Choosing the right type of HDTV

Many people are interested in making the jump to HDTV at this time, and with good reason. HDTVs are more affordable than ever, and there is an increasing amount of material available. New shows are avaialble in HD on a regular basis, and now gaming machines (Microsoft’s X-Box 360 and Sony’s Playstation 3) and movie formats (Blu-Ray and HD-DVD) have jumped into the frey as well. One common challenge is the wide range of types of HDTVs available. Which is the best format to buy? Here’s my take on it.

Resolutions: High definition means a finer level of detail than is present in standard televisions. Resolution is measured in the number of pixels (or small dots) that make up the image. The higher the number of pixels, the greater the resolution, and the sharper the image. Typically, TV resolutions are named for their vertical resolution. Standard definition usually refers to 480 vertical pixels. Standard TV is “interlaced”, meaning that instead of drawing the whole picture all at once, it draws the even numbered rows first, then the odd numbered rows next, and keeps going back and forth. If it does this fast enough, you can’t really tell, and it is more efficient because only half the screen is updated at a time. Unfortunately, you probably CAN tell, at least to a small degree when there is motion on the screen. Motion doesn’t look quite as smooth when the image is interlaced. Some technologies (like DVD and some HDTV formats) get around this problem by just updating the whole screen at once instead of doing this interlacing nonsense. It’s less efficient, but some people think it’s worth the extra bandwidth to make it happen. When interlacing is not done, the image is called “progressive” (or “progressive scan”). Usually people combine the vertical resolution with a letter indicating whether the image is interlaced or progressive. 480i refers to an interlaced image with 480 vertical pixels. 1080p refers to a progressive image with 1080 vertical pixels.

Regular TV is basically 480i. DVDs are 480p (provided you have a progressive scan player).

All HDTV broadcasts (over the air or cable) are either 720p or 1080i. Why both? Well some would argue that, since 1080 is higher than 720, that 1080i is superior since it has a higher resolution. Others would argue that since 720p is progressive while 1080i is interlaced, images broadcast in 720p will look smoother than their 1080i counterparts. Both arguments have merit, but you really shouldn’t bother yourself too much with this since you can’t control which format the TV stations choose: you just choose the TV.

What about 1080p? This would seem like the best of both worlds. The problem is that 1080p needs to update 1080×1920 pixels with each screen update. That’s a lot of pixels, and eats through bandwidth quickly, so no broadcaster wants to use 1080p. They’d rather offer 2 channels at 1080i with the same bandwidth. The only practical way to get 1080p video right now is to use a new video disc like Blu-Ray or HD-DVD. However, that doesn’t mean 1080p TVs are irrelevant. Read on…

Forget about a couple types of HDTVs right now:

  1. CRT (tube) TVs: These old-style TVs offer great image quality, but they are heavy, bulky and their size tops out at about 40 inches. It’s not worth the hassle and limitations.
  2. CRT rear-projection: Few companies even make these behemoths any more. They were cheap ways into the big-screen HDTV world, but steer clear.
  3. Front projectors – these project the image onto a wall or special screen from the front. It’s just not practical for most people in most room situations. If you’re interested in this, read up on this elsewhere – it’s a totally different type of viewing experience with different requirements.

Now that we’re done with that, we’re left with 3 main categories.

Digital rear projection – These include LCD rear projection, LCOS/D-ILA/SXRD, and DLP. There are pros and cons to each of these technologies but they all basically work the same way. They project light onto a screen from the back. They make the image either by filtering it through a liquid crystal filter (LCD rear projection), reflecting it off of liquid crystal (LCOS/D-ILA/SXRD), or reflecting it off of tiny mirrors (DLP). Digital rear projection systems generally do not have as good an image quality as direct-view screens (LCD and plasma flat-panels), but they are not bad and they can be an inexpensive way to get to a big screen. Sizes of 60 inches or more, which can be ridiculously expensive as flat panels, may be practical for rear projection. Sony’s SXRD line is probably the best of the rear-projectors, but also are more expensive than most brands.

