Your Daily Phil

Archive for the ‘computers’ Category

A tech-free weekend, a cable free summer?

Posted by lozenp on June 16, 2008

My wife and I spent out first night together away from our son Saturday at a wedding on Michigan’s west coast. We’ve both individually been gone several times, but this was first time we were both gone at the same time. My sister came to the Milan compound to keep things (things being our rambunctious 19-month old) under control so we could enjoy a nice Father’s Day trip.

We were staying at a bed and breakfast in the small town of Saugatuck called the Belvedere Inn, it was beautiful. Built in 1913, wonderfully manicured grounds, minutes from Lake Michigan. The wedding was outside, as was the reception. The Weather was great, and we had a great time.

But a word of warning to the tech-happy of you out there, when you head to a bed and breakfast, don’t assume you’ll have any tech in your room. In our case, no TV, no wireless, nothing. The closest thing to technology was the iron in the closet. Don’t get me wrong, it was nice to have a night away, and I was still able to do a few things thanks to my iPhone, but my clicker hand felt a bit lonely that night.

But it was a good test to see how I would handle no TV, since my big experiment for this summer should start sometime shortly after the Fourth of July: I’m cancelling all but the most basic of cable. And the only reason I’ll keep what I do is because I think it’s cheaper to have internet and basic cable than to have just internet.

This means no HD, no DVR, no On Demand. No for those of you who know me, you’ll saying right now there’s a catch. There’s no way Phil voluntarily dumps cable and has no backup plan. Well, you’re right. Here’s the plan.

I’m selling a bunch of stuff back to Best Buy via their trade-in site and will use those gift cards toward a new PC that can handle HD content and serve as a media server. This will be paired with my HD TV Tuner and will allow me to get OTA HD and QAM HD as well. So I’ll be able to see most of the Olympics, for instance. I’m also hoping that by putting this PC in the bedroom (hidden of course, honey) and hooking it up to the network, I’ll be able to not only use the Windows Vista DVR functionality in the bedroom, but also in the living room via the Xbox 360.

The other test will be to see how much content I can find on the internet to keep me busy for the summer. And how much of that will be HD.

I’ll be updating the progress as I go, and I plan to go without for at least July and August. We’ll see what happens come September.


Posted in Best Buy, computers, HDTV, Home Theater, HTPC, TV, Xbox 360 | 2 Comments »

My attempts at an HTPC

Posted by lozenp on April 24, 2008

I have a dream of one day not having to use the cable company’s set-top box as a DVR. I love the potential freedom I would have with my content by using a Home Theater PC as my DVR, especially the portability of the content, and the freedom to access it from remote locations with tools like WebGuide.

There’s a lot to consider (cable card, QAM, etc.) but I decided the best way to start was to get a PC, hook it up to my 50-inch DLP and see what happens. So far, the answer is “not much”. Here’s the specs of my PC to get things going:

  • Dell Precision WorkStation 360 from 2004.
  • Windows XP Pro.
  • 2GB RAM.
  • 3.2GHZ with an Intel 875P chipset.
  • Nvidia 7600 AGP video card with 512MB memory.
  • Hauppauge WinDVR 1600 TV tuner card.
  • WinTV and Beyond TV for viewing.

I’m not even trying to get it set up as a DVD/Blu-Ray machine yet, I first want to prove I can get QAM and OTA HD, record it, and slowly ween myself from Comcast’s grasp. The problem is, I can’t get HD to play. It drops frames, it’s choppy. I tried watching recordings, same issue. I tried viewing a recording on a different, much fast and newer PC, same thing. So now I’m stuck, and I’m turning to you, my four faithful readers.

I’ve gotten some ideas from the AVS Forum, but at this point I’m trying to get help wherever possible. If you know a good resource for answers, leave a comment.

Posted in computers, HDTV, Home Theater, HTPC, TV | 2 Comments »

Random weekend thoughts

Posted by lozenp on March 7, 2008

I’m one week into my iPod Touch trial. So far so good. I do enjoy the technology, no doubt. The question I have to answer for myself is do I want to keep it and forgo an iPhone in a year when my Verizon contract comes up, or take it back and hold out until Jan. 9, 2009. I’ve gone back and forth many times. I’m not up for buying an iPhone and jailbreaking it to use as an iPod so that’s not an option. Suggestions? Let me know.

Watched Pan’s Labyrinth on HD DVD yesterday while sick. Good movie, great HD DVD. Sound was amazing, especially in the scenes in the caverns and enclosed spaces. Great spatial representation. I’ll try to post a more extensive review over the weekend if my cold continues to regress. Also checked out Blade Runner but I was on several cold medications and pretty much dead-tired so I need to give that another viewing. Managed to pick up 300 and Bourne Identity for 10 bucks apiece at Hollywood video over the weekend, bringing my collection of soon-to-be-collectors item HD DVDs to eight.

My home theater PC is shaping up a little at a time. So far I’ve got it into my entertainment center, hooked up to my Samsung 50-inch DLP via VGA with a wireless keyboard/mouse combo. I ended up cancelling and restarting my Netflix under a different name to get full access to my four PCs again (I’ll be much more careful this time). We’ve enjoyed watching Heroes and 30 Rock from Netflix, video quality is suprisingly good, if a bit soft.

