Review of new video center

We recently upgraded our family room’s video setup. The old setup was a Sony 27 inch CRT TV, a trusty DirecTivo upgraded to 700GB, a Sony DVD player and an AppleTV (not connected to any of the above due to a lack of component or HDMI inputs). Recently, the audio on the 27″ TV began to crackle, and a smaller 20″ Sony was moved from a bedroom to replace it. The 20″ was definitely too small for the space, and a larger screen was sorely needed.

The setup was very highly utilized, in a built-in cabinet, in a large room that is a combination kitchen and family room (sometimes referred to as a great room). The DirecTV Tivo was programmed to record so many programs that it seemed to be recording off of one or both of its tuners, almost non-stop throughout the day and night. Between the kids’ shows and ours, we had over 600 hours of recorded programming on the Tivo. (I had over 300 episodes of Star Trek and ST spinoffs, with episodes getting added faster than I had time to watch).

This AV center was never meant to be a “home theater” nor utilized for playback or distribution of music (we have a perfect setup with 3 Apple Airport Expresses with iTunes on various computers utilizing AirTunes for music playback and distribution). However, quality of audio and video was still pretty important when decisions were made about revamping the whole cabinet.

The first decision was the size and type of the television. Given the depth (and height of the TV area) of the cabinet, there weren’t a whole lot of CRT or DLPs that could go into the same space, and give us a screen much larer tan 30″. With the width of the cabinet at 43 inches I had the choice of many good 37″, 40″, 42″ and even a few 46″ plasma or LCD TVs. The 46″ TVs were a tight fit, and even some 40 and 42 inchers, had too large a frame around their screens to fit comfortably.

The decision was made to go with LCD, partly due to my opinion that LCDs may handle the higher usage better than plasma. I ended up buying two TVs, a 42″ and a 40″ and later returning the 42″ since the picture was a bit nicer on the 40″, and the UI a bit more elegant. (UI on these TVs are pretty sad, and that’s also the case with the other components, and I will cover that later).

The new TV is the Samsung LN40A750:

samsungln40a750

  • 40-inch LCD screen
  • Auto Motion Plus 120Hz™
  • HD-grade 1920 (H) x 1080 (V) pixel resolution
  • Built-in digital tuner (ATSC/Clear QAM)
  • Picture-in-Picture
  • 4 HDMI (3 rear/1 side), HDMI-CEC
  • 2 Component video inputs (rear)
  • Wiselink Pro® (USB 2.0)

The first thing we noticed after installing this TV was that the digital channels provided by Comcast looked good and the HD programming was awesome, but many other non-digital channels looked quite awful. In addition, almost anything coming off of the DVD player and the DirecTivo was really sad looking. It seems that anything of poor quality that the Samsung’s scaler has to scale to HD size, suffers even more. In contrast, the picture the AppleTV provided, whether it was doing a photo slide show, playing an iTunes purchased movie or a video podcast, looked beautiful.

In fact, the quality of video from the DVD player and the DirecTV Tivo was so bad that I was compelled to upgrade both. For a replacement disc player I went with a Samsung Blue-ray player, the BD-2550 (The BD-2550 seems to be the same as the BD-2500 except that it is only available from BestBuy). I chose Samsung in order to be able to use the TV’s remote to control the BD player, and vice versa. I did not realize this fully at the time of purchase, but the Samsung opens up a new option in on-demand playback, via NetFlix, which is a bg plus.

As for DVR, I had a harder time deciding whether to stay with DirecTV or to switch to Comcast. I was leaning towards Comcast, mainly due to the fact that Comcast’s standard definition programs looked sharp and bright, while DirecTV’s look overly compressed, and muted with motion artifacts and background shimmer. What made me stay with DirecTV, and upgrade this particular location to their HD DVR, was that DirecTV boasts more HD channels than Comcast. Plus the fact that we had DirecTV DVRs in three locations in the house already, and I wasn’t too keen on switching all those to Comcast compatible hardware.

I had been resisting upgrading to HD mainly for one reason: All DirecTV HD DVRs, up to and including the HR22 that I now have, are unfortunately not powered by Tivo. Therefore the UI that I know and love is not there, and instead there is a poor knock-off of the Tivo UI. I understand that Tivo has been tapped to power the next HD DVRs from DirecTV due out mid-next year, so I may get my Tivo UI back after all.