If you don’t get a rear-projeciton system, you’ll be getting a flat panel display. There are basically two types here: LCD and plasma. People debate endlessly as to which is better. Here are the pros and cons:

LCD – LCDs tend to offer higher resolution (most higher-end LCDs are 1080p, still a rarity in the plasma world), and better brightness, better resistance to burn-in (where a static image can become persistent over a long period of time). However, they are generally more expensive than plasma, particualrly if you are getting an screen 42 inches or larger. The two leading manufacturers of LCDs, Sony and Sharp, have both had quality issues with their high-end LCDs. Sony’s Bravia XBR 2 and 3 lines have been reported to have poor quality images when displaying standard definition TV, and have had some issues with uneven brightness. Sharp’s latest Aquos line has been plagued by bands of darkness that can be faintly seen on the display. The LCD image also tends to fade if you view it from an indirect angle, although not by as much as rear-projection TVs. Many say LCDs don’t display motion as smoothly as plasma.

Plasma – Plasmas, traditionally extremely expensive, have come down in price tremendously. A 50″ plasma can be purchased for as little as $2000 at the time this article was written. Plasmas tend to have rich color and deep blacks, which make for images which many find more realistic than those produced by LCDs. Though the issue of burn-in has been greatly reduced, there is still a theoretical risk if a static image is repeatedly displayed for extended periods of time. A more common phenomenon is temporary image retention, where a static image displayed for a several hours (e.g. a network logo or a video game score) might linger in a ghostly form for an hour or two after it should have disappeared. Plasmas generally have lower resolution than LCD’s. Most 50 inch plasmas offer a mid-range 768p resolution instead of the maximum 1080p resolution. Why should you care if nothing is broadcast in 1080p? LCDs can convert 1080i images into 1080p, so should offer more detail when broadcasts are in 1080i format.

So how to decide?

First decide how much money you are willing to spend and what size TV you want. Can you achieve this with a flat panel? If not, then buy a rear-projection or compromise on size or cost. Generally, I would favor going with a flat panel, but if you really need that 70-inch TV, go for it. Remember, smaller TVs always look more detailed at a given resolution, because the same amount of pixels are crammed into a smaller area.

If you’ve decided a flat panel is right for you, you then need to decide about LCD vs. plasma. If you want a TV 40 inches or smaller, go for LCD: plasma’s don’t do well at small sizes. If you want a TV 50 inches or bigger, go for a plasma. LCDs at 50 inches or above are just too expensive right now and have too many quality issues.

If you’re flexible, here are the issues to consider. First of all, never make your decison based only on how these TVs look in a showroom. Showrooms are generally very brightly lit, which tends to favor LCDs. They tend to feed these TVs with relatively poor quality signals and usually don’t spend the time to optimize the settings for each TV.

LCDs are preferable if:

  • You plan on watching TV in a brightly-lit room, where the brightness of the TV is an advantage
  • If you plan on spending large amounts of time on a single channel where a logo is displayed in one portion of the screen for a long period of time
  • If you plan on using your TV as a computer monitor (where menus, taskbars, etc will be displayed on screen for a long period of time).
  • If you plan on spending long periods of time playing a single video game with fixed visual elements
  • If you don’t want to stretch standard defniiton TV to fit the widescreen format

Plasmas are preferable if:

  • You plan on watching TV in a dimly-lit room, where the rich blacks of plasmas are an advantage
  • If you plan on watching a veriety of material on your TV

Overall, I think most people are better served with a plasma, but the differences between these technologies are growing steadily smaller. For those who like the image quality of a plasma but are worried about burn-in, I would suggest buying a plasma from Panasonic, a company whose plasma’s are regarded as being largely relatively resistent to these issues, particularly if you are careful not to display static images or non-widescreen images on the TV for prolonged periods during the first 100 or so hours of TV use.

