Monday, 24 November 2008

Digital Killed the Video Star

Please allow me to continue the trend of home entertainment posts just a bit longer. I promise I will return to my usual bitching on how stupid religion is as of the next post. You see, I do have news to unload, and the news is that we finally got ourselves a high definition set top box. Not only that, we got ourselves a high definition PVR.
What is this PVR, you ask? Well, it's a box equipped with two high definition tuners and a hard disk. It allows you to watch one program and record another or record two programs simultaneously, and the recording is directly to the hard drive - at high definition quality. Goodbye VCR...
A PVR does wonders to the way you watch TV, and we're still getting the hang of it. You basically watch TV shows at the time you want to watch them (and you fast forward through the commercials): you pick shows you want to watch out of the weekly program guide the PVR gets off the air. And that's it, basically... You can also start watching something, say a football match, and click pause so you can go to the toilet; once back, you can resume watching, and when you get to the half time break you can fast forward again.
A week plus into having a PVR at home, it's already filled up with some movies from last week's crop (usually films that we would normally avoid renting but are still curious about watching). As for shows, such as At the Movies, Review or Newstopia, we record them and watch them while Dylan is having his night time bottle. We don't watch TV more than we used to before, it's just that we have better control over what it is that we watch. The bottom line is that there is more competition now to downloads and rental DVDs with off the air being essentially as comfortable to watch at our own time.

For the record, the PVR we got is a Palsonic with a 320gb hard drive ($400 at JB Hi Fi). Palsonic is a no name brand, and you can get the same PVR in various guises from a long list of pseudo brand names. Of these, the best one to get is probably the Omni, which sells for around $400 on eBay and comes with a 750gb drive. Why didn't we get one of those? Because with all the previously reported nightmares we've had with high definition set top boxes we wanted to have the option to return it to the store, no questions asked; can't do that on eBay.
Unlike the high definition set top boxes we've tried before, this one works and works well. It is easy to use, offers good reception, and as weird as it sounds it just works (well, the previous ones didn't): no lip sync issues, no menus that end up nowhere. And the recording part of it is just amazing!
There are a few deficiencies to the PVR, though. A couple to be precise:
First, the HDMI connection is unable to contain 5.1 digital sound; it only delivers stereo sound. This makes sense if you want to connect your PVR directly to your TV, but in my case - where I connect it to my receiver - I need to connect an additional inferior optical cable (of the Toslink type) to my receiver and give it the odd instruction to receive the sound there and not from the HDMI connection. Surely the desingers of these PVR could have added 5.1 sound as an HDMI option!
The second problem is that on channel 7, and only channel 7, the sound drops out every 10-15 seconds. It's not much but it could be annoying, as in someone saying "**** you" and you have no choice but to tell whether it was a "fuck you" or a "bless you" through the context. Research indicates this is a universal problem to all members of this family of PVRs.
I suspect both problems could be addressed through a firmware update but I don't see it as worth the hassle of posting the PVR to Sydney for the update job. To be frank, I suspect the biggest problem of this PVR is going to be it dying one day after the warranty expires.
The other problem with the PVR is that it exposes the shortcomings of the various TV stations: SBS only has the current program and the next one on its "weekly" program guide, and it only does stereo sound; channels 7 and 10 only do stereo sound on the front and mono surrounds, requiring the use of Dolby Pro Logic (or some other equivalent) on the receiver to get a center channel. Only channel 9 seems to broadcast in real 5.1 sound. And I won't even mention how "well" the commercial stations stick to their time table so I will put it this way: internet downloads are here to stay.
The age of high definition has finally dawned on us.

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