It certainly took them long enough, but Roku is finally graduating from online-only sales to retail. It wasn't doing too badly in the old business model - Roku's status as the least expensive and easiest streaming media box allowed it to rack up over a million units sold. Still, Roku always seemed something like a secret that only technically savvy people knew about - and that is not the target demographic for a product designed for simplicity. No, the ideal retail channel ought to be something like Target. Or Best Buy:
Roku XD player is available for purchase at Best Buy stores nationwide and at BestBuy.com. With up to 1080p HD streaming support, integrated 802.11n WiFi and Instant Replay the Roku XD offers unlimited entertainment choices and incredible value to customers. The Roku XD has a list price of $79.99 and is available at Best Buy stores and at BestBuy.com for purchase today. Roku players can also be found at other leading retail stores including BJ’s Wholesale Club, Fry’s Electronics and RadioShack.
Best Buy, Fry's, and the Shack. Well, the good news is that those stores are where a shopper goes if they want an inexpensive box to stream Netflix (or MLB or NBA or any of Roku's other content options). The bad news is that it won't reach consumers who don't know that they want an inexpensive box to stream Netflix (or MLB or NBA or any of Roku's other content options). Hopefully a successful run at Best Buy will get buyers at Target and Walmart interested, because their customers are who Roku should be chasing.
First a bit of background: Kaleidescape is a high end media server vendor. They make boxes you have a custom installer put in one spot, which connect over a wired network to smaller boxes your installer connects to each TV and projector in your home. You - or your installer - copies all your DVDs onto the big box, and then you can watch all your movies anywhere in your home. Basically, it's Sonos for movies for rich people. How rich? Kaleidescape was actually the reason I instituted a policy not to review anything I could not reasonably afford. Years ago Kaleidescape offered me a full setup to review; I refused because I didn't want to take out an insurance policy on a loaner, and I didn't want to take out a second mortgage on the chance that I couldn't bear to return it. A full Kaleidescape system in those days easily topped $50,000. Prices have come way down, but most systems will still end up in the $20,000 range with installation.
I had good reason to fear wanting to keep a system. I have used Kaleidescape at trade shows and have been consistently impressed. It is fully babysitter proof and requires no technical knowledge to use whatsoever. As all the movies are ripped to the system's hard drive(s), movies start instantly. However, its one downfall is that until now it only supported DVDs, not Blu-ray discs. As many installations include equally expensive HD projectors, this is a real problem.
Kaleidescape's first stab at the problem was adding Blu-ray support to the M500 player - one of the small boxes you'd have near your TV. That certainly enables you to play a Blu-ray disc (both at that TV or anywhere else in the house), but it still requires physically handling the disc every time you want to watch a movie and it is not all that much better than a regular Blu-ray player from Sony or Samsung. The whole point of Kaleidescape is access to any movie you own instantly thoughout the house.
Kaleidescape is now selling a partial solution to the problem: you can rip Blu-ray discs to the hard drive in the server, and it will play off the server (which means you can include it compilation video playlists). However, to appease the copyright gods, Kaleidescape still has to physically verify that you own the Blu-ray disc before playing any of its sweet 1080p content. To do so, you'll need a media vault ($1500), the ugly box pictured on the right, which can hold up to 100 Blu-ray discs. You can add as many of these as you like, but each needs to be connected to an M-class player (like the M500). In short, Kaleidescape now allows Blu-rays to be treated just like DVDs, only there is a lot more complexity and kludginess involved. It's better than nothing, but it has to seriously pain Kaleidescape's management and engineering staff who have made simplicity and elegance a core part of the product's value proposition.
On Tuesday, I, along with a handful of tech journalists, was invited to attend a briefing by Panasonic in New York to show off their latest line of plasma televisions. The emphasis was on the technical capabilities of Panasonic's plasma technology relative to the latest LCD with LED backlighting. Some things I learned:
A couple of weeks ago I asked how early adopter (and device analysts) with multiplying digital components could possibly connect them all.
I was talking with Microsoft about the XBOX 360 earlier this week, and one of the things they said will drive consumers to their console vs. the competition is the integration of multiple features into Live, such as Netflix streaming, gaming, and other content. At Current Analysis our Digital Home service covers game consoles from the perspective of connected services; we treat a PS3, XBOX, or Wii like the fancy set top boxes (that not coincidentally also play games) that they have become. However, I thought we were a bit ahead of the curve - most consumers haven't fully embraced this vision yet. But when FedEx dropped off yet another box here this afternoon, I started thinking: how on Earth am I going to connect this? Is Microsoft right - will consumers buy a game console to access digital services simply because they're out of HDMI inputs on their TV?
Now I know that my situation is not something everyone faces, but how many devices can a consumer reasonably connect to a TV or even a sophisticated A/V receiver? I'm not sure there are enough inputs any more - even on flagship receivers - to connect all the possible devices an early adopter/TV nut might want to. (Some of these offer redundant functionality, but even then there are typically unique functions that could justify their purchase.) Here's a sample list:
I'm trying to integrate about eight or nine of those, and I'm not sure that there is a receiver on the planet that can handle more than about half that list.
Here's one from the mailbag:
Avi, We want to buy a 37" LCD TV. Is there a significant difference between 720P and 1080P?
Yes, there is a significant difference between 720p and 1080p – though it depends on what you’re watching on it, and even then you may not be able to see the difference. The bottom line is that you can almost always get away with buying a 720p set and saving the money, but nobody seems to believe this answer, so here’s a slightly more involved one:
First, two quick definitions:
1. the “p” in 1080P or 720P = progressive, where the signal has information in every horizontal line, just like a computer monitor.
2. the “i” in 1080i = interlaced, where the signal alternates horizontal lines similar to the way an analog TV works – the information alternates fast enough that you usually can’t tell the difference.
Now you need to answer two questions:
What are you watching? (You want to be able to display all the information that your signal contains, but how much information is actually in that signal?)
· If you’re watching a DVD, it’s 480p. So even a 720p TV is overkill – either the TV or the DVD player will do some magic to “fill in” the extra pixels it has to make up the picture.* A 1080p set has to fill in even more pixels with guesswork.
· If you’re watching HDTV, it’s either 720p or 1080i. Some channels use one resolution (for example, NBC uses 1080i) and some use the other (for example, Fox uses 720p) – this happens behind the scenes when you change channels; you don’t have to do anything. 720p and 1080i both have about the same amount of picture information (720p tends to look better for fast motion like sports, while 1080i tends to look better for scenes without much motion, like dramas), both count as real HDTV, and both look spectacular when displayed properly on an HDTV.
o When you watch a 720p channel on a 720p TV, you’re seeing everything that’s there.
o When you watch a 1080i channel on a 720p TV, first it fills in the interlacing by guessing what the missing line ought to be, and then drops a bit of the resolution.
o When you watch a 720p channel on a 1080p TV, it does some magic to “fill in” the extra pixels.
o When you watch a 1080i channel on a 1080p TV, it fills in the interlacing by guessing what the missing line ought to be.
· If you’re watching a Blu-ray disc, congratulations, you’re watching the only consumer format capable of displaying full 1080p.
o A 720p set throws out some of that resolution; it usually still looks better than a DVD.
o A 1080p set displays all the information on there without any changes.
Now, let’s assume you are going to watch Blu-ray discs 100% of
the time. Question two: can you actually see the difference between 720p and
This will depend on several factors:
· How good is your eyesight? Seriously.
· How big is the TV, and how far away are you sitting? In smaller screen sizes it usually doesn’t matter if you’re cramming one or two million pixels into the set; unless you’re sitting two feet away you won’t be able to see the difference. Higher resolution allows you to sit closer to the set and does nothing for you if you’re farther back. For example, if you’re sitting ten to twelve feet back from a 50” TV you literally cannot see the difference between 720p and 1080p. Some people want to get the higher resolution anyway. I am not one of those people. My couch is about 12 feet away from my displays, and my 50” plasma is a 720p model. My projector, on the other hand, projects onto an 8’ screen that comes down in front of the plasma; the projector is a 1080p model because when the images are projected that large, the difference between 720p and 1080p is quite obvious.
