Friday, May 29, 2009

The age of the fleeting standard

Recently, the HDMI Founders group released HDMI 1.4. For those of you who are not familiar with what HDMI is, it's a specification for connecting A/V devices. In fact, that's what makes it special: it's a single cable that can transport both audio and video at the same time. In theory, this is a wonderful new thing, but there's information unsaid so far that might color this rosy picture.

To fully grasp why I have such issues with this new spec, let's travel back in time a bit. Right now, we're in the 1940s. A company called RCA has introduced a fancy new connector call the phono plug. It's a neat way to connect your phonograph to your amplifier. One, simple, sturdy, cable. All it does it transport a single audio channel.

Now, let's hop on over a few years to when stereo records became popular. The little cable that was so elegant in design is now doubled, and we have one for left and one for right. That's it.

A few decades later, we hit the end of the 1970s. Suddenly, there's a reason to upgrade your audio equipment and video equipment. The laserdisc has brought 5.1 surround sound to the home, and composite video has enabled people to connect video devices without all the static and fuss that came from the RF (radio frequency) connector. But not to worry, your collection of phono plug cables still works. That simple cable is used for everything you want to connect. Even when digital audio is introduced in the 1980s, that same cable can be used to transport that too.

It's not until the end of the 1980s that we see a new type of cable: the mini-DIN, or s-video cable. It provides a cleaner picture over the composite video that was being sent over our phono plug. Due to the nature of TV technology at the time, most people didn't bother with the new-fangled connector until the mid to late 1990s, and by then a new video standard was created called component video, that used, you guessed it: the phono plug!

Let's pause here in time. By the mid 1990s a home A/V setup could have 9 phono plugs between A/V devices. 6 for 5.1 surround and 3 for component video. Gosh, it's great that we can reuse that little connector, but it's a rat's nest back there! Let's reduce the clutter by replacing our 5.1 analog with some crisp, clean digital surround sound, using either a single phono plug, or a fancy fiber-optic cable.

Digital is great, but now it seems that some of my components use coax (the phono plug) and some use TosLink (the fiber optical), despite both being the same digital signal. Now I've got to make sure all my components talk with the same standards.

This setup was great for about 10 years. Then a great, new technology came to us: HDTV. High Definition. Thankfully, our good, old phono plug cables are here; we can use them to get nearly pixel perfect HDTV. But digital is perfect, and we only want one cable, not three.

So in 2003 the HDMI specification was born. A standard that could be used to connect your A/V equipment together using just one, thin, little cable. But it was only version 1.0.

One year later, they released version 1.1. This time you could have more types of audio over the cable. We've gone from a new standard every decade or so, to an update every year. Thankfully, we only need to upgrade our TV, receiver, and Blu-Ray player to get the new features, we can keep our old HDMI cable.

Now, in 2009, after 8 revisions on the "standard" (including 1.3b1), they've released version 1.4. Except this time, after we buy a new TV, receiver, and Blu-Ray player, we need to buy a new HDMI cable. But which one?

Wait: multiple cables? But I thought HDMI was supposed to be the end-all-be-all of standards? Where before we had a single cable that could do 1080p/60 (that's 1080 lines of a progressively scanned image at 60 frames per second) and DTS-HD Master Audio (that's 7.1 channel audio that sounds just like your local multiplex), we now have 5 different cables that all support different things.

The HDMI Founders group has now given us:
  • Standard HDMI Cable – supports data rates up to 1080i/60;
  • High Speed HDMI Cable – supports data rates beyond 1080p, including Deep Color and all 3D formats of the new 1.4 specification;
  • Standard HDMI Cable with Ethernet – includes Ethernet connectivity;
  • High Speed HDMI Cable with Ethernet – includes Ethernet connectivity;
  • Automotive HDMI Cable – allows the connection of external HDMI-enabled devices to an in-vehicle HDMI device.
The above is taken from here.

I'll ignore the automotive standard for this discussion, but let's focus on why the other four cables are a problem. The biggest issue here is instead of giving the consumer more, they're effectively hurting the consumer by giving manufactureres the option of only providing support for connecting the "standard" HDMI cable v1.4. If the press is to be believed, they've cut off the maximum video output at 1080i/60 (this means there are 1080 interlaced lines to the image, which is not as good as progressive), where as before we had 1080p/60. To continue to get your 1080p/60 fix, you need to ensure everything supports HDMI 1.4 "High Speed." Which brings me to the next problem, if we need a new cable as it is, just always give us Ethernet too. The cost of manufacturing the highest end cable is negligable. If the consumer chooses to buy a lower-end receiver now, that consumer shouldn't have to worry about replacing anything but the receiver later. But this way they not only buy a new receiver, but new cables too, all in the name of HDMI.

