cables

Gaining Leverage

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This post will cover a few related topics. They’re all about TV shows.

We probably watch too much TV, and I make no apologies for it. We lead reasonably intense lives and watching TV shows works wonderfully to help us escape and unwind. I have more forgiving tastes than Lois (meaning, I would watch a lot more bad shows, especially comedies), but our overlap is quite good, and gives us plenty of choices.

When the new seasons come up, we’re somewhat selective of what to try out. Partially, because we already watch a lot. Partially, because a lot of stuff doesn’t even look remotely interesting from the commercials. That said, there are shows that look interesting to me, that Lois poo-poos from the commercials, and given how much we watch already, I am OK passing on them.

This year, one such show was Leverage on TNT. I like hi-tech spy/theft stuff. Two of the shows that we’re both in love with are Chuck and Burn Notice. Chuck is way more on the comedic end of the scale, though it’s still set in the spy motif. Burn Notice is simply a fantastic show, in every respect. For me in particular, I love how they explain all of the spy stuff, and break it down (like a magician, revealing his tricks).

When I saw the first commercial for Leverage, I knew I would like the show. Lois saw the same commercial, and yawned (who knows why, since she loves Burn Notice and Chuck). So, I never added it to the list of things to DVR this season.

I had a twinge whenever I saw a commercial for it, but I took a deep breath, and let it go…

Yesterday I posted about KCRW’s podcast, The Business. On an episode that I listened to on Saturday, while out walking in Rockwood Park, they interviewed Dean Devlin, Executive Producer of Leverage (this episode is from a few months back). Dean explained that the post production for Leverage happens in an all digital facility, and why they can produce more effects, in less time, for less money, due to that setup.

That got me intrigued (again) in checking out Leverage. Lois was out of the house with a friend for a couple of hours right after I got back from my walk. I found episode one online (more on that in the next related topic part of this post), and watched it alone, on my laptop. I really liked it, a lot.

When Lois got back, I told her that I really wanted her to watch it, in case she enjoyed it as much as I did, and we’d add this to our regularly watched list. Since Lois is legally blind, watching on a laptop is not an option. So, I trotted out a 25′ HDMI cable (it was still in the bag), and connected my laptop to our 42″ HDTV. Describing some of those ins-and-outs will be part three of the related topics in this post. For now, back to the show.

Lois ended up liking it a lot. Over the next two days, we watched the first six episodes (the first season is over, with 13 episodes in total, and the show returns this summer, and we’ll watch it on the real TV). How we watched it is back to topic #2, which I’ll defer for just a few more paragraphs…

A few months back (January to be specific), our good friend Wes strongly recommended that we check out the show The Mentalist on CBS. I asked him whether it needed to be watched in order (from episode one), and he thought not, that each episode could stand on its own. So I started recording it on our DirecTivo, including repeats, to start building up the season. We now have 14 of the 19 episodes on the DVR, but not the first five.

Given our success watching Leverage on our TV (through the laptop), I decided that we would give The Mentalist a shot in order, through the laptop as well. We watched the first two episodes and really like the show. Thanks Wes! I think Wes is correct that they could probably stand alone, but I’m also glad we watched them in order (so far), because the first episode (called “Pilot”) really sets up the scenario for why he does what he does. The second episode flashes to that motivation, but it’s more powerful to already understand what they’re flashing to.

Certain shows have to be watched serially. One of the quintessential examples of that is another of my favorite shows (Lois fluctuates wildly in her appreciation of the show), Lost. If you miss even 10 minutes of a single episode, you might really end up Lost (pun intended).

Burn Notice is somewhat like that. In every episode, there are always two themes:

  1. Working a case for a client (this stands alone, each and every week)
  2. Tracking down why our hero was Burned (this is serialized, but nowhere near to the extent Lost is)

So, you can enjoy Burn Notice out of order, but it makes much more sense in order. Both Leverage and The Mentalist would best be enjoyed if you at least watch episode #1 first, to thoroughly appreciate the premise and setup, but after that, it’s probably OK to watch them out of order, even if you will end up missing a reference to a past show.

