Tag Archives: HDTV

Logitech Harmony One

Harmony OneBack in 2006, I raved about how much I loved my Harmony 525, and I stand by it. The Harmony range is miles ahead of most other universal remotes, and I’ve used the trusty 525 almost every day since I got it to control my growing army of devices, with even sticky tasks like substituting in a new TV being quick and painless.

My only real concern was the build quality – I called it “acceptable for the price”, and the fact that the 525 now goes for £45 should tell you what that’s euphemistic for – and that’s turned out to be what necessitated an upgrade. It’s survived being sat on and thrown across rooms without increasing in creakiness, but heavy use of the colour buttons (they’re my ad-skip hot keys for my DVR) has left every rubber button on the thing requiring a painful degree of force to activate, if it decides to activate at all.

The 525 and its cousins are a holdover from before Logitech acquired Harmony, so in an effort to get something with the tank-like build of my other Logitech products, I went for a more recent design in the form of its flagship, the Harmony One. One may be a lower number than 525, but it’s spelled out so that you know that it’s better.

The first improvement is in the build quality, which is great. It’s solid, without creaking when you manipulate it, and the buttons are a huge improvement. Gone are the frankly rubbish rubber keys, replaced with ones that feel solid and all have a satisfying click to them so that you’re not reliant the glow of the remote to know if you’ve registered a press. The way that just the white button text glows looks a hell of a lot nicer than the cheap blue glow of the 525, which was itself an improvement on the old-school orange and green glows of the other models.

I’m kind of ambivalent about the touch screen. It allows for cool features like custom channel icons – although, disappointingly, no custom activity icons (yet), so no 360 logo on my ‘Play Xbox 360’ activity – but the screen with mappable buttons on the old one was much easier to use blindly, without actually having to look at the screen. Maybe it’ll come with practice, but it’s not as intuitive. Continue reading Logitech Harmony One

Not Compensating For Anything

So while my 26-inch Samsung LCD that I bought in early 2006 was great for its time, back when an HDTV actually became affordable to a mortal and I was making less than the minimum wage, I’d decided a while back that I wanted something bigger and better.

I’d been thinking about LCDs in the 37-inch range and set myself an absolute maximum of £1,000 to spend, but when I found that decent models were well below that price (as low as £650 online), I decided to go all out. Why settle for an 8 ms response time and 8,000:1 contrast ratio when I can get 0.001 ms and 30,000:1? That’s how I came to have such a magnificent beast as the Panasonic TH-42PZ80B – that’s a 42-inch 1080p plasma, reviewed here – sat at the end of my bed.

Panasonic TH-42PZ80B

As much as I enjoyed having the old LCD, I found that when I was watching HD video material I wasn’t really getting the full benefit. It looked sharper, but from my perch it didn’t look worlds beyond an upscaled DVD. Indeed, a competent DVD could be almost indistinguishable, which meant dropping the extra cash on the Blu-ray/HD DVD over the standard DVD was done as much for being future-proof as anything. Not to mention that black levels of LCDs have never been great (check out this comparison), which annoyed me with low detail in darker films. Batman Begins on HD DVD, for example, has a highly rated video transfer that was frankly a bit grey and murky via LCD.

Compared to the old one, this is a revelation. Watching a Blu-ray in 1080p at 24Hz with no overscan at that size would convince anyone that it’s worlds ahead of DVD, to the point where even my excellent little player upscaling to 1080p can’t keep up anymore. My go-to demo disc, Pixar’s Cars, looked amazing, with vivid colours, sharp detail and smooth motion, as did the recently acclaimed Narnia.

Rambo Blu-ray

While the black levels are undeniably superior, it’s not all roses, though. I’ve found that I’m one of the few per cent of people who can see the phosphor trails on plasma displays, a flaw endemic to the technology. Films are largely – though not entirely – unaffected, but certain games like Call of Duty 4, with its high contrast and fast movement, can almost look like one of those red-on-green 3D double images. Thankfully it’s something that will supposedly fade as the panel wears in over the first couple hundred hours, but I’ll suppose I have to get used to it. Even so, it looks dramatically better than any LCD that I’ve seen, so I’m going to take it as a worthwhile trade.

