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Peter Rogers's Blog
Artist-in-Residence at Chez Firth

Monday (8/11/08) 3:56pm - ... wherein Peter is looking into A/V upgrades.

Executive summary:
I'm finally looking to upgrade my A/V setup.

Longer description:
My current setup includes a TV, a DVD player, and a bookshelf audio system.  I sometimes watch video on my computer.  I don't watch broadcasts of any sort.  Mostly I watch DVDs.  I press one button on the universal remote, and the whole A/V setup powers down.  I press another one, and it powers back up and resumes the DVD where I left off.

Anyway, the dust has settled, prices have declined, technology has matured, and I'm finally thinking about upgrading to HDTV.  I think I'll wait 'til the holidays to upgrade (hooray price cuts), but I'm brain-dumping what I've figured out so far -- both so I'll have it written down somewhere, and so that maybe I'll stop mulling it over quite so obsessively.

I think I want a 42" television.  The way my living room is arranged, I'm usually sitting 8' from the TV screen, although I will occasionally sit 6' away or 10' away.  This site recommends a 42" set for 6'-8'; another site recommends 42" for 5.25'-8.75'.  I also dropped by hangingfire's and checked out their 41" set from various viewing distances to confirm that it looked acceptable.

I could go for something larger (I do like sitting way up front in movie theaters), but it looks like prices balloon once you go past 42".  There's also some question as to whether I could even fit (say) a 52" set in that corner of the living room -- even if it did fit, it'd probably make the room look wonky.

Next question:  ¿LCD o plasma?

I can't quite decide.  Plasma has better color accuracy, contrast, and black levels.  (Though plasma's lead keeps narrowing.)  LCD has problems with motion blur[1], but works better in a bright room and doesn't double as a radiator.  And it looks like at the 42" size, there are plenty of TVs of both varieties available, and they mostly cost about the same.  I think I'll just have to assess models one at a time, knowing that plasmas have a slight edge for image quality.

I know I want as many HDMI connections as I can get.  I will always have too many things I want to plug into the TV set -- I list four possibilities below, and that's just off the top of my head.

I think I want 1080p, but there's really no rational reason for it.  According to this chart, the benefit of 1080p is only just noticeable at 6' (and imperceptible at 8').  But still:  more pixels!  More pixels!

Unfortunately, given these criteria, there's no obvious winner.  I guess the next step is reading lots of reviews.


DVD Player:
So if I'm dropping all this cash on a new HDTV, it would make sense to actually feed it something that uses its full resolution.

The most obvious choice would be to buy a high-def DVD player -- and now that the format war is over, that means a Blu-Ray player.  Since netflix carries Blu-Ray, I can get a steady supply of Blu-Ray discs.  According to all review sites, the PS3 is hands-down the best Blu-Ray player -- or at least it's the one that produces the best image.  And it's a gaming system too.

The problem with the PS3 is that it has no IR receiver -- the PS3 remote control works over BlueTooth.  So if I want to program my universal remote (which is absolutely wonderful), then I have to buy one of these for $55 and possibly a USB wall wart ($7) and a mini-USB cable ($2).  Annoying, but oh well.  This would still put me halfway to having a copy of Rock Band, and starting to learn drums.  (w00t!)

Still to figure out:  if you're watching a Blu-Ray disc on a PS3, and you turn off the PS3, and you turn it back on again, does it instantly resume the DVD where you left off?  If not, it's back to the drawing board viz picking a player.

Oh, and I might look into either buying a region-free DVD (not Blu-Ray) player or figuring out how to hack my current DVD player to work region-free.  Then again, I rarely buy DVDs, and it may just be simpler to pick up a hard-drive device that can play back video files....

Apple TV:
The Apple TV looks like it's about the same price as its competitors.  It's a little underpowered (reports are, it can't quite put out 1080p video) and video streaming requires an 802.11n network[2].  Putting files on the machine requires transcoding to some Apple-happy format and sending it over via iTunes.  I kind of wince at this, since iTunes on Windows sucks, but it's not that big a bother (and again, 1080p and 720p are usually indistinguishable in my setup).

Then again, I could hack the AppleTV.  This would void the warranty, but would leave me with a much more useful device.  I wouldn't have to transcode anything[3], and it would open up additional features like installing a web browser (y helo thar
hulu) and an NES emulator (y helo thar Kung Fu).  Plus I could send files over to the box with WinSCP instead of iTunes.