On to related topic #2: Watching TV online

If you’ve read this space before, then you know that I am a respecter of IP (Intellectual Property Rights). I buy a ton of music, including multiple copies of the same CD in order to give them as presents. I don’t look for torrents of movies or TV shows, just because they’re easy to find.

That said, while I’ve paid to watch a show I’ve missed (I wrote about purchasing an episode of NCIS from Amazon Unbox), it’s a last resort for me, given that the original show was completely free (including advertising, when you’re watching it on the DVR). So, I work hard to find a streaming version of the show online, before paying for it (on principal, not the money!).

My thought, perhaps a little self-serving, is that if it’s available for streaming, especially for a long while, then it isn’t being shut down by the copyright holder. After all, I’m finding it on a Google search, which the studios could do (and likely are doing) better than I could. To repeat, I realize why they may have more trouble tracking down illegal torrents of the shows, and I avoid those.

So, on tnt.tv, they stream six full episodes. They don’t even stream a single commercial, before, during or after the show! However, those six episodes are not conecutively numbered. They currently offer (as of this writing) episodes 3-4-5, 7-8-9. In other words, episode #6 in not available.

I know that some studios have a rolling number of episodes available. They might have four at a time, and when a new one becomes available, the oldest of the existing four will roll off. Some just make the current (or one before that) available. They each have their reasons, I’m sure, but I’ll be damned if I can figure out what they are!

I would guess that on some level, they are trying to force you to watch it on their schedule, meaning, within some reasonable period of time of its original airing. Why? if there is a way to monetize these shows online (and I’m not saying there is!), then more episodes available should equal more monetization. If there isn’t a model (e.g., TNT showing Leverage with zero commercials), then why restrict which episodes are available?

By me being able to watch Leverage online, I have become a fan. When the new season starts this summer, I’ll definitely watch, on TNT itself, rather than online. If none of their episodes was available online, there’s little chance that I would have gotten into this show. The Mentalist is slightly different, as I started taping it before I watched it online, but I will enjoy the show more, now that I’ve gotten the taste from the beginning, and that only happened online.

But, CBS, which used to air full episodes of The Mentalist online, has pulled that show (and others, including Eleventh Hour, which we also really like). Reading some of the fan sites, it might not be a CBS decision, but rather the production company which owns those shows. Either way, a great way to reduce your potential fan base.

Here’s what works for me (I think I wrote about this in one of my Video on Demand posts). Put in no more than five minutes (preferably two) of commercials, that can’t be fast forwarded through, in your online content. Allow the entire stream to be paused and rewound, but even in fast forward, force the stop in a commercial, so if I want to fast forward to a late segment, I have to watch the commercials again. It’s a small price for having ubiquitous content available, on demand, over the Inernet.

Most people will not enjoy that experience as much (not because of the commercials), so it will become another avenue to discover content that can be delivered more effectively (today, not in the future) to their TV.

You’ll notice that I said that CBS no longer streams The Mentalist online, and that episodes #1, #2 and #6 of Leverage aren’t on TNT either. And yet, we watched all of them online, on two different streaming sites. Finding The Mentalist was a bit of a Google challenge, but I ended up being up to the task. Finding Leverage was trivial. 😉

The episodes of Leverage that are available on TNT required extra downloads from TNT in order for their player to work in IE and Firefox. The player doesn’t work in Google Chrome (no prompts for a download), and I haven’t checked, but I suspect that it would fail in Safari too, which is based on Webkit, just like Google Chrome is.

Related topic #3: Technically connecting the laptop to the TV

I have written in the past about connecting my old laptop to the TV, using S-Video and normal RCA audio cables, with decent success. This laptop has an HDMI port, and a VGA port, no S-Video. VGA is a little messy, because it requires a powered converter between the laptop and the TV. I have one, so I can use it when necessary (to connect to an older TV in a hotel room, for example), but at home, I can use HDMI.