Conclusion: unless you plan to sit awfully close to that 37” set and watch a lot of Blu-ray discs, there’s no reason to spend more on a 1080p version. If you insist on spending money for something you can’t see, I won’t stop you. But you’ll be much happier if you put the extra money into a good surround sound system.
Does the upcoming change in broadcasting frequency have any impact on the reception?
It depends. If you’re getting your TV shows from cable or satellite, the analog/digital switchover will make no difference whatsoever. None. You do not need to do anything at all.
If you’re getting your TV shows from an antenna, then you’ll need either a new HDTV with a digital tuner built in, or a new tuner/converter box. Your reception will either get much better or much worse, and it will vary by channel, how far away you are from the station, and (in some cases) your physical location (i.e., if you’re at the bottom of a hill or sandwiched between big buildings). Digital channels do not degrade gradually. A rough rule of thumb is that if you get a reasonably clear channel today, you’ll probably get an even better looking version of it on digital. On the other hand, if you have a snowy channel that’s just sort of watchable today, once it goes digital you probably won’t get it at all.
Hope this helps,
*720x480 progressive, or about 350,000 pixels of actual information per frame. This is a gross oversimplification, but it provides a good basis for comparison. 1280 x 720 = around 900,000 pixels. Incidentally, this is why watching analog TV channels or VHS video on an HDTV usually looks much, much worse than it did on your old analog TV; the new TV is trying to take very little information (VHS is roughly 240i, or 480x240 every other frame, or the equivalent of about 60,000 pixels) and displaying it on something expecting more than ten times that information to create the picture. Without much to go on, the TV fudges, which, instead of looking soft and fuzzy like an analog set, looks blocky and horrible.
A bunch of big companies are getting together to standardize wireless home HDTV transmission. Again. The AP reports the details here. Most of the commentary I've seen has been fairly positive, though everyone points out that several of the big players backing WHDI are separately supporting WirelessHD as well. Could we have a standards war here?
Jeremy Toeman is taking a contrarian stance, saying it doesn't matter. He makes some good points:
In the short term, he's right. Nobody is going to put off buying a new TV today because in 2 - 5 years a wireless version will be available. Those who need a wireless solution today -- in the home theater industry, installers will always run into problem rooms -- will be willing to pay for expensive proprietary add-on gadgets that solve the particular problem. Longer term, though, it does make sense for there to be wireless options that work across vendors. At one time, wireless PC standards (ex: WiFi) were supposed to take over in the A/V world, but the bandwidth to pass HDTV unaltered on those doesn't exist outside the lab. I wonder whether any of these consortiums will get something to market that actually works in a reasonable timeframe - I've seen demos of this stuff at trade shows for years now. Because even once TVs and set top boxes have such a standard built in, you'll need to buy a new TV AND a new set top box to see the benefit. So for the forseeable future, nothing changes, which explains why Sony and Samsung are backing multiple standards, and why Jeremy can't bring himself to care.
HDMI was supposed to bring the home theater world from the confusing age of multiple cables for audio and video (and sometimes multiple audio cables and multiple video cables) down to just a single cable from each component to your display. If your display doesn’t have enough HDMI inputs for all your sources, you need an HDMI switcher or a receiver which has an HDMI switcher built in. Then you need an HDMI cable from the each source to the switcher or receiver, but just one from there to the display. Fortunately, even some budget receivers now have HDMI switching built in (starting around $400), and there are good inexpensive HDMI switchers on the market like the XTremeMac HD Switcher I reviewed last year.
But what if you have two displays?
At least in terms of receivers, you’re in a completely different price category – no $400 receivers for you. The least expensive receivers I could find with dual HDMI outputs are from Onkyo and Denon. Onkyo’s TX-NR905 has extremely high end video processing, advanced room correction that smooths the sound at multiple seats, a ridiculous amount of amplifier power with THX Ultra2 certification, the dual HDMI outputs we’re looking for, and a price tag that ranges from $1500 - $2000 (assuming that you can find one in stock. It seems that they’ve been selling quite well). Unfortunately, only one HDMI output works at a time, and to change between the two HDMI outputs, you either must physically press a button on the front panel to cycle through the settings, or adjust a setting in the menu. Neither option is conducive to automation by a universal remote control which is a fairly common way to use a product in this price category. Denon sells the AVR-4308CI, which is also chock full of features, as you might expect for a product that sells in the $1800 - $2400 range. On the Denon, the dual HDMI outputs are driven in parallel; there is no way to select them individually. This is fine for some situations, but it means that whatever the source device is outputting had better be perfect for both displays if they’re both turned on at the same time (only one display gets to handshake with the source device through the receiver and tell the device what display resolution, frame rate, etc. it wants).
There are several HDMI switchers on the market with dual HDMI outputs, and they’re a lot less expensive than buying a new $2000 receiver. Accell has sent cables here in the past, and when I saw them at CES this year they were showing off an entire line of reasonably priced HDMI switchers, topping out at a 4x8 switcher – four sources hooked up to eight displays for those times when you want your rec room to look like a NASA shuttle launch. The Accell UltraAV HDMI 4-2 Audio/Video Switch is far more reasonable (4 sources to 2 displays), and lists for a very reasonable $299 when most similar switches start at $500; I asked them to send one over for review.
It wasn't perfect, but overall I liked it: it does one thing (switches HDMI signals) for a reasonable cost, and it does it pretty well, though with some caveats. It’s quite small and I had no trouble installing it. I didn’t have a high definition test pattern disc to use, but video quality on real-world material appeared unchanged by the switcher – Ratatouille on Blu-ray from a PS3 looked just as ridiculously good direct from the PS3 or routed through the Accell. The PS3 and my Panasonic projector often have minor handshaking dropouts when loading a disc and making its way to the menus; the instance of dropouts did seem to increase after adding the switch in the chain, but if so, the difference was minor and – honest – I may have imagined the increase. The switch automatically changes the input to whichever source device is on. Since my TiVo HD is always on, I couldn’t test that fully, but it did default to that input. Accell claims that the switch mirrors the source on both outputs (like Denon’s scheme above), but I didn’t find that always worked in the real world – I could usually only lock onto the source on one display at a time. It’s possible that there was a problem in the switch, but I’m willing to bet that it’s a glitch in the way my TV and projector handle HDMI signals or the difference in resolution between the displays (a Panasonic 720p plasma and a Panasonic 1080p LCD projector). For my intended purpose – watching either the TV or the projector, but not both at the same time – the Accell switch worked perfectly.
A small infrared remote control is included that has discrete buttons – and discrete IR codes for those who want to copy them into a universal remote control – for each individual input, power on, power off, and a toggle switch for selecting between outputs A and B. In a really nice touch, an infrared receiver cable is also included so that the switcher can be secluded behind a cabinet. The switch contains a signal booster for longer HDMI cable runs up to 82ft; I was not able to test this, as my longest run is 25ft. The switch is designed for HDMI version 1.2. HDMI version 1.3 is the latest and greatest iteration of the standard, and adds things like Deep Color which have not been implemented yet in any source material. For most people, there is little practical difference between HDMI 1.3 and 1.2, but if complete futureproofing is an absolute requirement, this iteration of the 4x2 Switch isn’t for you.
Accell isn’t the only 4x2 HDMI switcher on the market; Gefen makes one for $549 that has some additional functionality, such as splitting out the audio signal to a coax output, that could be extremely useful in certain setups. And budget cable outfit monoprice.com has a budget model with HDMI 1.3a compatibility for just $89 – I’ll be testing that one next. For $89, if it just turns on I’ll be impressed.
Well, I'm back from Las Vegas, but my body is still on the wrong time zone. There were three main stories at this year's CES:
Other CES trends:
Due to a hyper travel schedule I will not be in SFO for MacWorld next week, however I will be covering announcements made at the show from afar. Should be interesting!
