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The Answerman Strikes Again…

By Jim Bray

From the mailbag, some questions from readers confused about new age tech issues. Hopefully, my answers can help clear up a bit of the technological confusion that's out there.

Q: Do you think the a large, say 154cm rear projection TV would be a better investment than a wide screen TV, as I am in the position of looking at buying one. Money is not the main concern but playing DVD for the kids is important for me, and is the technology of wide screen going to take over the market?

A: It isn't really an “either or” situation. Why not get a widescreen rear projection TV? They’re absolutely wonderful for DVD's, as long as they're "enhanced for widescreen TV's" (which most of them are these days). DVD's that are merely "letterboxed" have to be zoomed to fill the screen and you lose some resolution, but it's still better than 4x3 TV's. Widescreen TV’s, if you make sure the one you buy is “HDTV-ready” or “HDTV compatible” are also “future compatible” because as TV changes over to high definition, you’ll be ready for it - and you’ll love it!

There’s a downside, however. In the meantime, you have to get used to watching regular TV stretched, so you don't burn in the bars to each side of the squarish 4x3 picture. These tradeoffs notwithstanding, the move to widescreen is worth it even just for DVD’s.

Q: I purchased a couple DVD’s from London and I can not play them in my GE there anything I can do?

A: Not really, unfortunately, unless you can send them back for a refund or buy a “multi-region” DVD player (which might be hard to find). If you live in North America you have to get "Region 1" discs, for North America. The studios encoded different regions and most discs are region coded so they’ll only work in their own particular regions. This is so people in foreign countries can’t get foreign DVD’s and watch theatrical movies before they’re released in their country.

Q: I am about to put some cherry wall treatment in my living room and have a convenient opportunity to put in some inset wall-mount speakers. I am presently very satisfied with the sound from my typical Sony mini system for this room. The speaker box's are +/- 12"h x 6"wide x 10" deep (guessing)

Q.1.Given that most studs are less than 4" deep can the same bass levels be achieved with inset wall mounted speakers? Q.2 I am a professional cabinet maker. Would it be worthwhile for me to source some really, really good speakers and profile my own custom units or it would probably be the same price and better quality to get a system that is already on the market? I realize there are sound engineering aspects to the cabinet dimensions and I have the luxury of trying different things at work. Can you save money by just buying speakers with no cabinet. My budget is $550 Cdn.

A: Actually, the wall makes a great place to flush mount speaker, and the wall makes a great baffle. The speakers will interact with the wall and resonate its bass response throughout the wall. You can obtain some great sound using this method. You may want to check out the series line of Paradigm, PSB or perhaps B&W speakers. $500 Cdn would be more than enough for your purpose, in fact you may find that you will end up spending about $299-$350. The B&W line of speakers will run you about $500.

Q: I have a decades' worth of beta tapes and was wondering if there exists an adaptor that can be used with a VHS VCR. You never know these days! I suppose that someone could transfer them for us into VHS but how expensive is that?

A: Unfortunately, there's no such adapter. Your best bet is to go to someone who'll transfer the tapes for you. You'll have to be satisfied with losing some quality during the transition, too, because you're going down one more generation of tape. As for pricing, you'd best check that out locally.

Q: What is the difference between a passive and an active subwoofer.

A: Most active subwoofers contain their own amplifier and you'd hook them into the "subwoofer out" jack on your 5.1 channel preamp or receiver. Most passive subwoofers don't have their own amp and are usually wired in concert with your other speakers and powered by your receiver/amplifier. Active subs are generally better, depending on your needs.

Q: Does it matter whether or not there are "Dolby digital outputs," if I have no receiver? I am basically hooking up a good TV to a DVD player straight - no receiver. It is for a second set (I have a 5.1 surround system and receiver in one room, and am looking to just run a DVD and TV in another). Do any of the extras matter? Like Dolby Digital? If there is no receiver or "decoder?" Should I buy a more expensive DVD player with a "Dolby Digital output" or "passthrough?"

