Shopping for a Surround System

After getting a new Ultra High Definition TV and now a UHD Blu-ray player, the last component of the system that needs upgrading is the sound. After playing with the new UHD player, even with older Blu-ray disks, it will not output the sound correctly to the old receiver. My receiver doesn’t have HDMI inputs like the newer ones do. Instead you could either connect RCA cables for a 5.1 surround setup or a Toslink cable, a fiber optic cable that carries the music converted to a red light. That always seemed like the best, but actually Toslink can’t carry 8 individual channels of audio that a 7.1 system might require. With the old player Toslink worked fine with 7.1, but the two back speakers were the same channel. With the new player the best it seems I can do is the back speakers play out of the front, but the side speakers are okay (in the player settings I have to send a DTS bitstream, otherwise everything comes out the front). Continue reading

Ultra HD Blu-ray Player

I recently got a new Ultra HD TV. Even though I don’t have any sources in UHD (or 4K, but 4K is actually a little wider than UHD; a UHD picture has 4 times as many pixels as HD), I am enjoying having a modern TV and the picture is really great. Of course there is always the desire to supply that UHD content that the TV is capable of. I can stream UHD content from YouTube, and Netflix offers some UHD content (though I’m not a member right now). Even the HD Blu-rays I have look great on the TV and the extra pixels of UHD are barely visible and maybe not visible. One problem with my current Blu-ray player is often the sound doesn’t sync correctly with the video. The only way to fix it seems to be to turn the Blu-ray player off and then on again and hope that it gets close enough this time (this is fairly time consuming to shut down the player, boot it up again, and then start the disk to get to the main menu). Also, Blu-ray players now can all connect to the internet though mine does not. That isn’t a big deal because my TV can connect to the internet too, but some Blu-ray disks have features that require internet access. So I’ve been thinking about getting a new Blu-ray player and for about $180 I could get a UHD Blu-ray player. UHD is still pretty new and they have tweaked it since it came out with HDR 10 which gives better backlight depth. Then Frys had a sale . . .
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Silica Gel

I have several plastic containers I use to hold flashlight parts. To keep the parts from rusting, I wanted to keep some silica gel in the containers to keep humidity down. At first I would get the ones included with shoes or pills, but then decided to just order some bigger 10 gram packages online. I numbered each of 10 pouches and put one in each of maybe 7 containers with a few left over. One of the leftover pouches I left out on my desk. The other two I kept in their original heavy duty ziplock envelope and put that in one of the plastic containers. I figured after a year, I could weigh the 10-gram pouches on my digital scale and see how well they were working, and maybe recharge them by baking them in an oven.

This weekend it had been a year. Most of the pouches now weighed about 13 grams, so they had absorbed about 30% of their weight in water. The ones in the envelope were around 12 grams, so they still picked up humidity. The one that was left out all year was also about 13 grams. So I think 30% is the maximum they can effectively absorb. I put the pouches in the oven for a couple of hours at 220 degrees and they all returned down to or just below their original weights, so the baking really worked and the pouches should be good as new (also they did not catch on fire or melt!). I probably need to weigh the pouches again every few months to see how long it takes them to get up to 13 grams when they essentially stop working. So I will use this entry to track results in the future.

Bella

After Austin died I knew I would get a new dog eventually. I feel like Rosa would be happier with another dog around, but we had a couple of weeks of great quality time. She hadn’t been going for walks as much and has slowed down some in the meantime. I figured I would start looking soon and Eric’s girlfriend even asked if she could tag along and help out when I visited shelters. Austin came from Paws, so I planned to go there first. I could also go to Lifeline here in Avondale which is where Rosa came from. Also, a person on Nextdoor posts about graduates of the Canine Cellmates program where prisoners work with dogs rescued from the pound before the dogs are made available for adoption. Adult dogs are a little harder to place, so that would be fine with me. Usually if they have lived at a shelter for any amount of time they are pretty much housebroken.

