Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Internet TV Revolution

Unless you've been hiding in a cave (that is, unless you're over thirty and your children think you're practically dead) then you know what this post is about already. The rest of you are late to the party. Better late than never … unless you're Hell-bound, in which case it's better never than ever.

I've been watching more TV shows and movies on the internet during the past two years than I have on my television. Cable and satellite TV are ridiculously priced anymore. But if you have a high speed internet connection, who needs them? There's more to watch for free on the internet than you could ever desire. Well, I shouldn't say for free. But if you already have the internet connection for other reasons, then watching TV on it is free ... sort of. Or have I hit my head on a nail again?

What you say? Who wants to sit behind a desk to watch movies? You don't have to anymore! There's this thing called an HDMI cable son. (There are other ways to do this, but HDMI seems the best and most versatile to me). If you have a good laptop (you really need a dual core with each core running at 2.0 or better and 3 or 4 gigs of RAM) that has an HDMI output, along with a TV that has an HDMI input, you can keep your laptop on the coffee table and watch internet TV from the comfort of your couch or recliner. If you haven't tried this yet, let me say that it looks and sound terrific! Even Hulu shows that stream at 480p look nearly as good as over-the-air 1080i broadcasts. if you were sitting in my living room and I didn't tell you we were watching streaming internet TV, you would think we were watching a Hi-Def DVD. I'm a big Hulu fan. They have a ton of shows and movies to watch for free. And then there's Fancast too. And nearly every major TV network has a streaming website. Did you miss your favorite show last night? No problem. Watch it online whenever you want (although there's usually a time limit).

When you run an HDMI out to your TV, you're basically just using your TV for a computer monitor. You'll probably have to configure an HDMI audio output on your soundcard's option menu, but otherwise that's all there is to it. When I watch a movie shot in 16x9 from Hulu at full screen, it fills every inch of my HDTV just like any other television broadcast.

Both my laptop and television are only a week old. I'll tell you why I bought the gear that I did so that others can get an idea of what to look for in a laptop and the new breed of televisions that are out.

First let me say that retailers are getting ready for Christmas, so you'll be seeing closeouts and clearance specials left and right the next couple of months. The new laptops and desktop computers that will be coming out aren't really much better than what we've had the past three years or so now. About the only thing that's changed is the inclusion of USB-3.0 which is capable of sending information faster than the older 2.0 and 1.0 before it. Of course it's backward compatible with your older USB devices. Also, if you look around a bit you can find a computer that's being closed out that still will have USB-3.0 since it's already been out nearly a year.

I bought an HP G42-230US laptop on clearance at OfficeMax for $500. Hewitt Packard computers have had a bad rep the past few years, but they've made a real effort to clean up their act lately, and I think it's safe to say that they make a pretty good machine again now. I'll be building a new desktop machine in the coming week, but unfortunately, there's really no way to build your own laptop, so let me tell you some things to look for if you go shopping for one.

If you look at a place like Best Buy or Wal-Mart, you'll find that the display information never tells you what you really need to know when making a purchase. Actually, this is true no mater where you go in the brick and mortar world. So, if you want to buy from one of those stores go window shopping first, take a pencil and notepad in with you, and write down the model numbers of all the computer's that seem to have most of the features you want Then research them online to find out the complete specifications. is a great place to look up a computer's specs, but if you can't find it there just go to Google and paste in the model number along with the word "specifications", and you can find the specs for just about anything.

Some things to look for:

CPU - It's important to know its speed and the number of cores it has. Speed is more important than the number of cores. Very few applications can use more than two cores as of this writing. You won't find many laptops that come with more than two cores in brick and mortar stores anyway. Some high end video and multitrack audio apps like Adobe Premier and Audition can take advantage of four cores, and I suppose there are certain apps such as those aimed at 3D animators and architects that can also. Your typical office type software would have no use for anything more than two though. If you're like most people and you just want to do word processing; surf the web; email; and watch streaming movies in Hi-Def, two cores is all you need. And a dual core CPU which has a speed of 3.3GHz is gonna be way faster than a quad core CPU with a speed of only 2.1GHz. Now editing video with Premiere Pro may actually render video faster with that quad core even though it has a slower speed because it splits up the work among all the cores, so the software is intelligent enough to know how to take advantage of all the cores. Most of your software simply won't though. One day in the future all software will know what to do with large multiple core CPUs, but that day is still quite a ways off. So keep that in mind. More cores is not necessarily better.

Hard Drive - HDs generally come in two varieties: 5400rpm and 7200rpm models. I'm not going to get into Raid arrays and all that because it's not important to very many people. They're all gonna be Serial ATA (SATA) anymore too, so don't worry about the drive type so much either. Ide drives are pretty much a thing of the past now. Most HDs come with a disc capacity of at least 320GB these days. That's plenty more than most people will ever use. If you do a lot of Hi-Def movie editing with your camcorder, then more drive space is of course better. Also, 7200rpm drives are much better suited to video editing and multitrack audio recording. In fact, many of those apps require a 7200rpm drive. Most other apps won't need the extra speed. A 7200rpm drive will boot up Windows faster and will save and retrieve files faster, but unless you're doing video and audio editing you probably won't need a drive faster than 5400rpm. If you look at computers in stores you'll find that, while they advertise the drive's storage capacity, they almost never tell you what speed the drive runs at. Newegg and Google are your friends here.

