Sound and vision

Not long after we moved house in 2008 I bought a lovely big screen TV: a 46″ Panasonic TH-46PZ85EA plasma that has made me very happy. (At the time it seemed (was) enormous, but over time I’ve come to think that I could have gone a liiiittle bit bigger. With the smaller bezels on TVs these days a 50″ model would probably take up less space, and maybe a 60″ wouldn’t look out of place. Until OLED displays get better and cheaper, I still prefer plasma to LCD. Panasonic are going to stop making plasma screens, maybe 3D is just a fad, and I really don’t want a “smart” TV. I just want a dumb monitor with awesome picture I can plug smart things into. So maybe the time is coming to upgrade while I still can…)

What has been lacking from this lovely viewing experience is sound. The layout of our living room doesn’t allow for a surround sound setup. A good set of stereo speakers would fit, though, and that would also allow me to play music downstairs on something other than tinny iPod/iPad plug-ins. So just before Christmas I went on the hunt for some speakers, which inevitably led me to a search for an AV receiver, which turned out to be the trickier problem. The cabinet on which our TV stands has slots that are tall enough for a game console or a cable STB, but full-size AV receivers are enormous. I had to look for a “slim” model, which immediately cut back on choice.

I’m not an audiophile. I knew that anything I chose would sound an order of magnitude better than the Panasonic’s unremarkable built-in speakers. (A bit like getting an SSD to replace a spinning metal hard disk.) So although I read a whole bunch of reviews, my selection eventually came down to price and features. At least 5 HDMI inputs was a hard requirement, because I’m anticipating hooking up at least a PS4, XBox One, cable box, and an Apple TV over the next few years, and every now and then I’ll probably want to plug in my laptop or something else as well. YPbPr component video input was also a must-have, because we haven’t moved up to an XBox One quite yet, and I still need to hook up the 360. And we still have a Wii, so a legacy composite video input was also necessary.

Built-in wi-fi and Airplay streaming were unnecessary, because I had a spare Airport Express that would bridge the house wireless network to wired ethernet, and I’d be plugging in an Apple TV for Airplay. The aforementioned room layout meant that 7.1 channels instead of 5.1 and various high-end Dolby Pro Logic features were not selling points for me. I can’t see me getting a 4K TV any time in the next few years, so 4K support was also irrelevant. On the other hand, upconversion (as opposed to upscaling) from SD analog to HD digital was something I realy wanted, because I liked the idea of running a single HDMI cable from the receiver to the TV, not a different set of wires for each type of video.

When price is a consideration, it definitely makes sense to look at previous years’ models, because the receiver I eventually settled on was the Marantz NR1603, rather than the more recent NR1604. The NR1603 doesn’t have 4K like the NR1604, and only has 5 rear HDMI inputs instead of 6 (both with 1 front HDMI), but because it’s older it’s also significantly cheaper. For speakers, I got a pair of Wharfedale Diamond 122s. The Marantz doesn’t have the outputs for bi-wiring them, but they fill the room with a sweet enough sound anyway (not an audiophile, remember).

The first time I plugged it all together and played a movie through the new setup, my reaction was: “Wow! Stereo separation!” The receiver’s on-screen UI is fiddly, the remote control is ridiculous, and the iOS app for controlling it remotely just flat-out sucks ass, but once everything is configured it’s great. Games and video are much richer experiences with good sound; toggling from the stereo speakers to the TV’s built-ins shows what a difference it makes. I’m looking forward to enjoying this new arrangement for many years to come.

Something old, something new

We bought a car on Friday. (In fact, we bought it two weeks ago, but the infuriatingly slow Dutch bureaucracy meant that we couldn’t actually take possession of it until yesterday.)

