The Answerman Strikes Again
By Jim Bray
From the mailbag, some questions from readers confused about new
age tech issues. Hopefully, my answers can help clear up a bit of the
technological confusion that's out there.
Q: Do you think the a large, say 154cm rear projection TV would be
a better investment than a wide screen TV, as I am in the position of looking
at buying one. Money is not the main concern but playing DVD for the kids is
important for me, and is the technology of wide screen going to take over the
A: It isn't really an either or situation. Why not
get a widescreen rear projection TV? Theyre absolutely wonderful for
DVD's, as long as they're "enhanced for widescreen TV's" (which most of them
are these days). DVD's that are merely "letterboxed" have to be zoomed to fill
the screen and you lose some resolution, but it's still better than 4x3 TV's.
Widescreen TVs, if you make sure the one you buy is
HDTV-ready or HDTV compatible are also future
compatible because as TV changes over to high definition, youll be
ready for it - and youll love it!
Theres a downside, however. In the meantime, you have to
get used to watching regular TV stretched, so you don't burn in the bars to
each side of the squarish 4x3 picture. These tradeoffs notwithstanding, the
move to widescreen is worth it even just for DVDs.
Q: I purchased a couple DVDs from London and I can not play
them in my GE player......is there anything I can do?
A: Not really, unfortunately, unless you can send them back for a
refund or buy a multi-region DVD player (which might be hard to
find). If you live in North America you have to get "Region 1" discs, for North
America. The studios encoded different regions and most discs are region coded
so theyll only work in their own particular regions. This is so people in
foreign countries cant get foreign DVDs and watch theatrical movies
before theyre released in their country.
Q: I am about to put some cherry wall treatment in my living room
and have a convenient opportunity to put in some inset wall-mount speakers. I
am presently very satisfied with the sound from my typical Sony mini system for
this room. The speaker box's are +/- 12"h x 6"wide x 10" deep (guessing)
Q.1.Given that most studs are less than 4" deep can the same bass
levels be achieved with inset wall mounted speakers? Q.2 I am a professional
cabinet maker. Would it be worthwhile for me to source some really, really good
speakers and profile my own custom units or it would probably be the same price
and better quality to get a system that is already on the market? I realize
there are sound engineering aspects to the cabinet dimensions and I have the
luxury of trying different things at work. Can you save money by just buying
speakers with no cabinet. My budget is $550 Cdn.
A: Actually, the wall makes a great place to flush mount speaker,
and the wall makes a great baffle. The speakers will interact with the wall and
resonate its bass response throughout the wall. You can obtain some great sound
using this method. You may want to check out the series line of Paradigm, PSB
or perhaps B&W speakers. $500 Cdn would be more than enough for your
purpose, in fact you may find that you will end up spending about $299-$350.
The B&W line of speakers will run you about $500.
Q: I have a decades' worth of beta tapes and was wondering if
there exists an adaptor that can be used with a VHS VCR. You never know these
days! I suppose that someone could transfer them for us into VHS but how
expensive is that?
A: Unfortunately, there's no such adapter. Your best bet is to go
to someone who'll transfer the tapes for you. You'll have to be satisfied with
losing some quality during the transition, too, because you're going down one
more generation of tape. As for pricing, you'd best check that out locally.
Q: What is the difference between a passive and an active
A: Most active subwoofers contain their own amplifier and you'd
hook them into the "subwoofer out" jack on your 5.1 channel preamp or receiver.
Most passive subwoofers don't have their own amp and are usually wired in
concert with your other speakers and powered by your receiver/amplifier. Active
subs are generally better, depending on your needs.
Q: Does it matter whether or not there are "Dolby digital
outputs," if I have no receiver? I am basically hooking up a good TV to a DVD
player straight - no receiver. It is for a second set (I have a 5.1 surround
system and receiver in one room, and am looking to just run a DVD and TV in
another). Do any of the extras matter? Like Dolby Digital? If there is no
receiver or "decoder?" Should I buy a more expensive DVD player with a "Dolby
Digital output" or "passthrough?"
