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CARD SHARP

Name                          Andy Abraham, via E-mail * (address below)            

Kit                               Nokia 9600S digital satellite receiver

Problem                      Andy would like to view the free-to-air BBC and ITV channels on his Nokia digital satellite receiver, he says he can pick up the transmission but there is no picture. He wants to know if there is any way he can upgrade his Nokia receiver to receive these transmissions or will he have to buy a dedicated SKY digibox?

 

Expert Reply             In a word yes. The so-called 'free-to-air' channels are actually broadcast by SKY Digital and included within their encrypted channel package. Whilst you can obtain a free viewing card from SKY to watch these channels they cannot be viewed on receivers like the Nokia digibox, which does not contain a conditional access module. Furthermore there is no possible upgrade path for the 9600, so Andy will have to bite the bullet and buy a SKY box. If he does he might want to make a note of the following telephone number from where he can obtain the necessary viewing card, call 0870 243 8000.  

 

 

TV/VCR AND SATELLITE QUERIES

 

BOX COUNT

Name                          Nick Cooper, via e-mail                            

Kit                               shortlisted Toshiba 32MW7DB TV and Sony SLV-E730 VCR   

Problem                      Whether to buy an all-in-one home cinema solution like the 32-inch Tosh or get a NICAM TV and separate AV components, that's the question Nick want's answering? He has a budget of around £1600.

 

Expert Reply              If only life were that simple… We can't possibly solve Nick's problem without knowing a lot more about his situation and aspirations. However, as a general rule of thumb single box systems like the Toshiba 32MW7DB make a lot of sense if you seek convenience, like to keep things simple and are prepared to make a few compromises. The first thing that goes out of the window with a one-box package is flexibility. It is difficult if not impossible to replace or upgrade any of the key components in the system, so, for example if he finds the amplifier power output from the Tosh TV is insufficient that's tough. Sound quality is also an issue, whilst the Toshiba system performs very well indeed it is possible to achieve significantly better results using carefully chosen separate components, and still stay within his £1600 budget.

 

BIGGER SONY

Name                          Dave Campbell, via E-mail                        

Kit                               needs a new TV!

Problem                      The Sony KV-32FD1 32-inch ultra flat widescreen TV was David's first choice for a desperately needed new TV. This model scored extra points with its VGA input as PC connectivity is a key requirement. However, he was just about to pull out the plastic when he heard there was a 36-inch FD1 on sale in Japan. He want's one, can we find out if it's going to be sold over here? Failing that he's heard of new 36-inch model from Panasonic but he can't find out if it has VGA input. If not, what about Plasma screens, is there a 36-inch model that would suit his needs, when are prices going to come down, and whatever happened to digital micromirrors?

 

Expert Reply             Good news! Sony tell us that a 36-inch 'Wega' model with the FD Trinitron tube is destined for the UK but probably not until the Autumn. Unfortunately that's all they could tell us at this stage as the specification hasn't been finalised, but we'd hazard a guess that it will have a VGA input. The 36-inch Panasonic TV Dave refers to is almost certainly the recently launched TX-36PF10, unfortunately it doesn't have a VGA input. Several manufacturers have toyed with the idea of bringing in 36-inch Plasma screens but for the moment at least they're concentrating on the larger 42-inch and above screens. This size is beyond the scope of CRT technology and the high prices can be justified. The trouble is there very little cost saving making smaller plasma screens and even if one does turn up we suspect the price will still be several times that of an equivalent CRT TV, between £4000 to £6000 is our best guess. However, on present form VGA connectivity is a likely prospect. Digital micromirror displays (DMD) is an interesting technology that has yet to have much of an impact. DMD chips are covered in thousands of microscopic mirrors that can be individually tilted to generate an image on a screen when a powerful beam of light is bounced off the surface of the chip. DMD chips are still difficult to produce in quantity and there are other problems that need to be ironed out before it becomes a mainstream consumer product. 

 

PROJECTION GAME

Name                          Miro Kiziran, via E-mail                

Kit                               Sony Playstation, Toshiba 48-inch projection TV

Problem                      In the Playstation instruction book there's a warning not to connect it to a projection TV otherwise permanent damage could occur. Miro has been using his games console with his Tosh 48-incher for the past couple of weeks with no apparent problems and would like to know what are the possible dangers.

 

Expert Reply              That warning is primarily aimed at owners of video projection systems that use high-intensity CRT tubes but it generally applies to any video display system. When the tubes show a static image for prolonged periods the bright parts of the display can be permanently 'burned' into the tube's phosphor coating. This doesn't occur with a normal moving TV picture and it can be avoided when playing games by not leaving the game connected showing the same screen, for hours on end.

