Home-Theater Journal Update
Here is an update on the experiences I had in 2003 updating my PC home-theater system. My working premise continues to be that DVD-Video can provide better video and sound than other affordable TV delivery systems and more content at a lower equipment cost than HDTV. Fortunately, DVD players with progressive-scan  outputs became affordable over the last year. To take full advantage of this development, a consumer also needs a TV with progressive-scan capability and a surround-sound system. While these components are still relatively expensive, they also remarkably improve the picture and sound even with an older DVD player, or analog cable input for that matter. The cost for the next upgrade to a PC instead of a DVD player can be roughly comparable, but it adds significant new capabilities, such as PC gaming and small-group web browsing, which further leverage the cost of the video and audio components.
I am still using (and liking) the same monitor described in last-year's writeup. However, the IBM micro-tower that I used then is now my home-office PC, and the new home-theater (X)PC is a Shuttle SN41G2B. I chose this model partly for its small form factor and partly for quieter operation. The black aluminum case was another attractive factor. The XPC has only one PCI slot, but that is enough because the motherboard provides a graphics controller, 5.1-channel digital sound, and an ethernet interface. The SN41G2B plus a 120 GByte hard drive, 512 MBytes of DDR400 RAM and an AMD Athlon XP2600+ all together cost slightly more than $600, which seemed very reasonable at the time (early August, 2003). As shown by the first photo, there is now room for more components. I will probably use the extra shelf for a wireless router that I have ordered, and may place the cable modem I am using in there as well. I am a little concerned about the additional heat these components will generate, though. I suppose I will know it's a problem when the XPC's fans start running more.
The hard drive (a 120 GByte Seagate Barracuda 7200.7) was advertised to be quiet, and it is. At the normal viewing distance for my setup (~6-8 feet), I can just barely hear the heads over the XPC's fans, which in turn seem relatively quiet except for a few seconds when the computer boots. Actually, the XPC is only about 2 db quieter than the Microtower when low frequencies down to 50 Hz are included, as shown in the table. (I used a Radio Shack sound meter to make measurements just in front of the floppy-disk openings of both computers.) The perceptible difference seems to come from frequencies above 500 Hz, where the measured difference is about 6db.
|IBM Netvista A40||Shuttle XPC SN41G2B|
|A (500-10k Hz)||63 db||57 db|
|C (50-10k Hz)||64 db||62 db|
This comparison may be a little unfair to the Shuttle because the stand that the Microtower rests in now is open in the back. By the way, the XPC wasn't so quiet initially. In fact, the floor of the TV stand acted as a sounding board for some vibration, which I first tried to minimize by placing a rubber pad under the computer. Later, when I opened the XPC to install the DVD-RAM drive, I discovered that the IDE cable for the hard disk looped downward where it could touch a fan that cools the NForce2 North bridge. This chip evidently needs active cooling because it contains the Geforce4 MX graphics controller. Having seen what the problem was (see the 2nd photo), it was a simple matter to dress the cable so that it is restrained by the adjacent memory card. There is still an intermittent, weaker vibration that seems to be located near the top of the cabinet. Because of this potential problem, I left the rubber pad in place for the time being. In the long run, to ensure reliably quiet operation, I think it may be advisable to use vibration-damping materials between the sheet-metal parts while assembling the XPC.
The block diagram below shows how this remarkably compact system supports the whole spectrum of desirable applications. The one free PCI slot accommodates an AverTV tuner/capture card, and the 5.25-inch drive bay is occupied by a Panasonic LF-D321 DVD-RAM/R Burner. The cordless joystick, mouse and keyboard are described in last-year's write up.
I am using Cyberlink Power DVD 3.0 for DVD Video playback just because I had a demo copy. I had some trouble with it crashing, but that seems to have been resolved by pruning the startup list (using msconfig under Windows 98SE). This was the first time I used the SPDIF input in my sound system. The corresponding output is on the front panel of the XPC, which is a little inconvenient because the fiber then loops out of the front of the TV stand where it might get damaged. Otherwise, it worked fine, and the NForce Control Panel turned out to be quite useful because it showed that one of the surround speakers wasn't working. It must have become disconnected the last time I moved the TV stand, which was sitting on the speaker cable. Now that I am using a software DVD player, I no longer have an infrared remote control to navigate DVD menus. The mouse works fine for me, except that its range is marginal, but other users who are not as familiar with the system usually need some help. This is a generic problem, of course. It is being addressed by, for example, Intrigue Technologies with a line of network-programmable control devices (see http://www.harmonyremote.com/ ).
