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Random reviews - John C. Kirk

Sep. 12th, 2009

12:07 pm - Random reviews

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Technology reviews are a bit tricky, because things change so fast - if you wait a while before posting your thoughts, the specific item you're talking about probably won't be for sale anymore. Having said that, here are some comments on a few items I own; I think that they illustrate features to look for in new purchases. (There's no particular reason for this post, it's just stuff that I've been meaning to mention for a while, so it will clear some mental clutter.)

* Toshiba 27WL46B (27" LCD TV).

My previous TV (37" CRT) was a bit of a monster: it weighed 80kg, and I had to take a door off its hinges at a previous flat to get the TV through the doorway. By contrast, this one weighs 13kg, so I can just tuck it under one arm and carry it upstairs by myself, which is definitely an advantage! On the other hand, I bought it in March 2005, so it probably doesn't compare very well to modern LCD TVs; in particular, it's not HD-ready. When you watch TV, you can adjust the aspect ratio, e.g. between 4:3 and widescreen mode. A clever feature is "cinema mode": if you've got a DVD in widescreen (which would put black bars at the top/bottom of a normal TV), it will enlarge the picture as much as possible without stretching it, to get rid of those bars.

However, there are a few problems with this model. Firstly, the power button is starting to get a bit iffy: it's a "push in" button (rather than a toggle switch), and I often find that when I turn the TV on I don't get a picture; instead, the power/standby light flashes at me. The solution is to turn it off, wait for the light to stop flashing (which takes about five seconds), then push the button in as firmly as I can and hold it for a couple of seconds. It was fine when I first bought the TV, but nowadays I find that it takes me two or three attempts to turn the TV on. This may be because they assume that people will just put it on standby (i.e. using the remote control rather than the button on the TV itself), or it may be that it's not built to last; either way, it's a bit annoying.

Another issue is sound. My old TV had surround sound speakers, but on this one I'm just using the speakers that are built into the sides of it. (I don't think there's actually any way to connect external speakers.) Most of the time that's fine, but some of my DVDs (e.g. the Star Trek films) are in 5.1 surround sound, and I miss out on some of the sound, i.e. the things that would normally be played through the rear speakers don't get played at all. The only workaround for that is to use headphones, where it automatically adjusts, and plays all the sound through the two speakers (one each side); I don't know why it doesn't do that normally.

Speaking of headphones, that's the biggest problem. If I'm watching TV in the evening, I use headphones so that I don't disturb my neighbours. With my old TV, plugging the headphone wire in would automatically divert the sound, i.e. it would play through the headphones instead of the speakers, and I'd use the normal volume control. With this TV, the headphones and speakers are independent, i.e. if I plug in headphones then I still get sound coming out of the speakers. So, I then have to mute the TV, which means I get a little box saying "Sound muted" in the corner of the screen, and that's a bit distracting. Similarly, there's a separate volume control for the headphones, which you access via an on-screen menu. This led to problems early on: I'd sit there with the speakers muted, and out of habit I'd use the volume control on the remote to increase the volume on my headphones. However, this would turn off mute and pump up the volume on the speakers instead; I often didn't realise this until I took the headphones off to go to the kitchen/toilet, several minutes later. I suppose there are situations where this might be useful: if you have one person (e.g. an elderly relative) who's hard of hearing, they can use headphones with the volume cranked up high, while everyone else listens to the speakers at a lower volume. However, in my case it's just a nuisance. I could turn the speaker volume down to zero when I use headphones, to get rid of the "Mute" message on the screen, but then it's a bit more hassle to turn it back up if I'm not using headphones.

It didn't occur to me to ask about headphone volume when I bought the TV, but I'll certainly pay attention to it when I replace this one. This may be an advantage to using a high street shop (rather than buying online), so that you can poke at the controls and see how they work.

* Panasonic RP-WF930 (wireless headphones).

Generally speaking, I'm not keen on wireless technology. For instance, wireless networks will never be as fast as ethernet cables, and they introduce security risks. At my last house, we had a wireless doorbell, but it kept going off when nobody was at the door; our best theory was that it got triggered by a kid using a radio controlled car outside. We also tried a cordless phone, but there was so much interference that it was unusable, so we replaced it with a cabled version.

Having said that, cabled technology also has its drawbacks. In particular, I used to use cabled headphones for my TV, but then a few times I got up to wander into the kitchen and forgot that I was still tethered to the TV until I felt my head get yanked back. Eventually this broke the headphones, so I needed replacements, and I decided to try wireless ones instead. These actually work pretty well: I haven't had much trouble with interference, and they have a decent range, so I can go downstairs to put rubbish outside (I live on the 1st floor) while still listening to the TV. Mind you, this is something of a mixed blessing: I got into the habit of using the TV as a radio, i.e. I'd flip to a music channel in the lounge, and then use the headphones to listen to it in my bedroom. That's a bit wasteful, and my electricity bill has gone down since I stopped doing that.

