Category Archives: HDTV and Home Theater

Vulkano Flow

There are many things I like about being here in Pensacola. One thing I do not, however, like is the poor television infrastructure at my hotel. I don’t get many of the channels I’d like to watch, and there’s no DVR so if something comes on when I’m doing something else (like, oh, I don’t know… WORKING or something), too bad. This essentially puts me back in time to 1999 or so, right before I got a preproduction TiVo evaluation unit– the first one in Alabama and quite possibly one of the very first east of the Mississippi.

Anyway, enough ancient history. Fast-forward to 2011, where my TV watching is mostly episodic: I want to be able to follow The Walking Dead, Flying Wild Alaska, and a few other shows. I could (and do) buy these episodes from iTunes, but that doesn’t help if I want to watch something on a channel I don’t get here (and believe me, that’s a long list).

I knew about the Slingbox and briefly considered getting one. As I was researching it, though, I came across the Vulkano line of devices. They are less expensive than the Slingbox, so I figured I’d give the Flow a try. There are a number of other devices that can act as DVRs and do various other tricks, but I wanted to use my existing U-Verse DVR and just watch it remotely.

The Flow doesn’t do HDMI, so I ordered it along with a component cable and had it shipped to my office. My friend Alex agreed to go install it in my apartment, and that went fairly smoothly; after about 30 min of work on his part (aided by text messages and Facebook chat) he’d gotten the Flow installed and configured and I was able to view a stream on my laptop.

Monsoon has free Windows and Mac OS X clients, and they sell iOS (and maybe Android?) clients. I bought the iOS client and used it immediately to watch an episode of The Simpsons, and it worked as advertised; the picture quality was only OK but it was certainly acceptable on the iPad. The real problem is the crappy Internet bandwidth at my hotel. I didn’t use it much after that, as I’ve been too busy to watch TV. However, the other night my coworkers were bellyaching about not being able to see an NFL game that was only on the NFL Network, which the hotel doesn’t get. I dragged out my laptop, plugged it into the HDMI port on the TV, fired up the Vulkano app, and we watched the game, just like it says on the box. At first the picture was a bit jumpy, but once I switched over to using my iPhone with tethering instead of the hotel Internet, we were able to watch the HD NFL Network channel at 720 x 480 and it looked great.

Last night we used it to watch a Simpsons episode here in Huntsville, where the hotel Internet is waaaay better. Picture quality was quite good and there were no drops or lags.

I’m sold. The only real complaint I have is that when you use the onscreen remote to change channels, fast-forward, pause, etc., there’s a noticeable 2-3 second lag. This makes it really tricky to do things like skip commercials, so I often don’t bother. I need to play around and see if there’s a way to solve the lag, but apart from that I’m delighted so far.

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Two warranties: American Standard and Microsoft

About two years ago, I bought Arlene an American Standard Champion toilet for Valentine’s Day. Not too long after, I added another one in the hall bathroom downstairs. Over time, they both developed odd flushing behavior caused by the design of their flush system. It uses what they call a Flush Tower; it’s basically a concentric pair of cylinders where the flush lever lifts the inner cylinder, which in turn lifts the outer cylinder and dumps water through the trapway.

One toilet has decided to just make a loud “clunk” when you flush it. That’s caused by the inner cylinder dropping down prematurely instead of engaging and lifting the outer cylinder. The other one flushes, but the outer cylinder drops too soon, so it only releases about half as much water as it should.

I called American Standard’s customer service department and spoke to a very pleasant lady who agreed that the toilets were still under warranty (with a 10-year warranty I should hope so!) She told me that the Flush Tower had been redesigned and that they’d be happy to send me two new ones via FedEx. That’s the kind of customer service I like (though I’m not looking forward to pulling the tanks from both toilets to replace the towers).

In other, and completely unrelated, news, about six weeks ago. the living room Xbox 360 died with a RROD. I used the Xbox web site to get a repair case opened and sent it off; it came back about two weeks later. In the meantime, I moved the basement 360 to the living room, then we started remodeling the basement, then we went out of town… and so on. Bottom line: I plugged the newly repaired 360 in last night and it immediately failed again. Now I have to send it back, wait for them to fix it, and reinstall it. If only there were a cross-ship option. Or, if only the frigging things wouldn’t fail so often in the first place. There, I said it. Now I feel better.

