The Future is Here (Two Weeks Ago)

Adam J PurcellAdam J Purcell   on November 27th, 2006

I’ve done it. I’ve bought a new TV. A new flat panel TV. Despite the wiser voices of others I could hold out no longer.

It actually happened a couple of weeks ago but I wanted to wait to see real HD content on the panel before making any public statements! True HD pictures look excellent.

Back to the beginning of the story, though. A couple of weeks ago (on a Thursday – I never could get the hang of them either) I found myself in the centre of London on business. As I was finishing up and about to make my way back to Victoria, I paused. Should I quickly nip to Tottenham Court Road to see if they have this fabled new Sharp LCD panel in? I’d read reports it had already appeared in Harrods (but apparently the feed wasn’t very good there, one reason I wanted to avoid the place). The electronics shops would be a better bet, all around. In the end, I decided I’d rather go home, get the weight off my feet and have some dinner.

The following day, however, I stopped by the local Comet Superstore over lunch. Without warning the Sharp LCD panel in question appeared on display! Almost equally as if by magic a shop keeper also appeared. Was I dreaming? Apparently not. The price was a few hundred more than I knew I could get it online. Nonetheless I managed to get some information from the salesman (and looked over his shoulder to see the computer saying they only had three in stock). A tad expensive. I made vague suggestions I might return on the Sunday to buy one and left.

Back in my office I phoned up the people who recently supplied my upscaling DVD recorder, AV Sales. Their website said they still didn’t have any in stock. Talking to them on the phone revealed that the preorder queue was quite large, their supply trickling in very slowly indeed and I was unlikely to see one before Christmas. There went my preferred supplier.

Over ‘Beer and Skittles’ at the end of Friday afternoon (when somebody at work goes out to get some snacks and we all spend the last hour of the week having a little party!) I decided. Those vague promises about going back to Comets to buy the panel, that I hadn’t intended to keep, would be kept. I wouldn’t wait until Sunday though. Not even until Saturday morning. I’d buy it on the way home. And so I did.

The 46″ panel filled the back of my little car. The only problem was – it was far too bulky for one person to offload. I needed help and Macfadyan was close by. A quick drive down the road from my place to his car park, a mobile phone call (not leaving the expensive equipment unattended) and help I had. The best part of the next hour saw us unpacking (totally failing to discover the easy way to unpack the large panel…) and my attempts to plumb it in to my myriad of AV equipment in the TV Room. Success! A big thank you to Macfadyan – not so much as a scratch on the set.

To be honest the first pictures on it were disappointing. Standard Definition pictures from the built-in Freeview decoder. Trying a DVD, using a SCART lead, proved a little better but still not wonderful. It wasn’t until the following day, with a shiny new HDMI cable (roughly the new, HD ready, equivalent of a SCART cable) that things really improved. Finally some pseudo High Definition images, upscaled by the DVD player to 1920x1080i (rather than 720x576i). A big improvement but could do better. I needed real HD.

It is only as of this past Saturday morning that I finally have seen true HD on the panel, thanks to a Telewest TV Drive. Torchwood in HD. Robin Hood in HD. Even Space 1999 in HD (yes, really – on ITV HD, they must have gone back to the original film and rescanned/remastered it for HD). They all looked excellent. That’s the future. It’s just a shame there isn’t more HD content yet. Still, as an added bonus, the TV Drive also does some upscaling magic to SD pictures in the same way my new DVD recorder does.

I will say this, though. Flat panel TVs, especially Full HD ones, probably aren’t really there yet for the average Bloggs on the street. Decent sized flat panels really show the flaws with SD material. If you haven’t got HD content (and almost nobody does yet on these shores) then take the advice I ignored and wait. I’m not in the least bit sorry I didn’t, I really get that cinema experience. It didn’t come cheap though and I will have to continue paying for the luxury of HD content every month. If, like me, you must be a foot in the future then join me. Otherwise wait a couple of years. Ultimately you’ll all overtake me long before I will swap this TV for another!