 

STRETCHING THE TRUTH

Name                          Miss Ethel Perry, Stockwell, Lambeth London SW9  

Kit                               Panasonic TC29 28-inch TV

Problem                      The word 'Digital' on the box containing her new Panasonic TV, and brief episode during which she accidentally put the set in 16:9 mode, prompted Miss Perry to ask a few questions about the suitability of her TV for digital reception. She is also curious about the way her neighbour's 28-inch widescreen TV manages to produce a widescreen picture and the off-putting distortion she has noticed on 16:9 TVs she has seen demonstrated in local shops.

 

Expert Reply             Just about everything seems to be 'digital' these days, it has even been seen on microwave ovens for goodness sakes… In the case of Miss Perry's TV it concerns the extensive use of digital microchips in the TVs video processing and control systems. The 'digital' in Digital TV refers to the way the signals are transmitted, but not to the structure of the picture which is still made up from 625-lines and uses the same PAL colour encoding system as analogue TV.

 

The reason we're changing to digital is simple. An analogue TV signal is made up of waveforms that vary constantly in size (amplitude) and frequency; it's a messy and inefficient way of transmitting picture and sound information. Digital TV signals are made up of a stream of numbers, this method is much more efficient, it takes up less room on the crowded airwaves making room for more channels and makes it easier for broadcasters to introduce additional services that they can charge us for. As a bonus digital signals are less susceptible to interference and ghosting and they make it easier to introduce new features like widescreen.

 

Almost every TV made in the last twenty years is effectively 'Digital Ready'. That's because the TV pictures transmitted by On Digital and SKY Digital and emerge from the set-top decoder boxes are exactly the same as those coming from analogue TV tuners. That also means digital TV pictures won't necessarily look any better than analogue ones, though there may be an improvement for those living in fringe reception areas.

 

All widescreen TVs have electronic 'zoom' systems that can electronically enlarge a standard 4:3 aspect ratio picture and 'letterboxed' movie or TV programme so that it fills the full width of the 16:9 screen. There are various ways of doing this, the simplest is to inflate the whole picture but on a 4:3 picture that will result in the top and bottom of the picture being cropped -- the tops of peoples heads are lost and captions disappear off the bottom of the screen. The preferred method nowadays is to progressively stretch the outer edges of the 4:3 picture and leave the middle as it is. This produces a small but acceptable amount of distortion at the sides of the picture. The distorted picture Miss Perry is seeing in dealer's showrooms is almost certainly down to poorly trained salespeople (or customers) selecting the wrong zoom mode.  It's usually the 'anamorphic' zoom setting, which stretches pictures lengthways and makes everything look fat and dumpy. This is meant to be used on widescreen recordings and transmissions that have been vertically 'compressed' (so everything looks thin and tall), when the squashed picture is stretched everything returns to normal.

 

BENDY BAR

Name                          Lorne Gibbs, via E-mail                            

Kit                               Sony KVS-3432U TV

Problem                      Loss of vertical hold on Lorne's 3-year old 34-inch TV meant a trip to the workshop but since it has come back he has noticed another problem, which he says is getting progressively worse. When viewing widescreen material the black bar at the bottom of the screen has a slight bend in it and the upper black bar is wider then the bottom one. Do we know what's causing it, and how much it is likely to cost to put right?

 

Expert Reply             It should cost nothing to correct, it sounds very much like sloppy re-alignment or a bodged repair. We would lay odds on this new fault being directly linked to the original problem and Lorne should not hesitate to ask the repairer to come and fix it. If, as is likely the picture linearity and geometry controls just need a quick tweak it shouldn't take more than a few minutes to put right.

 

 

BOX COPY 1

GETTING STARTED

WHERE HAVE ALL THE KNOBS GONE?

Look around the back of a modern TV and all you're likely to see is an aerial socket, a couple of SCARTs and if it’s an up-market home cinema model, maybe a few audio or speaker connectors sockets, so where have all the knobs gone? Up until around a dozen years ago most TVs had a row of rear panel twiddlers for vertical and horizontal hold, a bank or two of tuner presets on slide out draws or hidden behind hinged flaps and inside there were even more presets for engineers to play around with.

 

The trouble with olde-tyme TVs was that as they aged, and went through countless thermal cycles -- as they were switched on and off -- the many and various tuning, picture and sound adjustments drifted off bonk and needed realignment at regular intervals. Nowadays most TVs have automatic installation systems that eliminate the need for manual tuning and they monitor themselves and tweak their circuits to compensate for the effects of ageing. Microprocessor-controlled self-diagnostic circuitry helps identify faults and to make engineers lives even easier, most routine servicing adjustments are now carried out in 'software'. On some models the engineer has to plug in a dedicated control box though these days more manufacturers integrate their service routines and adjustments into a hidden section of the on-screen display system. The Service Mode can often be accessed from the remote control by entering a code or pressing a sequence of buttons. Service routines are deliberately kept secret from TV owners since most people would be tempted to have a fiddle and mis-alignment could easily lead to permanent damage, so don't ask...