A: If you aren't using a Dolby Digital or DTS decoder, there's no
point in using those outputs on the DVD player; you'll only use the stereo
audio outputs to hook the player to the TV, which undoubtedly only has stereo
inputs. Some TVs offer built in Dolby Pro Logic or Dolby Digital
decoding, but these are the exception rather than the rule - and they still
require extra speakers. So you probably won't get surround sound by patching
the player directly into the TVs audio inputs, but you don't seem to mind
since this is a second unit.
Q: Thanks for the great info. A few years back I purchased a
Panasonic Palmcorder that takes VHS-C tapes. Someone told me I should copy my
tapes to VHS cassettes and just keep reusing the VHS-Cs. These are just
home movies of the kids. What do you recommend? To me this sounds sort of dumb
because the VHS-C are smaller to store and I thought that they are supposed to
last a little bit longer the VHS tapes. What do you recommend?
A: Copying the tapes onto regular VHS will give you a copy that's
one generation removed from the original, and therefore it won't be of as good
quality. So if quality is most important to you, don't dub to the other tape!
On the other hand, since VHS tapes play longer than VHS-C, dubbing to VHS will
let you sit through more enjoyable nostalgia sessions of the little ankle
biters without switching tapes. For me, the better quality of the original tape
would be more important than longer playing time, however. As for how long each
tape lasts, well it's basically the same tape inside each type of cassette, so
all things being equal you'll probably be happy with the lifetime of either. If
durability is a concern, and you plan to watch the tapes often (each viewing
degrades them a bit), you could also make the leap from analog tape to digital
media. How? If you have the proper hardware and software (a good sized hard
drive, a video capture card and video editing software), you could download all
your kid vids onto your computer's hard drive, edit them together there, and
burn them to a recordable video compact disc. This should be playable on most
DVD players - or you could output the files back to VHS - but this time it
would be from a digital copy of the original analog tape, which should get
around at least some of the quality loss issue. The last solution is by far the
most expensive and time consuming: get a DVD burner and dump the VHS-C files
directly to it. I did some of that when testing a DVD burner earlier this year
and it worked well - and now I can throw the tapes away.
Q: I'm interested in upgrading my television. Since I have an
extensive collection of laserdiscs and I am a fan of silent movies and older
black and white Academy ratio movies, I am most interested in knowing your
recommendations or comments regarding the best visual presentation for me, be
it front projection or rear projection.
A: For watching black and white movies and TV shows I'd stay away
from plasma for now. They're great for color, though. Other than that, either
rear projection or direct view will do a fine job. Rear projectors have gotten
excellent over the past few years, and you can get larger screen sizes than
with a direct view set.
Buying a widescreen TV means you'll have to set it to stretch your
old 4x3 aspect ratio movies and TV programs horizontally to fill the screen
area, otherwise the bars to either side of the picture could burn in and damage
the set. The picture takes some getting used to because people look a tad short
and fat (kind of like in real life, actually!) but it's an acceptable
compromise if you're also planning to get into widescreen DVD's.
Laserdiscs won't appear truly widescreen on a widescreen TV; as
with "non anamorphic" widescreen DVD's, they'll be "letterboxed" (with black
bars above and below the screen) and "keyholed" (with bars to both sides of the
screen), only using half the screen area or less. Most widescreen TV's offer a
zoom setting that will make them fill the screen, albeit with a loss of picture
quality - but it's still better than watching on a small screen.
Q: If I purchase a 16x9 compatible PC monitor and a video card
capable of running my TV signal on my computer, will I be seeing an HDTV
picture on my computer when an HDTV signal is being broadcast or does HDTV have
a separate decoder? If my computer monitor has a resolution of 1280 progressive
and the ordinary HDTV monitor is 1180i, isn't my computer image superior to
those expensive HDTV sets?
A: You need 3 things to watch HDTV on your PC: an HDTV signal
(from an antenna, cable, or satellite), an HDTV tuner to receive the signal,
and a display (monitor) capable of showing what the tuner is receiving.
Many (if not most) of today's computer monitors are capable of
equal or greater than HDTV resolution, but you need the actual HDTV-compatible
tuner and video card to receive the signal and send it to the monitor. You
don't necessarily need a 16x9 monitor, though it's nice. A conventional 4x3
aspect ratio monitor will display 16x9 HD signal in the same way 4x3
HDTV-capable televisions do: with black bars above and below the widescreen
So, assuming you receive HDTV broadcasts, adding an HDTV-capable
tuner and video card to your PC should let you watch HDTV on your monitor. This
could be a fairly inexpensive way to go HD if your PC's up to snuff. I'd still
rather watch HDTV on a big screen TV, though the PC solution works in a
Q: I read advertisements for VCRs that list a "Commercial Skip"
feature. I presume that means my recording of a TV program will not record the
commercials, thereby saving me the time and effort of fast forwarding through
them. Is this truly what it is?
