net.wars: Unconvergence

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 02 September 2005

It didn't look like a computer. It looked like a gigantic, flat, widescreen TV. Wrestle it up the stairs, out of the box, and onto a table. Turn it on. A countryside panorama fills the screen. A few icons you can sort of overlook. And then a white bubble pops up to ruin the illusion, "Your computer might be at risk. VirusScan Enterprise might be out of date"...oh, fuck. It is a computer.

Wendy M Grossman

It all started with two relatively simple desires. One: to digitise portions of the hundreds of video tapes I have, so that I can throw out the ones that have only a half-hour's worth of stuff I want to keep (a fantasy I've had since 2002). Two: to converge the TV and computer systems.

I keep telling myself that it's worth the effort because once all the problems are solved they will be solved permanently. Nonetheless, I am about ready to go postal with frustration despite knowing that in the Grand Scheme of Things I am lucky if this is the most frustrating thing in my life.

I bet you're thinking the computers are the problem. Actually, not so much. Adding an XP Home box with a fast Athlon and a 200Gb hard disk (so video processing and burning DVDs doesn't interfere with work) can't knock my network off its routers. Instead, as Donald Norman observed in 2001, computers are adorable puffins of usability compared to the horrors of home cinema. Computers have standard formats. They have colour-coded plugs (even if it took them 20 years to get them), and they all talk to each other. You don't have cables that pretend to be ethernet but are really USB.

In the TV world they're sneaky and mean. They have  SCART plugs. Big, fat, clunky, direction-sensitive, and European, with a huge, fat, inflexible cable. Nasssty. We hatess SCART, we doess. We also hates Svideo – there are several types, and even plugs that look the same don't always carry compatible signals. Who designed this stuff? Can we chain them to a desk and force them to watch golf?

The Elonex Lumina described above wasn't part of the plan. I

 had computers, a   Hauppauge PVR350 TV tuner/capture card, a Hauppauge box that displays video files (DivXs) on an ordinary television, and a TV setup of modernly hideous complexity (Telewest cable and Freeview boxes feeding a TiVo, TiVo and a satellite box feeding a VCR, which is the central distribution point serving the house's TVs over a wacky thing called a Rabbit. Getting the VCR to add the PVR-equipped nearby computer to the list of things it talks to took only, oh, a week of reading up on the intimate details of signals, cables, and connectors, then a few days' worth of impassioned swearing, uninstallation, and reinstallation to get working (at the expense, apparently, of that computer's ability to function as a telephone answering machine).

And that's when I had the evil thought that in future I could avoid adding to the pile of videotapes awaiting debilitation if I recorded only on the computer from now on.

Which is how I came to request a review copy of some software. Specifically, a copy of  the operating system: Windows XP Media Center Edition. Would it make tying all this stuff together and automating recording  easier?

It turns out you can't buy MCE and install it. You can only buy it as part of a hardware system. So the request for a disc or two of software was answered by a 32in LCD flat screen with a built-in computer and TV system bristling with inputs and outputs and card/disc readers all run by a wireless keyboard/joystick and two remote controls

The great thing about TiVo's reinvention of television was its removal of the need to know when a program was broadcast. MCE has done a Microsoftly job of learning from the competition: its interface for recording programs is really very good, comparable to TiVo's. But what makes or breaks this type of system is the quality of its programming data, and that's hard to assess without a few months to do it in. I can only say that Telewest's electronic program guide is awful, clunky, and badly designed, and that TiVo's program data is frequently inaccurate so that finding live tennis requires some close monitoring of channels. But getting video out of MCE - which records in a weird, bloated  new format called DVR-MS - and into a format readable by the usual players on other computers,  requires transcoding; which in turn requires downloading the usual 43 new utilities before you find one that works.

But you can't leave things in a format that consumes 880Mb for a half-hour show. Suggested improvement for Microsoft to ponder: build in a compression utility and offer people a shrink-to-fit option when they want to save something to CD or DVD.

After three weeks of daily effort, I can digitise PAL but not NTSC tapes (which is what I have most of). Nothing is converged; there are three types of cables snaking through the house: ethernet, telephone, and either RF or the Rabbit's crazy little wires; and I am trapped in a Terry Gilliam movie.

TVs hate us. Don't ever let anyone tell you different.

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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).