Now I just need to finish furnishing the TV Room (I need a front row of seats, for one thing) and the Home Cinema will be complete (for a bit!)

LCD Panel

Sharp LC-46D62U 46″ LCD Flat Panel TV (with Pertwee’s Head for scale)

Pertwee’s Head will return.



The Cinema Cometh

Adam J PurcellAdam J Purcell   on October 31st, 2006

The old TV Room is starting to take on the new shape of a home cinema, new flat panel or not.

Kermit the FrogI arrived home yesterday evening and I immediately knew something was amiss. The inner, airlock, front door was open. The outer door was closed but the inner one wasn’t. I never leave it like that – it rather defeats the object of the door! I immediately knew what must have happened (and I really must get my surveillance cameras back up and running!) I rushed to the TV Room and, sure enough, the house elves had done some work. My old futon had been raised up on two parallel blocks, one along each side under the feet, and a long foot step along the front added so people don’t have to jump up into the seat and have their legs dangling down like Kermit the Frog! This is now the raised back row of my home cinema!

So, what’s left? A front row of seats, for one. They’ll have to wait a while as the recliners I have in mind are a good few hundred pounds each and that money might need to go elsewhere first. In the meantime, if there is a need, I can always drag in swivel chairs from the computer room. There is also still the question of a flat panel TV. I am still undecided on this matter. People have made very good arguments for waiting and I should take heed. Still part of me is urging myself on, though. If I wait a bit I can buy a Surface-conduction Electron-emitter Display (SED) or perhaps a Laser TV. I expect it will be a few years before these are ready for mass production/uptake and there’s always something better and cheaper around the corner. I may yet take the advice and wait a bit longer or I might give in. I don’t know yet! TV aside, the other minor bits outstanding are things such as little tables for drinks raised up for the futon and a raising of the light fitting which is now all too easy to bang your head on!

The other recent innovation in there is a new DVD Recorder – finally VHS is completely obsolete! The only use I’ve had for video tapes in the last few years (since getting a TiVo) has been to record things off for other people. Now I can just put things onto DVDs. It’s a Panasonic DMR-EX75EB, with built-in freeview and a hard disk drive. You can record to the hard drive or directly onto DVD, either by using the freeview guide to set timed recordings or just record live (from any input). If you put it to hard disk you can edit it and then save it off to digital versatile disc. Not only that but it is also multi-region (absolute requirement!) and it even upscales Standard Definition DVDs to High Definition (it will never look as good as real HD but I’m told it does a pretty decent job nonetheless). From what I’ve seen of it so far I certainly recommend it!

That only leaves one thing: the gap under the throne-like raised futon. The back is against the wall, under the left and right sides are two blocks that raise the chair (and stick out so the futon can still be converted into a temporary bed, if ever needed (hasn’t been so far but the spare bedroom has been used from time to time)) and along the front is another block to rest your feet on. The futon, being on four metal legs with no skirt, now appears to have a large pit beneath it! What to do with it? The old piranha pool idea is always good but you’ve got to feed them – the local area will too quickly run out of cats, I think. It’s not big enough for respectable sized sharks and I’d have the same feeding problems. No, it can’t be anything that exotic. Storage? Maybe but it isn’t the easiest area to access. For a childish moment I thought it would be great to make a little camp under there! That’s going back to the old childhood of getting a few dining room chairs together and covering them with blankets to make a tent-like structure! That would be fun! But, sadly, I think I’m far too old for that. No, there’s got to be some semi-practical use for that new space. Anyone with any ideas?!



A question of parenting

hobbithobbit   on October 25th, 2006

Am I a bad parent? Before you all rush at once, you gits, let me explain.

Our Youngest Lad is rather fond of K9. He grins and pays attention when he spots the Tin Dog on screen (those who know the boy will know he couldn’t pay attention if his life depended on it and, being a teenager, grins are few and far between).

Ambling through Woolies today The Folically Challenged One and I spotted a super duper remote control K9 and agreed it would be the perfect pressie for him.

