
For a device that does all that I'll willingly pay a thousand dollars, but it's not manufactured. The Nokia N93i comes really close, with a great camera and everything but a touch screen, but Nokia doesn't have a store in the Bay Area so it's only sold by dodgy gray marketers. Other candidates:
  • iPhone has a vulnerable screen, no physical dial pad and no movie recording (yet)
  • Treo 755p has a vulnerable screen and a typewriter keyboard
So while I wait for Nokia to show up and Apple to introduce more iPhone features (and Google Android to disrupt the market), I'll just buy whatever is the best ordinary flip phone Sprint sells. That turns out to be the Sanyo Katana DLX. But in several ways it's worse than the Sanyo MM-9000 I got for my partner exactly 2 years ago: smaller screen, lower-resolution camera, worse speaker and speakerphone. It does have slightly better UI, Bluetooth, and SDHC capacity (when 2 billion bytes of memory aren't enough), and the charger and cable from the MM-9000 are compatible.

The Katana DLX is only $80 after rebates and getting chained to Sprint for another two years, but it's not what I want. I bought the wrong camera a month ago to capture photos and videos of Jhane Barnes, now I bought the wrong phone.

My other choice was to buy another Samsung sph-i500. Both it and the Sanyo MM-9000 have loyal dwindling fan bases that hoard backup phones.

[**] I read BBC news and various planet.* aggregators of my favorite blogs on my phone everywhere I go, including bathtime. (Your phone has a browser in it! Figure out how to use it, or better yet install Opera Mini and use that!)

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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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Friday, January 20, 2006

electronics: Sanyo MM-9000 do-nearly-all music cellphone

My significant domestic other partner's cheap portable cassette player finally broke and SDOP still wanted to listen to music on the go. The default answer is of course an iPod, but remember SPage's law:
any small piece of electronics needs to have a phone in it so you can ring it when (not if!) you lose it
(our digital camera is still lost). So we go to the Sprint store, looking for a top-of-the-line phone. The Sanyo MM-9000 has a miniSD memory card slot, media player, QVGA screen, 1.3 Megapixel camera, and most other reasonable features. SDOP was using the previous top-of-the-line Sanyo SCP-5500 (aka Sprint VM-4500) so the USB cable, and so-so FutureDial Snap software I bought for it might work. The only missing checklist features are Bluetooth, and a 2 Mp camera with optical zoom. SprintUsers reviews say the camera quality is good. The Samsung A940 is a 2 Mp phone with Bluetooth but the screen is lower res and the camera has to twist around awkwardly.

Sprint was sold out of the phone, so we bought it at Radio Shack. The phone cost $380 plus tax but as the old phone was 22 months old we got a $75 rebate after committing to two more years of Sprint. Then off to Best Buy to buy a SanDisk 1GB miniSD card, SanDisk USB SD card reader, Monster iPod cassette adapter (it actually works with any audio device's 3.5mm stereo headphone jack, which shows you iPod's dominant mindshare), and a 2.5 phone -> 3.5mm headphone adapter cable. We can reuse the old Sanyo's car lighter charger; we still need to get a second battery and a cover. As usual the accessories cost nearly as much as the phone!

To put music on the phone:
  1. insert music CD into PC
  2. in iTunes, right-click on desired tracks and choose "Convert Selection to AAC"
  3. Remove miniSD card from phone, insert in SD adapter in SanDisk media reader
    just plug in the phone's USB cable and choose "Mass Storage" for the USB Connection
  4. in Windows Explorer, navigate to My Documents\iTunes\iTunes Music, find the track files named .m4a
    from iTunes Library view, just drag the tracks you want to the mini SD card's MEDIA folder in Windows Explorer.
Now your phone plays music almost as well as a dedicated 1GB digital audio player. The sound quality is reasonable even through the car adapter (I haven't played around with the audio settings in Edit > Preferences... Advanced > Importing). Every track has a different volume level.

I found out that with FutureDial's USB drivers the miniSD card appears as a drive letter in Windows, so I don't have to remove the miniSD card from the phone, so the SanDisk USB SD card reader was a waste of money. Just like the SanDisk USB Compact Flash card reader I bought for the digital camera I lost.

The big downside so far is there's no way to play protected music files that we legally own. I've refused to buy songs from the iTunes Music Store on principle, but even their free downloads are .m4p encrypted files that only work on iPods. jHymn and QTFairUse don't work with latest iTunes (donate $50 to DVD Jon to update his fine work!). This is why DRM (Digital Restrictions Management) is evil!

So far, it seems like $500 well spent. Then I scanned some more SprintUser forum posts and found out the Sanyo MM-9000 phone is already obsolete and is going to be discontinued by Sprint!

For my own use I'm still holding out for a flip smartphone with PalmOS PDA functionality + 2Mp camera with optical zoom + MP3 + 4GB expansion card + Infrared + GPS + Bluetooth + WiFi. I held the Samsung sph-i550 in my hand at the Samsung store in NYC, but it's cancelled. "The best is the enemy of the good" (Voltaire :-)

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