The AP is reporting that Sony is now exiting its "money losing" RPTV business to focus exclusively on flat panel displays; Sony's technologies of choice are LCD and OLED. (As an aside, I thought Sony's TV business had finally pulled into the black after years of losses - the Playstation business was supporting everything else until the PS3, and then the situation reversed. I guess the flat panels were profitable but the big sets weren't.)
This is the second major television technology/form factor to get the boot - outside of mass merchandisers its pretty hard to find a CRT any more, and none of the high performance brands (which is a bit of a shame, because picture quality on high end CRTs is really exceptional). While there are bound to be holdouts for another year or two it's also clear that Sony is acting rationally. Flat panel prices don't need to match RPTVs, just get within the ballpark for consumers to move to the thinner, brighter displays. We already saw a similar transition in computer monitors which transitioned to LCD from CRT well before price parity in popular sizes was reached.
I'm actually seeing a bit of this first hand as I try to sell my JVC LCoS RPTV in favor of a Panasonic plasma I bought to save space in my own home theater (and make room for a significantly larger screen that will hang in front of it for use with a new projector). When I talked to a friend who is in the market for a new big screen TV he was interested in buying the JVC only until he realized that it's a projection unit rather than a flat panel even though he has no real need for a flat panel - it would go into the same cabinet regardless.
Usually the invitations you get from PR firms are either a) inflated and non-specific or b) specific, but require a non-disclosure agreement.
For an example of Type A: "come see how we will revolutionize the digital music industry." I actually got an invitation with this exact wording this year. Since it didn't have any details or come from a company with even an outside shot at revolutionizing anything, it mostly served to amuse me for a second before I hit "delete."
I can't provide an example of Type B, for obvious reasons, but many vendors will give you a preview of what they're going to announce under embargo. Most will at least make you sign something promising you won't reveal the contents until the press release launches. Fair enough.
And then there's, um, Type C? Vizio hasn't put out a press release or asked for non-disclosure agreements, but in its media invitation titled, "Mark The Date" it invites press to an off-site event at CES and notes:
VIZIO WILL BE INTRODUCING AN ASTONISHING 26 NEW FLAT PANEL TVS DURING CES INCLUDING:
>> A $1499 50-inch Full 1080p Plasma TV with a remarkable 30,000:1 contrast ratio, an extended life up to 100,000 hours and four HDMI inputs
It isn't unprecedented to pre-announce products. It's a good way of getting some press and buzz going ahead of the actual conference, where there's so much noise that standing out is almost impossible. (Hey, I'm writing about it, so it must be working!) They also were careful about what they didn't say: no model numbers, release dates, or technical details. Still, the price/size/resolution/contrast ratio are all a huge leap over Vizio's 2007 products, products that are still in stores a week before Christmas. I know the PR folks want to drum up interest in the press conference, but this is risky.
Like most people setting up a home theater, my front projection choices are limited by room placement and budget. When review units come in, I typically set them up on a short table for as long as I have the device, but for my personal unit I want to ceiling mount it out of the way. My ceiling is extremely low (7'), so projectors with extreme offset angles (the image ends up projected several feet below the lens) - like some of Optoma's recent DLP's - simply won't work. The new crop of budget LCD 1080p projectors look like good values, so I narrowed the field to Sanyo's PLV- Z2000 ($2200 after rebate), Panasonic's PT-AE2000U ($2700), and Epson's Home Cinema 1080 UB (an upgrade to the current Home Cinema 1080, price unknown). Since the Epson appears to be delayed, no price has been announced, and I needed to place an order sooner rather than later to appease the contractor doing the installation, that was out of contention. Both the Sanyo and Panasonic have good color modes that sacrifice brightness for accuracy, but the Sanyo is noted to be relatively dim even under the best circumstances, so I bought the Panasonic despite the higher price, since I intend to use it primarily in the lowest brightness mode. I'll post a mini-review when it arrives.
The other big decision was on upgrading the screen. First, I needed to figure out how big I could go. 100" diagonal (87" wide) looked like an ideal size for the seating distance (12'), but not for the room, which has low ceilings and a cutout on one side for an electrical closet. Centering the screen in the middle of the room means getting mighty close to the closet, and with the low ceiling, a 100" screen wouldn't leave much room for speakers underneath. Therefore, saving a few inches in all directions with a 92" diagonal (80" wide) made the most sense. (Going with a larger acoustically transparent screen and in-wall speakers wouldn't work well in this situation; there's going to be a TV behind the screen, so the center channel will need to be mounted fairly low regardless. I plan to tilt the speakers up slightly towards the listening position using angled stands.)
Choosing a screen is madness - there are thousands of permutations. Choosing a screen material is just the first place to drive yourself nuts; once I chose the brighter of the two projectors I decided to stick to a basic white matte material. There are several good budget options for fixed screens, but I want a recessed screen, with a motor, with tab tensioning. The last requirement adds considerable expense and means that the screen is pulled taut in all directions eliminating ripples. My wife never noticed ripples on my old pull-down SharpVision screen, but during pans I could see them and it drove me crazy.
That set of requirements did narrow things down sharply to screens from Elite (which imports screens manufactured in China) and several U.S. manufacturers (which make the screens in the good old U.S. of A.) such as Da-Lite and Stewart. The difference in cost is staggering - the Elite Cinetension2 costs under $1,000, while models with similar features from Da-Lite and Stewart cost two to five times as much, depending on options. Feedback on the forums suggests that you get what you pay for - Elite's quality control is notorious among the super-picky home theater afficianados who post on home theater forums. I've ordered from a reputable dealer who denied any QC problems with the Elite at all, but should readily take it back if there are issues. I'll just have to take my chances - the savings are simply too overwhelming to pass up.
I hit up six different stores recently trying to pick a 50” plasma to replace my 52” JVC LCoS rear projection 720p HDTV which is now three years old. The goal is to regain a foot of space in the room and then move to a larger front projection system (the screen hangs in front of the TV); the TV is used for broadcast material with the lights on, while the projector is used for movie watching with the lights off. I could have asked vendors to send over review units and then buy whichever one performed the best, but I’m time constrained – my contractor wants to start hanging everything already. (I’m using a general contractor for installation, a practice I do NOT recommend to others – good custom installers are almost always worth paying for.)
At the 50” size, plasmas are still less expensive than LCD, and the primary benefit of LCD – blinding brightness – is not important in my light-controlled room (we have directional halogen track lighting, so even with the lights on, no direct light falls on the set). Our seating position is 12 – 13’ back from the set; at that distance, there is no visible difference between 720p and 1080p sets, so a more economical 720p model makes sense. Then it came down to selecting a brand and model. When there is a difference between lower priced brands (Vizio, Sanyo, Zenith) and midpriced brands (Samsung, LG, Panasonic) it often shows up in how the sets process non-HDTV sources (there are other differences, too, but some of the budget sets are actually quite good). The difference between the mid-priced brands and the Pioneer Kuro is primarily in the black level and shadow details. Since we still watch a lot of non-HD programming, I felt it was worth the extra money to buy a set with slightly better processing, and I gave mid-priced brands primary consideration once I saw (when looking at the various sets at retail) that there did appear to be a difference. If the television was our only display, it would have been worth spending even more to get the best available (in my opinion, the Pioneer Kuro), but since the projector will be handling most of the movie duties, I wasn’t willing to spend too much of my budget on the plasma.
That left a showdown between Samsung’s 54 series and Panasonic’s 75U (there are slightly more expensive versions of each that add anti-glare shields, but that isn’t necessary in my room). Both sell for $1500 - $1700 except on Black Friday, when you can get another $100 - $200 off. After considerable evaluation in less than ideal circumstances (see below), I concluded that both are excellent options, and it really comes down to personal preference. The Samsung had much better contrast and more saturated colors. Everything “pops” on the Samsung. The Panasonic did slightly better with really noisy content, and had noticeably better black levels, which lent subtlety throughout the color range. Both can be adjusted to look better than they did in the store, and either would make a fine choice. I preferred the Panasonic.
