John Galea's Blog

My blog on Gadgets and the like

Multimedia computer, the center of your digital world

Microsoft have been pitching the idea that at the center of you entertainment center will be a computer for a very long time. I bought in early using the ATI tool set to watch and record tv. I migrated to Windows Media Center quite some time ago and have really enjoyed it but the biggest challenge was somehow having a description of the movie you had on your device. This has been sadly lacking for years. Vista Media Center did little to help. A colleague at work Aaron told me about Media browser a plug in for Vista or Windows 7 Media Center. I skeptically looked at it and quickly discovered that it indeed did do exactly what I wanted. Based on the movie name (you need to be specific in how you name your movies/folders) it goes out to the net and grabs fan art, descriptions, actors the whole nine yards. It is really amazing.

Windows 7 Media Center is a nice improvement on the product. The music interface works well and is well suited to handling even large music collections, even over a network. The music interface even wisely keeps images moving on the screen to avoid plasma burn in! Nicely done Microsoft!

If you haven’t checked Windows Media Center 7 or Media Browser do … They really are the missing link!

Now onto connecting the computer to the rest of your audio equipment. For years there has been a confusing, even dizzying array of options for connecting your computer in with the rest of your audio devices. Now if your starting from scratch it is now VERY easy. Just buy everything with a HDMI jack (watch the version number 1.4 is needed if your doing 3D TV). HDMI combines high def video along with surround sound 5.1 and 7.1 audio. Now if your not then it gets confusing fast.

From a standards point of view you will see terms like 1080p. What this refers to is the number of lines of vertical resolution. 1080p is the ultimate goal. It is the highest res that is being output by a device like a blue ray player. If everything is at 1080p then you won’t loose any resolution and nothing has to be down scaled in the TV. So from a computer resolution point of view it will look like 1920×1080. Checkout the native resolution and if you can get everything to match you have the best situation. 1080i is interlaced and is not as good. 720p is the next step down.

Here’s what DVD is basically at best 720×480 for 29.97 fps.

Blue ray is defined here at best you are looking at 1920×1080.

First off video connections. You have a number of choices. The oldest being composite/S-Video. There are converters to go between these two. I discovered after some reading that there is no difference in these two from a resolution point of view. The difference is in noise tolerance. Next up you could use DVI. DVI can be converted to HDMI easily but does not include audio (HDMI includes both). Some TVs even have SVGA ports to allow direct computer connection. Check to see the native resolution on the TV. If it isn’t something your computer can not directly drive your looking at having to have the TV upscale (or downscale) to handle which never looks the best.

The audio front is even more confusing. 5.1 audio (left, right, center, rear left, rear right and subwoofer) has been the norm for years but there are newer standards for 7.1. Computers output 5.1 in a variety of different ways. Finding the best way to connect this up to your receiver/tv is at best a challenge. The most basic is with 3 stereo cables representing the 6 channels. This is tedious and expensive. Next up would be SPDIF. Problem is there are many format SPDIF can take. On my one system if you plug a mono audio cable into it you can then say this is an SPDIF cable and then convert to RCA to go into your receiver. I found this required proper driver support. I found this problematic on older hardware because I could not find Windows 7 drivers. Without these Windows 7 drivers I found it either impossible to tell it that it was an SPDIF cable or I would loose functionality. This included loosing volume control as well as loosing the ability for the receiver to properly handle the switches between stereo (music for example) and surround sound. SPDIF can also take the form of an RCA coax or lastly a optical cable. Optical cables are the easiest and by far the most common. Some TVs that have HDMI inputs allow optical out to ensure you can go from your TV to your audio receiver.

I did have trouble getting 1080p working using an SVGA cable and had to use an HDMI cable. The challenge then becomes if your receiver isn’t HDMI (as mine isn’t) then you need to insure your TV has optical out (and some do not). Fortunately on my computer it had the ability in drivers to turn the audio off on HDMI and on to an optical data. When I used HDMI out of the computer with audio and then optical out of the TV to the receiver this lead to a few complications. First off the TV had to be on all the time. While not terrible it’s nice to have the option of turning it off when you are just listening to music. Second off the computer only saw the stereo speakers of the TV rather than surround sound that was downstream of the TV. Lastly you add yet another volume control into the mix. So in the end what I chose was HDMI video only to the TV, then optical out of the computer over to the reciever.

Now this had a number of compromises. First off if I add a DVD or blue ray player then I would have to wire the video to the TV and the audio (via optical cable) to the receiver. Fortunately my receiver has two optical inputs so that works. Of course the easier solution is to add a DVD (or blue ray player) to the computer.

The other negative is the HD TV audio output would also be nice to output to the receiver which could be done using optical cables as well but then my receiver only has two optical inputs so I am looking at having to choose.

The net result is you need to think about what existing devices you need to hook up to what, how they output (and input) and how it will all interconnect. Otherwise you will end up with devices that have no hope of EVER getting hooked up. This includes your TV, receiver, DVD player, CD player (if you still have one :)) as well as computers etc.

The new world will become a much nicer place. One cable, HDMI can solve everything. It handles high def video, as well as high def audio. PCs are coming out quickly in the inexpensive range that include HDMI making it simple to solve this cabling dilemma. If your buying new TVs/receivers/computers/laptops do check on their HDMI compatibility.

January 3, 2011 - Posted by | Mutlimedia, Other reviews

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