As far as I can tell, it's cheap, it has an HDMI output, and it is reputed to not suck.  There's really no lower bound to how much a 'media center computer' can suck, especially when it's a stripped-down device.  Plus they've developed an iPhone remote-control app that I could use when I wanted to enter text into the device.[4]  And helpful Apple Browncoat minimalrobot determined that turning the ATV off and on resumes video playback from where you left off, even if it's a youtube video.[5]

But still, I plan to wait a while on this.  I don't think the price will drop further, and I doubt that new features will crop up -- I just want to wait for the hacks to mature a bit.  And I might need to pick up some more NES ROMS.  (Also, can I transfer video files to a PS3 and play them with that?  More research required.)

Routing the Computer to the HDTV:
Of course, some of that may be moot if I can easily route my computer's video signal to the TV set.  I wouldn't want to use my computer for playing back video (the resume functionality would be sucky-to-nonexistent), but it would be just plain nice to use the HDTV as a monitor.  Even if I'm composing email, I might prefer to do it sitting on my sofa instead of at my computer desk.

I would need to sort out how the computer's video gets to the HDTV.  Many HDTVs have computer-video inputs, so I suppose I could do it with a video splitter and a long, long cord.  It would be nice to find a wireless solution, though.  I suspect this would require some kind of dedicated device (where do I even start googling for that?) and an upgrade to 802.11n.

Oh, and I'd need to do something about my keyboard and mouse.  I'd probably have to switch to Bluetooth for both of them, and add some kind of Bluetooth dongle to my desktop computer.  And come to think of it, a mouse might not be that convenient from the couch -- maybe there are different pointing options available. 

Netflix now offers a $100 box that you can use to stream any Netflix video that's available for instant viewing.  There's no time limit on the rental (which is helpful -- sometimes I'll watch one DVD over the course of a month) and there's no additional fee for streaming videos if you're already renting DVDs from Netflix.  And it has an HDMI output.  (Oops, there goes another TV connection.)

There's some question of whether I have enough bandwidth to use the streaming video.  They recommend at least 1.5Mbps to watch video, and 4.0Mbps to watch "high-quality" video.  A quick test at speakeasy shows that my home network is around 1.1Mbps.  So perhaps I could use the 1.0Mbps stream, but that might look like an old VHS tape.

I could upgrade to 802.11n, or I could string a loooong Ethernet cable from the router to the Roku.  Either way it sounds a bit inconvenient.  But still:  cheap one-time fee, free movie rentals, easy installation.[6]  What's not to like?

I still need to sort out if the Roku box has a 'resume' functionality.  If I turn off the box halfway through a movie, and turn the box back on, I'd like it to pick up where I left off.

Yes, I know that I just have a cheapish pair of old bookshelf speakers.  This isn't something I've ever felt particularly compelled to upgrade.  It's a small room, so it's not like I need more power.  I suppose surround sound would be cute, but that suddenly requires buying a receiver and a passel of speakers and *then* I have to sort out where in the hell I mount all of it.  Meh to that.

None of this is anything I have to attend to any time soon.  I have a TV, I can play DVDs, and that's really more than enough content for me (I rarely 'run out' of netflix DVDs), and I'm not exactly suffering under the tyrannous pixelation of 480p.  So I can bide my time on buying anything until I'm absolutely sure of what I want.  The Apple TV, the Roku, and the PS3 all look excellent (assuming their resume functions work properly), so it's really a question of what TV I want.  Once I have that sorted, the rest of the dominoes will probably fall.

[1] LCDs also still have a slight problem with viewing angle -- it's usually 160° instead of 180° -- but I don't think that's really a factor for me.

[2] More accurately, *any* high-def video streaming would require 802.11n.  I'm guessing that upgrade would mean a new router and a new WiFi dongle for the computer.  Hopefully my 802.11g laptop would be compatible with the new network?

[3] This may not be true -- if the ATV can't handle 1080p, then I'd have to transcode a 1080p file to a 720p file.

[4] I'm still not in love with the iPhone keyboard, but it beats the "Mega Man password"-style text entry that's native to the ATV.

[5] ... which may solve the problem of "I don't like watching a webseries on my computer" problem, and make me feel a bit silly for having bought an iPhone.

[6] And god knows somebody out there is smugly saying, "Mutter mutter bittorrent mutter".  Good for you, kiddo.  In my case I think the convenience (if not the legality) of a Roku box trumps this.  BitTorrent requires leaving my computer on long enough to download stuff, and whenever my computer is showing a slow, slow progress bar, I have an unfortunate habit of just sitting around and staring at it.