A: If you aren't using a Dolby Digital or DTS decoder, there's no point in using those outputs on the DVD player; you'll only use the stereo audio outputs to hook the player to the TV, which undoubtedly only has stereo inputs. Some TV’s offer built in Dolby Pro Logic or Dolby Digital decoding, but these are the exception rather than the rule - and they still require extra speakers. So you probably won't get surround sound by patching the player directly into the TV’s audio inputs, but you don't seem to mind since this is a second unit.

Q: Thanks for the great info. A few years back I purchased a Panasonic Palmcorder that takes VHS-C tapes. Someone told me I should copy my tapes to VHS cassettes and just keep reusing the VHS-C’s. These are just home movies of the kids. What do you recommend? To me this sounds sort of dumb because the VHS-C are smaller to store and I thought that they are supposed to last a little bit longer the VHS tapes. What do you recommend?

A: Copying the tapes onto regular VHS will give you a copy that's one generation removed from the original, and therefore it won't be of as good quality. So if quality is most important to you, don't dub to the other tape! On the other hand, since VHS tapes play longer than VHS-C, dubbing to VHS will let you sit through more enjoyable nostalgia sessions of the little ankle biters without switching tapes. For me, the better quality of the original tape would be more important than longer playing time, however. As for how long each tape lasts, well it's basically the same tape inside each type of cassette, so all things being equal you'll probably be happy with the lifetime of either. If durability is a concern, and you plan to watch the tapes often (each viewing degrades them a bit), you could also make the leap from analog tape to digital media. How? If you have the proper hardware and software (a good sized hard drive, a video capture card and video editing software), you could download all your kid vids onto your computer's hard drive, edit them together there, and burn them to a recordable video compact disc. This should be playable on most DVD players - or you could output the files back to VHS - but this time it would be from a digital copy of the original analog tape, which should get around at least some of the quality loss issue. The last solution is by far the most expensive and time consuming: get a DVD burner and dump the VHS-C files directly to it. I did some of that when testing a DVD burner earlier this year and it worked well - and now I can throw the tapes away.

Q: I'm interested in upgrading my television. Since I have an extensive collection of laserdiscs and I am a fan of silent movies and older black and white Academy ratio movies, I am most interested in knowing your recommendations or comments regarding the best visual presentation for me, be it front projection or rear projection.

A: For watching black and white movies and TV shows I'd stay away from plasma for now. They're great for color, though. Other than that, either rear projection or direct view will do a fine job. Rear projectors have gotten excellent over the past few years, and you can get larger screen sizes than with a direct view set.

Buying a widescreen TV means you'll have to set it to stretch your old 4x3 aspect ratio movies and TV programs horizontally to fill the screen area, otherwise the bars to either side of the picture could burn in and damage the set. The picture takes some getting used to because people look a tad short and fat (kind of like in real life, actually!) but it's an acceptable compromise if you're also planning to get into widescreen DVD's.

Laserdiscs won't appear truly widescreen on a widescreen TV; as with "non anamorphic" widescreen DVD's, they'll be "letterboxed" (with black bars above and below the screen) and "keyholed" (with bars to both sides of the screen), only using half the screen area or less. Most widescreen TV's offer a zoom setting that will make them fill the screen, albeit with a loss of picture quality - but it's still better than watching on a small screen.

Q: If I purchase a 16x9 compatible PC monitor and a video card capable of running my TV signal on my computer, will I be seeing an HDTV picture on my computer when an HDTV signal is being broadcast or does HDTV have a separate decoder? If my computer monitor has a resolution of 1280 progressive and the ordinary HDTV monitor is 1180i, isn't my computer image superior to those expensive HDTV sets?

A: You need 3 things to watch HDTV on your PC: an HDTV signal (from an antenna, cable, or satellite), an HDTV tuner to receive the signal, and a display (monitor) capable of showing what the tuner is receiving.

Many (if not most) of today's computer monitors are capable of equal or greater than HDTV resolution, but you need the actual HDTV-compatible tuner and video card to receive the signal and send it to the monitor. You don't necessarily need a 16x9 monitor, though it's nice. A conventional 4x3 aspect ratio monitor will display 16x9 HD signal in the same way 4x3 HDTV-capable televisions do: with black bars above and below the widescreen picture.