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The Book of HDTV

Verily, this man did seek to obtain an HDTV. His quest was mighty, for he sought to buy an HDTV at the City of Circuit and many other diverse places, and he did relate all that he did upon the Internet, like unto the plates which our fathers hath made.

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U-Verse first impressions

So, I’ve had U-Verse for all of five days so far. Herewith a few first impressions after having used it a bit.

First, my installer gets an A+++++. He did a great job of setting everything up, putting wires where I wanted them, and cleaning up after himself. I am very well pleased with how the install went; I don’t know if he’s typical of AT&T’s field installer force but if he is that bodes well for them.

Second, Internet speed has generally been excellent, with speeds far closer to the rated limit. As an example, I got a measured 9.3Mbps the other day, which is pretty darn good. Jitter has overall been low, but I am still having occasional burps on my Mitel phone (haven’t tested the Tanjay yet). I had some difficulties getting all 3 of my wireless access points to work together; I ended up turning off two of them, because AT&T’s box integrates 802.11g and has enough range to cover the entire first floor. Problem solved.

TV: channel selection is OK. We don’t get the Toledo CW affiliate, or any other, nor do we get the digital subchannels for local broadcasters, both of which I miss. I’m glad to get BYU-TV again, and there are a few HD channels like Smithsonian that Buckeye doesn’t have. U-Verse HD picture quality is fair-to-good; I’d say it’s on a par with DirecTV but not as good (at least for the local channels) as Buckeye. I like getting STARZ and the other low-end movie channels as part of the bundle, but they only have about five different movies between them.

DVR: this is kind of a sore point with me right now. U-Verse touts its “Total Home DVR”, which puts a single disk-based DVR in one room and satellite units that can stream video from the “real” DVR in others. Great idea, and perfect for our house. There are some drawbacks, though. The satellite units cannot pause live TV, nor can they schedule recordings. That’s one strike. The second strike is that, for some reason, the unit in our bedroom keeps telling us that there are no DVRs on the network, so we can’t watch anything. (An AT&T tech is on his way over right now to see if he can fix it, though.) So, I’ll call that a foul ball… strike two. This morning, after rebooting both DVR units to try to fix that problem, all of the recorded programs were gone. That’s definitely a strike. (Arlene told me that the programs actually disappeared sometime yesterday, because they were already gone at 1630 when she and the boys tried to watch something.)

As long as I’m talking about the DVR functionality: I miss wishlists and suggestions, neither of which the U-Verse boxes implement. Search-by-name works well, and seems quite a bit faster than the TiVo. Series recording works well, as evidenced by the episodes of stuff I recorded before they got wiped out.

Interactive features: AT&T touts their U-Bar interface, which puts your TV picture in a frame that displays weather, sports, or other information. Unfortunately, all we get for weather is the name of our city, the forecast high/low for the next 24 hours, and a little weather icon– that’s it. This is pretty useless, especially compared to getting “weather on the 8s” with the local Weather Channel broadcast on Buckeye. Local weather is an oft-requested feature on the U-Verse support forums so maybe we’ll get it some day.

Miscellaneous grace notes: the TiVo allows you to see what happened to each show that was recorded or removed, which would have come in very handy in tracing where all my programs went.

My installer just left after verifying that the interior cable run is OK. We’ll see if things improve, but for now it’s back to the Alabama-Georgia game.

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U-Verse vs Buckeye Express

I’ve been having frustrating problems with my Buckeye Express Internet service. Overall, Buckeye has done a good job. Their service has been pretty reliable (except that outages often kill phone and Internet service at the same time), and I like buying from a locally-owned company. Unfortunately, the Internet connection’s quality has been pretty variable. I’m supposed to get 12Mbps down and 1 Mbps down; in practice, I rarely see more than 7Mbps down and about 900Kbps up. The bigger problem is illustrated here:graph.gif

Notice that one peak around the 5000ms mark– that’s where something is inserting arbitrary TCP pauses. These pauses don’t follow any pattern that I can tell, but they wreak havoc both on my Mitel 5340/Teleworker and my Communicator Phone Experience devices. Every time one of these pauses hits, I get a noise on my phone like someone dropping 5lbs of lead shot into a galvanized trash can; it happens often enough to render that connection unusable.

