Category Archives: Gadgets and Tech

Cool gadgets and technology – life is that little bit better with my utility belt

New Toy

Geek prevails!  I’ve purchased a new PDA/phone – the Verizon XV6700

After owning an IPAQ 3870 for longest time it’s was about time that I upgraded to a modern PDA that runs Microsoft Windows Mobile 5.  Because this beauty integrates a cell phone I no longer have carry around two devices.  This little box of tricks has everything in it -:

* Bluetooth
* Wifi
* EVDO (with data plan)
* Infra-Red
* CDMA
* 1.3 Megapixel Camera
* Mini-SD
* WM2005 OS – Full Version, not Smart Phone ed.
* 64MB RAM/128mb Flash
* Slide out keyboard

Since I’m cheap I didn’t sign up for Verizon’s unlimited data plan, nor the 5MB or 10MB plan.  Instead I signed up for the “per KB plan (about $15 per MB) knowing I would never use it (Verizon insists that customers have some sort of data plan with this device).  In fact I deleted the dial-up profile from my device in case an application should try connecting to the Internet without me knowing.  So far I’ve been quite content with Wifi in the office and home.

HDTV in Window Media Center Edition

So, I have a computer with Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 installed, in my living room. This PC has a dual tuner Hauppauge PVR-500 TV card, and a high performance graphics card. I have recently purchased 48” widescreen TV, and the next thing on my mine was getting an HDTV signal from my cable company (Comcast) so that I can view and record high definition quality TV….

Only snag is that it cannot be done! There are lots of articles, blog posts, and forums on this discussion topic, but the consensus is that Windows XP MCE 2005 can only process HDTV from over-the-air, and not from a cable or satellite signal. The following are some of the reasons why HD-TV-Junky-Geeks are going to have to wait for HDTV quality TV in MCE:

  • Originally MCE 2005 did not support HDTV. With the release of rollout SP 1, Microsoft introduced support for over-the-air broadcasts only. OTA will only provide consumers with public stations, and in most areas not all stations carry HDTV, so it’s pretty useless.
  • Cable providers require consumers use a set-top-box to receive HDTV signals. This cable box is responsible for decoding digital HD signals from the cable line and pumping out a decoded analogue signal for HD TVs. This box also contains a tuner, so all channels changing is performed with the cable box remote, which is contrary to how MCE operates – MCE typically tunes to channels directly using one or more inbuilt tuners.
  • What about the IR Blaster? This device transmits an infrared signal to change channels on set-top-boxes, and is used by MCE when cable or satellite TV demands the use of a proprietary box. However, this doesn’t help when the set-to-box is pushing out HDTV because the signal is likely using QAM (Quadrature amplitude modulation), which involves doubling the bandwidth of the signal with phase modulation. HDTV requires much more bandwidth than conventional SDTV (single definition), and QAM enables cable and satellite providers to push the signal down the wire. MCE 2005 doesn’t support QAM.
  • What about an HDTV PCI Tuner Card with QAM support? Great, but without the support of QAM from MCE, only OTA HD is possible. These cards are usually shipped with their own software for watching HDTV in QAM, but not in MCE. Also, many premium channels are encrypted by the cable/satellite company, as well as using QAM. Decryption is managed by the set-top-box, provided by the cable/satellite company.
  • MCE 2005 requires at least one analogue signal. From what I can gather, this is required by MCE to setup the tuner configuration, but can support other HD tuners in addition.

Cable Card is supposed to solve the issues surrounding viewing of HDTV content without a set-top-box. Instead of box containing dedicated tuner, channel changing will be controlled by the inbuilt tuner in TV and DVR units, and the card will decrypt premium content and manage your communication with the cable/satellite company. TV manufactures are already starting to support Cable-Card in high end flat screen and projection HDTV units (source: http://tvaerialsmanchester.com).

The next version of MCE – part of the Vista operating system release in 2007 – will have built in support for cable card. ATI have produced a demonstration unit to accept Cable-Card and connect to MCE 2007 via USB, but it is not in production at this time. There are also rumors floating around about CableLabs – the company the produces cable cards – in that they wish to certify the hardware in which cable cards are fitted. Supposedly this is so that the company can retain a tighter grip on the consumer’s use of HDTV content and introduce DRM, which will cause a problem for those with home brew media center PCs. Time will tell.

