Thursday, November 26, 2009

Is "home theater" a difficult term?

Last month I gave a speech on "home theater". My audience had little knowledge on this subject. So I tried to make it very simple without using technical jargon. The title of the speech itself was "home theaters" and I used the term at least a dozen times during the speech.

After the speech, several people talked to me appreciating my speech. Here are few samples.

"You made the dry topic of home entertainment systems very interesting."

"I wish I had  a movie room like yours."

"Your speech on your stereo system was nice."

"I am glad that my husband did not hear your speech. Otherwise he will build a media room like yours this weekend"

I was stunned. Entertainment system? stereo system? movie room? media room? I never used these terms in my speech - not even once.

This was not my first experience. Whenever I talk to people about my hobby of home theaters, many of them later refer to it as "media room" or "entertainment system".

Is "home theater" such a difficult term to remember? 

I don't understand.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

HD Media Players

WARNING: Technically explicit material. If you are technically challenged or if such material offends you, please do not continue reading this post.

I built my first Home Theater Personal Computer (HTPC) in 2002. Those days most people did not know that you can connect a PC to your TV. Sleek flat panel TVs with PC input and HDMI input were not around. Finding a horizontal case for my PC to match with the audio /video components in the rack was tough. It was even tougher make the HTPC work with my 65 inch rear projection HDTV. The TV was so bulky that it took almost a quarter of my family room floor space. Controlling all the functions of the PC through a programmable remote control was another haunting task.

Seven years later, the old TV and the old HTPC are still going strong - recording and playing favorite TV shows (both HD and non-HD), playing music, playing movies and receiving HDTV broadcast with the help of a digital tuner card.

Then in 2005, I built the second HTPC for the dedicated home theater room. In both cases, I spent around $1,200 for building the HTPC.

Things have changed a lot in the last few years. Connecting your PC to the TV is a breeze now. Today, you can use your 50 inch plasma TV as a huge monitor for your PC. Also you can play on the big screen the video files stored on your PC or anywhere on your home network or from the web.

Yet, PC never became a mainstream source for video and audio in a home entertainment setup.

That is changing now with the new breed of media players. For as little as $100 you can get an HD media player and connect it to your TV. Then connect it to your home network and suddenly you have a wide variety of material to watch on your HDTV. These units support HDMI output, 1080P resolution and play almost all formats of video and audio files. These files can be on a USB drive connected to the unit, on any computer on your home network or from one of the supported video services on internet. The unit comes with a remote control and an easy to use user interface.

Having such a unit in your home theater setup is almost like having an HTPC at a fraction of the cost and complexity.

While there are several HD media players available today, two inexpensive (around $130 street price), but interesting units to consider are:

Seagate FreeAgent Theater + HD Media Player


Western Digital TV Live HD Media Player

In order to play digital media today, you don’t have to follow the difficult and expensive path I took back in 2002.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Movies - Four types

There are four types of movies we watch in our home theater. It is interesting to compare my response and my wife's response to these movies. 

Type 1: Good movie, good video and audio. 

Her response: When the movie starts she notices the video quality. Then she gets immersed in the movie. She feels the pleasure and pain of the characters. She forgets about the theater, forgets that I am sitting next to her. Does not hear the telephone ringing. She laughs, cries. She no longer cares whether it is blu-ray or a regular DVD. She returns to this world when the movie is over. 

My response: I am excited that the video and audio are great. I like the movie and enjoy it. But throughout the movie, I look for flashes of technical excellence in video and audio. I notice the shadow details, color accuracy, realistic surround effects. I never get fully immersed in the story. I feel jealous of  my wife. 

Type 2: Good movie, bad video and audio.  

Her response: When the movie starts she complains about the video quality. Then she gets immersed in the movie. She is no longer bothered by the poor video. She feels the pleasure and pain of the characters. She forgets about the theater, forgets that I am sitting next to her. Does not hear the telephone ringing. She laughs, cries.  She returns to this world when the movie is over. 

My response: I am disappointed about the video and audio. Even though the movie is good, I am unable to enjoy it.  Throughout the movie, I see edge enhancement, compression artifacts, moire and all sorts of video distortions. I am upset with the poor audio, incorrect surround effects and other shortcomings in audio.
I feel jealous of  my wife. I wonder how she can enjoy this movie. 

Type 3 - Bad movie, good video and audio 

Her response: She sits through the movie for 10 or 15 minutes. Then she escapes from the theater to watch TV show in her bedroom TV.. 

My response: I am glad that the video and audio are good. I am not happy about the movie, but because of the technical excellence,   I  sit through the entire movie. 

Type 4 - Bad movie, bad video and audio. 

