Monday, October 22, 2012

The Nightmare Home Audio-Video Experience

All I want is to watch TV, Netflix, and Blu-rays.  Why can't this "just work"?

10 years ago, I presumed that I could just buy a combo BluRay+Net+TV device, with built-in Class C 5.1 amp, hook it into my cable/antenna outlet, connect 5+1 speakers, and be up and running.  The rear speakers could be wireless.  One remote.  <20 buttons.  Asymmetric, so I know in the dark which way is front.  I could even tell you which buttons are usually needed, and which should be hidden.  The remote would always know the state of the device. A DVR could be slotted in.

It ain't nothing like this today.

There are no decent TV+BluRay combos, even though BluRay players with internet netflix cost just $50.  So I have to buy a separate TV and a separate BluRay player.  Now I need HDMI cables, space to place the DVD (conveniently a deep format to clash with my thin TV).  This makes me the proud owner of two remotes.  But wait---the TV is not capable of driving 5.1 sound, only its 2-speaker bar, so I cannot simply hook up my speakers if I just want some simple surround sound.  I am not talking THX here---just modest-quality surround sound of the $200 HTIB kind.  Instead, I need to buy a 5.1 decoder with amplifier.  But there are no reasonably priced simple 5.1 amps, so I need to buy an AV receiver.  These have about 8 inputs, and 200 functions and buttons.  Hit the wrong button by accident, and you are in neverland.  Oh, and now I need the third remote control for the AV receiver.  Great.  But do I want to watch some cable?  If so, I need yet another device.  And a fourth remote control.  (I was fed up with so many devices and cut the chord.  OTA programming only for me.  Three devices and remotes only.)

Easy, no?


My TV is a 3-year old Pioneer Kuro 6020 TV, Plasma.  My new BluRay is a 1-year-old Panasonic BD75.  My Receiver is a 2-year-old Denon AVR-1909.   Not exactly the cheapest no-name stuff around.

Should work, no?


The BluRay only has one HDMI output.  I cannot plug it into the TV, because I cannot get sound into the 5.1 speakers any other way.  The BluRay needs to be plugged into the AV receiver.  The Denon needs to be the switcher, meaning that I need to switch both the TV and the Denon when I want to move from TV to DVD or vice-versa.  Most of the time, the devices negotiate their copy-protection HDMI handshake correctly.  But not always.  If this happens, then it is guessing what went wrong.  To make things worse, every once in a while, the BluRay player crashes, often early on.  I presume it has something to do with the copy-protection HDMI handshake.  If it crashes, I need to unplug the BluRay player and replug it.  Power-off is not enough.  I am not kidding---my simple disc player device can and does crash.  all the internet software updates for the player seem to work on strengthening copy protection, not stability.

how many copies does HDMI protection really prevent?  any large-scale pirate can just buy a screen, put a high-res camera with high-sampling into a camera-like contraption, and eliminate even the most sophisticated electronic copy protection.  once gone, the pirate can make millions of copies.  no HDMI protection will ever stop piracy.

Now, if I accidentally hit the wrong button on the Denon, I may stare at a blank screen because I am on another of its 8 inputs without noticing it, or in some other mode.  When this happens, I am baffled for the next 5 minutes until I realize that the problem is no longer in the BluRay player or the TV.  if the problem is easy, I can fix it.  otherwise, I need to reset the receiver, and start anew.

Once both the player and receiver are working, the TV is usually happy to talk to them.  Usually, but not always.  I have to hope that the HDMI handshake also happens correctly.  if not, I shut everything off and try anew.

Good.  Now I can lean back and watch DVDs.  Not so fast.  I need to operate the remote controls.  The Pioneer, Denon, and Panasonic remotes all claim to have some universal programmability, but they really do not.  The Pioneer Kuro TV was expensive and apparently uses unusual remote control codes that universal remote controls always have trouble with.  Its remote control can operate only other obsolete Pioneer devices.  Besides, remote controls also cannot find out what states devices are in, which makes Logitech Harmony universal controls (or my Samsung Peel remote control for Android) useless.  One code missed, and everything is out-of-sync.   As we speak, the Peel no longer likes to operate the TV.  Maybe because it is a Kuro, maybe it is for another reason.  Back to the original three remotes.  At least they are working.  (Anyone know a learning remote without modes and only 20 big buttons that I can put my own writing on?)