Now, we’ve already bought his pressie – it’s one of those This Cost A Bit So It’s The Only One You’re Getting type of pressies so we agreed we shouldn’t buy the Tin Dog.

The reason I’m wondering if I’m a bad parent is this – I’m going to ask my mum and dad to buy it for him for Christmas cos I really REALLY want to play with it!!



A Panel of Problems

Adam J PurcellAdam J Purcell   on October 19th, 2006

Why is it so difficult to buy a decent flat panel TV? Yes, I can do down to the likes of Comet or Currys right now and buy one of about 50 panels on display immediately. The problem is I want a good panel. No, I want an excellent panel. Clearly I am just too discerning!

Into the local Comet superstore I go. They have the biggest selection of flat panel TVs I’ve ever seen. I am hovering around the most expensive of those panels and the inevitable salesman spies me in my three piece suit (I’m on a lunch break). The conversation goes something along the lines of:

Salesman: Can I help you at all?
Me: Er, maybe. I’m looking for a 1080p panel.
Salesman: The only one we’ve got is this Hitachi plasma…
Me: Yes, I was looking at that but it isn’t actually 1080p.
Salesman: It’s 1080…
Me: It’s 1080i. Interlaced. I’ve looked into it and it doesn’t support 1080p.
Salesman: Yes, I think you’re right. In that case we don’t have any 1080p TVs yet. You will probably have to try a specialist shop.

A specialist shop?! I’m trying to buy a TV, not an unusual musical instrument or a weapon of mass destruction! I take a quick look around those panels they do have and they are all very last generation, most 1366×768. Clearly 768 vertical lines cannot display the 1080 lines of Full HD without throwing away, what, 312 lines (about 30%). Even the Hitachi panel they showed me was only 1024×1080 rather than 1920×1080 (although Comet has their information on the display wrong, claiming full 1920×1080 when it isn’t).

I wasn’t surprised by this but I was hoping the salesman would know about the upcoming Full HD Sharp panels I’ve been looking at. My investigation of said panels has unexpectedly turned a bit sour, though. These were my great hope. First I was looking at the 42″ panel but it quickly became clear that Sharp don’t make their own 42″ LCD panels and the outsourced variants were significantly inferior to their home grown 46″ and 52″ screens. That was a blow. I did some hasty calculations and 46″ would just about fit. No chance for the 52″. So, that was okay, Sharp here I come. Except… The American version of the panel came out a couple of weeks ago and reports are mixed. If you get a good panel then you will be in for a treat, up there with the best panels you can buy for any price. If you get a bad panel then you will have severe colour banding, poor viewing angles and, possibly, a high pitched buzzing sound. Early estimates have it at about 47% chance of getting a lemon. I don’t like those odds. Sharp’s new 8th generation LCD plant appears to have some teething troubles. The quality control leaves something to be desired. As my only option to buy this set is currently online, I simply won’t be able to see what I’m getting before I pay and sending it back will be a right pain in the panel (it will be no small box and I’d probably have to take the day off just to take delivery). Very disappointing. The European panels might not exhibit the same problems, they are only just appearing now. I nervously await reports from the first buyers of the Sharp LC-46XD1E. I’ve no doubt magazine reviews will be great but they will probably be given hand picked good panels. As ever, time will tell.

There are a couple of alternatives. The previously mentioned Hitachi, though not true Full HD, is nonetheless a great plasma panel by most accounts. So, that’s the 42PD9700. 42″, a little expensive by comparison to the Sharp but it may be they have better QC than Sharp. I’ve also recently discovered that Sony do a new LCD panel that does do Full HD, KDL-40W2000. Being Sony it is more expensive than anyone else, meaning only the 40″ is at a realistic price (and my realistic price is probably a little bit higher than most people’s realistic price for a TV). Smaller than my original idea of a 42″, a heck of a lot smaller than the Sharp 46″ for about the same money. Standard Definition is, apparently, below par (also a problem of the Hitachi, as I have witnessed). Also, I’m no fan of Sony recently, what with the spyware on their CDs, their part in the next-gen DVD wars, their exploding laptop batteries and their poor handling of Star Wars Galaxies. Decisions, decisions.