In this case, we both have the same response. We escape from the theater as fast as we can.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Is blue worth the green? (നീലയ്ക്കു വേണ്ടി പച്ച മുടക്കണോ, മാഷേ?)

WARNING: Technically explicit material. If you are technically challenged or if such material offends you, please do not continue reading this post.

Let me talk about blue. 

I have heard comments from several people that blu-ray discs are not such a great improvement over DVD. They have tried both and thought DVD is pretty good and blu-ray is slightly better. If this is the case, is it worth buying discs which are two or three times in price; and an expensive player to play these discs?

True. The jump in quality may not be as much as we experienced when we switched from VHS to DVD.

Still blu-ray is technically a much superior format with more than two million pixels for each picture frame. This is roughly six times that of DVD. This results in higher resolution allowing to display finer details in the picture. The audio track alone on a blu-ray disc may take as much space as an entire DVD. (Audio on blu-ray will be the subject of another future post)

In order to enjoy this superior picture quality, you should make sure of the following.

1. Your eyesight is perfect or you are wearing glasses or contact lenses to give you perfect vision from your seat. (read the previous post)

2. You are sitting close enough to the screen. Ideally, you should not sit more than one and a half times the screen width. This approximately equals to 1.3 times the screen size. For example if your TV is only 32” size, you should not be more than 42” (three and a half feet) away from it. That is too close compared to what we are used to with our older TVs. Also it is uncomfortably close in a typical family room layout. Normally we sit 8 to 12 feet away from TV irrespective of the screen size. At that distance, your eyes cannot resolve finer details on a 32” TV displaying high definition video. If you are watching low quality standard definition video, sitting that far away is perfectly OK. But for blu-ray, pull your seat closer to the TV. Or get a bigger TV. Even better will be a projector and a screen. If you have a 73” TV, sitting at a distance of 8 feet is OK for watching blu-ray. In my theater the screen size is 11.5 feet and the front row is around 13 feet from the screen. This is perfect for HD. But for watching regular DVDs, I move the rear row which is 19 feet away from the screen. If you are watching blu-ray disc on a small TV (less than 40”) and if you are sitting far away (more than five feet) you may not be able to appreciate the difference between blu-ray and a good DVD.

3. Your player, receiver and TV (projector) should not degrade the video quality during de-interlacing, up-converting and video processing. If you have a 1080P TV try disabling all the video processing in the player, the receiver and the TV. Since most of the blu-ray discs are authored at 1080P resolution this will give you the cleanest picture. If up-conversion or de-interlacing is needed, find out which component in your video chain does the job the best and use it. Most of the mid/high-end units have excellent video processing circuits.

4. All blu-ray discs are not created equal. For some discs, video transfer was done so badly that the quality is similar to or inferior to DVD. Fortunately, most of the new releases have excellent video quality. Do not judge the format by watching a bad disc.

Blu-ray is the highest quality video source available to consumers today. It can beat HDTV broadcast, cable HD and satellite HD. If you take care of the above you can enjoy the glory of this format and appreciate the improvement over regular DVDs.

Friday, November 20, 2009

First thing to do (കണ്ണുണ്ടായാല്‍ പോരാ, കാണണം)

OK, now you have the latest high definition TV (or projector). 
What should be your first step in order to enjoy the best possible picture on it?

Believe it or not, it has nothing to do with your TV. You should get your eyes checked first. If correction is needed, you should get the right glasses or contact lenses. Tell your optometrist  the distance form your TV (screen) to your seat.

Any adjustment to your TV should be done only after completing this important step.

This simple step will not only improve the clarity of your TV’s images, but also of everything else you see. You will realize how beautiful the world is!
Millions of viewers are not able to fully enjoy the clarity of the latest high definition video due to problems with their vision. In most cases, they are not even aware of what they are missing.

It is quite possible that you are one among them. So pick up the phone, call your optometrist and get the earliest available appointment. Make sure that before the appointment you measure the distance from the screen to your seat. Don’t try to guess.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Home Theater Nut (ഒരു നട്ടിന്റെ കഥ)

Blog fever is spreading faster than H1N1 among my friends. I tried my best to stay away from them. Even though hard to find, I managed to get a shot for H1N1, but not for this blog fever.

So here I am down with the fever writing my first blog.

First, about my blogger name - HT-Nut - HT means Home Theater. 

Nut does not mean this,

or these (even though I love them) gives following additional meanings for nut.
a person who is very enthusiastic about something;
a foolish, silly or eccentric person;

As far as home theater is concerned, I  think I fit the first definition.

Red, Green and Blue (RGB) are the three primary colors used for creating full color video images. That explains the name for my blog.

I will be writing mostly about the lighter side of my home theater hobby - nothing serious. Occasionally, you may find technical stuff. In that case, I will give a warning in the beginning so that you can skip the post if you are not interested.