Bella's picture from the shelter's website

Bella’s picture from the shelter’s website


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New TV

I bought a high definition TV in 2003 and it has worked about the same ever since I got it. However the rest of the world has moved on. HDMI cables are now the standard way to connect cable boxes and DVD players to TVs, but mine had an earlier version called DVI. I was able to use cables with HDMI at one end for the DVD player and a DVI connector at the other end for the TV, but DVI doesn’t carry sound, so I had to carry the audio signal separately. Fortunately the TV had a ton of input jacks on the back. While I don’t think it matters much, the TV was only capable of a 1080i picture, but 1080p is now common, including from my Blu-ray player. Lately, the cost of Ultra High Definition TV’s has come down (way below what I got my TV for) and I started thinking about upgrading. In the end I decided that the technology was still developing and I should wait since my old TV was working fine. Until Sunday night.
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Headphone Amplifier

Lately I have been buying a lot of Blu-ray movies as well as some DVD’s so that I could watch movies on the train on the way to and from work. Some of the Blu-rays come with a Digital HD copy that I can download to my tablet, otherwise I can rip DVD’s to watch. The problem is that the volume over headphones on the tablet isn’t that loud. I have to turn the volume all the way up and I still can’t always make everything out when there is a lot of noise on the train. One possible solution would be to use a battery-powered headphone amplifier. Typically these are used for driving bigger headphones that require more power than earbuds, but it should work in my situation as well when the source just needs to be louder. Ten years ago I wrote about a type of headphone amplifier called a CMoy amplifier after its inventor, Chu Moy, who apparently passed away last year. I don’t hear as much about these anymore, but you can still find homemade ones here and there. One guy stopped making them, but now sells the parts as a do-it-yourself kit. His design is powered by two 9-volt batteries and gets pretty good reviews. At $20 for the kit, it is cheaper than ones that are already made and in a mint tin for $35. I have a few empty Altoids tins that I was saving for something like this, which I think is key because it seems likely I will mess at least one of them up trying to get the four holes in exactly the right places and the right size. So I went ahead and ordered a kit, picked up some batteries at Walgreens, and got the kit today.

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Disney Movie Club, Part 2

I think my first go around with the Disney Movie Club worked pretty well. I wound up getting 9 Blu-ray movies for $90 total and with the Disney Movie Reward points from those plus some others I got two more Blu-ray movies free: Tarzan and Hunchback of Notre Dame, two movies towards the end of the Disney Renaissance of the 1990s. I also learned I could have played it a little better by buying pre-orders or feature titles instead of full priced commitment selections, since they usually sell those for $5 less. That would have brought my total down to $80 after paying for both commitment titles. If you want to join, click the link below and then make sure you enter the promo code 50503 (gives you a free Dory blanket, alternatively 50822 gives you a free Moana blanket) at the bottom of the page to get the best deal:

I would like to do it again because it is such a good deal, and I started a list of movies I would like to get, but I could never get the 6 or 7 titles for the enrollment (5 movies for a dollar plus 1 for $11.95 that counts as a commitment, and an optional 7th movie for $8.95, leaving 2 more commitments to buy at full price later). Before I cancelled my membership last year, they started taking pre-orders for Pinocchio, which hasn’t been available for years and the new release would be a “Signature Edition” which includes Blu-ray, DVD, and a Digital HD version, along with extra content, I would think. The first Signature Edition they did was Snow White, which I bought in the first round and enjoyed. The second was Beauty and the Beast, but I already had a really good version of that one on DVD that also included an unfinished draft preview of the movie that was shown at a film festival to raves from critics. Beauty and the Beast went on to become one of the only animated movies ever nominated for the Oscar for Best Picture (later they put animated movies in a separate category). So I would like to have gotten Pinocchio, which surprised me by rising to the top of the list I made of most acclaimed Disney movies, but I thought I would wait. Typically when a movie is first released on DVD, the movie club has it available as a pre-order that puts it in your hands by the day of the release, then it is available for purchase for club members (sometimes as a feature title which may or may not include a discount, and sometimes as part of a double feature with another movie with some kind of discount), but usually takes three months before it shows up as an enrollment choice. With Pinocchio being a re-release I am not sure how long it will take for it to become an enrollment choice, but I am assuming three months. Meanwhile, Moana was released to theaters and was pretty good, so I wouldn’t mind owning that when it comes out on Blu-ray, and Rogue One turned out to be really good too, so I would like to get that when it is released (both in March), but if Rogue One is like The Force Awakens, it would never be available as an enrollment title. Therefore if I was going to have to get Rogue One as a commitment purchase I kind of needed to sign up before its March release in order to get the $5 discount (plus they would throw in a lithograph, of dubious value, but because it exists why wouldn’t I want that for free?). However, Pinocchio probably won’t be an enrollment choice until April, so if I want to get that, maybe it needs to be my other commitment title that I could pre-order and get a discount and lithograph.
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New Old iPad