What about resolution? 1080p is in theory more detailed than 768p supported by most larger plasmas, but to really see a difference, you’ll either need to be sitting too close to your TV or have a TV that’s over 50 inches. Right now, the only affordable 1080p TVs in this size are rear-projection (with the quality drop and bulk associated with this technology). 768p is quite sharp and other characteristics will have a greater impact on image quality.

Review: Apple Wireless Mighty Mouse

Bottom Line: Apple’s compact bluetooth mouse looks superficially appealing, but it’s sluggish performance and lack of ergonomics makes it inferior to the competition.

Verdict: Not Recommended

I’m generally a fan of Apple products, so I had great expectations of Apple’s Bluetooth Wireless Mighty Mouse. It looked good with a smooth, buttonless design and a elegant power switch that doubled as a cover for it’s optical sensor. I had found the traditional wired Mighty Mouse to be reasonably useable, if not quite as comfortable to use as the larger Logitech MX900 that has been my favorite.

Apple Wireless Mighty Mouse

The wireless Mighty Mouse seems at first glance like an ideal pacakge. Though it lacks a charger, it’s turns off with a quick slide of the switch on it’s flat surface, saving power and making battery changes fairly uncommon. It uses invisible touch sensors to determine whether you mean to left click, right click, or center click (the small ball in the front center of the mouse doubles as a third mouse button). The mouse-ball, unlike the traditional scroll wheel, allows for scrolling vertically, horizontally, or diagonally with satisfying speed. In addition, this version of the Mighty Mouse uses laser-tracking, which purportedly allows for more precise sensing of the mouse’s movements and smooth operation on a wider range of surfaces.

The Logitech mouse similarly uses bluetooth to communicate with my MacBook and performs just likeo a wired mouse. Movements of the mouse are instantaneously translated into on screen actions. Unfortunately, my experience with the Mighty Mouse was quite difference, and herein lies the greatest flaw in this device. There is a subtle, but noticeable lag seperating the mouse’s physical movements from the cursor’s movement on the screen. This makes overshooting a target easy and can lead to frustration with what is an essential part of computing. Furthermore, while the Logitech design served as a comfortable rest for my hand, the Mighhy Mouse felt awkward to handle.

What’s most striking about this device is the lack of Apple’s traditional human-oriented design. This feels like a device designed for looks rather than for usability, rather than the combination of the two that is characteristic of most of Apple’s work. While the Logitech is not the most attractive mouse, it feels comfortable and natural to use. The same cannot be said of the wireless Mighty Mouse. It feels like I’m mousing underwater. I had high hopes for the mouse’s laser sensors to be able to operate on my frosted glass desk (where previous optical mice, including the Logitech, had failed). Unfortunately, the Mighty Mouse faired no better than its predicesors.

This one’s going back to the store. Better luck next time, Apple.

Returning to Montreal

Ishir enjoys the modern decor at Hotel GaultIshir sips a cappuccino in Duc de LorraineEnjoying a rum-soaked danish at Duc de LorraineIshir in old MontrealIshir standing in front of Montrea’s BiodomeIshir lines up with the penguins inside the BiodomeIshir waits in line for some of Schwartz’s famous smoked meatDuyen prepares to enter the the March??? Jean TalonIshir sitting outside Au Pain Dor???Duyen enjoys a croissant from Au Pain Dor???Ishir admires the produce in Jean Talon

Although I had previously taken a brief detour to Montreal with my roommates during medical school, I had long since forgotten the diversity and culture that this city offered. When Duyen and I were left unprepared with a week of vacation on our hands, we decided to return to this convenient escape by car. After about a 6 hour drive, we ended up at Hotel Gault, a hard to find “boutique” hotel which offers affordable room with ultra modern styling (styling that suits me just fine).

Though we were only there for a few days, we were able to explore a wide range of what Montreal had to offer, to be honest, I’m not sure it is really necessary to stay longer for first-time visitors. My high school French came in handy for initiating conversations, although I was decidedly unable to fool people into thinking I was fluent after a few sentences betrayed my weak linguistic skills.

