Catsy (amezuki) wrote,

The Great White Upgrade Saga

Apparently Catsy has done something right: I got a bonus this year. I think this may actually be the first time I've ever gotten a bonus (as opposed to just a raise) from any place I've ever worked. Thus began the mixed blessing of having to decide what to spend a chunk of money on, whether to put it away, use it for debts, or go for the rare splurge.

My reasoning played out more or less as follows: I do not have a small salary. When both Jess and I are working, and things do not suck, we have a fair amount of money coming in on a regular basis and can reasonably expect to save up for most small- to medium-ticket items in the short run without much difficulty, requiring only the discipline to actually bother to do so. With this in mind, it seemed to me that I should use this bonus for the things that I would never actually buy if I had to save up for them.

After much thought, this led me to only one conclusion. This was the time to dramatically upgrade the home theater.

Some explanation is in order. Our home theater system, as of last week, consisted of the following:

  • Mitsubishi WS-A65, 65" DLP HDTV - purchased secondhand from cthulu_bunny a few years ago
  • Sony STR-DG800 Receiver
  • Xbox, networked to the file server as a media center - Composite
  • Xbox 360, as gaming console and primary DVD player - Component
  • PS2, as gaming console - Component
  • TiVo Series 2 - Composite
  • 5.1 Speakers

All components connect through their noted inputs to the receiver, which then output to the back of the TV via component. TV sound is off, all sound outputs through the receiver to the speaker system.

There were severe limitations with this setup. The weakest link, oddly enough, was the TV. I purchased it with full knowledge of its worst limitation: it was completely inadequate for receiving video output from a computer. In order to have PC video appear on a TV without looking like intolerably blurry dogshit, you must be in a progressive scan mode, as opposed to interlaced. The WS-A65 is only capable of 480p/720i/1080i, which means that I would only be able to connect a PC at 640x480 resolution. Needless to say, that kind of resolution hasn't been acceptable or useful for more than ten years. I would be able to play DVDs and video, but no better than my Xbox already could. PC gaming would be out of the question.

In other words, hooking up an HTPC was going to require a new TV, one capable of 1080p. I could probably get a 720p TV relatively cheaply, but it would be much smaller, and I didn't see a lot of point in spending all that money to upgrade to an only marginally more tolerable desktop resolution of 1280x720.

Okay, this is the point where I freely acknowledge: yes, I'm spoiled. I am spoiled by a TV with a screen almost as wide as I am tall, and I am spoiled by the expectation of PC gaming at ridiculously high resolutions, by what in my world I consider "bare minimum". I list my grievances with my A/V setup with no desire for sympathy, and a solid sense of perspective: most people would kill to have our "limitations". This is a story, and a story requires background. Now, with that out of the way…

Despite seeking advice from people who have done this before, I nevertheless ended up coming back again and again to what is essentially this year's model of the same TV I had before: the Mitsubishi WD-C657, a Costco-exclusive model of Mitsu's 65" DLP 1080p HDTV. In so doing I accepted that in exchange for brand confidence and familiarity, I would not have the (admittedly quite rare) feature of having 1080p through component (only HDMI), and that I would have to handle overscan on my video card. Neither are a big deal. It was on sale, and because of this had the unique virtue of costing less with the stand included than most of the comparable TVs cost without the stand, the latter of which is frequently at least $300-400.

This led me to my first major challenge: juggling the logistics of selling my old TV and getting the new one delivered, with a gaping empty wound in my living room for the least amount of time.

Costco does not do delivery, except from their web site, which did not have the TV. What they do is have a collection of business cards for other companies that do delivery. I was lucky enough to run into a Costco employee who also happened to assist part time with his friend's delivery company, and he helped set up the logistics. I put in a Craigslist ad, which was answered by a kid moving into his own apartment. Things with the kid fell through, but his dad ended up taking the TV--although that was a little saga of its own, as he was… let's be charitable and call him colorful. I won't dwell.

The very moment he had my old TV loaded onto his truck and drove off, I virtually teleported to Costco and bought the new TV. Fast forward to the delivery guys unloading it and assembling the stand and everything, after which I began the first of many days of technological cockblocking. The TV itself? Absolutely fantastic. Beautiful. Works like a charm. Everything else, though, seems to have been designed by the architect of fate, back at each junction in time where I made the choice to buy one thing or another, to not fucking work in any way that is remotely useful to human beings who actually want to use them for their intended purpose and have them not abjectly suck out loud.

First, the receiver. Let's get this out of the way: this receiver sucks rhinoceros dicks. I doubt that I will buy another Sony receiver for a long time. The why will become apparent as I go through each device in turn.

Xbox 360: First released in 2005. The first version of the HDMI standard emerged in 2002. Nevertheless, some barking fucktard at Microsoft decided that when creating their next-gen console--designed to support resolutions up to 1080p--it was unnecessary to provide the HDMI port necessary to actually do so. Even better, when over the next few years it became abundantly clear that HDMI was here to stay, Microsoft refused to produce any kind of adapter for HDMI--instead, they opted to fuck their existing customers, and release a new revision of the 360 with an HDMI port. Want HDMI with a 360? Buy a new one. Fuck you very much. Net improvement over the old TV: can do 720p rather than 1080p. DVDs look a little clearer.