Still having trouble with HD content, be it from sites like KoldKast TV, Miro or via OTA broadcast. It’s the same issue with all content, very jumpy. I have a 512MB NVIDIA 7600 card so I don’t think it’s the graphics card. The only other thing I could think is I need more than the 1.5 MB RAM I have or that the 2.8 GHZ P4 I’m running is just too old to take it (the machine is probably 4 years old). Meanwhile my other PCs are torn apart while I “borrow” pieces to see if I can get this one running, since it’s the only machine with Windows Media Center in it. My next step is to take one of my bigger machines that have more RAM and put the TV tuner card in and just see if I can get HD content working in those. If so, I might just order a copy of Vista Home premium to get the Media Center feel.

If you’ve had experience with HD on PCs and have a suggestion, drop me a comment.

Posted in Apple, computers, HD DVD, HDTV, Home Theater, HTPC, IPTV, TV | 2 Comments »

New source for HD video on the web and the iPod Touch

Posted by lozenp on February 29, 2008

Couple quickies today:

First, I came across a piece recently about a new video service on the Web called Miro (it used to be the Democracy player). It’s an open source desktop application that works a little like iTunes. I haven’t had a ton of time to play with it yet, but I was able to download some HD content and it looked pretty good.

Basically there are channels that you can subscribe to, as well as being able to pull in video from YouTube, Google, etc. It looks very interesting, I’ll give a more full report in a little bit after I’ve had time to experiment more.

ipod-touch1.jpgSecond thing is I got an iPod Touch yesterday, the 8GB variety. I’m holding out hope that the rumors of a price drop on the 16GB and the removal of the 8GB will happen in the next 30 days so I can swap them out, but to be honest the extra 8GB is not essential to me.

So far I’m enjoying it quite a bit. I’m going to treat the 30 days as a trial period to make sure I’ll really take advantage of all it offers. So far I’m loving the instant access to the internet and email, and the video quality looks good but I haven’t watched anything yet of length.

Two things that popped out to me as things the iPhone has that the Touch doesn’t; a speaker (so no showing people YouTube vids without headphones) and a camera to easily add faces to the contacts. The Google Maps feature that allows you to pinpoint your location also doesn’t work, although Google Maps works just fine. That feature seems more of a cool to show people item than something really useful unless you travel a lot.

More on this as I get used to it. If you have a Touch (or an iPhone for that matter) let me know some of the cool apps you’ve downloaded and some tips on the best way to get video onto it.

Posted in Apple, computers, IPTV | 5 Comments »

Netflix on the 360? Possible announcement tomorrow

Posted by lozenp on February 19, 2008

The rumors have been flying fast and furious lately about Netflix and Microsoft hooking up to offer Netflix’s instant watch features via the Xbox 360 for Netflix members. A report on MSNBC today hints that an announcement might come tomorrow morning during the Microsoft keynote at the Game Developer’s Conference.

The rumors popped back up after Netflix sent out a user poll asking people if they would be interested in instantly watching movies on their Xbox. A similar poll went out asking the same question with a Playstation flavor.

While this would be an awesome add on for Netflix subscribers, I tend to agree with Dave Zatz of that this marriage is a long way off, if it even happens at all. Zatz brings up two valid points:

1. Microsoft offers movies via the Xbox Live Marketplace already, adding Netflix would either create competition for itself or likely signal an end to Microsoft offering movies itself.

2. Netflix has been talking for a while now about a set-top box and that hasn’t appeared yet.

I’ll certainly be paying close attention to the Microsoft keynote tomorrow morning at 10 a.m., but I’m not holding my breath. I’ll update the site with any news tomorrow.

Posted in computers, Netflix, Xbox 360 | 3 Comments »

Watch out for the limits in Netflix’s “Unlimited” watch now downloads

Posted by lozenp on February 16, 2008

One of Netflix’s big draws for many people is the “Instant Watch” feature. Members get access to more than 6,000 movies and TV shows that they can watch instantly on their PC. On all but the cheapest monthly plan, Netflix claims the service is unlimited.

But much like there’s no such thing as a free lunch, there might be no such thing as unlimited either. While it’s true that there’s no limit to the amount of movies or shows you can download, there is a limit to how many places you can watch them from.

After setting up a PC in my home theater the other night I attempted to watch an episode of 30 Rock from Netflix. After installing the player and choosing an episode, I got a popup saying Netflix had detected that I’ve tried to watch movies from multiple computers and that I needed to call tech support to ensure my account hadn’t been hacked.

Turns out, I had bumped into a little-known limit on the number of computers you can access instant watch features from. After calling tech support (and waiting more than an hour on hold) I found out you can only install the service on four computers. Tech support will allow you to increase the limit to five.

But here’s the kicker: unlike Apple’s iTunes which allows you to deauthorize a computer, the instant you access a Netflix Watch it Now feature, that computer is one of your four for an entire year, like it or not. No deleting, no removing, no deauthorizing. So if you’re like me and wanted to show off the feature to friends at work, have a laptop and a desktop at home, you can run up those four computers really quick. On my Windows Vista laptop, each user account counts toward your four.