However, the stores don’t make it easy to come to this conclusions, and I really have no idea how people not specifically looking for differences in black level vs. contrast ratio can make a rational buying decision. Only one of the stores (6th Avenue, a regional A/V chain) had a truly knowledgeable salesperson. None of the stores had tweaked the picture on any of the sets in any way (they were all set to whatever the manufacturer hoped would stand out on the showroom floor – the brightest and most oversaturated settings), which I expected from the big box retailers, but not the specialty stores. At least the aspect ratio was correct in most cases, so that’s an improvement, and nearly every unit was displaying widescreen material. However, while it was widescreen and may have been high definition once, it certainly couldn’t be called high definition by the time it got to the display, because not a single store had a clean signal feeding the sets. None. Not one. Not even at the regional specialty store with the knowledgeable sales guy. In every store, the signal was split and distributed to multiple sets, and by the time it got there, it was missing a lot of the original information.
A Dramatization: What the set should have looked like (left, click to enlarge) vs. what it actually looked like (right, click to enlarge):
I seriously question how retailers can expect consumers to pony up thousands of dollars for televisions whose picture quality looks that bad (in the store). If an HDTV looked like that in my home, I’d return it.
At least it made evaluating each set’s processing a bit easier – every set was tuned in to a low resolution torture test. Different sets dealt with the lack of information differently: some made everything soft – so soft it looked like widescreen VHS – and some riddled the screen with digital artifacts so that everything appeared filtered through a 1980’s music video or was digitized to obscure nudity. There were a few sets with direct satellite feeds (or direct connections to an HD disc player); it seems cynical, but those tended to be more expensive 1080p models, and, possibly, higher margin sales for the stores. Conspiracy theory, or just plain retail incompetence?
Sometimes all you need is a simple product that does one thing, and does it well - at an affordable price. If you have an HDTV with only a single HDMI input and multiple HDMI sources, you need an HDMI switcher. New displays may have multiple inputs, and A/V receivers are beginning to provide HDMI switching as a matter of course, so if you're building a system from scratch, you may be able to consolidate your video switching in your reciever or display rather than buy a separate component. Finally, if you have just a single HDMI component, you won't need this either.
However, if you bought an HDTV in the past few years (or are buying a budget model today) and you don't have enough HDMI inputs, you need one of these. I pointed out Gefen's entry in this space last year; that was an HDMI-to-DVI model that retailed for $300. More recently, XTremeMac sent over their XTremeHD 4 Port HDMI Switcher and it does exactly what it's supposed to do all in HDMI with minimal hassle and at much lower cost ($99). With similar styling to Apple's Mac mini, the Switcher is small and looks nice on the equipment rack. Sources can be switched manually or using the included remote control. You'll want to add its codes to a macro on your universal remote control (Logitech's Harmony system makes this very, very easy) or you'll quickly tire of remembering which input covers what. But this is no fault of the product, which worked without a hitch switching between a TiVo HD and an LG HDTV tuner/DVD player outputting to a JVC LCoS rear projection HDTV.
I could not do a double blind test with/without the Switcher in the signal chain, but I have noticed no degredation of the signal from either source. I do seem to be getting more instances of HDMI handshake failure when I switch back and forth than when I would connect just a single source and leave it connected. (The TV's copy protection circuit gets temporarily confused and puts up a notice saying that the source is not supported; this usually goes away with the next command to the source, but sometimes requires switching the source back and forth again). It seems to be an issue with the TV, not the switch itself. I had a nice chat with an HDMI spokesperson at the CES Preview event in New York last night, and while he admitted it was a common issue, he assures me that newer gear has worked out all the compatibility issues. Of course, newer gear tends to have more HDMI inputs and outputs as well, so anyone who needs a switcher should be aware that their source and display may not like each other as much as they ought to.
The XTremeHD 4 Port Switcher is simply named, performs a complicated task simply, and doesn't cost too much. If you need a basic HDMI switcher, I can easily recommend this one.
The Leichtman Research Group (an ex-Yankee Group analyst) put out a press release with some interesting stats on consumer HD awareness.
LRG claims that over 75% of HDTV owners believe that they are watching HD programming, but LRG estimates that "about 53% of all HD households are actually watching HD programming from a multi-channel video provider (cable, DBS or a telco), and about 4% are watching HD programming via broadcast-only - leaving about 20% of those with an HDTV erroneously thinking that they are watching HD programming when they are not." That may actually be better than previous studies, which put the number of HD delusionals at 25%.
But it doesn't stop with TV content. According to LRG, "about 40% of HDTV owners, and over 20% of all adults, believe that their household currently has a high definition DVD player." Actual HD-DVD and Blu-ray player sales penetration -- even including every last Sony PS3, whether it is being used for movies or not -- equates to single digit household penetration numbers, not 20%. I've been saying this for years now: many consumers don't think there's a problem that they need an HD format to solve for them. Even once/if the format war is resolved, the HD-DVD and Blu-ray camps will need to do some serious educational outreach / demand creation.
Now that we're done fixing up the home theater after the April flooding (new paint, new trim, new flooring) and a tree that fell (new siding and external cable connections), I'm buying all new gear and hope to start writing more formal equipment reviews. But first, it's time to revisit an old review.
It's been 2 1/2 years since I first wrote about LG's LST3510A combination HDTV tuner/upconverting DVD player, but post-flood I'm using it differently - as a "free" HDTV cable box. Some background: In Northern NJ, Cablevision sends out its basic HDTV channels unscrambled using the QAM format over the regular analog cable line. To receive these channels - NBC, CBS, Fox, etc. - all you need is a basic analog cable subscription and a QAM tuner. QAM tuners are not found on all HDTV's, but QAM uses the same hardware that's used to decode over the air HDTV (ATSC). The trick is knowing that your HDTV tuner supports QAM (it's not always advertised) and that your cable company actually uses QAM for some of its lineup (in my experience, this is never advertised because of pricing and other limitations). Without a digital cable box, you can't order pay per view directly (you may still be able to call in an order), and it is not clear that extra cost programming (such as HBO HD or ESPN HD) is transmitted this way by my local cable provider. But if you live in an area that is served with unencrypted QAM over analog cable and you just want basic HD channels and you don't use pay per view much, all you need is a basic analog cable subscription (currently $12.95 in my area) and a QAM tuner, and you've got real HDTV. This is considerably less expensive than upgrading to digital cable (that would be "iO" around here) and renting a cablecard, or a digital cable box, or digital cable DVR from the cable company.
The LG LST3510A never did get consistently good OTA reception at my house no matter which antenna I used; a roof antenna probably would have solved things, but we never went that route. But the LG can decode QAM, and found all of Cablevision's open stations automatically using EZset. Remapping the channel numbers ("channel 110.78") to something intelligible by humans ("channel 9") has to be done manually. Image quality/reception seems less dependant on the LG tuner and more based on how much bandwidth Cablevision allocates to each channel. Some of the marginal SD channels look a bit worse than their analog counterparts, and some of the HD channels seem to lack a bit of detail compared to my memory of OTA broadcasts (I could not do an A/B comparison). But overall, HD is HD and it looks great at an almost unbeatable price.
I won't be using the LG this way for too long, as I will be getting in a TiVo HD later in the week, which can also decode -- and record -- QAM. The TiVo HD is not free, but TiVo's monthly fees are $1 less expensive than the cable company's DVR rental when you sign up for 3 years.
The Wall Street Journal has a great article (subscription required) quoting a recent survey showing that 50% of consumers who bought an HDTV set don't actually have HDTV service. What's more frightening - and yet entirely believable - is that 25% of HDTV owners think that they do have HDTV when they don't. Well worth a read.
