Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Sirius STARMATE 5 Radio

Who doesn't love satellite radio? CDish quality sound, a bazillion stations, and no need to change the channel when you travel from city to city. I like it so much in my car that I decided to buy a radio for the van. Since the van already has a decent infinity stock stereo I opted to buy an external Sirius tuner. After reviewing the limited number of choices I settled on the Sirius STARMATE 5.

The radio has a few really nice features. First and foremost it supports A LA CARTE programming. It's one of the only radios that does. That means that if you don't want to pony up for a full subscription you can pick your favorite 50 channels for a discounted price. This option is nice unless you really want live NFL games because they aren't included in the package. The other nice feature is Pause\Rewind\Fast Forward. The pause buffer will store 44 minutes of music. It's really nice if you want to replay the same song over and over again for your kids or your wife wants to talk to you while there's something good on the NFL channel. I'm surprised that there aren't more radios that offer this feature.

And now my gripes begins...

Since it's an external radio you need to figure out a way to connect it to your primary stereo. The STARMATE 5 supports the following external connections:
  • Aux input - Best available sound quality but unless you have an aftermarket deck or a 1-2 year old car you probably don't have an aux input.
  • Cassette Adapter - Why do cars still have cassette decks anyway? It just so happens that the cassette deck stopped working in my van 1 week before I bought the radio.
  • FM Modulation - Good idea, crappy in real life. If you live in a major city then pretty much every frequency is taken up. Driving from city to city requires you to tune a different freqency.
  • FM Modulation with external antenna - Same concept. Unless you can find a wide open frequency you are going to get interference
I ended up going the FM Modulation route (for now). It sounds like hell, but without replacing my deck I don't have any other options. If only this thing supported the Bluetooth A2DP profile then I would be all set. If it play music then it should have Bluetooth.

  • A LA CARTE programming
  • 44 minute music buffer
  • Intuitive UI
  • Looks cool
  • Portable-ish (I can use it at home with the appropriate dock and antenna)
  • Requires 3 cables for the best quality sound (satellite antenna, power cable, stereo out cable)
  • No Bluetooth A2DP profile
  • No Bluetooth A2DP profile ..
  • No Bluetooth A2DP profile ...
  • No Rechargeable batteries. I hate having to run power to the unit.
All in all it's a good unit especially if you have an aux input available. I wonder who Gill Brandt is interviewing right now on the NFL channel.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Windows Home Server (Acer Aspire AH340)

If you are like me then you are really bad at backing up your computer. Except for financial information I've never had much on my PC that was worth backing up. Now that we have kids things have changed. My wife takes several GB worth of pictures and video every few weeks. Losing these would be unthinkable. Up until now our backups mainly consisted of a handful of DVDs and an assortment of images that were been uploaded to the various photo hosting sites. After a recent scare with my PC I decided to bite the bullet and buy a Windows Home Server (WHS). In general I'm not a huge fan of Windows, but I've read good things about Windows Home Server. My goal was to find a unit with a dedicated processor and expandable hard drives. I didn't want to build my own box, so the Acer Aspire AH340 fit the bill nicely.

The unit includes a 1.6Ghz Atom Processor, 2GB of RAM and a 1TB drive. I added an extra 1TB drive right away for a total of 2TB. It will hold a total of 4 SATA hard drives and 3 of which are hot swappable. The unit also includes 5 USB 2.0 slots and 1 eSATA port for additional external drive expansion. With gigabit Ethernet transferring files to the server is extremely fast.

I currently have the WHS configured to automatically backup my Windows 7 PC and laptop daily. It was a breeze to setup and everything worked flawlessly out of the box. For most people the WHS console is adequate for performing common tasks. If you want to install additional services like Orb for instance then you can login using remote desktop. You are then presented with a bare bones UI reminiscent of Windows NT.

I'm primarily using the WHS for the following functions:
  • Automatic PC backups
  • Web Domain. The WHS allowed me to easily create a domain so that I can access the server from the internet. That's convenient for uploading and downloading files when you are away from home.
  • Audio\Video streaming. I installed Orb on the box so that I can stream audio\video to my iPhone.
  • Tivo spoofing. I installed pyTivo which allows me to view video on the WHS from my TivoHD.
Features that I'm not currently using:
  • iTune server. You can configure the WHS to be an iTunes server which is great if you want to host all of your audio\video from one primary location.
  • Offsite storage. The WHS provides a feature where you can plug in an external hard drive and backup the WHS. That's a great option if you want to store a drive in a fire proof box or at an offsite location.
All in all I'm very pleased with the unit. It sits out of site on my server rack and I let it worry about backing up my computers. The added features are simply icing on the cake.