Vauxhall Astra, circa 1989Despite having driven many other cars over the years, this is actually only the second car Abi and I have owned. The first one was a sky blue 1989 Vauxhall Astra (G934 PHS). We bought it for £3500 in 1995 when I got my first teaching job. We were living in Leith, but the school was in West Lothian, and it took me the best part of an hour to get out there in the morning. I only lasted three months in the job, but even though it was a drain on our finances, we kept the car for a few years after that.

That car was also the source of the sunpig moniker. Abi has a variety of hand-painted cars in her childhood, and we joked about painting a bright yellow sun on the sky-blue hood of the Astra. I have always thought that Astras of that era look like pigs when seen from the side, so even though we never followed through on the paint job, the car became the Sun Pig.

The intervening cars never acquired names, but we are starting to call this new one (a green Daewoo Matiz from 2000, for €4000) the Turtwig, or Turty for short. Turtwig, as you probably know, is one of the starter Pokémon you are offered in Pokémon Diamond and Pearl. It’s an obvious choice, as I’m sure you’ll agree they look uncannily similar.


Also on Friday, I set up my old Mac Classic on my desk. This is the first computer I bought myself, back in the summer of 1991. It saw duty until late early 1996 (still running OS 6), at which point I assembled Frankenstein, my first Windows PC. Frank has evolved (like a Pokémon) since then, and he is still my main computer. You can see Frank and the Mac side-by-side on my desk in the photo below.

Frank and the Mac

The Mac still works perfectly. Alex has been enjoying Sim City (version 1.4), and Fiona has been discovering the joys of SuperPaint. (The Fool’s Errand is still a bit beyond them, though.) The main reason I brought the Mac with me to the Netherlands was so that I could spend some time extracting all the old files if have on it, and converting them into more durable and open formats. It’s too old to have digital photos on it (it has a 9″ black and white, not even grayscale screen, and a 40MB hard disk), but it has a whole lot of text and email, most of it in Word documents and Compuserve filing cabinet archives.

Pipe Dream High ScoresBut it was the game Bioshock that provided the impetus to actually set it up this week. Why? Bioshock features a hacking mini-game that is based on Pipe Dream, which is one of the games I played most on the Mac, and I felt hugely nostalgic for it. It’s still a great game.

(Incidentally, the Mac version of Pipe Dream was coded by Eric Johnson, a friend of Abi’s. We went white-water rafting with Eric in 1992, and as I was digging through old photos this evening to see if I could find any of the original Sun Pig, I found some snapshots of that trip. Wow. I think I have a lot of negative scanning to do this winter.)

At the same time as I’ve been feeling nostalgic for old-skool Macs, so have other people: Peter Merholz posted some pictures of the original Macintosh user manual last week, and earlier today Steven Poole was reminiscing about how good version 5 of Microsoft Word was.

He is absolutely right. The ribbon interface in Office 2007 makes me weep. But every time I see it, it reminds me how little I actually use “Word documents” these days. Most of my word processing is all about the text, and for the purposes of editing, preserving, and archiving text, MS Word is more than just overkill, it’s actively counter-productive.

I may have been PC-based for the last decade, but I’m returning to my Mac roots. The Mac Mini was just a taster. My new work laptop is a MacBook Pro, and my eye is on one of those new 24″ iMacs once Leopard drops.

Everything old is new again.

2006 in review: Games and gadgets

The Legend of Zelda: Twilight PrincessI wouldn’t say that we’re obsessed with gaming in our household, but we did somehow manage to acquire four new games consoles in 2006. Okay, so two of them were handhelds, but still:

  • a GameBoy Advance for Fiona
  • a shiny new DS Lite for me
  • an XBox 360 for the family (honest)
  • a Wii

The tipping point for the XBox 360 came in September, when Lego Star Wars Lego II came out. We had bought a new “HD ready” LCD TV (720p only, not 1080) over the summer, but we didn’t have any HD sources for it yet. We had to get Lego Star Wars II, of course, and the 360 version was in HD, and so was reported to be the best-looking of all the multi-platform versions. So it was just common sense to buy a 360 to play it on.

