Chip's Technical Blog

Tech commentary of thoughts, challenges, how-to's, and the mundane.

Archive for October, 2009

Entering the Hi-Res Age

Saturday, October 31st, 2009

Happy Halloween!

This week, Kristina and I splurged, and bought one of the new 27″ iMacs. Why? Not because we needed a computer — our laptops are sufficing just fine. No, we bought the 27″ iMac to replace our 6-year-old 27″ [analog] Television. This post will serve as my review of our impressions of using this as our main video-viewing-portal thus far.

The short version? We’re impressed. Sure, there are problems, and some we can fix (getting a remote control), where some we can’t really fix (Apple keeps using a high-gloss screen, which unfortunately makes for a nice glare).

Before being able to understand this review, however, I should let you know a bit about our viewing preferences, needs, etc. I have previously posted about hos we were considering canceling our cable TV. Well, we have decided to cut back to just the primitive broadcast cable channels, but haven’t made the call yet. What we don’t need is:

  • Something to watch sporting events. We just don’t watch sporting events.
  • Something to watch Blu-Ray discs. We don’t have any, nor a blu-ray player, and don’t see this as a priority going forward.
  • Something to watch live broadcast, analog cable, or HD cable TV on. We don’t have a cable box, and don’t want one. We haven’t watched any noticeable amount of live TV in years.
  • A huge TV which seems to be so popular today. We’ve always been quite content with our 27″ TV, and were not in the market to make the TV a bigger part of our den.

So, what we do want in our video-viewing-portal is this:

  • MythTV (just the frontend). This is how we watch most of our recorded TV, through our analog MythTV backend. We previously had Mini-ITX-based MythTV frontends attached to each of our TVs. This has been great, being able to access our DVR from any TV, and use the MythTV mechanisms for commercial skipping. However, since thinking about how few channels we actually watch vs. how much we pay monthly for cable TV, I’ve been looking for another legal way to get the TV content we do want to watch.
  • The ability to play content from Hulu and Netflix. What we have discovered is that the vast majority of content we care about is available from these two sources. Unfortunately, the mini-ITX boxes (and even our more powerful MythTV backend) were jerky and unable to handle the flash video CPU requirements of Hulu, and since they were running Linux, there was not option to view Netflix instant watch content.
  • The ability to watch DVDs. DVDs are our primary mechanism for having stored and mailed movies, so we needed to be able to continue this.
  • The ability to control the video-portal in an easy, straight-forward manner. Ever since we added StreamZap remotes to our MythFrontend boxes, we’ve been able to watch MythTV in an easy manner. Previously, we had a wireless keyboard, but it was big and bulky, so the remote was a HUGE step up.

So, how does the iMac stack up?

  • Size. With a diagonal of 27″, it has the same diagonal our prior TV had. Granted, it’s a widescreen (16:9) format rather than the traditional (4:3). So it’s a little wider, and a little shorter, than our older TV. One problem with the huge number of pixes though is that all the OSX fonts are super-tiny when sitting on the sofa. Sure, you can do screen zooming to see it, but it’s really annoying to have to do that all the time. Plus, there’s no good way to increase these fonts. A LOT of applications suffer from this problem, and the menu bar always suffers it.
  • Quality. The image quality of the iMac is GREAT! The glare on the screen is annoying, but it’s not significantly worse than our prior TV. Video quality is excellent. The screen is plenty bright, and can easily be seen from the sofa, or even the kitchen while making dinner. We don’t even turn the brightness of the screen all the way up usually.
  • DVDs. DVDs play without trouble, however, the DVD is loaded into the side of the iMac, which is a problem since our entertainment center (in which it fits) is too close to the side of it to allow loading the DVD. So we have to angle the iMac to load the DVD, which is at least better since it’s not that heavy
  • Hulu. Hulu plays just fine, on everything we have tested thus far. And thanks to the OSX release of HuluDesktop, we can even browse/view Hulu content without having to use the web-browser, which was hard due to the size mentioned above, means it can be navigated with just the keyboard. Further, a plugin to FrontRow allows HuluDesktop to be launched from FrontRow, so you can easily launch it from the keyboard as well. As an added bonus, the video quality is higher than that of analog TV. Granted, the downside of Hulu wrt MythTV is that we have to watch commercials again, but at least they are usually short, and you at least know how long they are.
  • NetFlix. NetFlix instant watch works great on the iMac. The only initial problem was again that we had to use the web browser. But I then realized that Boxee can be paired with your NetFlix account, and then be watched flawlessly with simple, large-font navigation. The navigation works better even than browsing content on the NetFlix site, IMO. Another FrontRow plugin allows Boxee to be launched from FrontRow, making that easy too. Big plus for NetFlix: no commercials.
  • MythTV. This also works fine, and can be launched from FrontRow. The content is lower quality, but doesn’t require the internet, and allows skipping commercials.

Okay, so what does this leave? A big deal has been made of the iMac because it can be a video input [monitor] as well as video output. Unfortunately for most, it only accepts displayport signals, and a simple cable adapter does not work to allow e.g. BluRay input. Not a problem for us, and it means that in the future it can serve as a nice monitor for one of our computers. Another problem is the remote issue. The included bluetooth keyboard is reasonably small, so it’s not too bad. However, we plan to purchase an Apple Remote for use here. Unfortunately, the StreamZap USB remote we already have (which has many more buttons and would be more ideal), cannot be used because it isn’t supported under OSX. Other minor issues – it wakes up from sleep sometimes for no good reason, and you cannot just turn off the keyboard after putting it to sleep (the iMac wakes itself back up).

So, we’re pretty happy overall. I think more and more content will be available for download, so our bet is that this is a better solution for us than joining the traditional big-screen high-definition TV-purchasing crowd. The iMac was a good buy, and with a 3-year AppleCare protection plan we can have peace of mind about the machine’s reliability as well. Extra added features – it’s iTunes player will surpass the MythTV music player in quality and ease of use. Other possible uses — it has an iSight camera which could be used for living room video chat, and picture browsing for family-room slide shows. Boxee comes with a number of other video input sources available.

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