The food was the highlight of the trip, particularly Le Club Chasse et Peche where I enjoyed a delicious Canadian bison along with some unusual side dishes like pureed cauliflower and leeks. Au Pied De Cochon (the pig’s foot) was decidedly less impressive. The oversized, fat-laden dishes lacked depth of flavor and the restaurant’s attempt to improve the taste through liberal salting was a failure. A case in point was the poutine; I had looked forward to this Canadian delicacy, but the Au Pied De Cochon version of the gravy and cheese drenched fries was almost inedibly salty.

Fortunately, the high caliber of bakeries more than made up for the relative failure of this second restaurant. Duc de Lorraine is a quaint bakery cafe serving fresh, light croissants far superior to most American versions. Their rum-soaked Danish was a bit mushy for my tastes, but the chocolatine was right on target. Despite being part a large commercial chain, the ubiquitous Premiére Moisson branches were consistently of high quality. Our final stop at Au Pain Doré only cemeted our confidence on Montreal bakeries. It’s too bad that most Bostonians don’t even know what they are missing.

The Blu-Ray vs. HD-DVD battle rages on

When it comes to the Betamax-vs-VHF-like battle raging between the two next generation DVD formats, it initially seemed clear that Blu-Ray would win. It had wider industry support and seemed to be a superior technology. When the products actually started coming to market, HD-DVD took a surprise lead. Not only did it have the least expensive player ($499 vs $999 for Blu-Ray), but the quality was consistently higher.

How a few factors are emerging which may once again tip the balance toward Blu-Ray. Most importantly, a more affordable player will be arriving in November in the form of the Sony Playstation 3. Priced at $499 on the low-end (20GB drive and no WiFi) and $599 on the high end (60GB drive and WiFi), this will be a relatively low cost Blu-Ray player that also happens to play video games.

The other factor is the use of the superior VC1 codec (a codec is a compressor that allows video to be stored in a more efficient format). Initially, only HD-DVD used VC1, but now the Blu-Ray folks have caught on. Word on the street as that the latest Blu-Ray discs look just as good as their HD-DVD counterparts.

If the PS3 is a success, Blu-Ray will have a distinct advantage over the competition, but at $499 for the entry-level version of a video game player, that is still a big “if”.

Farewell to Rob and Patrika

First of all, apologies for the delay in making these photos available. I’ve been working figuring out how to best publish these images, and needed to hack some software to get my images to display properly.

It’s been a while since our farewell dinner party for Rob and Patrika. I hope they are doing well in California. Though we no longer have them around, I’m at least glad that their last party here was an enjoyable one filled with Patirka’s spicy soup, our pasta and meatball sauce, and, of course, Allen’s famous garlic bread. Didn’t think Allen could cook? The evidence is in the pictures above.

The new iPod Nano

Apple recently released a few new iPods onto the music scene, but it may be confusing what these new iPods offer. First up is the iPod Nano. The Nano has been available for some time now. Apple has made a few important, albeit relatively minor, changes to this popular model. The Nano is, of course, the successor to the Mini. This smaller and easily pocketable version of the iPod has a relatively small capacity (now 2GB-8GB, note the increased memory in the new high end model) but is arguably more portable. The original Nano won points for its smaller case and bright color screen when compared with the mini, but many preferred the more durable (and scratch-resistant) colorful aluminum shell of the mini.

iPod Nano

Arguably the biggest advance of the new Nano is that it combines the best of both worlds. It maintains the small, slim design of the original Nano while bringing back the scatch-resistant aluminum body. The software and screen are slightly updated with features such as search. Capacity has been doubled to 2 GB at the low end and 8 GB at the high end, with a 4 GB model in the middle. The middle capacity model comes in silver, pink, green, and blue. The low-end model is avaialble only in silver and the high-end model is available only in metallic black.

What’s the bottom line? If you already have a Nano, there’s no reason to upgrade because the improvements are minor (unless you are in desperate need of more storage space). If you have been thinking about buying a Nano, the new models are more compelling, largely for the more durable case design. These Nanos won’t play video, movies, or the new games Apple has released for the full-sized iPod, but if highly-portable music playing is what you are after, the new Nano may fit the bill.

