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Derbyshire Does Digital

You can tell I used to be a boy scout if you look down behind the cupboard in our lounge that contains our Hi-fi and Media Center. When I put the wall screen up, I was wise enough to hide one of every kind of cable I could think of (and two of some) in the large cavity that I cut into the brick wall. "Be Prepared", as they say. All these cables appear as if by magic behind the aforementioned cupboard, so I thought I was ready for anything. Little did I know how much hassle that would cause me exactly three years later...

But that's missing part of the story. I mentioned in earlier ramblings that they are building a pile (and I use the term descriptively) of new three-storey houses behind us, going up the hill towards the skyline in exactly the direction that our TV signal comes from. By the time they'd built the third one, we were down to three channels. OK, so we only did get five before, but that's not the point. So I got this local aerial guy to come and swivel me somewhere else, if you see what I mean. After a few minutes wandering around on the roof, he came back down to tell me that I could get a reasonably good signal from Waltham transmitter, located on Caistor hill near Grimbsy (donít English cities have delightful names - Grimsby is one I have yet to see replicated in the US!).

"Unfortunately," he said over a recovery cup of tea, "it means you'll only get Carlton Central TV, which is aimed at the East coast area." As the East coast around this latitude is mainly farmland, I suppose he was concerned that we'd have to watch programs like "Fertilizer Today", "How Clean Is Your Cowshed", and "Pimp My Tractor". (NB: other program name suggestions are welcome...). However, it turns out that Waltham now has a full complement of digital (DVB) stations, and they have increased the power so that the signal can actually struggle across the fields, and over the trees in my garden, to provide something that a simple UHF amplifier stands a chance of turning into a watchable picture. So, after nipping to the local supermarket to pick up a "Digibox" and a UHF TV amp, we have 60 channels of digital TV and radio - and I thought I lived in the back of beyond!

Sony VAIO XL302 Of course, that's when the "we ought to have a new Media Center" conversation started. "Why canít I record the digital channels," said the boss (you can guess who), "especially when they put on extra episodes of 'Coronation Street' and 'Eastenders'?" And "Why canít we record one channel while watching another?" Yep, our three-year old Media Center box still runs Media Center 2004, has only one TV tuner card that doesnít do digital TV, and sounds more and more like a fan heater running at full blast. Time, I agreed, for a change. And, rather neatly, this coincided with the release of Sony's latest model, the VAIO XL302 seen here. Quite a swish machine with loads of power, memory, and disk space - and even a Blu-ray drive in case we ever get that up-to-date. A real neat machine. Yes, I know I've moaned about Sony in the past, but it was always about their customer service and not the products; and I certainly havenít seen another machine that comes close to this one for build quality and features. Besides, I bought it from one of my usual business suppliers rather than direct from Sony, and it turned out to be cheaper that way as well!

Of course, I read the warning in all the reviews that it only supports HDMI output, but comes with a DVI adapter. I knew there was a DVI cable down behind the cupboard, so that was no problem. Bang in the order, and two days later I'm unpacking it and setting up. Only to discover that the adapter they supply is HDMI male to DVI male. That means I need an HDMI cable in the wall with the adapter at the screen end. HDMI is - of course - the one cable I didn't put in. No problem, I soon located an HDMI male to DVI female connector, which meant that I could put it on the back of the box and use the DVI cable already in the wall. Another twenty pounds gone, but it will be worth it.

Two days later when the connector arrives, I plug it all together and start up the machine. No signal at the TV. None at all - not even a whimper or some grainy lines. In fact, zilch would an optimistic description. Out with the TV manual, to discover that DVI input is "optional". That's when I borrowed a make-up mirror from the boss, and used it to peer up behind the screen and see what input connectors are actually fitted. As you can guess, DVI is not one of them; and the DVI cable is, like several others, neatly coiled and hooked out of the way with the end protected by a plastic bag. Hmmm... now I remember doing that, but it's still not what I wanted to find...

Wiring diagram So, another trip around the Web and I ended up paying lots more money to buy from an AV specialist this neat little adapter that converts HDMI to VGA (which is what the old Media Center machine emitted). Finally, we got the lot working together after some reorganizing and rewiring. In fact, I even drew the whole lot out as a wiring diagram before I started. It just shows you how complicated the whole digital thing is these days. Sometime you wonder if we'd be better off with those old Bakelite B&W TVs that worked with a bit of wire dangled out of the window. In fact, you can see in the diagram that we even have a lava lamp, so the old Bakelite TV would fit in well with it and the rest of the Art-Deco furniture in our lounge.

Note: If you buy one of these adapters, remember to set your resolution to something like 800 x 600 before you connect up (use your ordinary DVI monitor and the connecter that Sony supplies), and make sure you power up the adapter box before you start the Media Center machine. Or just replace the video card...

Anyway, in the end it's all working. Whisper quiet (in fact, even quieter than that), and I also managed to get true widescreen support from the combination of Vista Media Center and our old plasma screen (at the rather weird resolution of 1360 x 765). Suddenly everyone has lost 60 pounds in weight, and has a shorter nose. The sound quality is also loads better, and Vista Media Center itself is a big improvement on the 2004 version - except it keeps finding new network shares, and trying to play music and display pictures from them. I mean, why would I want the Music folder displayed in the "Pictures" section - I'm not bothered about viewing slideshows of 200 pixel square album covers. I can spend an hour on Amazon.com if that mood should suddenly overtake me.

Other things too. Why, when there are two TV cards in the machine, do I need to connect two TV coax cables? Surely it's not that hard to build in a splitter; it's not like you can use different channels or settings with each card. And why does it hide my own "extra program" links deep down in the menu structure, instead of putting the most recently used ones on the main menu? Mind you, one of the "most recently used" was a batch file that runs the SHUTDOWN utility to reboot the system. I used to have this handy to run when the system decided it was tired, and it also ran as a scheduled task every night. It was the only way I could keep the old 2004 system running smoothly. Vista has built in "night-time optimization", and I'm currently letting it see if it can keep the system running for any reasonable length of time. No doubt you'll see what I discover in the next exciting episode...

P.S. Dave just sent me this link, with the comment "Weird, but sorta cool". I reckon "Very strange" is an equally good description: http://amaztype.tha.jp/UK/Books/Author?q=Alex+Homer

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