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Week of 26 April 2010


Latest Update: Sunday, 2 May 2010 10:18 -0400

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Monday, 26 April 2010
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08:15 - It's starting to feel like a third-world country around here. We had a 4.5 hour power outage yesterday, which followed a 5 hour power outage earlier in the week. The rest of the week, our UPSs were beeping intermittently, usually several times a day.

During the first outage, I was surprised when I called 1-800-POWERON. Usually, Duke Power's automated outage reporting system gives an estimated time for restoration of power, and until this time that estimate had always been pessimistic. Usually, for example, they'd estimate two hours and it'd actually take 45 minutes. This time, they estimated four hours and it took five. Yesterday, the power failed about 17:15 and 1-800-POWERON estimated it would be restored by 20:30. The power finally came back on about 21:45.

In the past, 1-800-POWERON never reported the problem, but yesterday they claimed it was caused by "severe weather in the Winston-Salem/Lewisville area." That was disturbing, because there wasn't any severe weather. It was warm and sunny. Breezy, but that certainly doesn't count as severe weather. Nothing at all on weather radar.

I'm still cranking away on the new edition of Building the Perfect PC. Right now, I'm working on the Media Center System chapter. We built media-center/Home-Theater PCs for the first two editions, but we ended up never using them, mainly because they focused on recording programs. We watch so little TV that we had no real use for them. This time, we're building a media-center system that doesn't even have a tuner card installed. What's the point? Anyone who wants to record programs probably already has a TiVo or a PVR box from the cable/satellite company. Or, as in our case, a DVD recorder.

I note that, although Windows 7 still includes the media-center functionality in some versions, dedicated HTPCs with tuner cards are no longer widely available. When we did the prior edition of the book, they were all over the place. Every Sunday Supplement had flyers from Best Buy and others featuring scads of these systems. New Egg had a couple of dozen. Even Sears sold them. I just checked the Best Buy and Costco websites, as well as NewEgg, Dell, HP, and others. No one offers PCs with tuner cards any more.

Which isn't to say there's no use for a true media-center PC. We're building an audio-video system for our entertainment center that'll do just about anything related to audio-video except record television. And it'll be quite useful, particularly coupled to a 1080p HDTV, which'll allow it function as a general-purpose PC as well. That'll finally give Barbara a den system. I've offered to build her one several times over the years, but she never wanted to clutter up her end table with a monitor. Having the TV be her monitor will solve that problem. I'll still have a small den system of my own, probably Intel Atom-based, because sometimes when she's watching TV I want to browse the web or whatever.

We're also replacing the Gaming PC configuration that we did for each of the first two editions with an "Extreme PC" configuration. We're not PC gamers, so each time we built one of those configurations we'd end up converting it to a very fast general-use PC. So this time, we'll do an extreme PC, which could be configured for gaming, but could also be configured for other purposes that require very fast performance, such as a video production system.



11:26 - I'm definitely a chemistry geek. I love watching videos about chemistry, even simple stuff that I learned about 40 years ago or more. Here's a fine example.



Watching this video, I learned something I didn't know. Why the benzene produced by Michael Faraday nearly 200 years ago was incredibly pure, actually purer than good laboratory-grade stuff you can buy today.


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Tuesday, 27 April 2010
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Wednesday, 28 April 2010
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Thursday, 29 April 2010
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09:10 - I've been quiet lately because tomorrow is the first deadline for the new edition of Building the Perfect PC. The milestone is "submission of two significant chapters", and I may actually meet the deadline. I submitted the draft manuscript for the Media Center System yesterday, and I'm well along with the manuscript for the Budget System. The other chapters are in progress as well, but not as far along.

I haven't actually built any of these systems yet, because I'm still waiting on parts. Still, things are starting to come together. A crate of hard drives should be showing up any day now, and NewEgg tells me that UPS should show up today with the motherboards and processors for the Budget System (an ASRock motherboard and Athlon II X2 240 processor) and Appliance System (an Intel Atom D510MO), along with some optical drives and other minor components. Barbara and I are heading to Costco this weekend to buy the display for the Media Center System, a 37" 1080p HDTV.

We're also going to have to buy a new entertainment center or modify the existing one. That dates from more than 20 years ago, when it held only a VCR, a 25" television, and some home audio equipment. Our current 27" Panasonic analog television barely fits it. I designed it, and a friend built it. It's a stained wood frame with smoked-glass shelves, one about 4' x 2' a couple inches off the floor and a second 4' x 2' about 18" off the floor. At one end of the top shelf is a 15" high 2' x 2' pedestal. For now, I think I'll just neatly saw off the pedestal.


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Friday, 30 April 2010
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08:05 - UPS showed up yesterday, twice, once with a box of motherboards and optical drives from NewEgg, and the second time with a box of hard drives. I'm still waiting on cases and memory, but otherwise I'm ready to roll.

Well, except for a copy of Windows 7. I called the Wagg-Ed Rapid Response Team to request an eval copy of Windows 7. The woman who answered the phone took all the information about me and the book, and said they might be able to send me a copy, and she'd get back to me. Might be able? Don't they want pretty screenshots of Windows 7 in the book?

