Review: Logitech Harmony 880 Universal Remote

Bottom Line: Logitech’s high-end universal remote is well worth it if you’re tired of juggling a multitude of controls just to watch TV.

Verdict: Highly Recommended.

Can a universal remote really change your life? Probably not, but the Logitech Harmony 880 Remote Control can have a significant impact on how you spend your time in front of the TV. With the increasing complexity of home AV setups, it doesn’t take much effort to accumulate an array of remotes, each of which only serves a few functions. You’ll start off with a TV remote. Then maybe you’ll add a cable box, which will come with its own remote. A DVD player? A third remote. A AV receiver? Now we’re up to four. A TiVO? You get the idea.

While several attempts have been made to create universal remotes that can replace the typical living room coffee table clutter, most of these suffer from one of the several failings. In attempt to cover all possible functions, some remotes develop into two-handed monstristies which are more like miniature computers than remote controls. Others err in the opposite direction, with devices that appropriately resemble conventional remotes but, in their effort to look normal, end up clumsy and complicated. The setup up stage, in which the remote is configured for your personal setup, can be a particular challenge

Harmony 880

The Harmony 880 gets around this problem by starting with a slender device that can be operated with one hand. A bright color screen with relatively clearly labeled icons is the centerpiece of the remote and guides most interaction. Buttons to the side of each icon control the major functions of the device. The remote operates around the notion of “activities” such as “Watch a DVD”, “Listen to Radio”, or “Watch TiVO”. When one of these is selected, the 880 sends a flurry of signals to your various devices and configures them all appropriately. For example, pressing “Watch a DVD” will turn on my TV, set its video to display input from the DVD player, turn on my DVD player, and set the audio input on my AV receiver to DVD mode. Various controls (play, stop, pause, etc.) on the remote now control the DVD player. If I get bored of watching a movie and instead decide to “Watch TiVO”, the remote turns of the DVD player and appropriately changes the settings on my receiver and TV. All the controls on the remote are now TiVO-centric, including pause, play, etc. which only moments earlier were DVD controls. The display now changes to offer TiVO-specific commands such as a button to watch Live TV. Continue reading “Review: Logitech Harmony 880 Universal Remote”

Should you upgrade to high-definition DVD?

Many people spend thousands of dollars on an HDTV only to find out that their TV has brought out the truth about DVDs: they are not, in fact, high definition. In fact, the low-priced (and quickly disappearing) EDTVs will do just as good a job at displaying DVDs as your fancy new HDTV. Until recently, the only way to see real HDTV quality video was to watch HDTV programming on selected television stations. For pre-recorded movies, you were stuck with the relatively low-definition DVD. Some higher-end DVD players claimed to upgrade DVDs to HDTV quality, but in fact these “upconverting” DVD players can only simulate higher definition by extrapolating from the video on the DVD – they can never truly produce HDTV quality. In fact, there was no way to watch true HDTV images off a recorded disc until now.

The past few months has witnessed the release of two different high-definition media players: the Toshiba HD-A1 HD-DVD player and the Samsung BD-P1000 Blu-Ray Player. Much like in the prior Betamax vs VHS format war of the 1980s, HD-DVD and Blu-Ray are two competing formats both offering similar high-definition video in incompatible formats. Both types of players can play conventional DVDs, but they cannot play each other’s discs.

Blu-Ray has been the favorite for some time, with more companies behind it, including heavyweights like Sony and Panasonic. However, with the release of Samsung BD-P1000, the tables have turned somewhat. The only Blu-Ray player available seems decidedly disappointing, with relatively unimpressive video quality compared to the Toshiba’s HD-DVD player. In addition, the number of titles available for Blu-Ray is significantly fewer than already limited number of discs available for HD-DVD. The Toshiba player is also significantly cheaper than the Samsung.

So is it game-over for Blu-Ray? Not so fast. Both of these players have significant limitations (the Toshiba player is notoriously slow to load discs, and has other early-product annoyances). If you had to choose one of these players today, Toshiba’s HD-DVD player seems like a better bet, but there’s no guarantee that just because Toshiba seems to have won the initial high-definition battle that the HD-DVD format will win the war. Your best bet is to wait as additional players for both formats are released in the fall, when the real victor in the format war is likely to be determined.

Fourth of July BBQ

Corn on the grill

Many people have fond memories of celebrating the 4th of July with their families, enjoying a barbeque. I have no such fond memories. I used to think it was because I didn’t enjoy the whole experience, but I think it is rather that my parents really were not that into barbeque, and I’m not really into the outdoors. Fast forward to 2006, and I have become a grill convert. It was about one year ago that I decided. somewhat on impulse, to buy the Weber Q Grill. I had debated about venturing into the hard-core arena of charcoal grilling or staying safely within the clean propane-driven world. I selected the latter, and I’m glad I have. Propane grills require minimal setup and maintenance. In part as a result of this simplicity, grilling has become a mainstay of food preparation chez infobhan.