A: The commercial skip feature, often called "Commercial Advance,"
records the commercials, but after the recording is made the VCR goes back over
the tape, finds where the commercials are and marks them. When you play the
program back later, the VCR goes into fast forward mode and scans through the
commercials for you. It isn't perfect, but it works amazingly well.
On the VCR's I've tried that have this feature, you can choose to
have the screen go blank during the commercial skipping or watch the ads zip
through at warp speed. I prefer the latter: since the feature isn't perfect
(it's probably 90 per cent accurate, though), this lets you catch the mistakes
and put the VCR back into "play."
Q: How does one record DirecTV. The channels start at 100 and go
to 999, but when I looked at VCR's they have models that can record 120
channels or 180 but none of them went to 999.
A: I must confess to a bit of elitism here, because when I read
this question I couldn't believe the person was serious. Then I mentioned it to
a friend, who thought it was a very good question. So here goes:
You're actually talking about apples and oranges. The tuner in a
VCR is similar to the tuner in your TV and is meant for receiving off air or
The satellite receiver, that little box that sits by your TV, is a
completely separate tuner and in fact it replaces your TV/VCR tuners. You watch
a satellite system or cable box using your TV's video inputs or by tuning the
TV to channel 3 (or 4) - exactly the same way you watch the output from your
VCR on your TV.
To record satellite signals, therefore, you must patch the dish
receiver into the VCR's video input jacks (usually on the back of the VCR) or,
if you use a traditional cable connection rather than patch cords with RCA
jacks, you must tune the VCR to channel 3 (or 4, whichever you've set as the
dish receiver's output channel) to get the satellite signals into the VCR.
What this means for your original question is that channel numbers
on the VCR are completely irrelevant when it comes to satellite recording: you
only use one channel on the VCR (3 or 4 - or your "Video In" connector). The
channel numbering of the satellite system is still important, however, because
once you've tuned in the VCR you still need to tune the satellite receiver to
the correct channel from which you want to record!
Q: How do you record one program from TV and watch another at the
A: You have to tune your VCR to the channel you want to record
(don't forget to press "Record" or set the timer!), then ensure its "TV/VCR"
button is set to TV. This lets the cable/antenna signal bypass the VCR so you
can watch TV as if the VCR weren't there - and you can change the TV's channel
to your heart's content. What you're actually doing is using the VCR's tuner to
record, and the TV's tuner to watch something else.
To view the tape afterward, put the TV/VCR button back to VCR,
tune the TV to whatever channel you use as your VCR input (3 or 4, or possibly
a video input), and enjoy!
A warning: this doesn't work with satellite systems (see above),
only when recording from cable or off air signals.
Q: What is "DSP?" In the sound system I am about to buy there are
11 DSP settings, while other (more expensive receivers) have 27 and so on?
Should DSP influence me on what system I should buy? Does it mean clearer
A: I believe the DSP (digital signal processing) to which you
refer is a series of simulated surround sound settings, like "concert hall,"
"jazz club," "stadium" etc. It can be kind of cool, but in my opinion is
definitely not something on which to base your buying decision unless this sort
of special effect is important to you.
There's nothing wrong with DSP, but I personally prefer having the
audio system output the signal as closely to its original input as possible,
without added tricks. Many people disagree, though, and enjoy having the
flexibility to turn their listening room into a variety of venues.
Q: Is it possible to get cable TV hooked up to my computer and if
so, what kind of hardware would I need to install?
A: There are two easy solutions. You need to get your PC a video
card with a built in TV Tuner, for instance one of the ATI All-in-Wonder
family, or a separate TV tuner card (and the accompanying software for both
solutions, of course). Both options are readily, and inexpensively, available
at your local computer store.
Hope this helps!
Jim Bray's technology columns are distributed by the TechnoFILE and Mochila Syndicates. Copyright Jim Bray.