I checked NewEgg, and found that the price of Windows has increased dramatically. Let's see. How likely am I to pay $180 for a full copy of Windows 7 Home just so that I can do Microsoft a favor by including screen shots of their product? Or even $100 for an OEM copy? Hint: This is one of those Chance Brothers questions. Slim, Fat, and No.


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Saturday, 1 May 2010
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10:20 - The rush is on, it seems: One in eight to cut cable and satellite TV in 2010

As usual, we were early adopters of that trend. We also had a full-time Internet connection, a wired home network, and Wi-Fi before even most businesses had those. I probably still have some LANTastic network cards and an 802.11b WAP around here somewhere.

We cut back to basic cable on 25 January 2005, and we've never looked back. We get the local channels, the Time-Warner cable news/weather channel, a couple of commercial-ridden superstations and cable channels like National Geo, and a bunch of useless home shopping channels. All we care about are the local channels and news/weather.

When we made the change, our cable bill dropped to $6.66/month. I think it's increased since then to about twice that, which is pretty outrageous. Once I get the HDTV installed, I'll probably connect an antenna (or even rabbit ears) and we'll drop cable TV service entirely.

I suspect cable cutting is going to blossom over the next few years. Right now, sports is the real reason so many people pay outrageously high cable/satellite TV service bills. People like us, who watch mostly movies and television series, have better and less expensive alternatives. In effect, people who don't watch much sports are subsidizing those who do.  In five years, I wouldn't be surprised to see cable/satellite TV penetration drop into the 50% range, if not lower. Even sports fans may begin to question paying a $100/month or higher cable bill just to watch sports. That'll have a big impact, not just on cable/satellite providers, but on the sports industry and the broadcast networks. And the marginal cable channels, which is to say most of them, are going to suffer very badly.


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Sunday, 2 May 2010
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10:18 - We made a Costco run yesterday and came back with an HDTV.

Before we left, I visited the Costco web site because I wanted to note the details on the Vizio VL370M HDTV I planned to buy. It was no longer on the site. Hmm. I wondered if they'd discontinued that model and, if so, if the local Costco would still have them in stock, if they ever had had them. Just in case, I decided I'd better look at some other models to see if they had the connectors I wanted and so forth.

The only thing I pay any attention to in Consumer Reports is reliability ratings. According to CR, basically all the Japanese brand names plus Samsung have equal (and very high) reliability. I wouldn't buy a Sony product on principle, but other than that it didn't make much difference to me if it was a Panasonic or a Sharp or a Toshiba or whatever.

When we got to Costco, we found they indeed did have the Vizio VL370M in stock for $530, which was $60 cheaper than the lowest price I found from web retailers. Barbara and I had actually loaded one into my cart when a guy walked up to me and said he'd buy a different brand if he were me. He'd had bad experiences with two Vizio models dying young and said the repair guy he talked to said that he saw more Vizios than any other make. I always take such information for what it's worth, but I did start looking at some other makes.

We ended up buying a 42" Sharp unit for $600. It had better specs than the 37" Visio and four HDMI connectors instead of three. The image on the display unit looked very good, better than the Vizio. Of course, who knows what the settings were on the different units, but good enough is good enough. Barbara was happy with it, so we brought one home. The standard warranty was one year, which Costco extends doubles to two years and AmEx extends by a year, for a total of three years. CR says that failures almost all occur well within that time, and a unit that lasts one year will likely last many years, so we were happy.

When we got home, I edited the TV stand with a cross-cut saw to remove the second story shelf, put the HDTV in place, connected the cable TV RF cable and the DVD player, and fired it up. It works fine.

We're still puzzling out the cable TV channels. When we fired up the TV it did a channel scan. As expected, it found the 25 or so analog channels that our basic cable service provides. But it also found 30+ digital channels that I had no idea were on the wire.

The analog channels show up, all in 4:3 aspect ratio, with the expected channel numbers, but with a "-0" appended. So, for example, WXII (the local NBC affiliate) shows up as channel 11-0, and the Time-Warner News 14 channel shows up as channel 14-0. But the digital channel numbers are confusing. As I scrolled up through the available channels, the first digital one I encountered is 78-1, which is the local CBS affiliate in 16:9 aspect ratio. Channel 78-2 is a supplementary digital-only channel for the local CBS affiliate that shows weather constantly, but in 4:3 aspect ratio. Channel 78-3 is the local Fox affiliate in 16:9. Channels 78-4 and 78-5 are blank, but 78-6 is PBS MX (4:3) and 78-7 is PBS Ex (4:3). And so on.

I figured this stuff must be mapped somewhere, but it apparently isn't. Barbara got out a channel guide that TWC had sent us, but it didn't list those channels. I checked the TWC web site for Winston-Salem. It doesn't list them, either. Nor do the websites for the individual affiliates.

Oh, well. I'm not going to spend much time worrying about it. Even the 16:9 channels are standard definition. They look fine, but I'm sure broadcast HDTV will look a lot better. We're pretty close to Sauratown Mountain, where all the affiliates have their antennae, so I suspect if we drop cable TV service entirely we can pull in better signals with just rabbit ears.



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