Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Upgrading the Living Room

For some time my computer monitor has been bigger (not to mention newer and better) than our television. We've had an ancient (in technology terms) 21" CRT television for a long time.

It hasn't bothered me too much. We don't watch much TV and when we do, most shows hardly warrant high definition. ER in high def? Big deal. Movies maybe. And a wide screen would be nice for movies.

I did have it connected to my old Mac Mini and an EyeTV to play DVD's and use as a PVR and rent movies from iTunes. But the resolution on an old crt TV is pretty awful. It might barely manage 640 x 480, but software these days tends to want at least 1024. I managed by using the handy screen zoom feature of the Mac - it wouldn't have been usable without it.

Shaw (my cable company) has been bugging me to upgrade to digital for a long time. They finally got the price right (free!) so I let them send me a digital terminal. The downside is that the Mac can't change channels on the cable terminal (unless I get an IR blaster) so I still have the EyeTV hooked up to the analog cable. So if I want to use the Mac to record TV or to pause and skip commercials, then I can't use the digital cable. I could get an HD terminal with PVR but that's another expensive box, and I'd rather use my Mac. Oh well, like I said, I'm not really too worried about picture quality for regular TV shows.

I've been planning on getting a new TV but the holdup was that our entertainment stand pre-dates big screen TV's and wasn't the right size or shape. We shopped for a new stand in town but couldn't find anything we liked. We found one we liked at Ikea in Edmonton, but they didn't have it in the color we wanted. Finally, on the way back from the mountains we stopped at Ikea in Calgary and got one.

The new wall unit wouldn't hold the old TV (not deep enough) so I decided I might as well take the plunge. I did a minimum of research on the internet (trying to avoid the tyranny of choice!) and ended up buying a 37" Sony Bravia XBR6. For movies and TV 720p would have been fine but I wanted full 1080p (1920 x 1080) resolution, partly for "future-proofing" and partly to view my photographs. (almost the same as the 1920 x 1200 resolution of my 24" iMac) And, yes, photographs look great on it :-)

I had my Mac hooked up to the old TV with the DVI to Video adapter. I was using the composite (RCA) video output but it also has S-Video so that's what I used to hook up the new TV. The results were poor. It only went up to 1024 x 768 resolution and it was quite fuzzy. For some reason I had it in my head that S-Video was high resolution and digital, but it's not. It's analog and not much better than composite. (The TV doesn't have DVI input, just HDMI so I couldn't directly hook up DVI.)

I looked at my neighborhood London Drugs but they didn't have anything better. However, my local Apple store (not an official Apple store, just a store that specializes in Apple stuff) had a DVI to HDMI cable. They also sold me an optical audio cable (DVI doesn't have audio) but surprisingly, the Sony doesn't have optical input, only optical output. However one of the HDMI ports is paired with RCA audio inputs so I used that.

The results were much better, I got the full 1920 x 1080, nice and crisp and perfectly readable.

However, the next day I fired it up and the display was "bigger" than the screen so the top menu was no longer visible. Strange. I check the Display preferences and they looked ok. I did notice that "Overscan" was turned on, so I tried turning this off, but then the display was too small - not filling the screen and no longer sharp. Eventually I rebooted and turned Overscan back on and it was back to working properly. I think what happened was that I turned the Mac on before the TV and it didn't recognize the display properly. I guess I'll have to remember to turn the TV on before the Mac. Probably at the same time would work since the Mac takes longer to boot than the TV. No, today I was careful to turn on the TV first, and it still did this. Even a restart didn't fix it. But toggling the overscan off and back on after the restart fixed it. Hopefully this won't be a recurring problem.

Regular DVD's are only 480i (720 x 480) resultion. You need Blu-Ray to get the full 1080p resolution. But I'm using the Mac as a DVD player, and although you can get external add-on Blu-Ray drives, OS X doesn't support Blu-Ray yet. Obviously I could get a separate Blu-Ray player, but I'm trying to reduce the number of boxes, not get more!