The headphones use rechargable batteries, so there's a base unit that sits next to the TV, and I put them back on that to recharge. Here's a photo of how they're supposed to look:
Unfortunately, I can never get them to balance like that, and if the earpiece with the power connector doesn't go in straight then they don't get recharged. So, my approach is to open them a bit further, and put the other earpiece on the table next to the base unit.

The headphones have their own volume control built into one side, which gets around the problem I mentioned above (using the TV remote control by mistake). I used to find that there was quite a lot of hissing, and the workaround was to crank up the headphone output volume on the TV to maximum, then turn down the volume on the headphones themselves. So, the limitations of the TV and headphones are more or less balancing each other out!

The related issue is that there's a power saving feature built in: if the headphones don't hear anything for a couple of minutes then they cut out, and you have to "reboot" them (i.e. turn the power off then back on again). This was a problem when I watched Cast Away, since there are long stretches when nobody's talking, so I had to keep flicking the power switch every few minutes.

* Samsung B130 (mobile phone).

When I bought this, I specifically looked for a basic model: all I want to do is make phone calls and send text messages, so I don't need a video camera built in or anything like that. It doesn't have predictive text; I hated that idea when I first came across it (on a previous phone), but I wound up getting quite used to it, so I do miss it a bit on this phone. Still, that's part of the design spec, so I can't complain. The main problem with this phone is that you can't type apostrophes in text messages. The only punctuation marks are .,-?!@:()/ This means that whenever I send a message, I either have to sound like Data and avoid abbreviations ("I do not know") or I have to write like an illiterate teenager by leaving out the punctuation ("I dont know"). So, if you get a text message from me that seems to be a bit formal/stilted, that's why!

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[User Picture]
Date:September 12th, 2009 05:48 pm (UTC)
Unless you have a Blu-Ray player, a console with HD output or you watch HD channels on the TV a lot, you don't really need to worry about HD TVs for the time being. By the time you replace it, you won't be able to get one that *isn't* HD, by which point you may have found a need for one :-) We got a "HD-Ready" one (720p instead of the full HD 1080p), which is connected to the XBox. It's worth noting that when you do replace your telly, you may also need to factor in the cost of a new DVD player too. More recent players have hardware/software built in to "upscale" standard definition DVDs to higher definition screens, in an effort to hide some of the more obvious effects of displaying an SD picture on a much higher resolution screen. When your TV does finally get replaced, it's worth doing a bit of research - after all, replacing all your DVDs with Blu-Ray will not be a particularly cheap endeavour (though I guess you already suffered the VHS to DVD transition, so you know how it goes).

On the wireless front, we find having wireless internet access in the flat very useful, and have a cordless phone too. Obviously, if you have your flat wired up with ethernet cabling to start with, you don't really need to bother ;-)

I think the impending problem we may face in terms of wireless consumer electronics is the somewhat overcrowded portion of spectrum these devices uses. What with wi-fi, bluetooth, cordless phones, A/V senders and baby monitors, there are more and more things out there that use the currently available frequencies. I haven't had a problem with it yet, but I reckon we'll need to free up a bit more spectrum for wireless stuff soon or else it will start to be an issue, especially for those in higher density housing.
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[User Picture]
Date:September 12th, 2009 05:57 pm (UTC)
Thanks - I'm not in any hurry to replace my TV. For now, I figure that there's no point upgrading the TV because I don't have Blu-Ray or Sky HD, and there's no point getting Blu-Ray or Sky HD until I have an HD TV :)

I thought that Blu-Ray players could handle DVDs too, so I wouldn't have to replace all my disks unless I specifically wanted high-res versions? In lots of cases, I'm not sure whether that would be an option, e.g. old 80s films. Personally, I'd like to see Blu-Ray used as a way to reduce storage space, e.g. an entire season of "Babylon 5" on a single disk, at the same picture quality we have now. However, I doubt that will ever happen.
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[User Picture]
Date:September 14th, 2009 02:44 pm (UTC)
Oh of course, yes, as far as I know the Blu-Ray devices will generally play normal DVDs too, so I guess you wouldn't have to replace them. You would, however, have to resist the temptation, or at least make sure the Blu-Ray player you got was decent at upscaling.

Unfortunately, you can't get a whole series of B5 onto a Blu-Ray disc in 1080p HD resolution, which is the main point of Blu-Ray :)
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