Game of the year, though, is without a doubt Zelda: Twilight Princess. I got a Wii at launch, and Zelda kept the whole family occupied over the entire Christmas and New Year period. We finally finished it early in January after clocking up about 200 hours of play time on our various save games.

Other games that were fun during the year were New Super Mario Bros on the DS, and Geometry Wars on the 360. I finally finished Halo 2 as well, which was tedious and had an annoying cliffhanger ending. But nothing else even came close to Lego Star Wars or Zelda.

I’m going to be facing an interesting choice over the next week or so, as various shops in the UK start taking pre-orders for the PlayStation 3. There’s no way I’m going to camp out in front of a real-world shop to get one, nor do I have any intention of buying one on eBay for more than the standard retail price. But if I could get my hands on a pre-ordered one from an online retailer? Hmm.

Arguments in favour:

  • It would replace our (old, noisy) PS2 with a quieter console with wireless controllers. (Apart from the N64, the PS2 is the last bastion of tangle-friendly wired controllers.)
  • It would give us a high-def video player without having to buy an HD-DVD add-on for the 360. And seeing as we’ve got one of the loud 360s (even without a disc in it, it sounds like a Tornado on take-off), I don’t think I want to use it as a player, anyway.
  • We could afford it right now, whereas money is likely to be tighter after the summer and the move to NL.
  • High resale value of it doesn’t work, or if I fancy a sudden infusion of cash.

Arguments against:

  • There isn’t a single PS3 exclusive either at launch or on the horizon that I want to play.
  • By the time there are PS3 titles I want to play, the console will be cheaper.

Hmm. Brain says no. Gadget Fever says OOH OOH SHINY WANT.

Gadget Fever needs a slap.

(And this is finally the last of the “best of 2006” entries. I’ll move on to talking about some of the interesting things we’ll be doing in 2007 soon.)


The more work I do inside Virtual Machines, the more I think my PC is coming ripe for an upgrade. An addional factor is the amount of Photoshop work I’ve been doing lately, including our annual photo albums.

For Christmas each year, Abi binds a set of albums, and we fill them with a selection of the best photos we’ve taken of Alex and Fiona. I don’t normally do much retouching of the images, but when Liza visited us earlier in the year, she enlightened me about the proper use of levels, curves, and colour balance. I’ve been practicing with these tools since then, and they are enormously useful. However, doing the photo albums is the first time I’ve used them for full-page, 600dpi print work. That means images of 6400 x 4100 pixels, and it doesn’t take too many of them to kill teh snappy.

So I’m pondering a few upgrades for Frankenstein:

  • AMD Athlon64 X2 (dual core) processor. Dual core is gooood. The 4400+ is the sensible choice, I think. The 4800+ is too expensive for too little added benefit. The 3800+ is cheaper, but given that the 4400+ has both a speed bump and twice the L2 cache, the cost difference is probably worth it.
  • Asus A8N-SLI SE motherboard. A new CPU means a new motherboard, unfortunately. This one supports all the features I need, and is reasonably priced.
  • 256Mb Gigabyte PCI-E Geforce 6600 with SilentPipe (GV-NX66256DP). A mid-range card, because I’m not overly concerned about gaming performance (although it should certainly be good enough for another year or so). However, a chunky integrated heat sink allows it to run without a fan. Another option would be the higher-spec 256Mb Asus PCI-E EN6600GT-Silencer, but I’m not sure if it’s worth it. Given how I use the PC, less money on the graphics setup means more money to go on the CPU.
  • 2GB DDR400 RAM. Lots of memory is gooood. 2GB would allow me to run several virtual machines at the same time.

Hmm. Next year…

Unwrapping the iPod

I’ve had my iPod (4G, 20GB) for a year now, and it has proved to be a fabulous purchase. I love music, and the combination of iPod and has had me listening to more music than ever. It has got me listening to podcasts, too, although I haven’t found many that I like, and that have stayed enjoyable over time. (I mostly tune in to diggnation, Ebert & Roeper’s movie reviews, and The Movie Blog (although their move to a near-daily schedule has–curiously–meant that I listen to it less often).