Perhaps HDTV isn’t there this year after all. Do I really have to wait another year?!



Time and Tellies

Adam J PurcellAdam J Purcell   on October 3rd, 2006

Seven years today. Where did all that time go? On this day in 1999 the moon didn’t fly out of its orbit. In fact nothing of global note appeared to have happened at all. Nothing at all according to the BBC On This Day page. Even Wikipedia says the only thing that happened was the death of a Japanese businessman named Akio Morita, a co-founder of the Sony Corporation.

So, what’s so special about the 3rd of October 1999, then? It was the day I moved into my own place, a full month after taking ownership of it. Yes, it really did take me an entire month to decorate the place, no room was untouched. The first two weeks I had off work and the rest of that Original Decor 2Original Decor 1month I spent every, non-working, waking moment there stripping off the two or three layers of (almost universally dreadful) wallpaper and painting. It was a long and tough month but at least I had the luxury of going back to my parent’s place each night. I also didn’t have to work around the furniture as that was all either in my ‘old’ room or my parent’s garage waiting to be transported to the house once I’d finished decorating. I think it was three transit vans full of furniture and assorted junk when the time came. It’s amazing how much furniture I had in my old room, even now it is spread over my new bedroom, computer room, TV room and spare bedroom. Only the living room, kitchen, bathroom and downstairs toilet have escaped its influence and they are full of items bought especially and stored in the garage.

Since then nothing much has changed. I’ve added a couple of bookcases to the living room, a new cooker and sink. No real changes. Time has stood still. That’s about to change, at least for the TV room.

HDTV is here. Almost. If you know where to look. And if you are willing to pay. For two years now, around this time of year, I’ve looked at the state of flat panel TVs. Two years ago almost all panels (certainly those less than about £3k) were not high def. They were 852×480, those 480 lines were somewhat less than PAL with its 576 (480 lines being the old American NTSC standard). That was no good. So I came back a year later to find the HD ReadyHD Ready‘ logo appearing on TVs. At last, I thought, flat panels that are really HD. Well, yes and no. The logo meant they would be compatible with High Def images, with support for the hateful HDCP (High-Bandwidth Digital Content Protection) DRM, and the panel must have at least 720 physical lines. I should probably explain for a second here. In simple terms there are two different HD resolutions, 720 lines and 1080 lines. There is also the question of progressive scan or interlaced but I won’t complicate matters with that just now. Last year there were no panels (certainly below £10k) that could show 1080 HD without scaling the picture down to a smaller number of lines. Well, as you can guess, that meant I returned to my TV buying slumber.

So here we are now, rapidly approaching the end of 2006. Christmas is sneaking up on us again and my eye turns back to flat panel TVs. My existing TV, an excellent 28″ Panasonic 4×3 (non-widescreen) CRT screen (though it does support widescreen with the press of a button, giving the unavoidable letterbox black lines at the top and bottom). It’s a good TV. A great TV, even. It’s also at least 10 years old. I almost certainly bought it in 1995, during my sandwich year at university (it was a big sandwich!) This was before widescreen TVs really took off, though it was (thankfully) future proof enough to support that. The biggest selling point, besides its sheer size compared to my old 15″ portable, was its Dolby Pro Logic Surround Sound! That was a neat scheme where the TV would infer the Front Left, Front Right, Front Centre and Rear Mono speakers from nothing more than a standard two channel (stereo) audio source. It wasn’t what we think of as true surround sound now (as in 5.1, 7.1, etc) but it was quite a step up from standard NICAM stereo. That almost cinema experience in my own bedroom! Of course nowadays those speakers are set to zero volume and I use a proper 5.1 amp with Dolby Digital and DTS. Still, it was the best you could get at the time and the TV cost a cool £1200. In todays money that is apparently worth about £1550. Not too much short of what I’m looking to pay for its replacement. That’s why I’m being so careful, ideally the replacement should itself last at least ten years.