According to Comcast support, they are offering Cable-Card now, and for a small monthly fee I as a consumer can make use of the technology. So, I just have to wait for Visa with MCE 2007 to launch in the first quarter of 2007 (assuming there are no more delays) and keep an eye on CableLabs.

Verizon Wireless, Quick 2 Net, and Bluetooth PDA

It’s never too late to learn something new, at least that is my justification for being somewhat behind the times in figuring out wireless Internet connection.  Last night I managed to get my bluetooth enabled cell phone and PDA to pair, and using my
Verizon Wireless talk plan was able to connect to the Internet using my airtime minutes / nights and weekend free minutes.

I’ve had my Motorola V710 cell phone for over a year now, and an aging Compaq iPAQ 3870 for some time.  Since both these devices use bluetooth technology I figured that there must be away to connect them and make a data call over the Internet, but up until yesterday I assumed that I needed an expensive data plan from VZW to make the connection happen.  I had heard different stories from multiple different sources about connecting to the ‘net using a standard talk plan and free airtime minutes – some said it could be done, some said not, VZW insisted that I’d need to pay for a plan upgrade when I spoke to customer support.  So, I decided to try it.

If you dig around the VZW website, you’ll find something called Quick 2 Net (sometimes known as 1xRTT), which is a low bandwidth connection over wireless (up to 14.4kbps). VZW don’t like to mention it much because they want customers to subscribe to their broadband packages (EVDO and National Access), which offer high speed wireless at a monthly cost. My talk plan is America’s Choice Plan Network, with two phones – mine and my wife’s, and Quick 2 Net is available in my area at no extra cost.  I have yet to determine if I have incurred any KB charges, the newsgroups say Q2N is free except for the airtime call, but as soon as my next bill arrives I’ll know for sure.  Not all plans are the same, so I would recommend trying out a connection and then following up with VZW to see if you’re charged or not. 

So, how do you get it to work?  Here’s how…

1. Make sure that you know how to pair your bluetooth enabled VZW cell phone with your PDA/laptop.  Typically, the bluetooth radio in your cell will not be turned on when under normal conditions, so make sure you turn it on (duh), and remember to turn it off afterwards, when not in use as bluetooth can burn battery life looking for devices to pair with.

2. Once a pair has been established, configure dial-up access on your PDA. If using PPC 2003 or Windows Mobile 5, you should be able to establish a dial-up session using the bluetooth manager.

3. When prompted for the telephone number for dial-up ‘net access, key in #777.

4. The user name for the session should be your-cellphone-number@vzw3g.com. The password is vzw.  I’ve read in a few forums that the user name and password should both be qnc.

5. That’s it, click connect and your PDA should communicate with your cellphone over bluetooth and make an outbound call, connecting to the Internet.  Looking at my Motorola V710 I see “Packet Data” on the screen, indicating that the call is a data call and not voice.

Widescreen TV

I was fortunate enough to take stock of a used Mitsubishi 1080i widescreen 46″ TV, from a friend of mine leaving town this week – it looks great sitting in my front room.  I’m somewhat of a novice when it comes to high end TV, and acronyms like HDTV, DVI, HDCP mean very little to me, so to get the best out of my new purchase I had a poke around the Internet to find out how widescreen works.  Here’s what I found out…

Aspect Ratio:
Conventional TVs display a picture with aspect ratio 4:3, which simply means that the picture height is 3/4 of that of the width.  Widescreen TVs typically display an aspect ration of 16:9, where the width is much wider than that of the conventional picture.  Widescreen picture height is 9/16 of the width.

Conventional 4:3 pictures can be displayed on 16:9 TV by stretching the horizontal disproportionately or proportionately with cropping of top and bottom.  16:9 pictures can be displayed on 4:3 displays using letterboxing – reducing the width proportionately and adding black horizontal lines to the top and bottom of the picture.

Resolution:
The resolution of the picture displayed on a TV depicts the quality seen by the viewer, and is usually quoted in pixels.  Conventional TVs typically display a 640×480 image (4:3 aspect ratio).  Widescreen TVs can display up to 1920×1080 pixels.  Often, TV manufactures quote the resolution as 720p, 1080i, or 1080p – this is the number of vertical lines (scan lines) that can be displayed on the screen at one time.  The ‘i’ stands for ‘interlaced’ and ‘p’ for ‘progressive’,  both explained below.