Web browsing with this system is a little inconvenient for one person because the display format has to be turned down to SVGA resolution to make most pages comfortably readable. However, it is very convenient for two people, and I think family browsing could be a potentially important application in itself. Microsoft has a Social Computing Group and Henry Lieberman at the MIT Media Lab has done some work on Collaborative Web Browsing, so maybe it is starting to be recognized.
I also think PC gaming is a natural application for the PC home theater because the screen resolution is adequate and the experience is otherwise optimized by the large screen, big sound and comfortable seating. To confirm these advantages, I installed Microsoft Combat Flight Simulator 3, which worked and recognized the joystick with no problems. Later, when I wanted to start getting into the game, I discovered that Microsoft expects me to insert the physical CD each time. According to Microsoft , "It is illegal to make unauthorized copies of the game or circumvent any copy protection technology that is used."
Two different issues are being conflated here. Microsoft may not know how to prevent me from making a copy once their game is fully installed, but that's not my problem. It is just a flaw in their product or business model. I actually don't want to make an unauthorized copy, but I do want to play the game without finding and handling the distribution CD each time. It may eventually get damaged to the point that it would no longer backup that portion of the game that does get loaded into my hard drive. Then my copy of the game could be rendered useless by an unrelated problem with my system.
The word "circumvent" evidently refers to Title 17, Chapter 12, Section 1201 of the US Code . That Section does seem to say that it is illegal to "circumvent" a copy protection mechanism except in uses ruled non-infringing by the Librarian of Congress. However, it also says "Nothing in this section shall affect rights, remedies, limitations, or defenses to copyright infringement, including fair use, under this title." The issue therefore seems to be whether circumventing copy protection soley for the convenience of the licensee constitutes fair use. I believe that it should. Anyway, it seems obvious to me that prosecution for such an act would have to rely on an unreasonable search and seizure, which is prohibited by the Fourth Amendment .
My AverTV tuner card is a year old, and I thought it didn't work very well at first. After moving the card to the XPC recently, I realized that AverMedia's software relies on the user to fine-tune each channel manually. Most of my cable-provider's channels didn't work at all with the default tuning. Now I think the tuner works fine, but I still have a few problems. One minor problem is that I lose audio from the SPDIF output while recording. I can get it back at the audio receiver because the line out from the XPC is active at that time. By the way, the microphone input of the XPC seems to work ok with the line output from the AverTV card, although I would expect the wrong level. The NForce Control Panel has an option for boosting the microphone level, so maybe it should be labled as a switch from line in to microphone in.
I could not get consistent sound playback after recording with the AverTV application software, which is freely available at AverMedia's website. Next, I tried the trial version of Showshifter, still using AverMedia's WDM drivers, but the problem persisted. By then I was starting to think there must be a problem with the XPC, so I ran Norton WinDoctor and reloaded the XPC's chipset drivers. Following a recommendation posted at DVDRhelpby Jim Prince on August 19, I tried WinDVR 3with the AverMedia's WDM drivers next. This combination is now working for me except that I haven't gotten WinDVR 3 to integrate with the TitanTV electronic program guide yet. InterVideo has a patch for decrypting TitanTV, but I got an error message saying the WinDVR path could not be found. Hopefully, this problem will disappear when I get a registered copy of WinDVR 3, but I would like to confirm that before paying for it.
WinDVR 3 can, of course, record to a DVD-RAM disc inside its protective cartridge. This protection is useful if you intend to use an optical disc like a VHS cassette, because handling a disc before you are finished writing causes more problems than the same amount of handling would cause afterwards. By the way, I have also confirmed that my drive can write on a DVD-R disc inside a DVD-RAM cartridge. You might want to use this media with the extra protection of a cartridge in cost-sensitive applications where careless or excessive handling is a problem. Currently, the only source of empty DVD-RAM cartridges that I know of is Opticord, Inc. in Palatine, IL.
(last updated January 4, 2004)
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Copyright 2004, Terence J. Nelson