Why have we gone from a new interconnect every 10 or more years, to effectively a new one every year? Part of it has to do with the rapid pace of technology, but part of it - and I feel the driving force behind the HDMI Founders group's decision - is greed. HDMI Founders gets a licensing fee for each cable that is produced. What better way to increase revenue than by multiplying that license 5 times? Consumers may never have the luxury of buying a home theater setup that stays fresh for 10 years ever again, but they don't need anyone making it any more difficult.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

My childhood gaming experience

I'm not usually one to post other people's work and call it a day, but this Penny Arcade strip really sums up being on the Sega side of the console wars back in the day. Except I've played Punch Out.

Note: I don't know what Penny Arcade's policies are on image leaching like this, so if you represent them and would like me to kill this, please contact me, I would be happy to comply with your wishes.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Why we should all keep the mix tape alive

If you're a product of the 80's or even most of the 90's you should be familiar with the concept of the mix tape. But for those who are unfamiliar, a quick rundown: a mix tape is an audio cassette filled with music from a variety of artists chosen by the mix tape maker for the mix tape listener.

As we've abandoned the audio cassette for the CD and now the CD for the mp3, we've started to lose the wonderful benefit of the mix tape. It's a way of introducing someone else to new music that you like. I'm sure some of you out there are thinking "this is what Pandora is for," but you'd be wrong.

The mix tape has a unique property. Things like Pandora try to find you new music that you like, but it's based on music you already know you like. The mix tape is hand-picked by someone else with no guarantee that the intent is to bring you music you like. They can often be filled with music you just don't care for, but that's the beauty! Say you give it a listen and you find yourself annoyed by the music, but then you think, "golly, my friend couldn't have that poor taste in music, I'll try it again." Perhaps this time you find yourself nodding your head to a couple of songs. Intrigued, you give it another listen. And another. And eventually you've realized that you like some of the music.

So now you think, "hey, if I like their music, maybe they'll like mine!" Now you get the wonderful chance to do something different with your music. Instead of just putting on any old album, or letting your computer shuffle things for you, you're now an active participant in your music collection. Now you're going over all of your tracks searching, listening, thinking, trying to find the perfect match. When you're done not only have you created a great new mix for your friend, but you've taken the time to appreciate the music you've got.

When all is said and done, two people have not only introduced each other to new music, but they've re-introduced themselves to their own music.

Whether it's on a cassette, CD, or flash drive, give a mix tape to a friend, and keep alive this wonderful experience.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Myth Understood

Here's a great myth: only old people don't understand computers.

Everyone talks about how young people just "get" computers and old people are sooo clueless. Well, guess what: young people have just as much trouble getting around their computers. It's all a matter of self-involvement. I've worked with people younger than I, people who grew up in this fancy computer age, who can't seem to grasp how copy and paste work.

If my 80 year-old aunt can learn the very basics of Windows (yes, we bought her her first computer at 80, what?), it's possible there are 10 year olds waking around not knowing that there's other ways to get places on the internet than through their home page search box.

Don't blindly discriminate. This has been a public service announcement from your local guy-who-keeps-an-online-journal.

Note: this entry was originally written 4/25/08, but sat around in my Drafts for over a year.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Beating the digital music stores

Although I'm a fan of technology, for some reason I've never embraced purchasing digital music downloads. There's something I love about having the CD that is exciting to me. But since nearly everyone I know has started buying music on-line (especially from the iTMS), I've started having a contest with myself: can I beat the iTMS pricing?

If we assume that each song is worth $1 and each full album is worth $10, an album with 2 hit singles on it needs to be $2 or less, or if I buy an album for $10, I should love every song on it. This makes buying new CDs very exciting. Some people like to bargain hunt for shoes, I do it for music.

I've found there are some very good benefits to buying music the way I do.
  1. I'm not spending more money than my friends would on the same music.
  2. I don't buy willy-nilly because most CDs are too expensive under my rules.
  3. There's the chance I'll like more songs than I expected on an album, making my purchase a virtual profit.
  4. Despite the progress made on iTMS, CDs still give you lossless tracks, full album art, and credits.
  5. When my mp3 player runs out of batteries, I can pop in a CD and still enjoy my music.
  6. If a friend wants to borrow an album, I can grab the CD and lend it to them without having to turn on my computer, or transfer files, or anything.
  7. If my digtial copy gets corrupted, I've got a lossless backup.
  8. I never have to worry if my files are in the right format for a certain player, or in any other format at all.
Although I know the RIAA would frown heavily on my purchasing used CDs and then ripping them to mp3s, I'd like them to know I do break my rules sometimes and buy new, full-priced albums. I'm willing to spend full price on a new CD at a concert. Great musicians should be rewarded for their hard work, and I feel that buying a ticket to their show and buying merchandice when you're there is the best thing you can do for them. Even if you go to their show and download the songs on your iPhone as they are played at the concert, at the end of the night, you're still paying a third party for their music, and you still can't have the band sign the cover.

A note: I'm sorry for singling out Apple, but they are currently the dominant venue for digital music downloads and music players. The same thoughts and rules apply to all digital music stores.