My Home Theater Setup

Realized I never posted about what is normally a geek’s pride and joy, my home theater. It’s been done for over a year now and have gotten to really like it. Here’s the quick rundown:

  • 42″ 720p Panasonic Plasma (TH-42PX77U)
  • Onkyo TX-SR605 A/V Receiver
  • Toshiba HD-A2 HD-DVD player
  • AV123 X-SLS tower speakers and X-CS center speaker in Palisander Natural Satin
  • HTPC/PVR running Vista
  • Adesso Wireless RF Keyboard with Touchpad (WKB-4000US)
  • FireFly RF remote

I didn’t go the cheapest route possible, but I wanted to get the most bang for my buck. I looked for the sweet spots in terms of price and planned the system with these goals in mind:

  1. Finding a TV that met my expectations
  2. Full range speakers to avoid need for subwoofer
  3. Minimal amount of cabling
  4. Minimal living room footprint
  5. DVR and media capability

Solving Goal #1 – Choosing the right TV

There’s basically three types of HDTVs: LCD, Plasma, and rear projection. LCD viewing angles can be hit and miss, some panels perform better than others, but I find picture quality lacking. Rear projection sets also suffer from viewing angle problems. That left Plasma which also happens to produce a superb picture and was a bit of a premium when I bought it (about half the price now, but that’s typical of technology). Research and comparisons sold me on the 42″ Panasonic which has a really effective anti-glare coating and just overall spectacular picture quality.

Solving Goal #2 – Getting great sound without a subwoofer

A condo isn’t exactly an audiophile’s paradise. Low frequencies like to travel in all directions and aren’t really impeded by things like walls. Hearing bass thumping through the wall is not fun and I didn’t want to be that neighbor. I was able to rule out a lot of speakers since they wouldn’t cover enough frequencies without a subwoofer. I discovered the world of internet direct speaker manufacturers and finally decided on AV123’s X series speakers which feature real wood veneers and solidly built enclosures. I made the purchase without listening to them, but after many glowing reviews and personal testimonies I knew I wouldn’t be disappointed. They’re big, but they produce great sound, very natural and transparent with a wide soundstage.

Solving Goal #3 – Reduce cable clutter with HDMI

If you hate having lots of cables, HDMI is a dream come true. High definition video and audio over one cable helps to reduce the clutter behind your entertainment center. The Onkyo 605 has HDMI upconversion so only one cable to the TV is needed if you have non-HDMI connections. I did run an optical cable down to the receiver to get audio while watching live TV. Using a 50′ HDMI I was able to get my HTPC out of sight and prevent more clutter. How many cables did I need for the entire system including power, HDMI and speakers? 11.

Solving Goal #4 – Keeping the footprint small

We don’t have a huge living room and it would be easy to over do it. With a couch and chair the only place to put a TV stand was in the corner. I found a minimalistic corner TV stand that would accept both my receiver and center speaker and fit in the corner well. The one thing I hadn’t really anticipated was placing the speakers on the side required pulling the stand out of the corner more than I would have liked. Even with it pulled out, the system only occupies one corner of the room and doesn’t really dominate the room.

Solving Goal #5 – Serving up fun with a Home Theater PC

I took a different approach than most people do with my HTPC; I didn’t want it in my living room. First off we don’t really have space for it and trying to silence a computer can become expensive. HDMI capable video cards are pretty common now so I did some research about long HDMI runs. Turns out 50′ isn’t hard to do with a lower gauge cable. This let me keep the HTPC up in the loft where I didn’t particularly care if it was silent. The Adesso keyboard and FireFly remote are both RF based and have more than enough range.

Footnote on HD-DVD and Blu-ray

I cashed in credit card rewards for Circuit City gift cards and got my HD-DVD player for free so I don’t really mind that Blu-ray won. I don’t buy movies so my migration will be fairly painless if I ever buy a Blu-ray player. I would have had to buy an upconverting DVD player anyways and the Toshiba does a great job with standard definition discs. If prices on Blu-ray computer drives keep dropping then that might the direction I go.

Computer upgrades

If you’ve never opened up a computer case in your life then you can pretty much just ignore this post.

I had been running an old WD 250gb SATA HD and an even older Seagate 200gb IDE HD and was starting to run out of room. WD and Seagate both recently came out with new 640gb drives containing two 320gb platters and I picked up the WD drive from Newegg. The higher density means these drives really move and the quick comparison I did with my old WD shows the new one to be almost twice as fast. Reads come in at 110MB/s and the old drive would average out at about 60MB/s. So far Windows seem a lot snappier with the new drive. One thing that surprised me was the old WD was idling 10°C higher than the new drive so it’s even cooler on top of being faster.

I also replaced my burner with a Samsung SATA drive, finally eliminating IDE from my computer. This let me really clean up my cabling. My old Thermaltake PSU that has served me well for the past 4 years only had 2 SATA power connectors so I replaced it with a new Corsair 450w PSU I had picked up on eBay from a seller who didn’t know what he had ($70 PSU for about $25, nice). I also put in an Audigy 2 ZS sound card I got from Creative on clearance for $20. Great card, less noise than the onboard and the mic input seems to handle my headset mic better.

