Monday, January 30, 2006

HDTV upgrade, part 1

So I went to Costco two weekends ago and bought a Proview RX326 . Before, I had a Zenith 26" tube that I got as a gift when I moved into my old downtown apartment in 1998. Great TV, horrible monitor. I was trying to achieve what I've been looking to get with Media Center -- a real, usable PC in my living room. I had no issues with the display of live TV, recorded TV, TV that was, shall we say, recorded by others and generously distributed to me by many people at once in a, um, torrent, movies, and DVDs. Basically the 10' interface looked just fine to me. As a computer monitor, the Zenith displayed reasonably well at 640x480, but it turns out that the web designing community has not been designing to this resolution for some time. And the text was still too fuzzy at that resolution to try to do anything of significance with.

So my goal was to get a monitor that was readable from 5 feet away at some resolution in the 1024x768 or greater range. This would let me check email via OWA (work) or Gmail, let my wife use iTunes, let me see if my weekly flight to St. Louis is on time while drinking my coffee at 4:45 in the morning, and whatnot. I also thought I'd check out this "HDTV" fad that all the kids are raving about.

I knew that Media Center didn't support the HDTV the way most people receive it (through a cable box), it only supports OTA (Over The Air) or "clear QAM" (something that I don't know what it stands for but it means HD stations that are sent through your cable line unencrypted). Most people get a set-top box and plug that directly into their TV, and choose a different "source" other than Media Center to tune it, but for me, that would be a burden on the primary user of the TV (my wife) and thus I would be in trouble for spending all this money on something that makes the Media Center MORE of a pain in the ass than it is now. That would be bad. I try to avoid having my >$1000 purchases inconvenience my wife so that I can continue to make such purchases. So I have to get (preferably) clear QAM or OTA HDTV to work. More on that in part 2.

I had actually planned to buy the Akai Costco special from the week of 1/16 (sorry, no link -- I couldn't find any model information anywhere), which was a 27" with 1366x768 resolution and a built-in DVD (which I didn't need, I just wanted that size and resolution and it was $699 with coupon). When I got to the store, they were out of stock, and as I looked closely, I noticed that it only had VGA and component inputs, which was not optimal but I was willing to go forward with it. However, it wasn't available, and the Proview was the only reasonably priced LCD with either HDMI or DVI input.

Got home, dragged my old Zenith 26" tube away, opened the box, plugged it in, and connected the VGA cable. Resumed the Media Center PC from sleep. No signal. I rebooted, and the display came up fine. (I have since read that most graphics cards read the characteristics of the connected display on boot-up, so this was normal. Can't switch out a display while a machine is asleep.) After a ton of messing around, including with the PowerStrip utility, I never really got that usable of a signal on the display besides 1024x768. Unfortunately, the display had to be either in 16:9 mode, which stretched that resolution out so that it was noticeably stretched (in computer mode, the 10' interface and TV looked fine, though widescreen media looked too smushed), or in 4:3 mode, which just means "show black bars on the side so things aren't stretched out, and look like a fool for buying a widescreen TV". Hmm. Plus, Media Center didn't recognize this as widescreen mode since, well, 1024x768 is like the resolution I have on the 12" screen on my Tablet PC, so it ain't no widescreen. Shit. Turns out the monitor only displays a maximum of 1024x768 in VGA mode though the specs are rated for 1366x768.

I couldn't let this stand, so I went to Radio Shack and bought an HDMI to DVI adapter. A $30 Monster Cable. (A rant for another time, but shit, man, those Monster Cables are expensive. A forum I read occasionally believes that Monster Cable is a scam that only chumps buy. Not sure about that, but they sure have made inroads at Radio Shack.) Got home, cut the plastic packaging open, only to find that the stand of the TV was mounted in such a way that it blocked the DVI cable + adapter from being plugged in. Shit. $30 down the drain. So I bought a pivoting adapter from a nice lady on eBay for $15 and she shipped it right away. (Props to berryyumi for being a fast shipper)

When it arrived, I powered off my Media Center PC (having learned my lesson), plugged in the HDMI adapter to the DVI cable, switched the LCD TV's source to HDMI,
booted the PC, and then saw it say "HDMI 720p" on screen. I played with resolutions a bit and could never get 1366x768 to look normal on PowerStrip or ATI Control Center, but I did get a nice-looking 1152x864 resolution which ATI CC called "720p (advanced)". The display in PC mode was legible enough (1280x720 was a little blocky and also "overhung" the sides of the monitor so that you couldn't see the Maximize and Close buttons in the top corner, for example) and Media Center recognized it as a wide-screen mode and just looks simply awesome in 10' mode.

So I'm happy now with my Proview RX326. I wish I could get my full resolution but I will keep playing with it. Now, I await the arrival of my DViCO FusionHDTV5 USB bundle from SnapStream, and then Part 2 of my HDTV upgrade will begin. I'm sure my few readers (who have not yet fallen asleep) eagerly await that...

--sbreck

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