My buddy asked me what’s next for my home theater and it got me thinking. The next home theater upgrade for me is the Harmony One universal remote. No question about that. It is still my #1 wanted (needed) piece of equipment my list.
Blu-Ray capability comes next at a fairly close #2. After that, there is nothing else I need and will probably wait more than a year to consider more upgrades. When that time comes, it will be to upgrade the receiver to HDMI switching/upconverting, Dolby Digital Plus / Dolby True HD, plus other features like a built in satellite tuner and media streaming via home network. That is really refreshing equipment I am currently happy with, so my speakers would fall into that category as well.
So what happened to the HTPC? Originally, a media center PC was next on my list and it was to include a Blu-Ray player, but there are several reasons why I am not going to do that, yet. First off, I already have a great PC connected to my home theater that can do 4.1 sound, 1080P, and can handle most gaming (nVidia 7900 SLI). Also, I can listen to Pandora, stream NetFlix, sort photos, play MP3’s, check my email… all the great things a PC can do.
I was originally going to build a new media center PC (HTPC) for: Vista Media Center, replace my DVR, Blu-Ray player, 5.1 sound, and upgraded gaming. But, Vista sucks, I don’t do much PC gaming anymore (all my friends just play WoW) and you still can’t use your PC as DVR because of the Cable Labs Cable Card OEM restriction.
That leaves Blu-Ray capability. I considered just adding a decent Blu-Ray drive to my current PC for about $180, but realized I would still need to upgrade the video cards, sound card, & software which brought me right back to square one; a whole new HTPC that I could probably piece together for $1500. It would be a fun project, but it is just not in the cards right now.
So, coming full circle and being a NetFlix fan-boy, a standalone Blu-Ray player makes the most sense especially with the prices coming down and the Blu-Ray selection increasing. Even though I have NetFlix streaming, it is still not the quality and selection of Blu-Ray. So that is next… right after I get the Harmony.
While the actual building of my Home Theater PC has been put off for the near term, the fact that my Dell XPS monstrosity is still sitting next to my home theater cabinet is proof of its usefulness to the entire family.
For instance, my parents are in town for a visit and last night we watched a Power Point presentation made for my uncle’s 70th birthday party. It had photos of my great-great-grandparents and of my father when he was a kid. These are photos I’ve never seen before and we were all able to sit around the big screen and listen to the story of when my father and his brother helped paint their dad’s ’57 Plymoth… with some gray paint that was laying around and some sticks (because “dad” wasn’t stupid enough to leave brushes laying around). We even swapped out to Google some of the things we saw in the photos, and also took screen shots of it all to make the photos back into JPG’s and burn them to a CD so my parents could look at them on their Mac.
Quite useful. (oh, and TrackMania United rocks on the big screen)
But, the biggest pain is the mouse and keyboard being tethered to the thing. I have a great mouse and OK keyboard, but I’ve just got to go wireless, and I want to do it now even before I build the new home theater PC. I found a few I’m considering, and here they are: Continue reading
Back in May 2006, I reported on AGEIA’s PhysX card for PC gamers that would offload physics calculations from the CPU providing more realistic, immersive and inventive gaming; but, I had also said this…
History needs to repeat itself. What happened to 3DFX (consumed by nVidia) needs to happen to AGEIA. I’m not saying it needs to be integrated into the video card, though that may well be the best solution, specifically for the latency problem. I’m thinking more in terms of the API. Developers don’t write to nVidia, or ATI, or Matrox, etc, but rather to a common standard like Microsoft’s DirectX or OpenGL. (one of the things that makes standards so nice is that there are so many to choose from *rolls eyes*)
Microsoft announces “Direct Physics“, to be included in the DirectX API to allow programmers to write physics based manipulation of objects in 3D for realism and better immersion.
I also commented on Havok, another player in physics hardware…
If you made me guess, I’d say that the Havok SDK will be akin to OpenGL, and the Ageia SDK will be akin to DirectDraw.
Since then, Intel gobbled up Havok and buried them somewhere, so, it will be a lot like OpenGL.
Now, in February 2008, nVidia (the leading video card manufacturer) acquired AGEIA. nVidia had this to say about it…
By purchasing AGEIA, NVIDIA will be able to support AGEIA’s very popular PhysX technology on future GeForce GPUs. By doing so, the install base of PhysX enabled hardware will exponentially increase and game developers will now have a larger number of customers that can make use of the PhysX engine.