Are we there yet? Maybe. With the Wii set to burst forth, as mentioned in my last blog post, I now have even more incentive to upgrade. Okay, so the Wii doesn’t do HD but it does do 480p, which my TV can’t handle, and, more crucially, I’ll need more space in front of my TV to wave my Wiimote around! My current TV is deep. Very deep. Far too deep to be able to stand in front of it and have a decent distance so I can both look down at the screen and flail about. I could be wrong but I suspect the Wii will, at least a good portion of the time, encourage me to stand up to play.

Down at both Comet and Currys at the local retail park they have at least one Plasma screen that says it can do 1080 (only 1080i from what I can tell, not 1080p). That may be enough. There are, allegedly, a few more ‘Full HD’ sets on the way in the next month or so. This may, at last, be the time. The only problem is the one set I have seen had particularly bad handling of non-HD (SD, or Standard Definition) video. SD is, well, all I have right now. The new VHS/Betamax war between the two new competing High Def DVD standards (Blu-ray and HD-DVD) mean I’m not going near either for the time being. Back in the early 1980s we had a Betamax, it was a better (and more expensive) system but we were on the losing side that time. I’m not repeating that mistake if I can help it. Then there’s TV broadcasts. No HD worth talking about there either. Some movie channels and sports. Big whoop. The BBC are starting to talk about it, I believe this new Robin Hood series will be available in HD, for a price. A price? Yes, unless you are one of the lucky 450 homes around the Crystal Palace transmitter that have been brought into the Freeview HD trial, you will have to pay for either a Satellite or Cable subscription to get at HD broadcasts. Despite swearing not to go back to a TV subscription package again I must admit I find myself considering the Telewest TVDrive. This will (almost) replace my aging TiVo, that can’t do HD, and also upscales SD to HD where HD versions of a programme don’t exist. The upscaling won’t make SD look anywhere near as good as real HD but it may do a better job than that Plasma TV I looked at. That leaves the problem of the old SD DVDs. Simple: get a DVD player that upscales to HD too. Indeed, get a DVD player that can also record and I’ve effectively replaced my ability to grab programmes off my TiVo to the computer and, finally, do away with any need for a VHS video recorder (which I’ve only used in recent years to record stuff off for other people anyway).

So, there we go. A Wii. A Plasma TV. A DVD Recorder. A Telewest TVDrive. New, more cinema style, seating for the TV room. Expensive. It won’t all happen this year, that’s for sure. But it’s a dream. Extravagant? Yes, I suppose so. Still, my last extravagantly expensive TV (back when I was earning less than half what I am now) has more than paid for itself. So long as the chairs and TV, the most expensive parts of that, last about the same I’ll be happy. The TVDrive will hopefully one day, in a few years time, be replaced by a 3rd or 4th generation TiVo and Freeview HD. The DVD Recorder will be replaced by a Blu-ray/HD DVD drive or, maybe, something else completely that uses the Internet, perhaps.

I do wonder how the average Jo(e) Bloggs can get a handle on the complexities of it all. I’ve spent a not inconsiderable amount of time investigating all this, both the technologies themselves and the relative merits of various bits of kit. And I haven’t even mentioned complications that are the connector standards, such as SCART (aka Euroconnector), HDMI, DVI, Composite, Component, S-Video, etc. It’s a mess. I also suspect a lot of people who have spent thousands of pounds on a ‘HD Ready’ screen will protest very loudly when the ‘Full HD’ logo starts to appear and makes their purchases obsolete. I know people are already complaining that they’ve bought expensive kit and there are virtually no HD broadcasts yet, despite ‘HD Ready’ TVs being around for over a year.

Me? I’ve already cleared my TV room of all those old VHS tapes and various other bits of junk, ready for the change. I think I’m going in with all the facts I need. Time will tell if that’s true.