This weekend was my first attempt to do so, even though I bought the 25′ HDMI cable long ago, just for this purpose.

Even though on some levels I’m an expert user of computers in general, I (like many people) still fumble when doing something out of the ordinary. Doing this the right way is certainly out of the ordinary. Here, in my opinion, is the right way (in Windows, specifically Vista in my case):

  1. Connect the HDMI cable to the TV and to the laptop
  2. Power on the TV and set the input to that HDMI connection (Input #2 in my case, since #1 is connected to my DVR)
  3. Right-click on the desktop, and bring up the “Settings” panel (in my case, it’s a specific Nvidia Control Panel, and in XP, it’s a generic Desktop Settings panel)
  4. My Nvidia Control Panel makes this next step very easy. It’s a little trickier on a generic XP settings page. I just selected Use Two Displays (with separate content, meaning, not mirrored). This won’t show up unless you have the HDMI in, with the TV on. For a generic XP setup, I believe that you have to click on the smaller screen, labeled 2, and configure it…
  5. Set the resolution of the second display to full HD (1920×1080). I don’t recall whether it was the default or not, but I believe it was, and I believe it was the recommended setting, sensed by the laptop from the TV’s capability
  6. Set the default sound output to be the HDMI device (if you want the sound to come out on your TV!)
  7. Fire up a fresh browser (quit your old one if it was open, then relaunch it). This will ensure that the new default sound device (HDMI) will be where your browser sends its sound!
  8. Optional: Reset your default sound device back to the laptop. I did this, because I got annoyed hearing my IM bings and email sounds coming out on the TV (loudly). Once you do this, only the fresh browser intance launched in step #7 above will have its sound going to the TV!
  9. Navigate to the site that will stream your video while the browser window is still on your laptop display (it’s way easier than navigating once the browser is displayed on your TV)
  10. Get the video all set up, and pause it immediately. Notice which button is set to Full Screen within the video window (very few players don’t have a full screen mode)
  11. Drag the browser window off the laptop screen to the right edge. It should appear on your TV as you are doing this
  12. Hit play on the video, and only after it starts, hit the Full Screen button/control that you noted in step #10

That should do it. You should be watching your video in reasonable quality, in full screen, with sound coming through the TV. Our experience was quite pleasant. Our Internet connection is a very high speed Verizon FiOS one, so that doesn’t hurt. Depending on the player and encoding, I adjusted the aspect control on my TV to get the best fit (The Mentalist looked better with a different setting than Leverage).

Enjoy! 🙂

Audio Video Cable Prices

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In this post, I linked to a great cable that solved my PC -> TV problem. That cable was purchased from svideo.com. The link in that article was to the exact cable I purchased, which cost me $24.95, including free parcel post shipping. It works perfectly. Here is another link on their site to a different model number, which otherwise appears to be identical to me, and it’s $2 cheaper at $22.95 (also includes free shipping).

So, why am I writing again? We’re on another of our trips, and I forgot the cable at home (I know, what a dodo). Now that I know what I need/want, and I’m not taking a risk on whether it will work or not, I figured I’d check out the local electronics stores to see what they carried.

While the cable linked above is perfect (in terms of length, that the audio and video is bonded into one cable, value priced, etc.), I figured I could also buy separate (and if necessary shorter) cables to accomplish the same thing for this trip.

I visited the following stores on the same day, in the following order: Walmart, Circuit City, Best Buy, Radio Shack.

Surprise, surprise, the best prices were at Walmart. I could buy a six foot audio only cable, 3.5mm on one end to two RCA jacks on the other, for $3.94. The same cable at Radio Shack was a not-unreasonable $7.95. The same cable, but in a fancier package, from a known consumer electronics company, with touted higher-quality connectors, was between $14.99 and $21.99 at Circuit City and Best Buy, depending on the brand.