Still, given the choice between the grey blacks, slow response and poor scaling of an LCD and the phosphor trailing of a plasma (admittedly that only a small percentage of people can even see), it kind of makes you wish that reliable old CRTs weren’t so bloody big.


Blu-ray wins?

So CES hasn’t officially started yet, but the first megaton of 2008 has been dropped as Warner, currently the biggest studio for HD releases, confirmed that in May they’re dropping support for the HD DVD format. With only two major studios now supporting HD DVD, and one of them on a time-limited contract, it looks like the end of the HD format war is in sight.

The writing has been on the wall for a while now. Despite occasional better versions and, for me at least, a number of compelling exclusive titles, that was probably the death blow for HD DVD. It’s being reported as such, and even the comments from Toshiba have an air of resignition to them. There’s none of the bullishness that was usually found in press releases from both sides, and the cancellation of the HD DVD conference speaks volumes. They were blindsided and need a miracle, frankly.

Ultimately it’s good for HD movies. It will bring stability to the market that it hasn’t had and has probably been a contributor to the tiny size of the market for HD movies so far. I still don’t think Blu-ray will ever come close to the popularity of DVD, but now those who have been sitting on the fence can grow the market. Paramount certainly won’t stay exclusive when their contract period is up, and that will leave Universal as the last ones at the party.

I’m keeping my HD DVD player and keeping my collection, but now I’m only buying the biggest exclusive titles on HD DVD. That means Sweeney Todd and…uhh…hmm…

*goes to watch Serenity on HD DVD again*

Joytech HDMI TriLink Switcher

One of my bugbears with many HDTVs is that although they have several SCART sockets which will (hopefully) be all but obsolete in a few years, most of them around the lower end only have a single HDMI port. Not ideal when you have an upscaling DVD player, 360 Elite, PS3, HD set-top box, and the rest.

Joytech TriLink HDMI Switcher

Enter Joytech. I was wary of their HDMI switch after the serious performance problems with their component switchbox (the first version had problems with HD sources, making it all but useless), but for £30 (minus HDMI cables) I thought it was worth the risk.

What a fantastic little box! I’m going to have to gush a bit here because, aside from the lack of even one included HDMI and the fact that the blue indicator light is too bright in a dark room (I stuck tape over it to take the edge off), I have no complaints. It does exactly what you want it to – that is, it switches between HDMI sources quickly and is HDCP-compliant – and has a couple of handy touches that make it especially easy to recommend.

The first is that in addition to the normal plug, it comes with the option to power it over USB. With so many consoles and modern STBs having USB on the back it can save a valuable slot on the mains. The PS3 doesn’t send power to its USB slots when it’s turned off but the 360 (and HD DVD drive) and Wii both do, as does the Sky HD box, I’m reliably informed. This is an option that more low powered items should have, and in future I want all phones and portable devices to support charging over USB as standard, please.

Secondly it comes with an infra-red extension attached to a small box that can be taped to the TV or somewhere discreet. No need to have the box on display in order to change it remotely so it can be safely chucked into the jungle back there where you never have to notice it again. Unless you’re in a dark room, in which case you’ll notice the aforementioned blue glow all the time. The day that electronics companies realise that as cool as blue LEDs look, they’re usually far too bright will be a happy one.

Considering that only a year ago you’d be looking at well over £100 for a half-decent HDMI switch this is an absolute steal. Just don’t get suckered into buying overpriced leads (95p through Amazon Marketplace) to go with it.

A Week of PS3: Some Thoughts

After seven days with the monolith from 2001 sitting on my desk I’ve got a good idea of what the system’s all about at this point in its lifespan.

Xbox Live pisses all over PSN. Poor friends integration (besides the fact that I only know a handful of people with one), different interface in every game, and they apparently remove older content because I can’t get the Everybody’s Golf demo or the first Uncharted trailer now. Plus no way to arrange content by game. I know PSN is free, but that doesn’t change the fact that I’d rather stay at the Ritz than a homeless shelter.