The upstream jitter graph shows a similarly sad tale. It’s bad enough that I have 142ms of jitter, but it’s worse that it’s so variable. Most VoIP systems can compensate for jitter, but only if it remains predictable.

graph-1.gif

I called Buckeye to come out and fix it, but I don’t think the problem is something that can be resolved with a truck roll (although my local pedestal is out of spec, so they’re fixing it.) When AT&T announced that they were coming to Toledo, I eagerly hit their web site to find out if they offer service in Perrysburg… and they do. Their offering doesn’t yet include voice, but they have 10Mbps down/1.5Mbps up Internet service and a really slick-looking DVR setup that provides centralized DVR service for the whole house. I got in touch with Amanda Harris, the general manager for U-Verse in Ohio, and asked her some questions about the service; I’ll blog more about her answers later.

Perhaps more importantly, they offer free installation and a money-back service guarantee, so I scheduled them for an install. The installer came by this morning, did a quick walkthrough of the house to see what connections need to go where, and is now hooking our signal up at the VDSL pedestal. By day’s end, I should be in a position to do a back-to-back shootout of U-Verse vs Buckeye on the Internet front.

On the TV front, things are a little more complicated. The living room TiVo HD won’t work with U-Verse, so we’ll have to mothball it for the time being. However, the bedroom doesn’t have a DVR at all, so it will gain one. U-Verse in Ohio supports two simultaneous HD streams, so you can record two HD programs and watch up to 5 different HD or SD programs on 5 different TVs (not that we’ll ever have that many). We’ll also get some channels, like BYU-TV, that we don’t now get– at the cost of the familiar and easy-to-use TiVo interface. We’ll have to see how that plays off.

I’d write more, but the AT&T truck just pulled up again…

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HD-DVDs for $14.99

Amazon has a bunch of $14.99 HD-DVDs (including all 3 Mission:Impossible movies). It’s orderin’ time!

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Paying for local HDTV?

From today’s TVPredictions, this story about Belo Corporation, a broadcasting company that’s telling cable companies in its markets that they’ll have to pay to carry Belo’s broadcast HDTV signals:

But Jim Rothschild, director of operations for the Belo-owned KMOV in St. Louis, said Charter should pay because the high-def channel helps the cable operator sign — and keep — customers.
“We are simply asking Charter to share some of the value that it gets from our HD investment. They pay national channels for HDTV services, so they should also pay local channels,” he told the newspaper.

If I were Rothschild, I wouldn’t go there. Local affiliates have long complained that they need protection from “distant locals” on satellite or cable, and Congress and the FCC have gone along with them because the “local locals” have been freely available OTA and on local cable. If broadcasters now want to start charging for carriage of their signals, that’s just going to increase the likelihood that, say, Buckeye Cable will be able to buy HD affiliate signals from (say) Detroit and insert ads, just as they do for some national HD signals. That’s not good for local affiliates or the holding companies, like Belo and Raycom, that own them.

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My latest Xbox 360 achievement

It’s not really a 360 achievement; it’s because of the Wii.

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DirecTV to add Toledo local HD

Well, this is a nice surprise: according to Multichannel News, DirecTV will be adding local-into-local HD service for Toledo (and several other similarly-sized markets) by years’ end. I don’t have any of the MPEG-4 equipment that would be required to get LIL, and I have a perfectly good HD antenna anyway. Even if I had the equipment, I’d still stick with over-the-air because then I can record it easily, using either Windows Media Center or the El Gato eyeTV HD gadget I just got in the mail. Look for a full review soon… well, OK; “soon” really means “after baseball season is over, or the Tigers are eliminated, whichever comes first”.