 

LD AND DVD QUERIES

 

STAR LETTER

 

 

Name                          C.S. Cooper, Langley Mill, Notts ** (address below)

Kit                               Panasonic A100 DVD player, Sherwood Dolby Digital amp

Problem                      A problem has developed on Mr Cooper's system when he uses the Pro Logic mode on his amplifier. At apparently random intervals he hears a click coming from all of the speakers and the sound mutes for a split second. He has backtracked on the disc to see if it happens in the same place -- it doesn't -- and sometimes after the click the sound disappears altogether and he has to press skip/search a few times before it returns. He has swapped the amplifier so he knows it has nothing to do with that. He goes on to say that Dolby Digital sound is fine and adds that his player has been 'chipped' for all region playback and wonders if a Panasonic service agent will fix the machine now that it has a few extra wires inside?

 

Expert Reply             A salutary tale that anyone thinking of buying a chipped DVD player would do well to remember… Mr Cooper can kiss goodbye to any manufacturer's guarantee he might have but there's no reason why suitably qualified engineers can't repair the player, he'll just have to pay for it. As to the specifics of the problem, the reason the sound mutes is probably down to the amplifier protecting itself and the speakers from the effects of a sudden transient, so it must be quite loud. It's difficult to say where the click is coming from it's obviously not from the discs. The all-region mod has to be on the list of suspects but the random nature of the click, and the fact that it only occurs in Pro Logic mode is a little puzzling. Before taking the DVD player in to have it checked Mr Cooper should eliminate the possibility that it is being caused by an external source, such as a spike on the mains supply. This could be coming from an electrical appliance, such as a refrigerator or central heating boiler. The next time it happens he should see if he could tie it in with something else. It might also be worth trying a surge protector on both the amp and DVD player. If the problem persists then the A100 will have to be looked at.    

 

POCKET CONVERSION

Name                          Stephen Andrews, Leeds, W. Yorks             

Kit                               Panasonic DVD-L10

Problem                      Stephen owns a Panasonic DVD-L10 portable DVD player, the only trouble is it is an American model and he wants to play PAL Region 2 discs on it. Needless to say Stephen wants to know if it can be modified?

 

Expert Reply             Officially no, the L10 was only ever sold as a Region 1 or Region 2 playback machine. We spent some considerable time trawling the Internet looking for L10 chippers and found only one, which leads us to suspect it's not a straightforward or easy mod. The company concerned is called DVDirect and is based in Sweden, it is offering a DIY kit for what we think is 700 Kroner (around £80) but the site details are very sketchy and we advise Stephen to proceed with extreme caution. We know what it's like inside the L10, it's not the place to practice your soldering skills, and in fact we would even be reluctant to let a qualified engineer tinker around inside one of these machines without some very solid cast iron guarantees. However, if Stephen has Internet access and he wants to check it out the site address is: http://www.dvdirect.net/modification.htm

 

IN THE FLESH

Name                          James Airey, via E-mail                            

Kit                               Panasonic A310 Region 1 DVD player modified for Region 2, Sanyo CBP2576A 25-inch TV

Problem                      Whilst generally pleased with the performance of his Panasonic DVD player James has noticed that the picture quality of Region 1 discs is not as good. He says that flesh tones are not as rich, red colours look like washed out pinks and there is sometimes a green tint. He has fiddled with the TV's contrast, tint and colour controls but cannot get as good a picture as Region 2 discs. He is also getting a pattern on the screen when playing Region 1 discs (and NTSC tapes), that looks like the contours on a map. His question is, does he need to buy a new TV -- his present one is four to five years old -- if so can we recommend on with good NTSC playback?

 

Expert Reply             The picture effects James describes are exactly what we would expect to see when doing a side by side comparison of NTSC and PAL recordings. NTSC used to be jokingly referred to by engineers as 'Never Twice the Same Colour' (for the record it actually stands for National Television Standards Committee). It is true that the colour stability and flesh tones of NTSC TV and video used to be very poor though big improvements in video processing techniques in recent years have helped. Nevertheless, inherent differences between the two systems, including the efficiency of the colour processing circuitry and the amount of picture detail (NTSC is a 525-line system) means that PAL pictures will always look cleaner and sharper.

 

DEFUNCT DISCS?

Name                          Alastair Meads, Bracebridge Heath, Lincoln

Kit                               Mitsubishi 32-inch widescreen TV, Thorn VCR, Pioneer Laserdisc player

Problem                      Being a regular business traveller to the States Alistair is considering buying a multi-region DVD player to add to his system. He has done his homework and seen numerous adverts in magazines for 'chipped' players. He says that since these machines are modified by retailers (rather than the original manufacturers) he assumes they will only be sold for as long as there is a demand for them. His question therefore is what will happen in five or six year's time when he comes to replace or upgrade his player. Will he still be able to buy a multi-region player then, or will he be stuck with a stack of unplayable Region 1 DVDs?           