So now I need the three original remote controls next to me in the dark.  All three of them.  I may as well forget about the fourth remote, either the Logitech universal or the Peel.

I start the Denon.  I start the BluRay.  I start the TV.  Three remotes.  Hopefully in the correct order.  Hopefully working.


Next, let's switch to channel 28 for news.  Not so fast.  The Pioneer TV tuner is very slow.  It takes a long time to switch to another channel.  Is this copy protection, or inherent in digital tuning?  The Pioneer is also painfully user-unfriendly when it comes to direct dialing into sub-channels.  (And there are no great external HDTV tuners for my TV to purchase---even if I wanted to tolerate remote control #5.)  Another 60 seconds later, and I am finally on channel 28 now.

What do I need now?  TV Sound!  I need to run another HDMI cable to my Denon receiver.   Now I can no longer just leave the Denon on one input, but I need to cycle between 8 inputs on my Denon receiver to get the 2 sources I want (TV and BluRay)---and pray that I don't hit one of the other more obscure buttons by accident.  And I have to hope that switching inputs does not screw up my HDMI copy protection handshake.

The fact that HDMI cables are sometimes flaky doesn't help things.

Somewhere in between, my Pioneer TV and the Denon AVR have all sorts of semi-programmable items, from HDMI codes to device deletions, which might make them work easier.  I can earn another degree to set this up to make it "set-and-forget."  Of course, if I do this, and I get a device reset for whatever reason, I will have forgotten everything about it and need to get another degree.

Finally, I am watching my movie now.  Alas, I just hit stop or power by accident in the dark on one of my 3 remotes.  (The Panasonic remote is rectangular, with no night hint of which side is up.)  I hit Resume.  Sometimes, depending on the disk I think, the Panasonic remembers where it stopped and continues (hallelujah!), sometimes it forces me to start from scratch (through 60 seconds worth of copyright warnings!).  Can someone remind me why I spent $20 for the studios on this Bluray disc, please?

I am continuing to watch.  I didn't get what this guy just said in the movie---weird British accent.  Rewind a little and put on closed caption.  Oh, but my BluRay has both a top menu and another menu.  I chose the wrong one.  Another 60 second of start-over protocol.  Eventually I get the right menu.  But do I want the caption in my TV or in my BluRay player?  Does the caption not come on because I set the wrong one, or because there is no caption track on my British movie source?

At least BluRay disks have easy forward and backward.  Netflix does not---and often has no caption.  Besides, netflix' selection of shows is still limited, and given the studio's intent to break netflix, it won't get better soon.

If I sound like my grandparents, you should be worried.  I studied computer science.  I have a PhD.  I am pretty functional with all sorts of modern tech equipment.  I program in R and perl.  I run websites.  But this shit-state of affairs in home video really pisses me off.

Why is there not a $3,000 60" HDTV that has both the 5.1 amp and a BluRay player (as well as network connectivity) built in?  All the copyright handshakes would just work---there shouldn't have to be any, because it is all internal.  The cablecard plugin could make my cable and possibly the built-in DVR work, too.  (Hey, cable---every wonder why you should fear chord-cutting?)  Given all the stuff already in this TV, adding a DVR should only add another $150 in cost.  Like the cablecard, it could be a standard slot-in.  The AV device should be able to send back to the remote its current state on demand.  The remote would just work.  It could offer a $200 luxury version that let's me choose what buttons are visible on its touch screen.  I can buy Android tablets for this price!)

All this is trivially easy to implement.

what are these AV manufacturers thinking?  I don't give a sh.. whether my TV is 1in thick or 2in thick, if the latter means that everything is nicely integrated in one box and easy.  My guess is that at least half of all potential customers share my preference.

It wouldn't be hard to build this.  It does not require great innovation.  No OLED production breakthroughs needed.    All the tech needed to do this is off-the-shelf.    Different models could use different price-point quality components.  Where can I buy it today?  Are the AV manufacturers (Vizio, Sony, etc.) all just too unimaginative to understand why they are in danger of Apple coming in and cleaning out?

If I had the money to buy a reasonably-sized AV manufacturer that already makes the components, I could drive the others all out of business.

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