Vizio put out a press release a few months ago for two of its 42" LCD HDTVs, touting in the headline, that Vizio is, "ONE OF THE FASTEST GROWING FLAT PANEL BRANDS IN THE U.S."
On the surface of things, that's not such a bold claim - after all, who the heck are these guys, anyway? They came from nowhere, so of course they're growing quickly. When you sell nothing one year, and something the next, your growth rate looks fantastic. So, growth by itself is not necessarily a meaningful statistic. Perhaps all the newcomers, slapping a moniker onto an LCD panel sourced from a Chinese factory somewhere, are all growing and doing well at the expense of the established brands.
However, the AP had an article in same timeframe suggesting the opposite: that consumers are buying flat panel TVs, but only from major brands:
Makers of slim TVs are struggling with higher inventories, but the extent of the problem depends on each company's position in the market: Smaller names are facing a glut of flat-panel screens while most of the top players say they're playing catch-up to avoid shortages.
So Vizio is bucking a trend here. The new LCD TVs explain why. They’re reasonably feature-rich, and very well priced. But so is a lot of the competition. What’s important here is that the channel itself is a key part (perhaps the key part) of Vizio’s business model. Traditional big box retail (Best Buy, Circuit City) places a premium on brand: getting shelf space is extremely difficult, but once on the shelf you have to compete with Sony and Samsung. This is what the AP is talking about, and it helps explain why Sony, once it got its act together with some decent products, is now back on top of the game. Sony's brand stands for high quality televisions at a moderate premium; that's precisely what the Bravia line delivers, and consumers are buying them. (In September, the L.A. Times reported that Sony has regained its position as the U.S.' top TV manufacturer after falling behind in the late 1990s due to its slow recognition of flat-panel TVs. Sony's entrance into the LCD market has helped the company increase its share of the total market to 28%.)
So what's going on with Vizio? The key is distribution: Vizio aimed beyond the big box stores, instead targeting a different, even bigger "big box": warehouse clubs. Costco in particular is a happy home for new discount brands because the warehouse chain mixes in high end brands with relative unknowns; launching your plasma at Costco does not automatically equate your brand with discount merchandise.
Of course, in terms of sheer volume, the biggest game-changer of all may be Wal~Mart, not the warehouse clubs or Best Buy. As prices drop on flat panel TVs -- easily the most desired big ticket CE item -- more of them end up in the land where there are Always Low Prices. Vendors who can make peace with Wal~Mart's margin and distribution requirements (and sometimes hyper-competitive house brands) will be able to grow their sales volumes tremendously. They may even be able to build a brand where they have none - but it won't be a premium brand.
Jeremy Toeman over at LiveDigitally talks about the "living room effect" that can convince even the most hardened skeptic to make the move to HDTV.
I'm a big proponent of experiencing products in order to understand their impact, but there are certain things that even a demo can't cure. I find this uniquely interesting on a personal level because the "living room effect" hasn't proven to be true here, at casa HomeTheaterView. I've had a 53" LCOS HDTV for 2+ years, but reception is over the air (when we get it - it can be flaky), and our ReplayTV is hooked up to the analog cable feed. I refuse to watch SDTV when HDTV is available for the reasons Jeremy cites, but my wife is equally adamant that she will not watch content live with commercials. HDTV encompasses more than one improvement to TV watching -- dramatically higher resolution, digital surround sound, and a widescreen aspect ratio. But my wife prizes one feature above that, her time, and would prefer to watch fuzzy contents and save 18 minutes an hour rather than bask in the glory that is HD.
My wife may be somewhat unique, but there are plenty of TV-loving consumers who have priorities that preclude HDTV at this time. HDTV up front costs are high; HDTV has come way down in price, but sets are still fairly expensive. Ongoing costs of HDTV can be considerably higher than analog, depending on the technology used to recieve the signal. Cable HDTV requires upgrading to a digital package and renting a set top box; some cable and satellite providers charge separately for HDTV channels. And a lot of content - the vast majority of cable channels - is unavailable in HD, so if that's what you watch, buying an HDTV won't make things better (and in some cases, it'll look worse).
A TiVo series 3 may be in my future. I have asked TiVo for a unit to review here; hopefully one will show up soon, and my wife and I can watch TV together again.
In last month's CEDIA Highlights post, I noted two projectors that broke through the clutter (and there was a lot of clutter: my in box has dozens and dozens of press releases). There was a third announcement that caught my eye, and, surprisingly, it, too, was projector-related.
On the surface, this does not seem surprising - THX certifies just about everything. In fact, don't they already have a certification program for displays? It certainly seems like they did. (Actually, they did - but only as part of their commercial theater certification program.) THX is starting out with ludicrously expensive Runco models, but the program should trickle down to more affordable home projectors, rear projection televisions, and flat panel displays.
Not everyone loves THX. First of all, it's a licensing program. It costs money to get the logo, but doesn't offer anything concrete in exchange; theoretically, if your product meets all of THX's specifications, you could be THX-certifiable without actually being THX-certified and pass the savings along to your customers. A bigger issue is that THX's specifications are based on a specific philosophy. On the audio side, the philosophy includes notions of how a speaker should be constructed (small satellites, big subwoofers, and a specific crossover type and crossover frequency), how soundtracks mixed for commercial theaters should be adapted for the home environment, and how rear speakers should be integrated into a system. Reasonable people at, say, a speaker manufacturer, could disagree on an aspect of the technical approach that THX certification demands, but because the THX logo is respected in the market, they may lose business by building things their way instead of THX's methodology.
THX Certified Display testing includes the following:
I am 100% confident that there will be controversy over THX's video specifications. I couldn't tell you what specifically will cause hand wringing - or whether it will be a specification of omission: THX's video certification program was been rightly villified several years back for certifying terrible letterbox transfers; the specs simply didn't go far enough in that case.
Still, I believe that, on balance, THX is an incredibly positive force for home theater audio and video reproduction. If you assemble a THX-approved system, even from different vendors, you know that the individual products will perform to a certain set of specifications, and that they were designed to complement each other. I also appreciate the notion of a certification program in the first place. Sure, Vendor X has a good reputation, and Vendor Y has a powerful brand. But THX drives the entire industry, for better or worse, towards a unified A/V philosophy. Aside from buying every component in your system from a single brand -- as if that were even possible (outside of Sony and Samsung) -- THX assures a level of uniformity of purpose and performance in home theater products. I like that.
To all the PR people trying to set up meetings with me at CEDIA this weekend: I'm not there. I just got back from CTIA before heading out again early next week, and CEDIA just didn't make it onto the schedule this year.
Of course, I'm following the show remotely. So far, only a couple of announcements have really broken through the clutter, and they're two projectors that offer clear value propositions:
I always wondered how well Gefen's line of switchers would work in the real world. Gefen used to make switch boxes for the broadcast world which began finding their way into HDTV households as connectivity formats increased without a commesurate number of inputs on TVs or receivers. Lately, some of Gefen's products have been picked up by home theater distributors, and Jeremey Toeman over at LIVEDigitally gives a 4 x 1 unit (4 HDMI inputs, 1 DVI output) a strong review.
One side note: simple boxes that switch analog formats can be had for $29.99 at Radio Shack, so there's often sticker shock when people see what looks like a simple product with a price tag 10x higher. Gefen's 4 x 1 sells for $300, and while there are certainly healthy margins built into the price tag, it is not a simple mechanical device like that speaker selector box. For now, most of Gefen's boxes have been sold to professionals (either in the broadcast industry or custom installers), but as its products move into retail, the company should spend a few dollars on packaging and POS (Point Of Sale) marketing materials extolling the virtues of passing along HDCP signals, bandwidth specs, and pretty pictures of the innards. Monster does this to great effect with their entire product line. Of course, the HDMI or DVI cables for each of the devices are also much more expensive than RCA video cables, too. Consumers can easily double the price of the Gefen switcher by the time they're done setting up a system (and they thought they blew the budget on the big plasma TV...). HD connectivity can be pricey.