So, hopefully my next entry on this will be when nVidia releases a video card with PhysX technology, accessible via Direct Physics, and how history did repeat itself.
Originally, when my home theater was to move into the High-Def (HDTV) world, a media center PC (a.k.a. HTPC – Home Theater Personal Computer) was high on my priority list. I wanted to be able to record anything on cable, or over the air, in high-definition. It was to replace my original DVR. There were also some other things I wanted to do with it, but they were secondary. However, upon getting my HDTV and increasing my cable service, which included the DVR service, I realized that the DVR not only covered my primary goal, but it also did it quite well.
The Time Warner DVR by Scientific Atlantic (Cisco) is the latest model offered, the 8300HD. It can record multiple channels at once in high definition. It has a fairly nice program guide, though I’d like better search capability. The remote works very good. Most importantly, it lets me fast forward through commercials.
There are a couple of things that the DVR doesn’t do. The biggest problem is that it only records 20 hours of high-definition programming. (50 hours of standard). 20 hours may seem like a lot, but it’s not. We tend to watch TV in spurts and we almost never watch live TV – everything is recorded. Sometimes, weeks go by before we sit down for an evening and catch up on our shows. Plus, I like to keep a variety of shows available for different audiences. For instance, let’s say our shows are “Terminator”, “Lost”, “Desperate Housewives” & “CSI”. If three weeks go by, that’s 12 out of 20 hours used up. Add in a couple FoodTV cake challenges, a PBS documentary, and a handful of “Good Eats” and I’m out of space.
The DVR also doesn’t do more than record. It can’t act as a media extender (i.e. play media that exists somewhere else in my home), it can’t store media other than TV programming, nor can it be the source for streaming content elsewhere. There are products out there that do some of these functions, like the PlayStation 3, xBox 360, LinkSys Media Extender, and Sling Box, and many more, but none of them do it all, not even a media center PC. However, a media center PC teamed up with some of Sling Media’s products seems to be the most powerful and flexible setup.
Check out Sling’s advertising, funny stuff….
There are cheaper stop gaps, like an external hard drive (eSATA) that plugs into the Time Warner DVR. That would run about $180 – $400, but it only adds space for TV programming. There is also the PlayStation 3, at about $500, it would be less expensive and it is a close runner up, but it still doesn’t do everything a media center PC does. In particular, it doesn’t have a lot of hard drive space, is not very flexible, and lacks upgradability. (basically, it’s limited to what Sony decides to provide)
The flexibility of an HTPC is huge. I can pick and choose parts based on price, performance, and expand in the future as needed. Before Blu-Ray won the battle against HD-DVD, I was planning on waiting it out to see which drive I would install. I will probably still wait until the Blu-Ray drive prices come down. In the meantime, I can just put in a $30 DVD drive.
The only thing bigger than flexibility is the power of an HTPC; it can do almost anything. Nothing is as accomodating and as vast as the array of Windows software available to do anything I want, much of which is free. Anything that runs in a browser will work and would have actual full browser support, not some slimmed down browser with limitations. (playing media types, viewing files types like Acrobat, plug-ins, etc) Heck, I can run iTunes, Quicken, Google Earth, and VPN into work from a media center PC. We can do online shopping, Webkinz, update the NetFlix queue, pay bills, add Wii points, book a vacation, Skype, video conferencing, backup DVD’s and make them available for instant playback… gaming… we can do anything! We could design rockets in AutoCAD if we knew how.
(If you were wondering why I am writing so much about this, I’m just practicing how to justify this to the finance committee.)
Speaking of NetFlix, we can watch unlimited streaming NetFlix movies. It is currently only DVD-like quality, but HD is coming and the need for a disc in the mail will be going away. (though, NetFlix has teamed up with LG to supply “NetFlix” boxes; I hope it doesn’t preclude PCs)
I could just buy a pre-built HTPC which would give me the ability to use a Cable Labs Cable Card and eliminate the Time Warner DVR altogether. (to use a cable card, your HTPC needs to be certified by Cable Labs, which eliminates the do-it-yourselfer) Like this $3200 Niveus Rainier, for example. (yeah! and it goes up from there) … I don’t think so.
