Vista multimedia

I decided recently to upgrade the television system that I use at the end of my bed. Given that the bed is by far the most comfortable place to be in my house, it’s absolutely essential that I have a computing system installed there that’s bedroom compatible. While some people find a laptop suitable for this role, I prefer a large flat-panel TV with a surround-sound speaker system. Without doubt, many readers will at this point be shaking their heads and describing me as both weird and sad, but that’s alright, I can cope with the shame…

Vista multimedia

A couple of years ago, I bought a super-cheap 30in TFT panel made by Medion, which had a resolution of 1,380 x 768 pixels and worked very well when driven digitally from a PC or Mac mini. It offered a good resolution for a 30in screen beheld at bed-length viewing distance, the only downside being that the LCD panel – a very early model – had a quite slow and unresponsive refresh time, so it suffered from visual smearing in fast-moving scenes. What’s more, its performance was quite variable as it warmed up from cold.

Given the arrival of HD DVD and a flood of new panels that claim to be HD ready, I decided it was time to upgrade my bedroom system – purely in the interests of research, you’ll understand. However, a search through the product catalogues of various vendors, and a thorough reading of countless opinion and review websites, left me terribly confused. But, in the end, I did take the plunge and bought a new screen, a plasma panel made by LG. At 50in, it’s a monster, spanning the full width of the foot of the double bed – and its weight is staggering too, being more than two people can comfortably lift. It has a range of inputs, usefully including a pair of HDMI inputs with one of them optimised specifically for DVI operation.

Connecting up a computer to the new panel was a snap, and I soon could increase my Desktop size from Large to Supersize. This really is a staggeringly good output device for home operation, and I’ve been having enormous fun trying out Vista Media Center alongside my usual Mac mini. Using a mouse on the bed covers would be a real pain, but I find that a large Kingston trackball works wonderfully well. I’d love to have a full Bluetooth keyboard too for in-bed use, but I’ve yet to find one that comes with a mouse or other suitable pointing device embedded in it. I’ve seen a few gyroscopic mouse pointers designed for controlling presentations, and one of these might well provide a better solution.

So does this system represent overkill? Yes, of course it does, and yet it’s also a most workable and useful solution. At the same time, I bought a Toshiba E1 HD DVD player and a pile of HD DVD movie discs, some of which are quite stunning in quality. My HD DVD player was remarkably cheap at less than £400, but it does have every appearance of being a prototype that escaped into production: its build quality is lousy, it takes nearly 30 seconds to “boot”, and it has an Ethernet socket on the back. Although HD DVD does allow for web-based interactivity, the real purpose of this socket has been made obvious already by the need for at least one firmware upgrade so far. Making customers blow new firmware into a brand-new DVD player reveals how in its infancy this technology still is, and there are still many rough edges that need filing off before it can be properly considered ready for prime-time.

Buying a PC with a built-in HD DVD player remains some way in the future, so we’ll have to wait for manufacturers to catch up here. Things are different with Microsoft’s Xbox 360, which offers an optional HD DVD player add-on unit at the remarkable price of £100. The downside of the Xbox 360 at present is that it has only an analogue output for video, even on its “hi def” cable option, so again we must wait for a new hardware version to come out that supports HDMI output. Using my Xbox 360 with the large HD panel has cemented my opinion that this could, and should, become the Microsoft home platform for the future, though: it’s so much better suited to large panel TV operation than Windows Vista Desktop. For example, navigation feels perfectly natural and obvious on the Xbox, while it feels faintly ridiculous to have a Start button that big on a raw Vista Desktop.

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