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Fantastic Xbox 360 news

At the Tokyo Game Show, Microsoft made a couple of huge announcements about the Xbox 360. First, they announced some new games for the Japanese market, where the Xbox family has traditionally been pretty weak. They announced some excellent new Xbox Live Arcade titles, too, including Gyruss, Rally-X, and Track & Field. Konami and NAMCO BANDAI have really jumped on the potential of XBLA; Konami alone had three or four titles released just within the last couple of months.

Continue reading

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Firefly in HD

I don’t know how I missed this news. Jim McBee always bugs me about watching Firefly; he swears that I’d like it. I’ve held off, mostly out of laziness. Now comes word that it’ll be shown on UHD, in high definition, starting in a couple of weeks. To the TiVo! Season Pass time.

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Griffin TuneCenter

Another cool MacWorld product: Griffin’s new TuneCenter, an iPod dock that lets you play videos or music, or show pictures, from your iPod on a regular TV. I wonder how well this actually works? I love the idea, especially since it’s much simpler than the current lashup I have now. One key difference is that pictures displayed through the Xbox360 UI should use a much higher resolution than the iPod will support, but then that requires my Xbox360-MCE connection to work properly.

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More Xbox 360 streaming

So, last week I wrote about trying to get my iTunes music onto my Xbox 360. I noted that using Windows Media Connect on Virtual PC seemed to work OK, but I noticed something odd: only about 1/3 of my song library showed up on the device. It turns out that the 360 can’t stream AAC files (protected or unprotected), and– wouldn’t you know it– that’s the default format I’ve been using. This is odd, and frustrating, given that the 360 can play AAC files just fine from an iPod, so clearly it’s got an AAC codec installed.

I discovered this while trying to set up a Windows XP Media Center Edition (MCE) computer to stream videos to the 360. After an evening of fiddling, I still can’t make the MCE and 360 work together; each reports that it sees the other, but I can’t stream any content. However, I learned that if you install the 3ivx filter pack, then Windows Media Player (and, by extension, Windows Media Connect) can see and play unprotected AAC files. At least that much is now working.

Update: no, this still isn’t working. WMC won’t show AAC files, so neither the Xbox 360 nor the LRM-519 I have in the bedroom will see two-thirds of my accumulated music connection. Frustrating.

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Streaming iTunes to the Xbox 360

All my music is on my Mac. All Arlene’s music is on her Mac. I wanted to be able to stream both computers’ iTunes libraries to the Xbox 360, but– wouldn’t you know it? the 360 doesn’t support Apple’s iTunes protocol, and iTunes doesn’t support the Windows Media Connect (WMC) protocol.


My first thought was to use Virtual PC with an XP Professional image; install WMC, use Virtual PC’s “shared folder” feature, and point WMC at it. However, as I learned from wmcplayer.com, WMC requires that the Network Service pseudo-account have access to the shared folder. Apparently, Virtual PC applies some other ACL to the shared folder, so WMC wouldn’t share music from the shared folder.

Attempt #2 was more successful: I moved my iTunes music library to superman, my Windows Server 2003 file server, and pointed an alias in my Music folder to it. Then I told WMC to share \\superman\music, and boom! I was in business. I’m not sure how well this will work long-term, because I bet iTunes will dislike living on an SMB volume. For now, though, it’s great to be able to listen to my (non-DRM’d) music on the Xbox.

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Bedroom HDTV upgrade

We made a Thanksgiving-night run to Meijer for milk and bread; while we were there, I saw that they had a Thanksgiving-only special on the Syntax Olevia LT27HVX, a 27″ flat-panel LCD television with good specs (1280 x 720, with 480p, 720p, and 1080i support). For $499, I jumped on it– that ended up being my anniversary present from Arlene. On Friday, BestBuy had a sale on their DirecTV HD receivers: $199 with a $199 mail-in rebate. Matthew, Thomas, and I headed out to BestBuy about 0830 and it was jam-packed– talk about crowd-fighting! It was worth it, though, as we eventually emerged with a shiny new H10. Its OTA tuner isn’t as sensitive as the one in the living room HR10-250, so I ended up having to put an inline 10dB amplifier on its cable run, but now it works really well. It’s a treat to be able to watch HD under an electric blanket :)

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