 

Expert Reply             A very good point. Sadly our normally reliable crystal ball is a little cloudy. The best thing that could happen is that the regional coding issue will quietly disappear. That could happen as the number of discs available in the UK grows and software companies release more region-free titles and the time gap between new movies released in the US and the UK drops from months to weeks. If so there will be less demand for US discs and there will be fewer chipped players around. A less likely scenario is that manufacturers and the movie companies will drop regional coding since it is being so widely flouted. However, it's important to look at the big picture. Regional coding is not about the Hollywood studios preventing us in Europe from watching new movies a few weeks early, it was always meant to play a much bigger role in controlling software distribution and piracy, especially in the Asian and emerging East European markets. That's the biggest source of multi-region players now, and we suspect in the future. We suspect Alistair will still be able to find ways of playing region 1 discs well into the next millennium.    

 

ON THE CARDS

Name                          Liza Li, via E-mail             

Kit                               looking for a DVD-ROM player

Problem                      Liza is in the market for a DVD ROM drive for her PC and is thinking of getting the Sony DDV220 that she notes was a recent HE Editor's Choice. She has also considered the Creative Labs Encore DX2, Pioneer A303 and Panasonic 8503 and is aware that all players need to be used with MPEG2 decoder cards to play movie discs. She wants to know which part of the DVD outfit -- the drive or the MPEG card -- is responsible for the region code setting?

 

Expert Reply             Regional coding is normally handled by the MPEG 2 decoder card and if Liza wants to be able to play discs from more than one region she should get her skates on. This apparent loophole has been recognised by the format guardians and they're trying to put a stop to it. In future the multi-region playback facility on many of the MPEG2 cards supplied with DVD ROM drives will be disabled, or limited to just one or two changes and by the end of the year all MPEG cards and drives will only operate on a single region code.

 

UNDERWATER DVD…

Name              Graham McSweeney, London W14              

Kit                   Panasonic A310 DVD player               

Problem            Whenever he calls up the menu display on his A310 the picture is constantly 'wavering'. Graham says the best way to describe it is like trying to watch the picture underwater.  He wants to know if this is a known problem and if there's a cure. Secondly, since his machine has a DTS output, he wants to know when we can expect to see some DTS software on sale? His last question is in a similar vein and concerns the apparent lack of 'multi camera angle recordings' what's the point of paying for all these features he asks? You wouldn’t buy a new car and then not be able to drive it because the wheels hadn't been invented…     

Expert Reply             The wavering picture sounds suspiciously like a degree of incompatibility between the A210, which we assume is an American import tricked up for PAL playback, and Graham's TV, which is probably an oldish model, that doesn't much like the modified PAL output. If that is the case, and there's s simple way to find out -- connect it to a more recent TV -- the only answer is to get a new TV. However, before he parts with the plastic he should check first with whoever carried out the mod, to find out if there are any known problems with particular makes or brands of TV.

 

 

When is DTS coming? Good question twenty or so Region 1 discs are now on sale in the US with half a dozen new ones being released each month. We spoke to DTS representatives in the UK and they couldn't give us a launch date for software in the UK but they seemed fairly hopeful it might be some time this year… At least several new players now have the feature, which brings us to multi-camera angle software. To be fair to the hardware manufacturers this has always been regarded as a future feature, it is up to the software companies to make use of it. It is unlikely that it adds anything to the cost of manufacture so Graham's comparison with a car that has no wheels is maybe a tad harsh. 

 

BOX COPY 1

GETTING STARTED --  HDTV DVD?

Oh no, not another format… Got it in one, even as you're still making up your mind whether this new fangled DVD thingy is ever going to take off, the white coated ones are beavering away on its eventual replacement. They're working on ways to squeeze high definition television pictures onto DVD discs and the word is they'll have it cracked in the next three or four years. It's a tall order though, involving getting between three and four times as much picture information onto the shiny discs, and then getting it back off again. The key to this jiggery-pokery is blue and purple lasers, which are only just out of the development lab. The wavelength of blue and purple light is very short, which basically means more data can be shoehorned into a smaller space. Nevertheless, there's some speculation that even that won't be enough and it has been suggested that it might be necessary to put data on both sides of the disc, though quite how that would work hasn't been figured out yet. There are two things that you might find comforting. Firstly since we don't have HDTV in the UK or Europe, nor is it an even remote prospect, there is not going to be any rush to bring it out here. HDTV has been launched in the US but so far it seems to have had a fairly lukewarm reception. Second, if and when it happens, you can be fairly sure that the new players will be backwards compatible, so you won't have to throw away all of the old  'low-definition' discs that you haven't brought yet. 

 

---end---

Ó R. Maybury 1999 1103

 

 

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