A couple of notes on the HD DVR: First, and again I did not realize this, but the HD DVR opens up yet another option for on-demand programming. Second, the HD DVR has an eSATA interface on the back that allows for the connection of an external hard drive. Unfortunately, any external drive, when attached and recognized by the HR22, is used as the main drive, and the internal drve is then ignored. In other words, you lose the storage capacity of the internal drive when you attach an external one. If, for example, you wanted to increase the HR22’s storage from the standard internal 500GB to 1.5TB, you actually have to hook it up to a 1.5TB drive and not just a 1TB drive. The fact that you don’t have to open the DVRs and void the warranty in order to increase storage is great, however, I don’t understand why they couldn’t utilize the storage capacity of both drives. Why DirecTV, why? (By the way, the AppleTV also has a USB connector on its rear panel. One would think it would be perfectly suited for hard disk additions via that USB port, but unfortunately, unless you want to hack the OS, that USB port is not hard disk friendly. Why Apple, why?)

vidcap

To sum up the contents of our video cabinet, we now have:

  • a new LCD TV
  • an AppleTV
  • a BD player
  • a HD DVR

In addition to their “traditional” or “native” content, the AppleTV, the BD player, and the HD DVR all support different on-demand programming sources and material.

The AppleTV can get its material from your computer, whether it is music, photos or videos in different formats including SD and HD. It can also get videos from YouTube, although the quality is pretty limited. Another source is the iTunes store where you can get podcasts (of varying qualities), movie trailers, TV shows and movies. While there are occasional free TV shows and movies, there is typically a rental or purchase charge, plus an additional charge when you opt for the HD versions of the programs.

The BD player gets its on-demand programming from NetFlix. Most NetFlix subscription plans will allow the subscriber to access NetFlix’s Instant Queue, and to play those movies on the BD player. All you have to do is to fill up your Instant Queue by browsing NetFlix’s “Watch Instantly” category from your computer and selecting. Once you’ve done that, all the movies in your Instant Queue are accessible from the BD player. Upon the selection of a movie, the BD player seems to test the connection speed to the NetFlix server and pick the best quality for the connection speed and streams across the movie. This works pretty well, and makes the NetFlix subscription quite a bit more attractive than anything else. However, there are a few caveats:

  1. Since the movies are being streamed, and not downloaded in their entirety, you may experience instances where you can not complete watching a movie, if your Internet connections suddenly gets too busy.
  2. Again, due to streaming, the simple action of rewinding back a few seconds to catch a bit of missed dialog can turn into a minute or more of waiting.
  3. There is no HD content available through the Instant Queue (although you can specify that NetFlix always try to mail you the Blue-ray version of a movie if there was a Blue-ray release, instead of the standard DVD).

The HD DVR also has access to on-demand programming. While much of the better, and HD, on-demand programming is Pay-Per-View, you still have access to hundreds of free programs, some even in HD. Unfortunately, the UI for selecting a show from the many hundreds is tedious, despite their attempt to break it all down into “channels” such as the Showtime channel, MTV channel or the Food Network channel. Once you select a movie to watch, you will have to wait a few minutes to tens of minutes or more for enough of the movie to download so that you can watch it uninterrupted. If you have a slow or unreliable Internet connection, this works better than the NetFlix option above, as you can start a download hours or days prior to watching the program, and not having any networking issues to worry about. And since the downloaded files behave like other recorded DVR content, rewinding or fast-forwarding works pretty well.

There is one new addition to the video center I have left out. An Ethernet switch. All of this on-demand functionality requires a connection to the Internet, for each of the devices. I suddenly had the need for four Ethernet connections in this cabinet, from not needing a single one before. I could have utilized wireless Ethernet, with WiFi USB adapters for all but the AppleTV (which has WiFi built-in), but I opted for a single Ethernet link to a 4-port switch inside the cabinet. Why four? The TV also has an Ethernet port, through which it can gather and then display weather information, news stories, and stock updates, or access a Windows PC for other source material. (Unlike the BD player which has already received and installed two firmware updates over the network, the TV can’t utilize the network for firmware updates, and I had to do the update manually using a USB memory dongle. They both, and the AppleTV, set their clocks by getting the time over the network.)

I am very happy with this setup. It provides us with a decent amount of programming, and there are days when all we watch are HD programs (all except for the Daily Show that is – Come on Comedy Central!). There are some minor issues which I will try to quickly go through.