Stay away from myworldphone.com

I have generally had good experiences from online vendors despite a long and varied history. Anyone looking for a good deal on an unlocked GSM phone is bound to come across a wide range of online storefronts. GSM is the technology used by carriers such as Cingular and T-Mobile. Their phones use a SIM card, a tiny chip that holds information identifying the phone number, identity, and sometimes even address book of the phone. To change phones, you can simply take the SIM card out of your old phone and pop it into the new phone…assuming your phone is “unlocked.” Many phones sold by carriers come “locked”, so they can only be used on a single carrier. Unlocked phones have the advantage that they can be used on any other GSM network (including carriers in other countries). The only caveat is that the some carriers use different frequency, but there is a growing population of “quad-band” phones that support all the currently used frequencies. One such phone is the Nokia 6131 flip phone, for which I’m working on a review. Despite not being available through any carrier, it is available unlocked through many online stores and is a great option for someone looking for a feature-packed compact flip phone.

One store to stay away from, however is myworldphone.com. To be fair, I’ve ordered several phones from this company without incident, but when I opened the box for the latest Nokia, I knew something was amiss. The box was not sealed and the packing job seemed unprofessional. There was no clear shield on the screen that normally has to be peeled off, one of the great joys of unwrapping new electronic gizmos. To my surprise, it quickly became apparent that I had been sold a used phone that was masquerading as new. Several SMS text messages were already on the phone, as were some pictures that were clearly not taken by me.

Any store worthy of its name would immediately take the phone back and offer profuse apologies, but myworldphone.com is apparently not in that category. After several emails went unanswered, I waiting on hold several times only to be instructed to call back on a different line. When I finally spoke to a “manager”, they tried to walk me through their website by instructing me to click on links they didn’t exist (had they loaded the website up themselves while rudely talking to me, they would have seen that the page they were referring to had been renamed). Instead of simply taking the information over the phone, they had me download a form and fax this over to them. Even after going through this excessively tiresome process, I found there was no reply to my request for a refund, even after several emails. It was only after I filed a formal complaint via PayPal.com that I was eventually given an RMA number. After following the similaly convoluted insructions for including the appropriate documents and forms in the return package, I waited for my refund.

Fortunately, I had sent the package via the USPS certified mail with tracking. I could confirm that the company had received the package, but I had no response. Several emails later, including via the PayPal site were not helpful. A formal request to escalate to PayPal‘s management proved equally useless – PayPal is notorious for offering buyers little, if any, protection. Eventually, was able to reach someone via telephone who promised that my refund would be sent by the day today. Whether this is true or not is unclear, but one thing that is certain is that I’m going to steer clear of myworldphone.com in the future, and I recommend you do the same.

The MacBook “moo” is fixed

I’ve recently commented about previously reviewed Apple MacBook’s tendency to produce a “mooing” sound when its processors are tasked. This annoying sound has finally been eliminated through a recent firmware update by Apple, making this laptop considerably more acceptable. Reports are that operating temperatures are also reduced. The update is available through the built-in software update mechanism in the Mac OS.

Big Hack Attack

Right lower lobe infiltrates

Despite my new passion for daily apple eating, the adage “an apple a day keeps the doctor away” doesn’t seem to hold true, unless it’s referring to me as the doctor. Despite spending most of my day isolated in an office, I still managed to acquire some sort of respiratory infection that has left me with intermittent fever, fatigue, and a persistent, hacking cough that decides to become particularly virulent between the hours of 1 and 4 AM. My wife insists that I am waking up the neighborhood. I’ve tried various over the counter remedies to stop the hacking. They all prove quite successful in making me feel strange, but none seem to do much about the cough. My favorite discovery was that theobromine, a compound in chocolate, may be effective in controlling cough. I tried some strong dark chocolate. While tasty, this did little for my fits of coughing. Hopefully whatever this is will find I’m not an interesting host and move on soon.