While the daily grill is enjoyable, grilling for others (the social grilling often hilighted by TV commercials and the like) is where the true raison d’etre of the barbeque can be found. With a quick trip to the supermarket and a few last-minute emails to some friends, I was able to turn what could have been a lackluster 4th in front of the TV into a celebratory gathering. The nice thing about the grill is that it is so easy to succeed; almost every food I’ve tried has tasted better grilled. Today was a festival of flavors with grilled corn, chicken, onions, and, of course, burgers. This was accompanied by a potato salad and some lemonade, care of my wife, and some chocolate chip cookies I put together at the last minute when I realized we had no dessert. Also on the menu was some fresh pineapple; maybe next time I will muster the courage to grill that as well.

Review: Dell 2405FPW LCD Display

Bottom Line: Don’t let the bargain basement pricing fool you, Dell’s large-screen flat panel is a quality piece of hardware.

Verdict: Recommended.

When selecting a computer, many people spend much of their time poring over specification such as processor speed, RAM, hard disk space, etc.. While these are all important factors, it is the monitor that we spend much of our time interacting with. A large, high quality monitor can make everything we do on the computer seem faster and easier. Most new monitor purchases are targeted at LCD displays, and with good reason. Modern LCDs are bright, easier to use for long periods of time, and have a rich color palette. The downside of LCDs, until recently, has been the relatively high premium paid for large sizes.

The Dell 2405FPW was one of the first displays to break that pattern. Like its less expensive cousin, the 2005FPW, this 24-inch display brought large, high quality wide-screen excitement into the realm of affordibility. With frequent discounts available on websites like SlickDeals, these monitors frequently drop into the sub-$800 price range.

Dell 2405FPW

Can a new monitor really change your life? Yes. Do you really need a 24-inch display? Of course you do. This display offers a 1920×1200 resolution, which is better than the highest-quality HDTV. At 24 inches, multitasking becomes a reality. You can have two full web pages open simultaneously, or easily use two different programs at the same time. As you can see from the image above, this monitor is not restricted for use on Dell computers, or even PCs in general. The optimal input is DVI (Dell includes the cable), but VGA, composite, S-video, and component video inputs are all available. You can even connect a device to each input and switch between them with the push of a button.

Continue reading “Review: Dell 2405FPW LCD Display”

Running Windows on a Mac

Got an Intel-based Mac and need to run programs written for Microsoft Windows? Although Apple’s free Boot Camp software is certainly an option, it pales in comparison to the relatively inexpensive Parallels Desktop software. Parallels lets you run a copy of Windows at the same time you are running the Mac OS X operating system. You’ll need to purchase Windows seperately, but it prevents the need to reboot to run a copy of your Windows software. Because it runs on Intel-based Macs, the speed is almost identical to a regular PC. Downsides? It’s not free and it does take a little while to load up. On the other hand, it runs peacefully in the background, so you can keep it running while it’s not in use. Download the demo to check it out. Remember: this only works on the newer Intel-based Macs.

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Speeding up and slowing down

The 17-inch Apple PowerBook G4

My 17-inch Apple PowerBook G4 has served me well for the past 3 and a half years. As new, faster models appeared, I thought many times about upgrading, but even the current models look essentially the same without any significant changes. I love the screen real estate, but with the addition of an external monitor to the setup, the advantage of the large screen (especially when I was at home) was limited. The cost was a heavier, bulkier computer when I was not at my desk, which has become increasingly common. I thought about upgrading to the MacBook Pro released earlier this year, but early models were reportedly buggy, and the design was still quite similar to my now dated model. The arrival of the latest (and quite inexpensive) MacBook, however, has persuaded me the the time to upgrade is now. The PowerBook, like many of its predecessors, has now been eBayed. Farewell, my friend.

The Techno returns

My Reneka Techno is back online

Despite the happy face I put on to my friends and family, like the archetypical sad clown, I have been masking my true feelings. The truth is that I have been suffering in silence for the past few months since my Reneka Techno espresso machine decided to die in an impressive display of noise and steam.

A glimmer of hope appeared last week, when a box of replacement parts arrived from France, and I began to rebuild the machine, hoping it would one day return to the greatness I knew it was capable. That day is today. I had my first home-made cappuccino in months today, and the Techno is back in operation. Armed with some freshly roasted beans, I look forward to a new golden age in the months ahead.