Live would do well to steal the idea of selling things in real money, though. At the current exchange rate Tekken 5 would cost me approximately 700 points. Although I’d have to buy 2,100 to get it. Fuck.

The PS3 is a better Blu-ray player than the 360 is HD DVD. I’ve watched a couple of films now (Apocalypto and Casino Royale) and have been thoroughly impressed, although despite the bigger library on BD I still struggle to find more than half a dozen films I want. There are a number of titles that I’ll be buying before the end of the year, though. And 1080p video doesn’t make Casino Royale any less overrated.

When the price drops I’ll probably buy a 360 with HDMI. It looks pin sharp and really is a surprising improvement over component or VGA. Oddly this is the first time I’ve watched native HD content over HDMI, since I’ve only ever used my upscaling DVD player previously.

Remote Play is a brilliant feature. Let me stream a DVD or BD to myself on the bog and it’ll be perfect.

Although the disc drive is significantly quieter than the 360’s, the fans aren’t. It’s near silent when turned on until they kick in after a few minutes (or is my room just too hot?), at which point I can hear them over a movie. Still, credit where credit’s due: it doesn’t sound like a jet taking off during a game which is an improvement.

I love the open standards for peripherals. Bluetooth means that anyone can put out wireless accessories, and being able to use any old flash memory card or USB drive as a memory card – allowing me to back up saves and even downloaded videos to my computer, no less – is fantastic. Ditto being able to use any old Bluetooth headset. Microsoft needs to note that charging £25 for a 64MB memory card is insulting when I can buy a 4GB flash drive to use with the PS3 for less.

On the subject of Bluetooth, why haven’t the syncing issues with the controller been fixed? Probably half a dozen times now my controller has stopped responding to leave my character running into a wall, and it’s not on when other wireless controllers like the 360’s and even the Wavebird have been absolutely rock solid. Because Resistance is so obnoxiously stingy with the checkpoints I had to do a whole – quite difficult – section again when it cut out and sent me gaily walking out in front of a big enemy with an equally big gun.

And why isn’t there an IR receiver? I see no real benefit to a Bluetooth remote (the ergonomics of a remote mean that it’s generally pointing at the device anyway) and it only serves to annoy the AV geeks who have their expensive universal remotes. You know, the ones who you’re trying to convince that the PS3 is a high end piece of AV equipment. Mine can turn on and control the 360 and PS2 but not the PS3, the one with movie playback that I might want to use with some regularity.

Stop plugging ‘CELL?’ and ‘Blu-ray Disc?’ at every opportunity. We know you have big discs (I said ‘discs’!) and a powerful CPU but we don’t need to be told in game trailers. It comes off like vapid marketing speak and undermines how good the technology actually is.

Most of all, the PS3 needs more games. Resistance, Motorstorm, and Ninja Gaiden don’t cut it at this point against two competitors that are ahead in sales and software. Thankfully there’s some good stuff coming this year.

360 HD DVD Impressions

Xbox 360 with HD DVD Drive

If you thought getting hold of an Xbox 360 late last year was difficult, you should try finding one of the HD DVD drives. The shop where I had my original order didn’t get any and, according to my friend who owns it, Gem (the main UK Microsoft distributor for indies) only had a couple of dozen for the whole country. Gameplay told me that they couldn’t supply my preorder until, after much ado, it turned out that they could.

Obviously an external drive isn’t the most elegant way to play HD DVD but what this does is make an excellent stopgap until the standalones come down in price a bit. How many HD movie players are there for £130 again?

It’s admittedly a bit disingenuous to say that this is an HD DVD player for £130 when you need a £200 machine to run it, but a quick calculation tells me that £130 + £200 = £330, which is significantly less than the £400+ for the standalone HD players or the PS3. It comes with the remote (usually £20 on its own) and the King Kong HD DVD (£14.99 on Play), and when you look at the aggressive pre-Christmas bundling going on with 360 consoles I don’t think it’s a bad deal.

Pricing aside, the most important thing is how well this works. The answer is pretty well. Not perfect, although it does represent excellent value for money and the quality is very high. It’s certainly the best way to play HD movies without breaking the bank. Continue reading 360 HD DVD Impressions