Interlaced vs. Progressive:
If you imagine the number of pixels that go into a single frame of motion video, and that each pixel can have a vary number of colors, you will appreciate that even a low resolution picture (640×480) can contain a lot of data – about 307200 pixels per frame.  When broadcasting TV over the air or cable, the number of frames per second and the picture resolution will directly affect the amount of bandwidth required to air the broadcast. 

Interlacing was introduced (many years ago) to cut the bandwidth required to broadcast a TV show in half.  Interlacing works by alternating the display of odd horizontal scan lines and even horizontal scan lines for a given frame.  Since the broadcast contains half of the picture per frame, the amount of bandwidth is reduced by half.  To give the affect of full picture motion without flicker, the TV receiver displays picture frames at 50 or 60 times a second (PAL – 50Hz, NTSC – 60Hz) – faster than the human eye.

Interlacing enabled broadcasters to push TV pictures over the air and down copper cables using less bandwidth, but at a lower quality. With the introduction of DVD players and video sources that were not constrained by bandwidth, progressive scan (or non-interlaced) was introduced.  Unlike interlaced, progressive TVs display each scan line in sequence order, so the viewer sees a clearer crisper picture.  High end plasma, LCD, and some rear projection TVs support progressive scan, all others expect an interlaced signal.

HDTV:
High definition TV – TV broadcasters are now pushing out broadcast content in higher resolutions (and 16:9 aspect ratios) so viewers can enjoy higher quality viewing on large screen size TVs.  I was interested to find out that not all the broadcast networks push out the same HD format – typically broadcast HDTV is 720p, but some networks broadcast 1080i. Broadcast 1080p is almost unheard of because of the insane amount of bandwidth required.

DVD and Anamorphic Widescreen:
From what I can gather, standard DVD is 720×480 (NTSC) or 720×576 (PAL) at 4:3 aspect ratio or 16:9 aspect ratio using non square pixels.  Typically 16:9 widescreen is achieved on DVD using anamorphic filming – storing a vertically stretched version to make optimal use of the vertical resolution (see here for more details on anamorphic filming).  DVD players that support 16:9 can automatically adjust the width of anamorphic widescreen movies to take advantage of a 16:9 display, whereas 4:3 players will compress the vertical and add black horizontal bars.  Anamorphic typically uses a 2:35:1 aspect ratio, so even 16:9 displays will see partial black horizontal lines above and below the picture.

So, in conclusion… my widescreen DVDs look great on the new TV, 4:3 DVDs look pretty good, and conventional TV is watch able in 4:3 narrow but I could really use an HDTV signal. Unfortunately my Media Center is using a standard analogue coaxial tuner to record TV, and Comcast will only provide HDTV via a set-top box. Looks like I have to wait until cable cards become main stream.

FIOS Installed

I am very excited today, “and why is that?” you ask…. because today
my Verizon FIOS
installation was completed. After having a new fiber cable buried from
the street to my house yesterday, and two engineers working inside my
house for a few hours today, I finally got connected this afternoon. 
I  am now
experiencing approx 15mbps download and 2mbps upload speeds. 
Check out
the results of my speed test on SpeakEasy:

Verizon to offer IPTV over FIOS

Verizon, the provider of my phone and Internet, is soon to be offering IPTV – TV
over the Internet – to those using FIOS.

http://www22.verizon.com/FiosForHome/Channels/fios/FiosTV_comingsoon.aspx

Hopefully,
I shall subscribe to this service as soon as it rolls out 2005/2006 and dump
traditional analogue cable TV provided by Comcast.

Using my computer as my DVR (currently
using Windows Media Center 2005), I should be able to record direct from an IPTV feed
in pure digital format. The best part is that HDTV will be available in MCE
with no conversion process or set top box. 

I see the purchase of a 50″
flat screen LCD in my near future, taking advantage of that lovely HD signal.