For Christmas, Mom got a new iPad Air 2 and gave me her old iPad 2 she has been using for the last four years. Available for as little as $349, the iPad Air 2 is a great deal right now compared to the latest iPad Pro 9.7″ model for $499, but that is still more than I paid for my new HP laptop. I got a smaller Nexus 7 around the same time she got the iPad 2 and I eventually got an Asus Transformer which is a 10″ Windows tablet with a detachable keyboard. Unlike my iPod touch which I use all the time, I never have made much use of the tablets. The Nexus is a nice size for reading magazines and even watching videos, but kind of small for web browsing.

From top to bottom, iPod touch 6G, Nexus 7, Asus Transformer, iPad 2

From top to bottom, iPod touch 6G, Nexus 7, Asus Transformer, iPad 2

The Asus is kind of big to carry around (does not fit in a coat pocket like the Nexus) and it basically takes the same Windows screen you might see on a 15″ laptop and shrinks it down to 10″, making it hard to read. Now that I am buying some Blu-ray disks, a lot of them come with digital versions, so I have been thinking I could use the tablets for watching movies and TV episodes. The Asus, since it has iTunes, can be used to download and watch videos from iTunes and has a bigger, higher resolution screen. I bought a 64 GB micro SD card to increase its storage capacity (32 GB built in). But the glossy screen of the Asus makes it a little harder to see while on the train even when I make sure it does not dim while on battery power. Also the headphone volume is not high enough to overcome train noise all the time. The Nexus works a lot better for watching videos, but again I have to max out the volume and it still isn’t loud enough. While the Nexus has Vudu and Google Play videos available along with whatever I have been ripping from DVD’s, I don’t think it has a way to watch iTunes videos, which isn’t that bad since the only videos I have exclusively on iTunes are my Disney and Pixar movies.
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Xfinity Setup

I got my Comcast Xfinity cable TV service a couple of weeks ago. The TV package is pretty stripped down, but includes maybe 10 decent cable channels plus broadcast. With Dish I had a DVR and had added an external 2 terabyte hard drive to store more recordings, so I wanted to do the same with the new box if possible. But first, there were some interface challenges with Comcast. Dish had a pretty good interface. You could set up custom channel lists, so that when you went to the program guide, you would see only the channels you wanted and as you changed channels up and down, it stayed within that list until you changed to a different list. Xfinity doesn’t seem to have that, but you can get to a list of favorites with a couple of clicks, just not as convenient as just one click. Also it isn’t as easy to scroll through channels in the guide since it stops at an ad every 4 channels. Since I don’t get 95% of the channels, why would they have the guide force me to scroll through all of those? Even if I use channel up and down, I have to go through all of the channels. It’s a terrible interface.
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Digital HD

After joining and then leaving the Disney Movie Club, I wound up with a bunch of Blu-ray disks. Many of them included a DVD disk as well so that you could share with friends who don’t have Blu-ray or to convince you to buy the Blu-ray disk even though you don’t have a player yet. Blu-ray does not seem to have caught on as well as DVD’s originally did, maybe because people don’t feel like buying disks and players anymore when they can stream over Netflix, Roku, Chromecast, or whatever to their TV, computer, phone, or tablet. Good technology, bad timing. And Blu-ray has branched off so that now there are 3D Blu-ray disk which should play in a conventional Blu-ray player (though not in 3D) and Ultra HD 4K which is not backwards compatible. Even though most of the highest grossing movies are filmed in 3D, Neither of these seems all that popular. People maybe don’t want to wear the glasses at home or something and maybe there aren’t enough UHD TV’s and UHD disk players out there yet.

Three Blu-rays, one that includes Digital HD download, one with DVD, and one with both.

Three Blu-rays, one that includes Digital HD download, one with DVD, and one with both.

Anyway, in addition to the DVD disk, many of the Blu-rays include a digital copy or “Digital HD” as stated on the cover. Sometimes there isn’t a digital HD copy and sometimes not a DVD and sometimes neither. But lately, it seems the digital copy is being included more and more often (and the DVD less and less: Pixar is re-releasing movies on Blu-ray that used to include Blu-ray and DVD disks and now including the Blu-ray and Digital HD only, which saves them the cost of including an extra disk).

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