So, the need for a media center PC is not nearly as urgent as it originally was, but that doesn’t mean I don’t still want one. What has changed is its primary mission and priorities. I will be using my blog to organize my thoughts and lay out the functions I want to be able to do, and then you can watch me pick my pieces and parts as I build it over the next year….
Ever since I stumbled across the Lego trebuchet while searching for other Lego creations like the Lego bottle opener, I’ve been hooked on the Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories blog. (I’ve mentioned the site before) Being a food art creator, and a cat lover as well, I also liked the peeps and the 3D printed candy. Which reminds me of the very cool FigurePrints… check out this interview on the PC Gamer podcast. (interview starts at 31:07 into the podcast)
I’m making a note here:
Sometime late November 2006 I disappeared from my blog. The reasons are all good as I had finally made a decision on my HDTV. The TV I chose was the Sony Bravia 46” LCD KDL-W3000. More on that later…
Once it was all installed and my cable service was upgraded I was glued to the TV. The Time Warner DVR is great. Originally, I was very anxious to put in a media center PC to record high definition, but not only are there technical problems with that due to restrictions by Cable Labs on Cable Cards (they can only be used in a certified system; i.e. a manufacturer like Dell would need to have the model certified which eliminates the possibility for home built PCs), I didn’t need it; the DVR is very functional and easy to use.
Then, after Christmas, I had even more reason to never leave the Barley Room… the Wii. I have been playing Wii sports, Madden 08, and watching everyone else play Super Paper Mario, Smooth Moves, and snowboarding. We have had several, very successful, Wii parties.
I’ve also been watching movies in my NetFlix queue that I have been waiting on until I got the TV. (by the way, Spiderman 3 was not very good) On top of all that, the home theater itself had just so many things to play with… calibrating the sound and picture, learning the remotes, watching my favorite movie scenes in high-def and surround sound, and lots more.
One of the greatest SuperBowls ever…
It is hard to truly describe and show how well this room works. My wife keeps saying, “what would we do without this room?”
The home theater experience really showed itself when we watched Transformers. I had already seen the movie in the theater, and I don’t know if it was because it was the second time around, or if because I watched how they made the movie, but I concluded that this movie is now one of my favoroties, ever. The sound, the comfy seating, the picture… it was just off the hook. (Did I mention the sound???)
It’s hard to overstate my satisfaction.
Here is a real-time strategy game that delivers. It has a great design, sufficient graphics, and is very addictive. Not only that, it’s free. Prepare to defend your desktop, but don’t say I didn’t warn you!
The Real-Time Strategy (RTS) genre in video games was established many years ago. One of the first RTS games I can remember playing (on my Atari 800XL) was The Ancient Art of War, which was very simple and great fun. The basic premise of these games has not changed much except in the scale and types of units available; all of which leads to a much more complicated game.
Almost all RTS games are military based, but designed in many flavors such as middle age warfare, mythological warfare, present day warfare, science fiction warfare, etc. The basic premise of an RTS game is that you build military units (tanks, swordsmen, bombers, goblin hordes, knights, nukes) and then send them off “strategically” to defeat your enemy. The catch is that you usually need to harvest some type of resource in order to build your military units; like farm the land to feed your soldiers, or create and store energy from the natural resources available to build your battle droids. The object of the game is to balance the care and feeding the creation of units while using them offensively and defensively such that you win more battles than you lose; usually until your opponent surrenders, or you completely obliterate them.
A great example of current generation RTS games is Supreme Commander. Supreme Commander delivers a science-fiction based world where three factions are pitted against each other, each with unique land, air and sea based military units. The game promises incredible graphics for realism and global management of the battlefield. I’ve been looking forward to this game thinking that it might be a strategy game I would find fun and do away with many of the shortcomings I usually find in all RTS games.
I’ve been playing with the demo version of the game for the last couple weeks and I have to admit, I’m having a lot of fun, however, many of my pet peeves with RTS games were quickly substantiated.
The first problem with this game, and all RTS games in my humble opinion, is that too much weight is still placed on the micro management of building units. You spend most of your time watching your “energy” and “mass” production (which is how Supreme Commander has implemented resources) in order to create units, and very little time if left for planning military strikes and defenses. The little global strategy that exists is tough to mind and manage when you have to assign a new engineer to patrol the forests for natural resources because some enemy scout took him out when you were not looking.