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[User Picture]
Date:Monday (8/11/08) 3:01pm
We have a PS3 and use it as our DVD player, and I'm 95% certain that it will resume the DVD after you quit. I'm not sure about after turning it off (since we leave it running Folding@Home) but I can do a quick experiment sometime...
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[User Picture]
Date:Monday (8/11/08) 3:27pm
Just mentioned this in person but for gregstoll's benefit, yes, it does resume, even if you turn it off, take the disc out and do whatever in between, or anything else.
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[User Picture]
Date:Monday (8/11/08) 3:45pm
I've got an Xbox 360, and I do the same thing. It's a pretty sweet HD media box, games aside - plays DVDs, streams media (movies, audio, whatever) from a networked server, and, coming in the fall, will do the Netflix streaming thing, as well. I'm not a console snob - I'm sure the PS3 is fine for all that as well - but it's done very right by me.

(Also, games!)

I'm also pretty solid in the plasma camp right now, after about six months of research preceding a big TV purchase of my own. Been great so far, so if you want to know more, let me know, and I'll tell you what I know.
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[User Picture]
Date:Monday (8/11/08) 3:54pm
We have a 50" plasma, for comparison, and our viewing distance is about 13'. If you're at 8', I'd say 42" is gonna be the sweet spot for price/performance.

Plasma was my preference for color and motion, but I also chose a Pioneer, which is high-end and expensive for plasma. Cheaper plasmas just looked blocky and saturated. You also have to be careful about screen burn-in with plasma. LCD is the better choice if you have glare problems in your room.

I HIGHLY recommend going somewhere OTHER THAN BEST BUY to look at displays; they don't set things up right at all, and it's impossible to tell what looks right and what doesn't. Check out A&B TV on Anderson lane, up the street east of the Alamo Village. You'll be able to get a better idea of what the displays look like in motion.

1080p wasn't worth it for me. I just couldn't tell the difference at any distance.

DVD Player:
There's nothing on Blu-Ray that interests me yet, so I stuck with a regular DVD player. But if I were in the market, the PS3 would be my first choice. No more expensive than most standalone players, it's better supported (check out the horror stories around the Samsung BDP-1200, which won't play a lot of movies and has been discontinued, leaving early adopters SOL), and it also apparently does the best job of upscaling regular DVDs.

Routing the Computer to the HDTV:
Does your video card have a DVI output? If so, then you should know that DVI and HDMI are actually the same thing. HDMI just has some added features and different connectors. You can get a DVI-to-HDMI cable for cheap; that's how my computer is hooked up to my TV.

I will say that a TV is practically worthless as a monitor. Usually, you're sitting so far back that it's hard to read. It is very useful, however, if you want to watch streaming video, a la netflix. Then you don't have to spring for the Roku or the Apple TV.

Surround is probably not worth the hassle in your case, but I would look at a small subwoofer to complement your bookshelf speakers.
(Reply to this) (Thread)
Date:Monday (8/11/08) 6:23pm
The general rule of thumb about the size of the TV to viewing distance is roughly 3-4 times the diagonal of the TV...ie a 42" is ideally viewed about 10-12 feet away from the TV...in general LCD is the winning technology of the moment...Vizio the winning brand (cost vs performance) Organic LED technology is the next big thing but it is several years out...

In general I am not a big fan of connecting the computer to the TV....few things interface a computer well to the TV...plus the added hassles to getting one to connect...having a computer that is quiet enough...etc...I am more intrigued by the streaming devices...normally have better interfaces...however my major peeve with all of them has to with how the media is organized...most of them are UPNP based...which typically means the music gets organized alphabetically rather than by track order...very annoying...and recorded videos are also similarly arranged. There are streamers by NetGear and others that combine a DVD player and streamer..

I am not convinced about BluRay at this point...format-wise it will win...but there is a fair argument as to what quality are you gaining....really will not see it on a 1080p set...at some point blueray will be the defacto standard...then the players will be dirt cheap and there will not be a debate.

In general I think the network streaming will eventually when out..I think a lot people can live quit happily with 720p level content but have a vast library to pick from...

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[User Picture]
Date:Monday (8/11/08) 9:28pm
The general rule of thumb about the size of the TV to viewing distance is roughly 3-4 times the diagonal of the TV.

Most of what I've read said it should be 3 times the vertical of the TV.

having a computer that is quiet enough...

True.  I was just hoping I could somehow split a copy of my desktop machine's video output over to my TV -- thus, I leave the computer in the other room and tote in the (Bluetooth) keyboard, and just use the computer as a computer without any crazy interfaces.  Whether that's possible or not, I don't know....

but there is a fair argument as to what quality are you gaining....

Versus a normal DVD?  Isn't that 480p vs 1080p?  That should be a noticeable difference for a 42" TV viewed from 8' away....
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