All in all a pretty good upgrade. Brings my specs up to the following:

  • Antec P180 case
  • Corsair 450w PSU
  • 2GB OCZ Reaper memory
  • Gigabyte GA-P35-DS3L mobo
  • Intel Dual Core E2180
  • ATI Radeon 3870
  • WD 640gb and 250gb SATA hard drives
  • Audigy 2 ZS
  • Samsung SATA Burner

Right-Click Taskbar Atrocity

I’m on the computer pretty much all day and I consider myself a power user; I need my system to behave the way I expect to maintain productivity and sanity. Every so often something comes along that throws a wrench in that smooth operation and makes me want to flip off my monitor. Lately that wrench has been programs that decide to reinvent the wheel and change the order of the options of the taskbar right click menu. What am I talking about? Right click a program in your taskbar and look at the order, close is the bottom option right? Well let’s try another scenario, hit F1 to bring up the Microsoft’s Unhelpful Help and right-click that. You’ll probably see the same atrocity that I see below:

SERIOUSLY WHAT THE HELL! Thankfully only a handful of programs were developed by morons who thought this modification to the standard Windows experience was a good idea. One principle I follow when I do user interface design is don’t make the user think. With this right-click scenario I instinctly click the first option to close. When it doesn’t close the program I have to stop what I’m doing and figure out why my computer decided to do something different than I intended. Sorry for the rant, but these flaws are the kind of things I try to avoid in my own applications and have become more aware of.


Well not exactly like Tivo, but close enough. I had gotten tired of trying to tape shows or download them after they had showed and I wanted a better way to do things. Being the practical person I am (it also helps that I’m cheap) I decided to turn my computer into a High Definition Personal Video Recorder (HDPVR). I had been watching shows on my computer for a while and thought why not make the process easier and get better quality at the same time. Tivo would be nice but I’d rather not have to pay a monthly fee to get full functionality and I’m looking towards the future and an HD tv.

I decided on pulling down over the air (OTA) high definition because I don’t want to pay for TV and 90% of the shows I care to watch are broadcast for free. Next I bought a HD tuner card, VBOX DTA-150 ATSC HDTV receiver, and ran coax from our rooftop antenna to my room. The funny thing is you don’t need a special antenna to get HD signals but they’d probably try to sell you an “HDTV” antenna at one of the big box stores. I hooked up the 20-30 year old antenna on our roof and it works great.

Next I had to decide what software to run to manage and schedule all of my recordings and playback them back. I started off with GBPVR, open source, and it worked ok but I just wasn’t very satisfied and had to fuss with it. I looked at the commercial offerings, I didn’t want Microsoft Media Center so I tried the trial of BeyondTV. Wow, what a difference and the nicest thing about it is that it works great with minimal configuration. Trial was only for 21 days and it was reasonably priced, but they were throwing in a decent Firefly RF remote for free for a limited time so I bit and ordered it.

In this process I also found out that an hour of uncompressed HD video can take up about 6-8 GB on the hard drive so I had to order a new 250 GB Western Digital SATA drive to expand my 160 GB storage capacity to about 400 GB.

So I pretty much have all the functionality of Tivo for a fraction of the price, considering the new HD Tivo they just released is well over $600, plus the monthly $13.

Keyboards are dumb (and I make my living with them)

I have a lull in stuff to do at work and I looked at my keyboard and realized that it is quite an outdated and unfriendly piece of equipment. A line from Atom and His Package’s song on the metric system comes to mind, ” You’re drunk with your tradition / That has no validity”. Ever wonder what the scroll lock key really does (was used to allow scrolling text around the then small screens with the arrow keys)? Ever actually used it for anything? Me neither. So why is it still being placed on our keyboard even though it hasn’t been used since the 1980’s.

Most things we use are engineered for a particular use, the shifter in your car is made just to shift and P, R, N, and D all make pretty good sense. The keyboard sitting in front of you though doesn’t make sense because it is meant as a general purpose input device and this leads to a boatload of problems.

In Microsoft Word, know what the F7 button does? It brings up the spellchecker. The only way you would know that is if you have it memorized, not because it makes sense to associate function key 7 with checking your spelling. Any guesses on what the other function keys do?

The shift key is another marvel all in itself, with the addition of one key the number of available functions available on a keyboard double! So in Word, when you hit shift+F7, it no longer brings up the spellchecker, this time you get the thesaurus. In some programs like Photoshop, I’ve seen some functions being tied to triple and quadruple key presses, good for people highly proficient in the program, bad for people trying to learn it.

Some keyboard functions have become standardized simply because of the location of the keys themselves! Ctrl+X cuts text and places it memory, Ctrl+V inserts that text wherever the curser is on the screen, and Ctrl+Z undos the process. There is no real meaning tied to the Z, X, and V keys, they just happen to be the easiest to press while holding down the left Ctrl key with your pinky. I feel sorry for people without a left pinky because it would make copying and pasting a pain.

So what’s the problem? This abstract relationship between buttons and functions is not user friendly. The longer things stay the same the more people get locked into it and that makes changing things even harder. I think our biggest hope for change lies with laptops and smaller form factor devices that don’t have the real estate luxury for extraneous buttons.

Have you had any problems with your keyboard or experienced difficulty figuring out what keys actually do what?