Which brings me to another pet peeve, things happen that you don’t see; it happens and you don’t know how, why or when it happened. There is not a good implementation of feedback to the commander (you) that someone is under attack, and where it is taking place. That makes part of the “strategy” of the game running around the theater of war checking in on every little patrol, which to me, takes away from the overall strategy of the game. You become both the CEO and the manager of the mailroom.
Now, my understanding is that some people really like this. I was reading that games like Starcraft (one of the most popular RTS games ever) are commended for their requirement to micro-manage everything on the playing field. So, I guess if you like that, you will like Supreme Commander, too.
Many factors that would make this more of a strategy game are not there, or do not matter. Tactics like flanking, surprise, terrain, time of day, playing a units advantage against another’s disadvantage all really don’t matter nearly as much as shear number of units that you can produce. The winner is the best micro-manager who can produce tons of units, whatever they may be.
The graphics are amazing; the battles look very real. But it is too bad you can’t ever watch them because you are off to micro manage something else. The camera is difficult to use as well. There is a replay feature in the full game; it might be fun to play a game not worrying about watching anything and then replay it on the big screen to watch all of the action. But, the system requirements for the game are quite hefty and even my gaming rig had slow frame rates in the bigger battles. (rumor has it that you really need a dual core CPU to run the game smoothly)
I’m not sure if I’m an RTS game fan or not. I think I’m either looking for something much simpler, or I’m looking for something that let’s you play the strategy part without having to micro manage. I’m not sure how a game like that might work, but someone will sooner or later think outside the box of the RTS genre. I would start with a game designed around building or buying your army as the beginning phase of the game, then enter a new phase where you don’t have to bother with that and you can concentrate on winning a war with what you got. (perhaps one exists that I’m not aware of) Or, just let the computer deal out equal resources to each side and you can choose what you want to do with it.
The saving grace of Supreme Commander was the “pause” feature, where you can pause the game, but still manage your units. Without that feature, I would have been very frustrated. Of course, this would never work in an online multiplayer game. Thus, this game would be for me and me alone, even though I’m primarily looking for a game where I can hang out online with friends to play.
The full game has varied environments, campaigns, you can play all three factions, and you can play multiplayer online. (plus the replay feature) There is also a lot of downloadable content. I am actually strangely addicted to the demo, enough that I took a look at the current price, $40. I could buy this game… a manual would be nice as the in-game help sucks, say, compared to the Civopedia in Civilization III. If you are a fan of RTS games as you know them, you may absolutely love this game; I just haven’t made up my mind yet.
Lastly, I think I could have enjoyed this game a ton more if I were sitting on my couch, having a beer and playing using my remote Phantom keyboard/mouse while watching on a 50” LCD and 5.1 stereo home theater. (unfortunately, right now I only own the beer)
My current system specs: AMD Athlon XP 2500+ Barton, 1GB RAM, nVidia 7600 GT.
March 2007 – Spring is Around the Corner
Most of my time lately has been spent working on “the porch project.” I’m enjoying the work, but frustrated with the planning and details. So instead, I’ll be cleaning the basement which is huge, but at least it is mindless.
- Now Playing
- Barely Anything – I never finished my replay of Half-Life 2; I’ve jumped in to play a little more Burnout 2 (I found unlocks I didn’t unlock), I’ve made a couple TrackMania Sunrise tracks (I’m bored of TrackMania Nations), and wife and daughter are still addicted to Paper Mario, but they are almost done.
- On the Horizon
- Demos – I probably won’t be playing much at all, though I’m looking for a demo of NeverWinter Nights 2 and Supreme Commander.
- Now Playing
- Soccer/Gym – Time to get back in shape!
- The kids are enjoying sledding and are sad to see the snow already starting to melt.
On the Big Screen
- Now Playing
- Battlestar Galactica – I’m finally starting the series; so far, I like it a lot. My wife is still unsure.
Life should be fun… GO PLAY!
What are you playing?
Just to follow up on my RTS post, Supreme Commander is out and is getting great reviews. Here is GameSpot’s Video Review. It looks like the downfall is that you need a killer system to run it well. I learned that the system does actually calculate projectile trajectories in combat, so it probably looks much better then simple animation. I still suspect you spend most of your time “zoomed out” so that you can concentrate on winning, as opposed to enjoying the view of a killer battle scene.