Had Netflix disclosed this, no problem. If it was in the FAQ on the site, ok. But I tried to find information related to it on the site and came up empty (let me know if you found anything). The tech support guy (who was actually very helpful, insightful and sympathetic) told me this was a measure the studios imposed on Netflix, which I don’t doubt. Just seems to me Netflix could have been a bit more upfront about it, and for goodness sake, allow users to remove computers from their list or at least add it to their site somewhere.

Drop a comment if you’ve run into this yourself.

Posted in computers, HDTV, Home Theater, Netflix | 52 Comments »

Experimental HD

Posted by lozenp on January 13, 2008

Everyone knows how expensive cable is. You have to sign up for the HD package, and of course the DVR. All this on top of the normal cable fees. With this in mind, I’m going to begin researching the possibility of using my computer as my main source of tv.

Here’s how I see it working.

Currently, I have a tv-card in my computer. I can get the normal channels (up to 99) on it and watch those through my Xbox 360 via the Windows Media Center software. This provides tv listings and DVR functionality. The problem, HD is spotty at best with the low powered antenna I have in the basement with my computer, and we all know that HD is a deal breaker for me.

So here’s my list of current issues that I need to solve before I can call Comcast and have them come take my box away.

1. Improve my HD reception on my PC, either through a better antenna or finding out how to use my TV-Card to pull in the clear QAM channels from basic cable. Clear QAM, without getting into too much detail, allows digital tv tuners to pull in HD channels that are in the cable system without the box.

2. Upgrade the video card in my PC. HD video us suspect with the card I currently have. I’ll have to fix that.

3. Add RAM to my PC. Only have 1.5 MB right now, want at least 2, maybe 2.5.

4. Ensure I can get the digital sound from my PC to my surround system upstairs.

4. Determine how much money I would save by downgrading my Comcast subscription, and compare that to the investment I’d have to make to fix the issues above.

The biggest drawback to this process is losing the cable channels, such as TNT, HD Theater, etc. I have to look further into clear QAM but I’m not sure those channels come in through it.

So, I’m in the very early stages. I’m excited about the possibilities, but I’m realistic as well. I’ll keep you posted.

Posted in computers, HDTV, Home Theater, TV, Xbox 360 | Leave a Comment »

A big thud

Posted by lozenp on January 8, 2008

Well, I must say I’m disappointed. Outside of a fairly entertaining video about Bill Gates’ last day on the job, the Microsoft presser at CES Sunday night was pretty uneventful.

My buddy Jesse (of the “my 360 is dead story from the previous post) and I took a break from Guitar Hero III and FIFA 08 to watch on my laptop, anxiously awaiting the big announcement of a new 360 bundle. Instead we got a demo of the Internet (did you know you can send invitations to people on the Internet? And they can accept the invites, ON THE INTERNET! Amazing!)

Ok, that may be overgeneralizing a bit, but outside of some studio announcements for Xbox Live Marketplace (Disney/ABC) and some recaps of sales numbers, it was a pretty big letdown. Maybe something will still happen, as this was a pre-conference event, but I’m not holding my breath.

One thing that did get my interest a bit was the announcement that British Telecom would be using the 360 as a set top box in England this year. With Microsoft providing the software for AT&Ts U-Verse television offering, it seems like that could be a realistic next step here in the U.S.

Other than that, nothing too interesting (and the guys over at Ars Technica seemed to agree with me, see the second to last paragraph.) But don’t take my word for it, watch for yourself if you want to.

More on CES coming later this week.

Posted in computers, HDTV, TV, Uncategorized, Xbox 360 | Leave a Comment »

Christmas at work

Posted by lozenp on June 15, 2007

You spend 40 hours a week at work. You see your coworkers more than your family. You’re locked in a 8×8 cube with no windows. So anytime something fun happens at work, you take notice.

Well this week at work, it was like Christmas. At least the presents part. I’m lucky enough to be the person on our team in charge of technology for the designers. Software, hardware, computers, printers, scanners, etc. I research the new stuff, test it out when I can, and make recommendations on new purchases.  On our agenda this year: new computers.

I started looking a couple weeks ago, and when one of my co-workers computers blew up, it became a critical need. This week, they arrived.  One of the bonuses we didn’t expect was that we were able to package new 24-inch widescreen monitors into the deal. Here’s what we got:

Dell Precision 690
Quad Core Processor at 1.86
250GB Hard Drive
80GB OS Hard Drive
256MB PCIe NVidia Quadro FX 3500 Graphics

Hook that bad-boy up to the 24-inch monitor, running alongside my current 19-inch, and I’ve got a pretty sweet setup. This thing is a house though. It’s huge. I think they said it measured 3.5 feet tall, 4.5 feet deep and just under a foot wide.

Either way, it’s exciting to have new technology. I’m still loading programs and moving stuff over so I really don’t know how  much power this thing has. I can’t wait to open a 50MB photoshop file and watch this thing chew it up, or bring in 30 minutes of video and watch it render. Ahh the little things.

Posted in computers | 2 Comments »