RAM - It's almost all DDR3 anymore, so don't worry so much about the type. Just make sure your new computer comes with no less than 3GB and 4GB is preferable. Most people won't use more than that unless they're video/audio guys like me. If you want to use 8GB or more of RAM though, then look at the specs to see how much RAM the MOBO can support and how many RAM slots it has.

Graphics Card - Do you need a dedicated graphics card? Or will the one built into the motherboard (MOBO) be good enough? The ones that come built-in have come a long way the past few years and will suit most people including video editors. The dedicated plug-in cards are really aimed at the gamers who play 3D games. If you edit video then you may want to make sure the card you use can do split screen video across two monitors. (Some guys like to have the timeline tracks and tools on one monitor and the video in another etc.). The split screen thing is something you'll worry about with a desktop computer though. Few people do anything like that with a laptop. Bottom line, for 98% of laptop users, the video built into the MOBO will be plenty good enough.

DVD Player - Almost all computers come with a decent DVD player/burner these days. Make sure it's at least: 8X DVD±R/RW with Double Layer Support. Of course if you want to watch or burn Blu-ray Hi-Def DVDs then you'll want to make sure the DVD has that feature available too. If you don't have a Blu-ray DVD set-top player for your TV, but your laptop does have one, you can always watch Blu-ray movies from your laptop's DVD drive on your TV. Cool eh?

Wireless Router - Okay, this isn't a computer feature, but if you want to use your laptop with your TV in the living room, then you'll probably want to go with a wireless signal for you laptop. If you haven't done this before, let me say that I never had any use for a wireless signal before either until this past week, so it was new for me too, and it was very easy to get up and running. You just need to purchase a wireless router (I have a D-Link N 300 and it works great) and plug it into your modem. Then you'll have to run some software into any computer that you want to have a wireless signal. For most of us that will just be our laptops. Piece of cake. Now you can take your laptop all around the house and stay connected to the web.


On to the new world of wide screen TVs.

I was very reluctant to switch over to widescreen. I hate to spend money. So sue me. But if I wanted to watch streaming internet shows from the comfort of my couch, I was going to need a new TV with an HDMI Input. It's essential your TV has one of these.

LED/LCD/Plasma - Which one to choose? I'm new to this stuff myself, so I'll just tell you what I've learned during the past couple of weeks. If you want a larger screen somewhere in the neighborhood of 40 inches or bigger, then plasma has traditionally been the way to go. This is starting to change though. If you go TV shopping nowadays you'll find that the new breed of LCD screened TVs look just as good in larger sizes for the most part. Plasma screens don't last as long as LCD screens either, so that's something to consider. Plasma screens tend to look better from extreme angles, and have much better contrast (meaning dark areas of a movie will have more detail). The new kid on the block is the LED screened TV which is basically just an LCD screen that uses LED backlighting instead of fluorescent. About a year ago LED screens cost quite a bit more that LCDs. They've dropped down pretty close in price now however. Most of the LED screens you'll see aren't as bright as LCD screens. Actually, this is because the showrooms don't have them adjusted for a bright picture. The backlight of an LED screen is fully adjustable so that the picture can look equally good in either dark or bright rooms. LED screens use less electricity and are a little cheaper to operate. They also can deliver quite a bit more contrast than LCDs and can nearly rival plasmas in this regard. They also look good at extreme angles—also comparable to plasmas. The bottom line though is that most plasmas, LED, and LCD TVs are starting to look quite a bit alike.

I went with an LG LED model. LG makes great TVs by all accounts. Sony is another really good brand, but you'll pay a bit more for both of these. My entertainment center can only hold a TV with a screen size of 27" tops, so the TV didn't cost me an arm and a leg no matter which model I went with.

USB Video Input - This is something you may or may not want to worry about. Mine has one, but who knows if I'll ever use it. I'm told that in the future we may see the demise of DVDs and instead will get movies on small USB drives (kind of like a thumb drive) that will plug into this input. They may never catch on though. There are other uses for this input, but nothing I know much about.

1080p or 780p? - In my opinion the decision on which of these to get will depend almost entirely on the size of your TV screen. There's absolutely no point in having 1080p on a smaller screen like my 26". It simply won't look any better. On a big 60" screen you'll notice more detail at 1080p whereas the 720p picture begins to breakup a bit. I wouldn't worry about 1080p until you get past 40" screen size.

Internet Connection Speed - Think you need the fastest connection available to watch streaming movies without hiccups and dropped frames? Nope. I mean, you have to have a digital connection sure, but almost everyone does these days. But you don't need a really high grade of DSL or cable to do this. I have ATT's lowest speed of DSL, and stream things perfectly. People that complain about having a fast connection but still have choppy video and buffering problems are usually using older computers without enough processing power. The AMD Turion II Dual-Core P520(2.3GHz) in my HP laptop streams perfectly. So I would say to get something along the lines of my processing power or higher. This is about as much processing power (maybe as high as 2.8GHz) as you'll find in most laptops. Once you get over 3.0GHz CPU speeds, laptop CPUs are prone to overheat. At any rate, a fast CPU is what's important. My internet connection speed is typically only around 1.3Mbps. So a 1Mbps connection is all you need.

That's about it. Maybe it's time you got yourself a new TV and laptop for Christmas. I needed a new laptop anyway. The TV was just icing on the cake.