So, assuming you receive HDTV broadcasts, adding an HDTV-capable tuner and video card to your PC should let you watch HDTV on your monitor. This could be a fairly inexpensive way to go HD if your PC's up to snuff. I'd still rather watch HDTV on a big screen TV, though the PC solution works in a pinch.

Q: I read advertisements for VCRs that list a "Commercial Skip" feature. I presume that means my recording of a TV program will not record the commercials, thereby saving me the time and effort of fast forwarding through them. Is this truly what it is?

A: The commercial skip feature, often called "Commercial Advance," records the commercials, but after the recording is made the VCR goes back over the tape, finds where the commercials are and marks them. When you play the program back later, the VCR goes into fast forward mode and scans through the commercials for you. It isn't perfect, but it works amazingly well.

On the VCR's I've tried that have this feature, you can choose to have the screen go blank during the commercial skipping or watch the ads zip through at warp speed. I prefer the latter: since the feature isn't perfect (it's probably 90 per cent accurate, though), this lets you catch the mistakes and put the VCR back into "play."

Q: How does one record DirecTV. The channels start at 100 and go to 999, but when I looked at VCR's they have models that can record 120 channels or 180 but none of them went to 999.

A: I must confess to a bit of elitism here, because when I read this question I couldn't believe the person was serious. Then I mentioned it to a friend, who thought it was a very good question. So here goes:

You're actually talking about apples and oranges. The tuner in a VCR is similar to the tuner in your TV and is meant for receiving off air or cable signals.

The satellite receiver, that little box that sits by your TV, is a completely separate tuner and in fact it replaces your TV/VCR tuners. You watch a satellite system or cable box using your TV's video inputs or by tuning the TV to channel 3 (or 4) - exactly the same way you watch the output from your VCR on your TV.

To record satellite signals, therefore, you must patch the dish receiver into the VCR's video input jacks (usually on the back of the VCR) or, if you use a traditional cable connection rather than patch cords with RCA jacks, you must tune the VCR to channel 3 (or 4, whichever you've set as the dish receiver's output channel) to get the satellite signals into the VCR.

What this means for your original question is that channel numbers on the VCR are completely irrelevant when it comes to satellite recording: you only use one channel on the VCR (3 or 4 - or your "Video In" connector). The channel numbering of the satellite system is still important, however, because once you've tuned in the VCR you still need to tune the satellite receiver to the correct channel from which you want to record!

Q: How do you record one program from TV and watch another at the same time?

A: You have to tune your VCR to the channel you want to record (don't forget to press "Record" or set the timer!), then ensure its "TV/VCR" button is set to TV. This lets the cable/antenna signal bypass the VCR so you can watch TV as if the VCR weren't there - and you can change the TV's channel to your heart's content. What you're actually doing is using the VCR's tuner to record, and the TV's tuner to watch something else.

To view the tape afterward, put the TV/VCR button back to VCR, tune the TV to whatever channel you use as your VCR input (3 or 4, or possibly a video input), and enjoy!

A warning: this doesn't work with satellite systems (see above), only when recording from cable or off air signals.

Q: What is "DSP?" In the sound system I am about to buy there are 11 DSP settings, while other (more expensive receivers) have 27 and so on? Should DSP influence me on what system I should buy? Does it mean clearer sound?

A: I believe the DSP (digital signal processing) to which you refer is a series of simulated surround sound settings, like "concert hall," "jazz club," "stadium" etc. It can be kind of cool, but in my opinion is definitely not something on which to base your buying decision unless this sort of special effect is important to you.

There's nothing wrong with DSP, but I personally prefer having the audio system output the signal as closely to its original input as possible, without added tricks. Many people disagree, though, and enjoy having the flexibility to turn their listening room into a variety of venues.

Q: Is it possible to get cable TV hooked up to my computer and if so, what kind of hardware would I need to install?

A: There are two easy solutions. You need to get your PC a video card with a built in TV Tuner, for instance one of the ATI All-in-Wonder family, or a separate TV tuner card (and the accompanying software for both solutions, of course). Both options are readily, and inexpensively, available at your local computer store.

Hope this helps!

Jim Bray's technology columns are distributed by the TechnoFILE and Mochila Syndicates. Copyright Jim Bray.


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January 31, 2006