You also can't rent HD movies through iTunes on a regular Mac, only on an Apple TV. I'm not sure why they made that choice. To encourage people to buy Apple TV's? But isn't a more expensive actual Mac even better? I like the idea of the Apple TV - simpler and more energy efficient than a Mac. And you can run Boxee on Apple TV so you're not limited to the built-in software. But it can't act as a PVR. And I pretty much refuse to watch regular TV shows without a PVR since commercials drive me crazy.

DVD and regular iTunes movie resolution still looks pretty good scaled up to the higher resolution by the Mac. I assume it's doing similar processing as the "upscaling" that better DVD players and home theater systems do.

One thing I have noticed is that the Mac mini runs a lot hotter driving the new TV. I'm guessing this is due to more processing required for the higher resolution. I wonder if the newer Mac mini's would do better? I have come across people saying Apple TV has trouble driving full 1080 resolution due to the processing requirements.

I also took the plunge and moved my physical cd collection and cd player out of the living room. For a while now, I've had my old 30gb iPod hooked up to the stereo and used that. But Shelley still used the physical cd's. Now I don't even have the iPod hooked up - which means you have to fire up the Mac and TV to listen to music. It may be a little tough convincing Shelley that's an improvement! She still shies away from the Mac as a PVR, although if you ask me, it's no more complicated than the standalone PVR we had.

I was using my iPod instead of playing music via the Mac for a couple of reasons. One is that the iPod is pretty much instant on - no waiting for it to boot. Another issue was reading the screen, although I realize that FrontRow might have solved that. The other problem is how to access my music. My main collection is in iTunes on my iMac. I can share that library, but being energy conscious I turn my iMac off when I'm not using it, and then I can't access it. So I'd have to boot two machines. But I keep a mirror of the music files on my Time Capsule, so I ended up importing all the files into a local iTunes library on the Mac mini. That works well, but I'm not sure how I'm going to keep it up to date. Maybe I should keep a single main library on the Time Capsule. On second thought, the problem with this approach is that currently you have to manually connect the Time Capsule shared drive every time you start up, which is a hassle and won't help with convincing Shelley this is a "better" setup. There are ways to automatically connect it, but then that slows up the boot process. Maybe I should just periodically mirror my iTunes library from my iMac to the Time Capsule and from there to the Mac Mini. I think if I'm careful to keep the paths the same that will work.

I did still hook up the stereo receiver and run audio output from the TV to it, mainly to get better sound for music through the bigger JBL speakers rather than relying on the TV's little built-in ones.

But the receiver is getting dated too - it doesn't even have a remote! Maybe I should upgrade to a "home theater" system? I'm not really that concerned about surround sound for movies. I'd be afraid a set of small low end surround sound home theater speakers won't do as good a job for music as my current setup. I guess I could get a home theater system with an integrated Blu-Ray player. Or maybe there are decent speakers that would connect directly to the Mac that would eliminate the need for a receiver entirely. But what is the sound quality like for listening to music rather than playing games? Maybe I'll hold off on this - enough changes for one time!

The old TV

and the new setup:


Larry Reid said...

I started down the same path a few weeks ago. The main reason I stopped was confirming that playing iTunes movies in a Windows VM on my Ubuntu Lenovo x300 laptop wasn't going to work. I don't know why, and I wasn't going to invest the time to figure it out.

Another impediment was the raft of standards, cables and boxes that I was going to have to buy. It's hard to believe that this isn't deliberate: It's all about making us spend more, not about letting us do cool things with a minimum of investment.

At least we get pretty nice over-the-air HD TV on a couple of channels. We'd probably get more if I made a proper antenna. And if they hadn't built a big concrete building across my back alley, blocking the line of sight to the broadcast antennas on Mt. Seymour.

Jen said...

Holy crap! I never thought I would see the day! Congratulations! It looks great!

Derek K. said...

Wow - now that is a technology leap!!! Now you just need a PS3 in the mix for your Blueray needs :-)