DirecTV compresses its non-HD programming a bit too much (and, unfortunately, some of its HD programming). This ends up making pictures look very unnatural. Some channels seem to get compressed more than others, and this lower quality does nudge one to watch channels with less compression. I realize that their bandwidth is limited, but I would rather have fewer channels, with more pristine pictures.

One annoying issue with the TV is that switching video source can sometimes take 20 seconds. I am not sure why that is, it might be the HDMI handshake, and it is pretty annoying. This isn’t always the case, and it can be switching to any source that is delayed, not just a particular device. All the devices are attached using HDMI cables, and I have thought of trying to connect using component video cables to see if that makes a difference (I’d probably sacrifice auto-resolution detection if I did that). This sort of thing makes it harder to program a remote, like the Harmony, when the result of the command takes a variable amount of time to complete.

I am still not quite used to the TV’s audio. I am not sure whether this is because the speakers fire downward and the cabinet interferes, or whether I need a better speaker system, but I do find that for some TV shows, like Law & Order, the dialog is more enhanced and background noises are more muted. I am considering adding a sound bar type of product to provide better audio, aimed at the viewer, but again, this is not meant to be a “home theater” setup, and I really didn’t want to invest much more time or money into it.

UI Issues abound:

  • PIP is one of my favorite technologies, yet it has to be done right. Samsung blew it with their implementation. Not only is the scope of PIP limited to Cable or Antenna, but there is also no “quick flip” button that can take the PIP and exchange it with the main picture. At the very least, there needs to be a button that allows you to switch the audio between the big picture and the PIP. And ideally you should be able to put any of the inputs, HDMI, or otherwise, into the PIP so you could monitor say news from the satellite DVR while you watch a disc. Samsung, can you please fix this in firmware and provide a free update? 🙂 This actually is a big disappointment.
  • Any disc or video playback device should support a 10-second quick rewind: how often do you miss a sentence of dialog and you want to jump back and re-listen? The BD player does not have this functionality, and it handles rewinding pretty poorly, both when it plays a disc and also when it plays back a streaming NetFlix. The DirecTV DVR has this functionality but it is not imlpemented as nicely as Tivo.
  • Speaking of Tivo, I had gotten very used to their sound effects when navigating to and fro in a program. The audio FX became quite useful as confirmation that the remote control’s signal was received and having different audio tones made it even more useful. And I don’t understand why the DirecTV can’t provide the same program information that the Tivo does. Why not display the actors names, or even a rating (Metacritic, Rotten Tomato)?
  • The BD Player needs to remember where a disc has been stopped and to restart replay at the same point. If we hit Stop instead of Pause, or we want to watch the rest of a movie another time, it then takes a while to queue the video back to the right point. This is very frustrating. Both the AppleTV and the DVR will give you the option of resuming play where previously left off.
  • Why would any video player, disc or otherwise, need a play and a pause button? Can’t there just be one button that toggles between those states? I got three remotes that have both Play and Pause buttons. The simple Apple remote is the only one that combines the two.
  • Anytime any device returns program information, it should allow a cross-reference to Metacritic or Rotten Tomato. If not, then maybe allow your customers to create ratings themselves – which always seems to be a good mechanism for customer retention. Why change providers when all your preferences are stored exclusively at the current provider, and you’re also quite used to and familiar with the taste of other users and heavily relay on them for decisions on what to watch? Looks to me that all but NetFlix seem to miss the community aspect of TV watching (keep your eyes on http://beta.intelevision.com)

Another expected feature would be auto-detection of input signals. If the TV is on a source that is not providing a signal, and another input goes live, then the TV should auto-switch the source to that input. The TV currently does not do that. Although, if you insert a disc in the BD Player, the TV will switch to the BD PLayer, which is expected given that the TV and the BD Player are supposed to be linked via HDMI-CEC (or as Samsung calls it, Anynet+). However, this last feature wreaks havoc with programmable remotes like the Harmony.

Funny thing. With hundreds of channels, lots of discs, four (don’t forget YouTube) or five (video podcasts) sources of on-demand programming, it’s harder than ever to find something to watch. It’s sometimes easier to just watch something random, rather than spending tens of minutes or even an hour, trying to choose.

I hope this review proves useful to some of you. If you have any questions, use the comments section and I will answer any as best as I can.

-mz

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~ by mz on December 8, 2008.

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