PS2: Our PS2 is dying, and I don't feel like buying a new one. I would, however, like to continue being able to play PS2 games. I would also like to be able to enjoy hi-def DVDs, and since the format war is clearly over, that means Blu-Ray. Unfortunately, one area where Microsoft does not hold an effective monopoly is in the category of inexplicable, inexcusable, mouth-breathing retarded business decisions. Of these, Sony has more than their fair share, and their latest and greatest monumental fuckup is to abandon backwards compatibility with the PSX and PS2. You see, the PS3 originally had two versions: the 20GB and 60GB. Both had the guts of a PS2 inside them, which meant that they effectively had native, near-perfect backwards compatibility on a hardware level. This was made of awesomeness and win. These have now been discontinued in favor of the 40GB and 80GB versions. The 40 has no backwards compatibility whatsoever, and the 80GB has limited support through software emulation, in which many games are quite glitchy. Presently I have a 60GB refurb coming to me from Ebay, which I am really hoping does not turn into yet another entry in the saga of "why Catsy must get buttfucked by Murphy's law every time he tries to upgrade in any significant way". I've got a few Blu-Ray movies waiting to be tested out.

HTPC: This was the Holy Grail, the central purpose of the upgrade from my perspective--the ability to connect a computer to the TV and play games or watch media from our file server, LCARS. In order to do this, I need to route the video from the computer through an HDMI input on the TV, and split the sound off to go to the receiver. I do not currently have an HTPC, but my gaming computer is pretty beefy, so I've been annoying everyone in the house by dragging it out to the living room and screwing around with it.

For all the horror stories I've heard, connecting the video was the easiest part. A male-male DVI-I cable plus a DVI-HDMI adapter did the trick, and I got picture almost instantly. Overscan was easy to deal with, as Nvidia's drivers gave me a custom resolution that looks great and keeps everything on the screen. I do have a problem with some games that don't support custom resolutions, but those are few and far between these days. If it really makes a difference, the video card drivers can also resize the desktop dynamically, but I don't particularly like the way this looks. Perhaps I'll play with it more.

The sound is where I take a trip to shittytown, and apparently my experience is not unique. You see, 5.1 PC sound cards are able to output sound in one of three ways: 5.1 analog split between three stereo jacks, green for front, black for rear, and orange for sub/center; digital out, and optical out. Receivers, too, have analog multi-channel, digital coax, and optical TOSLINK inputs. Apparently, at some point in history, some short-bus student at Creative Labs had a brainstorm--or in this case, a light drizzle--and said to themselves, "lots of people are connecting their computers to a stereo receiver these days, and almost all of them have surround sound. I think we should include digital and optical outputs on our sound cards. But I don't want to confuse them with those funky TOSLINK and coaxial RCA cables, so I'm going to make the outputs for these 3.5mm minijacks instead. What's even more awesome is that we're going to assume, against all evidence, that every game or app you'd ever want to use is going to use the default DirectSound device and be capable of encoding a Dolby 5.1 signal."

The end result? You cannot actually get digital or optical output from Creative cards without buying a very nonstandard adapter, which you basically have to order online because nobody locally carries it. And once you do manage to get output, it's going to be in 2-channel stereo. And you won't even get that in many apps, especially older ones, because you have to either specifically select digital output, or entrust the whole matter to DirectSound.

So digital and optical were out. That left analog, and this is where the problem stops being Creative's fault as we encounter the Sony receiver's unique flavor of fail and suck. In order to output 5.1 through analog, you have to get three 3.5mm > RCA y-adapter cables, plug them into the front/rear/sub¢er jacks, and individually connect the RCA ends to the multi-channel analog inputs on the receiver. My receiver has said inputs. What is not clear is why they exist--or more precisely, how in the name of Apophis Sony intends for them to a used for anything other than adding weight to the unit. After exhaustive troubleshooting on web forums and in the manual, it seems that the multi-channel input selection only uses the two front speakers for output. It is physically impossible to force the receiver to use any other speakers, or to be in any output mode other than 2ch, when multi-channel input is selected.

For all intents and purposes, all of the multi-channel analog inputs other than the front left and right seem to be completely and totally vestigial.

What's even more mind-boggling about this is that almost everyone else seems determined to imitate Creative's stupefyingly moronic design, presumably because everyone knows what a Soundblaster is. There is a huge niche to be had for the company brave enough to create sound cards for people who build HTPCs. I discussed this with a few people who have built HTPCs before, and they commiserated with me on this market failure.

Or so I thought. By chance, when digging through web forums, I found mention of a sound card by an obscure (to me, at least) company called AuzenTech, call the XMystique. It is now discontinued, but they have a newer model called the XPlosion, and a high-end model based on Creative's X-Fi chipset called the Prelude.

I'm afraid to hope, because from everything I've read so far they seem to have done everything right. They have Vista support, both 32-bit and 64-bit. They have a feature on the card called Dolby Digital Live, which takes the 5.1 output from the sound card and encodes it properly for the digital or optical connection. They have proper TOSLINK and RCA outs. And they are not obscenely expensive. I'm probably going to order the Xplosion, though I'm contemplating saving up a little longer and getting the Prelude, since it has full EAX 5.0 support.

Anyway. At the endof the week, between cables and adapters and devices I have spent somewhere inthe neighborhood of $3000, had close to half a dozen cycles of returning shit to Radio Shack or Best Buy, and have encountered more technological cockblocks than I can recall from any other upgrade in recent memory. But it looks damn nice, and once the PS3 arrives it will--knock on wood--look even better. And once I save up the money to rebuild LCARS as a proper HTPC, instead of mucking up the living room by dragging my computer back and forth, my mission will be accomplished.

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