Similar disparity for the S-Video cable (both S-Video -> S-Video and S-Video -> RCA). Here, a six foot cable was close to $12 at Walmart (if I recall correctly), and well over $20 at CC and BB.

In the end, I bought nothing, because I didn’t really have an immediate need. But, it made me search the net again when I got back. I was curious to see if I paid up for expedited shipping, would I still be able to save money while getting longer cables (which are much more convenient for my particular needs).

It turns out that svideo.com’s shipping wasn’t that attractive, given that I didn’t really need the cables. Then I found separate cables at mcmcables.com. I bought a 25 foot (yes, four times longer than the Walmart cable!) audio cable for $4.95! In fact, I bought two, just because. Then I bought two 25 foot S-Video -> RCA cables for $8.99 each!

I could have saved $1 each for S-Video -> S-Video, which would work for 95% of the TVs I might connect to, but the RCA jack is a tad more universal, so I went for that instead. Shipping (not expedited) was an additional $7.99.

So, one set of 25 foot cables cost me $14 (I’m rounding up), plus a few bucks for shipping. That’s cheaper than the cable I previously bought from svideo.com, which I have no complaints about either (pricing or quality).

It boggles the mind the markups that these stores have. I realize that they have to stock it on the shelves, but still, even the disparity between Walmart and CC and BB is ridiculous. They make money on this because most people need the cable that day, and have to pay up or wait longer than they want.

This brings me to another outrageous cable pricing issue, and in fact, more than a pricing issue, a change in design.

I’ve reported before that I have both a new generation iPod Nano, and a new iPod Classic (what a horrible name). I also reported here, that I have some video podcasts loaded on them.

So, I thought I’d see whether hooking them up to the TV in the hotel gave a satisfactory viewing experience. Rob Page (CEO of Zope Corporation) loaned me his cable that connects the headphone jack to three RCA composite jacks for precisely this purpose.

I did a quick search and found this article describing how to do the hookup, and recommending that you don’t pay extra for Apple’s branded cable. Rob had a retractable off-brand cable that he paid $5 for. Apple sells branded cables for $49!

Before I left for the hotel, I found an EBay auction that was selling a bundle: Five foot video cable, car charger for iPod and wall socket charger for iPod, all together, for $0.99 (yes, less than a dollar!). Of course, they make it up on the shipping, which was $6.99! So, for $7.98 delivered, I would get the video cable, the car charger, and an extra wall charger (which I don’t really need). I ordered it.

When I got to the hotel, I couldn’t get the Nano or the Classic to display the video. I was able to get the audio to work.

A search this morning yielded an article on Apple’s site, where they claim that the new Nanos and Classics no longer support video out of the headphone jack. What? This is progress? Of course, they’ll sell you a $49 cable to connect the edge connector to either Composite or Component jacks. They’ll also happily sell you a dock for an additional $49.

A quick EBay search shows that you can pick up a knock-off cable for $0.01 plus $4.95 shipping.

The world is full of rip-offs, and bargains. A little careful shopping, coupled with the patience needed to wait for them to arrive, and you can maintain your sanity a little longer.

I can’t fathom (other than wanting to force upgraders to buy new cables!) why Apple would stop supporting video out of the headphone jack on newer models. Oh well…

Finally, for completeness sake, I’ll add my HDMI cable shopping experience here. I mentioned in the past that it’s amusing (to be kind) that when you buy an HDTV, it’s rare to have any cables included, let alone an HDMI one.

I bought mine (I’m up to four at this point) at MyCableMart.com. My more recent purchase was for two HMDI 1.3 cables, six foot in length. $6.62 each, plus shipping. At Walmart, these cables were in the $25-40 range, and at CC and BB they were in the $49-99 range (though to be fair, I think the $99 ones were HDMI 1.4 spec, which was the first I’d heard of the higher version). Still, the differences are crazy.

Buyer beware, caveat emptor, etc. 🙂