Via podcasts I’ve checked out a few video podcasts, and it’s these little slices of video that have convinced me that mobile video is actually pretty cool. I never used to think that I’d enjoy–or even use–a mobile video device, mostly because I had only been thinking about watching films on a portable device. For me, a film is something that I take time out for to sit down and watch, either at home or at the cinema. But video podcasts (vodcasts, vlogs, whatever) and TV shows are things that I am happy squeezing into whatever niche my day provides–usually in the background while I’m doing other stuff in the evening.

So when the video iPod appeared last month, I was rather excited. They’re gorgeous things, and I would easily choose one over the PSP, which, despite having a better and large screen, suffers from a lack of storage, and doesn’t have the small and sexy form factor of the iPod.

Seeing the new iPods, and drooling over their clean lines and smooth surfaces, made me think about the iPod that I have right now. Although its tactile nature was one of the reasons I bought it, I had actually been carring it in a bulky protective plastic case for most of the year. The case did a great job of protecting the iPod from the bumps and grinds of daily life, but it also took away the sensual pleasure of just holding the thing. I had been so concerned about keeping it pristine that I had lost sight of why I had bought an iPod instead of any other MP3 player: because I simply loved its design.

iPod naked
With case

iPod in its case
Without case

I’ve been using it without the case for a month or so now, and although it has gathered a bunch of scuff marks, it still looks great. And it feels great. I’ve rediscovered the sheer joy of picking it up and twirling my thumb around the clickwheel to change the track or playlist.

The other effect that unwrapping my iPod has had, is that my craving for one of the new 5G video iPods has (mostly) disappeared. I wouldn’t kick it out of bed for eating crackers, but I don’t need one. The extra capacity of a 60GB model would be nice, but now that I’ve got a strategy for managing my playlists, I’m managing fine with 20GB. Photos and video would both be fun, but the main reason I have and use an iPod is for listening to music, and even with a new model, I don’t think that would change. Basically, I’m happy now with the one I have.

(That doesn’t mean I’m taking it off my wish list, any more than I’m scrapping the idea of buying a Porsche…just that it remains in the “wish” category instead of “need to buy this next time I’m down the shops.” If we win the lottery, you’ll know where to find me.)

New Apple gear

  • New iMac, with built-in iSight camera, media centre features, and a remote control. Yum.
  • iTunes 6, with video store. Buy music videos, films, and TV shows–presumably all at an iPod-appropriate resolution (320 x 240). (Can it rip DVDs, though, is the big question? I’m in the process of installing now to find out…) Whatever–yum.
  • New iPods WITH VIDEO. 30GB and 60GB models. YUM YUM YUM.

new iPod with video

I’ve had my Mac Mini for a month now, and I’m liking it enough to say that I could definitely see myself buying another Mac in the future. But the iPod video? HOLY CRAP I WANT ONE NOW.

(Probably not, though, with my birthday and Christmas not too far away. Hi, Abi! I love you honey!)

Updates 12 Oct at 20:57 :

  • It looks like the UK iTunes Music Store is lagging somewhat behind the US one…the selection of music videos on offer for purchase is slim, and there appear to be no TV shows on offer–yet.
  • Music videos also appear to be more expensive in the UK vis-a-vis the American store, as compared to music tracks. (£1.89 / $1.99 for a music video as opposed to £0.79 / $0.99 for a song.)
  • You need Quicktime 7.0.3 to play purchased tracks, but Apple hasn’t made this available from their Software Update site yet. (It’s there now.)
  • I can’t see any option to rip DVD movies directly into iTunes, and thence onto the iPod. (Maybe this will be available with QT 7.0.3? Or will you need something like Quicktime Pro to do the encoding? Hmm. Seems like they’re missing an integration trick here.)