I am very
excited.

http://www.microsoft.com/tv/default.mspx

Composite Video, S-Video and Media

I invested a chunk of this weekend messing with my home media
setup.  It all began when I became aware of a problem with the
display on my MCE PC, in the midst of Simon’s Birthday Party – I was hoping to play some background music and scrolling pictures
during the party, but the display turned a horrible shade of gray when
I switched on the media center, so had to stick with just music.

I suspected that my NVidia
graphics card in my MCE PC may have been bad (I spend a lot on it, so I was
rather bummed at the time), but it turns out that adding a multifunction switch box
to my
setup recently was the root of the problem. I added the switch box so that I
could switch audio and picture outputs from my DVD,
XBox and MCE to my TV and sub woofer system. Prior to the introduction of the switch box I
had been using the multifunction support of the TV.  Seems my
switch box does a shit bad job of converting a crystal clear s-video to a not-so-clear composite signal.

So, this evening I popped down to my friendly Best Buy
store and purchased a couple of s-video cables. I wired my DVD and MCE
direct to switch box as s-video (XBox remains composite for now), and also used the s-video output to
the TV, so the switch box is no longer converting from s-video to composite
video.  This fix has made the gray problem go away, and now I have
a much clearer picture.

Continuing on the media theme, I have been tagging and and adding album
art to my entire MP3 music collection – I’m almost done.  MCE now
displays all albums with covers, which looks pretty.  I’ve also
been using the time to populate my new IPOD with plenty more music,
which I can play in the car this week.

Talking of IPOD… I recently purchased an IPOD interface for my car, and it arrived this
week, so I installed that as well this weekend.  The cassette
adapter, which I was using to play my music in the car was
dreadful sounding in comparison to this new interface.  The
interface connects my IPOD to my car audio system via the CD changer
cable in the trunk.  So I have had to forgo the CD changer, but I
do not need it now that I have 40GB of music to choose from

New IPOD (well nearly new)

I decide that it was time that I caught up with the rest of the western
world and buy myself an MP3 player.  I have an extensive MP3
collection (and a large CD collection).  At home and the office I
can take advantage of my MP3 collection, but up until now I could only
play CD’s in the car.  That has all changed now with the
introduction of a new IPOD into my family of consumer electronics.

I would have liked an Archos
but the price tag of these are little beyond my price range, so I
plumped for the IPOD.  I was looking for a device with plenty of
space to store most (if not all) of my music collection, and am not too
worried about pictures or movies on the go, so the IPOD was a good
fit.  In the effort to save yet more more expense, I purchased my
40GB 4G b/w version on EBay for a nice price.

I’m in the process of copying over CD’s from my collection using 
ITunes – not the best music manager in the world, but since it is the
only software that supports IPOD, I have little choice in the
matter.  I’ve mostly used the player in the car, and after
fiddling with the sound settings on both IPOD and in-car-stereo, I have
managed to get the sound output just about right (well as right as one
can, using a cassette adapter – I’ll perhaps check out the ITrip later).

I am thrilled with my new player, but for those of you wondering – I am
not selling out Microsoft to join Apple.  I’ll be sticking with
Windows until the oceans run dry 😉

TIVO will not keep my recorded TV shows…

Another good reason why Windows XP MCE is better than TIVO (you need another excuse?)…

At least,
for now, MCE will enable you to keep recorded content for as long as
you like, unlike TIVO, who subscribe to stiffing their customers with
their new policy to expire recorded copyrighted TV shows.

http://www.boingboing.net/2005/09/13/tivo_wont_save_certa.html

System repair in less than an hour

I truly love Norton’s Ghost 2003!

My laptop was behaving strangely this evening – applications
were spontaneously hanging, system was freezing when logging out, etc.  A
closer look at my Windows XP event log told me that STISVC.EXE (still
imaging service) was failing to start, and a whole load of errors were
reported about the COM+ subsystem. Uh-oh!

So, I reinstalled COM+ (as per my instructions),
which fixed the COM+ errors, but did nothing for the random system
hangs.  So, after backing up the user profiles on my machine, I
pulled up Ghost, found my last good image from June and restored my
machine. A quick break of 15 minutes, while Ghost does it’s magic,
after which my machine was stable again.  All I needed to do then
was run windows update, update my anti virus application, and restore
the user profiles, presto – a working machine.

The moral of this story boys and girls – always have a recent backup
of your data files, and and a working operating system image stashed
away somewhere.