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Our Broadband Condo: Networked Video/Television
TV and Home Theater Choices
Our most complex decisions had to do with flat-screen TVs and home theater. The United States is in the middle of a difficult and complex transition from delivering television services with traditional analog signals to using new digital signals, and from standard-defintion formats to high-defintion formats. We wanted to equip our condo with equipment and services prepared for high definition television.
For the living room we chose to use a high-definition 42" plasma screen for watching broadcast TV, for playing DVDs and videotapes, and for displaying video and pictures from our Media Center PC.
In the master bedroom we decided to install a second flat-screen high-definition TV—a 32" wall-mounted LCD. In the guest bedroom, we're using a traditional 27" analog TV; later on, we'll probably replace it with another high-definition LCD. We'll probably also add a small LCD TV in the kitchen.
We installed RG6 cabling from the structured cabling panel to distribute the cable signal to each of the TV locations and to our Media Center PC. In the living room, we connected the cable to a high-definition cable set-top box for the plasma screen.
Interconnect Cabling In Our Condo
Interconnect cabling is used to connect the outputs—video and associated audio—from one consumer electronics device to the corresponding inputs on another device (see the sidebar on interconnect cabling for a desciption of the many forms used today.)
In our condo, we saw the need for three sets of interconnect cabling:
Interconnecting Inside the Media Cabinet
We thought (naively as it turned out) that interconnecting the equipment in the media cabinet would be simple. HDMI (High-Definition Multimedia Interface) is a relatively new approach for interconnecting digital video devices. Based on the older DVI video widely available on desktop PCs, HDMI supports uncompressed high-definition digital video and multi-channel digital audio in a single cable.
Our HD cable set-top box and plasma display both support HDMI, so we thought HDMI would be the best way to interconnect them. We wanted a surround sound system, so we bought the latest Yamaha A/V receiver with HDMI inputs and outputs thinking we would use HDMI for the main interconnects. Our present DVD/VHS player doesn't have HDMI outputs, but the A/V receiver can "up-convert" from older analog formats to HDMI, so that seemed straight-forward enough.
Our first surprise was when our A/V retailer mentioned that we probably shouldn't use HDMI between the cable set-top box and the A/V receiver "for now." He said many customers were reporting compatibility problems and we were better not spending the money on an expensive HDMI cable that probably wouldn't work. So we started looking more closely at the other interconnect choices.
We read the manuals and found that our new equipment supports most of the current video and audio formats (the sidebar has a desciption of these formats):
We decided to use component video and stereo audio to connect the cable box and the DVD/VHS player to the receiver, and HDMI to connect the receiver video output to the plasma TV.
To get it working properly, we spent several hours over several days reading manuals and talking over the phone with support people. The problems were not in the interconnect cabling, but in getting the cable set-top box configured properly.
We'll reexamine these interconnects in the future. We will probably switch to one of the digital audio formats for the cable box and the DVD/VHS player, and may try HDMI from cable box to the A/V receiver.
Interconnecting the Media Center PC and the Plasma TV
The Media Center PC is not yet playing on the plasma TV, since we were unable to resolve which interconnects to use. We think we understand what may be the "best" solution but have not yet implemented it.
We now think the best solution will be to use a Windows Media Center Extender (MCX) -- a device designed to display output from a Media Center PC on a remote TV. (See our discussion of Windows Media Center Extender in CES 2004: The Future Is Here.)
Microsoft's new Xbox 360 is an HD-capable MCX with an HDMI output. An Xbox 360 would also be a nice amenity for our guests. To connect it to the Media Center PC, we'll use Ethernet over the Cat 5e cables already in place.
Xbox 360s have been hard to get. As soon as we have some time to get one and install it, we'll report on using it with the Media Center PC.
Interconnecting the Bedroom Screens
We mounted the 32" LCD TV on the wall of the master bedroom. We installed loudspeakers in the ceiling over the bed; the loudspeakers are part of the A-BUS system—they play the audio from the living room while the bedroom TV is turned off, and automatically switch over when it is turned on.
Since we did not want to clutter the bedroom wall with A/V equipment—such as another cable set-top box or DVD player—we considered how we could interconnect video from the media center receiver to the bedroom TV (A-BUS is already carrying audio to the speakers in the bedroom). Since this TV has every input format, we had a lot of choices.
The LCD is a high-definition screen and we want to provide it with an HD signal, so the only choices are component video and HDMI. We'd prefer to use HDMI, but our receiver has only one HDMI output and it's already being used for the plasma screen in the living room. We'll either use component video or figure out a way to split the HDMI signal so it can go to both screens.
For now, we've connected the LCD TV to the coaxial cable feed, which limits us to watching standard-definiton analog cable channels. Once we resolve the interconnect decision, we'll come back to the condo and run the cables so we can view high definition television programs.
"Smurf Tubes" Provide Flexibility For the Future
We pondered the interconnect choices for months, but while the walls were open we weren't able to come to a decision on how to interconnect between the media cabinet in the living room, the Media Center PC and the bedroom TVs. The electrician suggested "smurf tubes" to make it easier to run the appropriate cables once we make the decisions.
The complexity of today's cabling leads many installers to recommend "smurf tubes"—corrugated PVC flexible tubing—to provide flexibility for future cabling. (The name comes from the blue color—similar to the familiar Schleich "smurf" figurines—of the most commonly used tubing.)
The picture shows some of the "smurf tubes" in the wall; these are behind the PC outlets. We ran smurf tubes between the PC, the structured cabling panel and the media cabinet in the living room; we also ran them beween the media cabinet and the flat-screen TV in the master bedroom.
Harmony Remote Control
We originally planned to install a plasma monitor without a built-in tuner. As we thought about it, we realized that watching television would require (1) turning on the plasma display to see video, (2) turning on the home theater receiver to hear audio, and (3) turning on the cable box to tune a channel. While it would be clear to us, some guests might call us in a panic when they didn't hear the sound after turning on the TV. So we decided to spend the extra money to get a full plasma television set--with the standard RF input, guests could watch and listen as soon as they turn on the TV, and could turn on the sound system when they want the full home theater experience.
But once all the equipment was installed and working, we found that using four remote controls—the plasma TV, the A/V receiver, the cable box and the DVD/VHS player—was pretty confusing even for us. It was far from clear which remote should be used to change channels or adjust the volume.
One of our children is using the Logitech Harmony Remote at her home, and suggested that we buy one for our condo. There are several models of the Harmony remote, but they're all pretty similar.
Even before you select and buy a specific model, you can go online and configure the remote. You identify the A/V equipment being controlled, and answer some questions about interconnect cabling. Once you've decided which model to buy—we chose the Harmony 688 shown in the picture—and bring it home, you use a USB cable to connect it to your PC. The Harmony software on the PC programs the remote for your A/V equipment; then you disconnect it from the PC, bring it over to the A/V equipment and test it.
With a Harmony remote, you only need to push a single button for each standard task. For example, to watch television from the cable box in our living room, you push the "Watch TV" button. This turns on the cable box and selects the channel you want to start with; turns on the A/V receiver and selects the cable input; and turns on the plasma TV and selects the HDMI input. "Play DVD" and "Play Music" work in similar ways.
The Harmony Remote is not a perfect solution. Most A/V equipment uses the same button on the remote control for both "on" and "off". If a guest leaves the plasma TV on and turns off the other equipment in the media cabinet, pushing the "Watch TV" button will turn off the plasma TV.
But it works most of the time, and sure beats having to learn to use four separate remote controls.
Next: Looking Forward