March 23rd, 2004


Home theater geekery

A few weeks ago, Dan started watching Survivor on CBS. We don't have cable or satellite, so this was achieved by sticking a pair of rabbit ears outside on the side porch, with a long green cable attached to the VCR, which does tuning duty.

At some point, I found myself happily watching CSI. Apparently it's broadcast in HD. Now, I have a HD-ready set [an old Toshiba widescreen projection TV], but no way of watching HD programming - it didn't come with a HDTV tuner, and I never bought one. At $500, they're kind of pricey.

When CSI starts, there's some text on the screen about how CBS now broadcasts in HD... which got me wondering about how I can get HD programming on my set - I've never seen it do anything other than 480p, progressive-scan DVD playback, which looks pretty good, but HD must be even better, right? Wouldn't it be a kick to see the CSI folks tweezing lint in hi-res?

Later on last week, I found a Microsoft page that contains downloadable Windows Media files that play back in HD format - you can download them and try them out yourself, although you'll probably want a very fast PC and a very large monitor. Me, I've got a 3.06 GHz P4 and an XGA+ display, so I can watch the 720p ones at native resolution - and they look incredibly good. But what would 1020i ones look like at native resolution? I can't find out unless I can get the PC's video card to display on the Toshiba set [which apparently does 480i, 480p, and 1020i only - not 720p].

Wouldn't you know it - ATI are now selling an adapter that works with my current video card, a Radeon 9700. Apparently you just attach it to the DVI port, attach the component video cables that are currently used by your DVD player, et voilá, you have HD out from the PC displayed on the TV.

Next thing you know, I find myself wondering if it would be possible to use my PC as a quasi-TiVo, or perhaps as a gaming workstation, or at least curious about what my music would sound like played through a decent pair of speakers [as opposed to the ancient pair of Sony beige computer speakers I have on my desk]. This led to a whole bunch of questions:

- I don't want to wire that room for Ethernet; I guess it's time to install a 802.11b card in the PC?
- Do we have a Microsoft Wireless Optical Desktop lying around the house anywhere?
- If I'm going to make a TiVo-style box out of it, I guess I should figure out how to install Windows Media Center? I know you can't buy it, but surely as a Microsoft employee I can get a copy, maybe through MSDN?
- If so, where do I buy the remote that normally comes with Media Center PCs? It's not like you can find it at Fry's - this stuff is OEM only and not supposed to be available at retail...
- Whoops, there's no way to get surround sound out of the PC 'cuz it doesn't have optical out - I guess I have to buy a sound card now? And even if the sound card has digital out, it looks like a lot of PC content won't play that way and must be decoded by the sound card first? So I guess I have to get a sound card that can output 5.1 and decode DTS?
- Finally, what about a HD tuner? Can I get one that works with Windows XP Media Center? Natively?
- Oh, and the 5 GB free space on my PC, is that really enough to record TV programs?

I've suddenly found myself in the depths of PC and home theater geekery previously unknown to me. Hopefully, I'll have it all sorted out in a week or two: if everything goes well, my TV will be a wirelessly networked Media Center displaying HD quality video in the living room. Oh, and it'll still be able to surf the Web, run MS Money, and all that other good stuff.

Wish me luck!

HTPC round 1

Disabled the built-in Ethernet.

Installed a very old first generation Cisco PCI wireless adapter - 802.11b, 11 Mbps.

Removed the modem and ancient, brokey Hauppauge WinTV card from the machine.

Stumbled around Cisco's achingly bad Web site and eventually found what seemed to be the correct drivers for their card. Installed them. Went for the easy install option.

Rebooted PC. Discovered that Cisco's installer installed its own GINA, resulting in an unfamiliar startup screen in XP combined with missing icons. Oh, and the Google toolbar disappeared too. Ugh. Uninstalled, installed driver only, rebooted PC.

Windows XP demanded it be reactivated due to so much hardware having changed. Always wondered if I'd ever see that, and now I have. Clicked on Activate, it activated over the Internet, and that was that. Funny, you think it'd be harder.

And now everything is working fine, including the all important Google toolbar. The wireless network is obviously slower than the old 100BaseT connection when transferring files to Dan's PC, but otherwise it feels the same.

Next up: sound card install on Thursday night.

Still no word from ATI on when they can deliver the HDTV dongle. Apparently it's nontrivial to ship things from Canada. Also no word on a delivery date for the Hauppauge PVR TV tuner card from shady fly by night e-commerce site. V. hopeful that my credit card number is not being sold by touts in Tashkent.