I attended Samsung's Blu-ray Disc player launch this evening at the Samsung Experience in New York and came away disappointed. There were several things wrong with the launch, starting with the fact that it was off by ten days (the players won't actually be available for sale until the 25th):
Now, it's certainly possible that the sound glitch was just a glitch. And that in a controlled environment, there would be audible benefits to the enhanced bit rate version of Dolby Digital used on Blu-ray. And that, over the course of an entire movie - we saw just a few minutes - the higher resolution video would have altered the experience. It's even possible that while romantic comedies such as 50 First Dates do not benefit from Blu-ray, an epic film, animation, or sci-fi really would. I have been on the record saying that most consumers will not be excited by a new disc format - you need several real enhancements to sell a new format, and the only thing Blu-ray offers is higher video resolution for videophiles. Nonetheless, I always assumed that videophiles - and I am one - would be excited by Blu-ray.
But I got none of that from the launch. Samsung's clearly artificial excitement bled away any possibility of the real thing. This was the official launch of a product I've been following and looking forward to for several years - there should have been no way for me to have felt like heckling during the presentation. I have been to product launches where Steve Jobs made me excited about a sneaker/iPod combo for hard core runners, and I have not run anywhere since I was in fifth grade. I've been to product launches for televisions - Samsung televisions, in fact - that made me want to pull out my credit card. I have been to product launches for high definition audio formats that I knew were dead on arrival, but at least they made you believe, for a little while, that they might succeed.
The actual Blu-ray experience may be a lot better than Samsung's launch of the first Blu-ray player. I certainly hope it is.
Wired offers flat panel buying advice, and quotes yours truly about plasma burn-in and the analog TV reception at my in-laws house: http://www.wired.com/news/technology/0,70349-0.html?tw=wn_index_2.
A lot of that interview didn't make it into the article. For example, the "gotchas" of buying a flat panel include:
Part IV of my post-CES scribbles; each of the next few posts includes a quick look back on 2005 trends and a quick discussion of products introduced at CES 2006. This installment: Media Formats
The warring HD disc camps (HD-DVD and Blu-Ray Disc) could not achieve compromise, but did not actually ship anything to the market, either. With nearly no support from content owners, SACD and DVD-Audio essentially died in 2005.
At CES 2006…
Toshiba hyped its first HD-DVD player at the modest price of only $499. In contrast, Pioneer announced a single Pioneer Elite Blu-Ray Disc player for $1800. Sony is still expecting to sell PS3’s with BD playback capability (and a reasonable price point), but no live PS3 units were shown at the show. In general, 2006 does not look like the year of prerecorded HD disc adoption. Pricing is too high, the available content library is too small, and there's the whole format war issue. Worse, the DVD revolution is winding down, and even on an HDTV, many consumers will find that DVD is “good enough” regardless of the outcome of the format war.
The word "lifestyle" in this industry usually refers to speaker systems, designed to be as small and unobtrusive as possible. This often leads to poor sound quality - after all, physics are involved when pushing air, and its harder to do with less volume for the pushing. You can beat physics with unique designs like the tiny subs with huge excursion (from Definitive Technology and Sunfire, among others), or simply tune products to what consumers are looking for (bright and punchy) and forget absolute musical accuracy. Bose saw tremendous success getting way ahead of the lifestyle trend, but with general audio sales down and the flat panel TV market booming, it seems that every manufacturer now has at least one "thin and flat" speaker system.
Proving you can't stop a good trend, Newpoint, a maker of surge protectors, cables, and other A/V accessories, has introduced the argo XP lifestyle antenna. Yes, an OTA HD antenna, with a flat panel main antenna, all in plasma-approved silver. Newpoint makes a big deal out of its HDTV-readiness on the box, and literally calls it the "lifestyle antenna." You can't get more decorator friendly than that. Newpoint was kind enough to send over a review sample.
In my last go around of (completely unscientific) testing, I found that Zenith's futuristic looking thing beat a standard loop antenna for pulling in HDTV for three reasons: the signal stregnth meter generally reads higher on the Zenith than the Jensen, it's easier to adjust the Zenith because it basically can't be adjusted, and the Zenith looks cool (I've included a picture). I have two of the Zeniths - one came with the HDTV tuner card I use in my Media Center XP box upstairs. Since I wrote that review, I've become somewhat disenchanted with the product, because its odd design makes it easy to adjust but difficult to stay put in exactly that spot. It also has a habit of breaking loose from its base and stabbing me in the foot. I hate it when that happens.
Surprisingly, for a "lifestyle" product, the Newpoint got just as good reception as the Zenith. It isn't better than the Zenith. For example, it still won't pull in certain stations like PBS - I suspect I'll need a roof antenna for that. However, ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, and the WB all come in fine, weather permitting. The key difference is that there are a limited number of adjustments you can make to the argo XL, but the hinge mechanism is fairly tight - once you get it right, it stays put. The base is reasonably well weighted, so a jolt from the subwoofer won't change its position, and it doesn't stick out into the room and launch itself at your feet when you walk by. Finally, it too, looks like it belongs in a modern home theater, despite the rabbit ears on each side of the panel.
I admit to being biased against lifestyle products, but Newpoint's argo XL lifestyle antenna is inexpensive (under $30), looks good, and performs as well as its peers. I can easily recommend it as a first step before spending more on an amplified antenna or something for your roof.
This is the first in a series on experiences using and enhancing Windows XP Media Center for home theater.
When I needed to upgrade my home office PC earlier this year, I chose to buy a Media Center PC because of the endless testing possibilities it offers. At the time, the Orb service, which lets you stream content from your PC to any Internet connected device, only worked on Media Center PCs (it still requires a PC with a TV tuner card to be compelling). Media Center extenders require a Media Center PC as a hub (though I currently use an omnifi streaming media player, which will work on any Windows XP PC). And previous experience showed that Microsoft's 10 foot user interface was the most functional and elegant solution on the market.
The Media Center PC I purchased, HP's 1095c, comes in a full sized vertical case, not a living room friendly horizontal case. It would not fit in well with a living room based on noise, either - a fan is constantly running. The box came preloaded with XP Windows Media Center 2003; a coupon was provided for an upgrade to the much-improved 2005 version. The upgrade process was relatively smooth and uneventful, but required a tremendous number of stops and starts and restarts (installation babysitting).
Since then, I have had only one area of difficulty - burning recorded TV content to DVD. For whatever reason, Media Center appears to think that the DVD recording drivers are not installed, and gives me error messages. Loading third party tools - such as Roxio's excellent Easy Media Creator 7.5 did not help (despite coming with its own DVD burning engine). I also had trouble simply opening up the recorded TV folder within Easy Media Creator 7.5; the program routinely crashed. Roxio assures me that they're working on identifying and fixing Media Center glitches in future versions of the software.
As a PC, the XP Media Center is an able performer - fast, and versatile. I have not tried any hard core gaming or graphics tests, but I have done video editing on it using Adobe's Premier Elements software. As a home theater component, it is somewhat lacking, largely due to the limited screen size (currently a 19" Samsung LCD). Audio is not a problem: I have hooked up both Klipsch's 5.1 THX ProMedia speakers and Logitech's latest Z-5500 THX 5.1 speaker systems (separate review coming soon).
I was actually most surprised by its capabilities as a "media center." This was unexpected, as I have reviewed XP Media Centers several times before, as dedicated home theater components in our basement (several early HP iterations of XP Media Center), and as "stereo cabinet replacements" in our living room (Gateway's sadly deceased but not forgotten 610 system). I'm certainly familiar with the basic functionality. But I found myself using the system far more than I anticipated - in full 10 foot Media Center user interface mode - while working five feet away on my corporate notebook. I find myself taking work breaks by watching pieces of The Simpsons, skipping through commercials and large chunks of the programming at will. The Media Center is jukebox central, with playlists culled from (legal) downloads and several hundred CD's burned to the hard drive. I also queue up FM radio stations and skip through commercials (if the station has been "paused") or simply bounce around among multiple choices.