Pioneer Elite BDP-05FD Review

The BDP-05FD isn't my first Blu-ray player. I was previously using a Samsung BP-P1500. I liked the Samsung alright except for one major issue. For some reason it refused to stay on 1080i output mode, so every few days it would switch to 1080p/24 which unfortunately isn't supported by my video processor. When that happened I would be stuck with a black screen and no way to easily change the resolution. This glitch was motivation for me to buy a new player. My receiver and video processor are both getting long in the tooth and neither one supports HDMI audio. With this in mind I decided to buy a player with 7.1 analog outputs. I was quickly able to narrow my choices to the LG BD390, Oppo BDP-83 and Pioneer Elite DBP-05FD. A few month back I was browsing the Ultimate Electronics ad in the Sunday paper and I noticed the Pioneer on sale for $299. I figured it had to be a misprint and they really meant the Pioneer BDP-51FD. I went to a local store and to my surprise it was actually the BDP-05FD that was on sale.

The Pioneer is an upgrade over the Samsung is almost every way. The exception being load times and the lack of an Ethernet connection. The only time I used the Ethernet port on the Samsung was for firmware upgrades. Ethernet a nice feature, but I don't mind burning an iso image every 6 months or so to upgrade.

What can I say about the 7.1 audio outputs. I've never been much of an audiophile, but I can definitely notice a big difference using the analog outputs vs a low bit-rate optical output. I was skeptical how much better a DTS-HD MA track would sound versus standard DTS. To my surprise the audio is much more dynamic and I find my self messing with the volume control a lot less that before. The only downside is that even with the gain cranked up I need to have the volume turned up really high to achieve a reasonable listening level. That's a problem when I switch back to the Tivo and I almost blow out the speakers. I'm not sure if this is a function of the analog outputs or the player in general. I'll be curious to try out HDMI audio as soon as I upgrade my receiver.

The user interface is also very nice. The menus are well laid out and there's a resolution button on the front on the unit (yeah!). This is a great feature for quickly switching between output resolutions for testing. When you change the resolution the OSD also shows the native resolution of the source material which is really cool. The build quality of the unit is also top notch. The size and weight of the unit resemble a receiver more than a Blu-ray player. The capacitive touch screen is also very responsive and the unit has very clean lines. I'm not a huge fan of piano black, but that's probably because the rest of my gear is flat black.

The Blu-ray playback is rock solid. The supported output resolutions are the usual suspects: 480i, 480p,1080i,1080p/60, and 1080p/24 (via source direct mode). 720p is unusually absent from the list. There are still a large number of 720p displays around (including mine) so I was a bit surprised to see that 720p was missing. In my case I have the player output 1080i and I let my video processor down-convert to 720p since it does a stellar job. DVD playback is on par with the Samsung, but I let my video processor do the heavy lifting anyway.

The Wolfson DACs do an excellent job with CD's as well. Unfortunately my sorry Polk in-wall speakers don't do this player justice.

To summarize:

  • Excellent build quality
  • Classy design
  • Solid UI
  • Top notch Blu-ray playback
  • 7.1 analog outputs with support for every HD audio format
  • Beautiful CD playback
  • No Ethernet port
  • No 720p output mode
  • Sluggish load times
The BDP-05FD is easily the best $299 that I've spent on AV gear in a long time.

My Gear

Since this if my first post I thought it would be appropriate to provide a list of my equipment. I'll post some pictures once my wife's digital SLR gets back from the shop. I don't think iPhone photos are going to cut it.

Living Room:
  • Optoma HD7300 Projector (720p Dark Chip3 DLP)
  • Samsung SyncMaster T220 LCD monitor
  • Draper Silhoutte 106" electric tensioned screen
  • Rumark RC8 Power Conditioner
  • Pioneer Elite BDP-05FD Blu-ray player
  • Optoma HD-3000 Video Processor
  • TivoHD DVR
  • Pioneer VSX-1014TX receiver
  • Cerwin Vega LW-15 sub
  • Polk RC8 Ceiling speakers(2)
  • Polk RC85i In-Wall speakers(4)
  • Middle Atlantic rack
  • Custom DIY projector lift
  • Olevia 532-B12 720p LCD
  • Toshiba HD-A2 HD-DVD player
  • Linksys DMA2100 media center extender
  • Yamaha RX-V493 receiver
  • Infinity Video1 center channel speaker
Basement server room:
  • Media Center PC (Windows 7)
  • Hauppage WinTV-950q ATSC/NTSC/QAM Tuner
  • Acer Aspire EasyStore H340 Windows Home Server (2 TB)
  • Gigabit networking gear
  • Server rack