Finally, to control all this from the other desk, I have one of two choices always at hand. One is obvious: the Media Center's infrared remote. But I also use Logitech's Bluetooth DiNovo keyboard, which splits out the numeric keybad on a separate unit. The satellite keypad contains several useful items, including a full calculator, notification of new email messages, and media control. I keep the QWERTY section of the keyboard in front of the Media Center (with the mouse next to it in my undersized keyboard tray), and the satellite section on the other desk next to my notebook as a remote control/information center/calculator. The DiNovo is expensive, and was intended to be a statement of style. However, the form factor and flexibility makes the price tag justifiable without aesthetic considerations.
Woot.com has built on its relationship with InFocus and yesterday the one-item-per-day online outlet store flexed the power of its unique retail model: it sold out an allotment of 450 new (not refurbished) 61" ultrathin (6.85" deep) DLP RPTVs over 22 hours for $3000 each. InFocus sweetened the deal further with a $500 rebate. This TV typically cost $5,000 - $8,000, and includes 2 ATSC tuners, an NTSC tuner, a Windows CE-based web browser, and all the trimmings.
With woot's flat $5 shipping, this leads to some remarkable statistics:
Item Quantity: 450
Item Price: $2,999.99
Total Sold: $1,349,995.50
Last Order time: 10:05 PM Central Time (new items are offered at midnight, Central Time, so that means the entire sale took 22 hours)
Order Pace: a $3,000 TV sold every 2 minutes, 55 seconds, or $61,094.47 an hour.
Shipping Cost: $5
Shipping Total: $2,250
TV Weight (w/ stand): 189.5
Total Weight: 85,275 lbs
Rebate by Infocus: $500
Infocus Payout: $225,000
Obviously, Woot will be paying a bit more than $2 grand to ship 85,275 lbs. of merchandise direct to customers' homes.
In marked contrast to most Woot items, the order pace started slow - very few items moved in the first hour, as customers digested the information about the set and asked spouses for permission. If you follow the flow of conversation in Woot's forum, you find a clear pattern: initially, woot regulars whined about the high cost of the item (some Woot items sell for as little as $10 or $20). Then, as word got out about the deal, a flurry of new customers posted their excitement and celebrating their purchasing savvy (or impending divorce due to differing monetary priorities -- in one case, if the poster is to be believed, marriage counseling would be a far better use of his $3,000 than an HDTV). Woot appears to be following the Costco model and broadening its customer base by offering higher end products to be found in what was always designed to be a bit of a treasure hunt.
The key question other retailers must ask is how this will affect pricing going forward. Will consumers tune out Woots as one-time sales - almost like a lottery win - or will this drive down pricing as customers expect to find "finds" going forward?
I maintain that the worst thing to hit to our "national pastime" (officially still baseball) is not steroid abuse, but HDTV. In high resolution closeups, players spitting chewing tobacco and "adjusting themselves" is far more offensive than Super Bowl halftime shows or Desperate Housewives previews. In a high def world, certain things have to change: performance enhancing drugs are fine - until they kill the athletes, they make their muscles look nice and ripped. But chaw, and polyester pants that gather in the crotch? Those have to go.
It's not that HDTV has so much resolution that you can see every pock mark and wrinkle on someone's face; it's that the camera zooms in much closer than you'd ever get in real life. OnHD.com has long maintained a snarky list of which celebs look better or worse in HD, and Hollywood makeup artists have been altering their technique to airbrush on makeup rather than simply apply it in swatches.
The New York Times Magazine finally picked up on the story, with a twist (free registration required) - younger celebs are now opting for plastic surgery. Conversely, for older celebs, surgery is counterproductive, because its so obvious. The Times also points out something most others miss - it's not just the higher resolution that points out very human flaws, but also that HDTV supports a richer color palette. However, the article makes it sound like there was some sort of ban on specific color shades, rather than a simple technical limitation. You can wear subtle red lipstick on standard NTSC TV, it just won't appear quite the same shade.
Let's not forget the most important thing we've learned about HDTV: some celebs actually look better in HD. Penelope Cruz shows up as #10 on OnHD's list (she was on Leno in HD recently, and I have to concur). It's not just the women, either: George Clooney is #7, and Jay Leno himself gets an honorable mention - I'm sure Jay would have something to say about that.
Back in February I wrote about Microsoft's Lightspeed IPTV demo at CES and linked to BusinessWeek's skeptical coverage. Well, the magazine was just biding its time and this week they completely skewer the initiative (subscription required), highlighting the endless delays in commercializing it. It seems the impressive demo I saw at CES was real. The problem is that the technology doesn't work for millions of users at once, which is kind of important for the operators who want to broadly deploy it. Live and learn.
Still, TV over IP seems somewhat inevitable. Japan and Korea have DSL service 10x faster than what U.S. operators provide and at lower prices. I'd think that deploying dramatically faster DSL would both solve many of the technical problems with IPTV and at the same time provide the service justification for consumers to upgrade to broadband (or even switch from cable modems).
Home Theater View grew out of business weblogs at JupiterResearch and AskAvi columns written over several years at a personal site, http://www.greengart.com. Thanks to the persistence of the Internet -- web pages never really die as long as they're in Google's index -- one of those old AskAvi columns is now generating a lot of feedback. It seems someone queried Google to find advice choosing a TV, found Column 10, and posted it to a newsgroup. They did this without ever looking at the column's date (which is on the page, though perhaps not as prominent as it could be).
Column 10 was provocatively titled, "Why HDTV Doesn't Matter," and it covered whether to buy a 4:3 (square) TV or a 16:9 (widescreen, rectangular) shaped TV. At the time, there was precious little HDTV content being broadcast and even fewer ways to get that content using cable or satellite. There were also several 4:3 TVs on the market with a true 16:9 squeeze mode - in other words, you could buy a square TV without giving up the higher resolution of widescreen programming (though you'd have black bars on top and bottom of your image).
The advice was good for its time: it was written in 2001, before the advent of relatively affordable DLP-based sets and Dell HDTV plasmas. (And I noted that the price of HDTVs would come down in time for something to watch on them). But to correct any misconceptions, this is not the advice I would give today.
First of all, there's a lot more widescreen programming available now, even for those watching standard definition ("regular" TV, as opposed to HDTV). Even video games are being created for widescreen playback. Second, 4:3 sets with 16:9 squeeze mode have largely disappeared from the marketplace, having been replaced by less expensive widescreen HDTV-ready models. No, today the issue isn't whether to go widescreen or not, but which widescreen technology to go with: traditional CRT? New, narrow depth CRT? CRT rear projection? Plasma flat panel? LCD flat panel? LCD rear projection? DLP rear projection? LCOS rear projection? Wait for SED flat panel?
Short answer: budget and screen size dictate the technology. Past Home Theater View columns have covered LCD vs. plasma, the introduction of SED, DLP's suitability for gaming, DLP vs. LCOS, and the announcement of narrow depth CRT.
New connectivity options often drive product design, and DVI/HDMI is no exception. DVI and HDMI are interfaces that allow you to keep the signal in the digital domain throughout their journey, making hookup simpler, and providing a noticeably sharper picture when viewing digital content (such as DVD or HDTV) on digital displays (like plasma, LCD, DLP, or LCOS), as the signal is never converted back and forth to analog at all.
I've already written about how computer-like interfaces open up the A/V cable market to new entrants, but every product in the A/V chain may need to change as well. There are already DVD players with DVI outputs from Samsung, V, and others - some at prices barely above non-DVI equipped models. Most current HDTV tuners and set top boxes have DVI or HDMI outputs. TVs and front projectors have embraced the interface, but only partially - most offer just a single DVI or HDMI input. So how do you hook up two things to one interface?
While specialized switching gear exists, it's not usually cost effective, so A/V switching is a classic task for a receiver (along with audio processing and amplification). For the moment, the only receiver or processor that I know of that switches DVI for you is Sony's ES STR-DA9000ES flagship... a $3,000 behemoth. Outlaw Audio has announced a more affordable receiver due out... eventually (after botching the 950's product launch they've gotten a lot more conservative with their release date announcements).
LG has an interesting solution - combine the two most likely sources into a single component. The LST3510A combines an upconverting DVD player with an ATSC (over the air) HDTV tuner, and a single DVI output for both sources. It works extremely well... when it works. The manual is terrible, offering little actual information about either the DVD functionality or HDTV tuning. The on screen user interface is excellent - but it doesn't control output format (a variety of choices including 480i, 480p, 720p, and 1080i). For that, you need to use two switches on the front, which toggle back and forth between selection and change. While relatively simple, I found this maddening and have never successfully changed settings on the first or second try. It also precludes easily programming different resolutions for different displays or source material into a universal remote control. It's own remote control is pretty good - no backlighting, but buttons are differentiated by size and shape, and overall layout is reasonably intelligent.
HDTV tuner performance is exceptional, which was not surprising given Zenith's long history with the standard (LG owns what's left of Zenith, including their HD patent portfolio). The LG LST3510A locked in on some unamplified signals, indoors, in my basement, using a simple UHF loop antenna, when the signal meter read almost zero, and with a lot of multipath distortion (signals bouncing around off of obstacles - my house is not in an ideal HDTV location). This equals or bests any other HD tuner I've seen.
The channel guide did not reliably work, but that may be dependant on the broadcasters, so I'm not sure whether to fault LG here. The tuner is ATSC-only. No NTSC (regular TV), no analog or digital cable, no satellite. So even if the guide were to work, you’d be limited to seeing HDTV programming. There’s also no digital output such as IEEE1394 (Firewire) suitable for copying the HDTV signal to DVHS tape or to a hard drive like a ReplayTV or TiVo unit. Sure, over the air HDTV is incredibly detailed, but being forced to watch commercial television on the network’s schedule with no control over commercials is cruel.
DVD upsampling performance is also exceptional. I noticed no artifacts, excellent 3-2 pulldown, and there was noticeably more detail in upsampled 720p images over DVI than in 480i playback over component video from my "reference" Panasonic and Sony DVD players. Sure, those are budget decks, but then the LG isn't all that expensive either once you consider the cost of standalone HDTV tuners. The point is, if you go with an all digital signal path, you want there to be a difference, and in my experience, that difference is clearly noticeable. Not earth shattering, mind you, but clearly noticeable nonetheless.
This high performance convergence does come at the cost of audiophile friendliness – neither high resolution multi-channel music format is supported. I suppose truly serious audiophiles may simply add a dedicated DVD-Audio and/or SACD player to the rack – analog connections should be fine for the limited video content on those discs. Everyone else will continue studiously ignoring both formats.
Overcoming Initial Flakiness
As great as I found the HDTV and DVD performance to be, the unit as a whole didn’t always work at first, and I couldn't begin to tell you why, as I haven’t been able to replicate the problems. Most of the time, the unit started right up, the TV locked onto the signal, and everyone was happy. However, for the first two months I had the unit, once in a while it would start up in whatever mode you left it in (tuner or DVD), but if you subsequently switched modes, the TV wouldn't pick up the signal. Sometimes the audio signal sent to the receiver was out, too. And sometimes, the unit started up and neither audio or video were working.
Any number of things seem to reset the machine - or not. Turning the unit on/off, cycling through display output resolutions, switching modes, removing/inserting a DVD. I have heard numerous problems with DVI input/output incompatibilities, and HDCP copy protection on top of them, so my experience is likely not unique. While the video sync could be a problem interacting with my TV (lately, a 50" JVC D-ILA), the occasional audio sync problems suggest problems with the unit itself. Perhaps it was just getting used to its new environment – the gremlins seem to have completely disappeared.
Another problem I have with the unit is not it's own fault, but can be blamed on the dual-use nature: Logitech's Harmony remotes, which magically program themselves over the Internet, choke on the LST3510A. The big problem is determining whether the LG should be considered a DVD player or an HDTV tuner. It's both, but the Logitech software treats the unit differently depending on how you classify it. Logitech tech support assures me that they're working on the problem, and when I updated the remote to account for a new receiver several new commands for the LG showed up as well. Progress! In the meantime, I could simply program the Harmony remote manually, but if I'm going to do that, I could just use my Philips Pronto – if I had time to program that…
Until reasonably priced receivers with DVI and HDMI switching are common (and we’ve all been compelled to upgrade our existing gear), it makes a tremendous amount of sense to add an upsampling DVD player to an HDTV tuner in a single box with DVI or HDMI outputs. In addition to its sensibility, LG’s LST3510A is a bargain at only $399 – some less capable HDTV tuners cost more, making the DVD playback essentially free. However, there were clearly some glitches in my setup where the TV, receiver, and LG unit were not communicating properly with each other at first. I’m keeping my unit, but as much as the raw performance and value push me to recommend this product, I cannot do so unconditionally. Buy one, but make sure the retailer will take it back if your TV won’t play nice with it.
The current issue of BusinessWeek has a nice overview of Microsoft's efforts in IP TV (sending television feeds to a set top box over a broadband connection). It's a bit skeptical, and focuses on how Microsoft has bent over backwards to address the needs of partners. For example, Microsoft's brand does not appear on the set top box, and the boxes don't even need to run a Microsoft operating system.
I saw a demo of the system at CES, and BusinessWeek leaves out an important element of the story: it's really, really cool. I suppose cable operators adopting this system could simply force their customers to upgrade, but new entrants such as phone companies and alternative broadband providers will need to provide consumers with a reason to move; simple pricing bundles will only go so far.
Microsoft was running a live demo off to the side of their main consumer booth - I literally stumbled into it on the way to a different meeting. What most impressed me about the system was not the alternative angles, more interactive VOD, or even the concept of moving the DVR from your living room back to the service provider. What impressed me about the demo was that it didn't feel like much of a demo at all: image quality was spectacular, and reactions to user input was instantaneous - far faster than changing channels on a satellite STB or HDTV tuner. The main window contained what appeared to be full HDTV, with alternative feeds around it. The user interface was refined, all onscreen graphics were in high resolution, and the EPG (Electronic Programming Guide) appeared simple enough for anyone to use. Feeds switched from one to the other with smooth transitions.
OK, one feature did stand out: easy to use PIP (Picture in Picture) without need for multiple tuners. Nobody actually uses PIP in the real world because setting it up is too complicated. But with "Microsoft TV IPTV Edition" (seriously, who comes up with these horrible names?) you can use PIP to keep an eye on multiple sports games in progress at once. If Microsoft solves the naming problem, they've got a real winner here.
I spent most of my time at CES focused on mobile devices, but did note a few overriding trends:
My final trend is a question: could CES be getting too big to be relevant? It's always been hard to get around the show, and the weather didn't help (when it snows in Vegas it's fair to say hell has frozen over). Next year CES kicks the Adult Video show out of the Sands and takes over that venue, too. But at the same time, CEDIA has been getting a lot of the big home theater announcements, the wireless device vendors are saving their news for CTIA, and the mobile media player market is all focused on MacWorld.
In a completely unscientific test, Gemini/Zenith's high tech HDTV antenna slightly beat out Jensen's adjustable loop antenna in my basement. With proper windowsill placement, both can pick up seven over the air HDTV channels, and neither can pick up NBC no matter what I do. Neither of them get perfect reception: despite what you've heard about the "cliff effect" (the signal is either there or not there, as if dropping off a cliff), HDTV is not an all or nothing affair in my house. Perhaps it's the grade of my street, the angle to the Empire State Building, or the fact that it's in a basement, but both antennas suffer from audio dropouts and blocky digital artifacts. Both antennas perform better in clear weather.
The edge goes to the Zenith for three reasons: