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by Bob Hetherington

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It seems to me the criteria for a small space entertainment system is compact size, diversity in features and ease of operation (always). I don't feel the condo dwellers should have to sacrifice any of the awesome experiences that new technology is providing.


Lets face it ... most of us aren't living in huge homes with multiple rooms and systems to fill with technology toys. Larger and larger numbers are choosing to live in condominiums and apartments in the heart of the city. This section of the HomeToys Home Technology Demonstration Project is dedicated to this group and I hope we can give you some ideas of the great products and systems that can be enjoyed.

In a condo or apartment you will probably not require a multizone sound system and your home theater system will be limited by the space available for the equipment as well as the limitation on loud volume. Neighbors tend to get a bit ugly if their ceiling starts to crumble under the rumbling of your subwoofer as it replicates the sound of a train going by :-(  It seems to me the criteria for a small space entertainment system is compact size, diversity in features and ease of operation (always). I don't feel the condo dwellers should have to sacrifice any of the awesome experiences that new technology is providing.

So, let's get started. What do we need to build a cool entertainment system. Of course, the basic piece of equipment is a TV. Just a few short years ago there was no way to experience a big screen in an apartment without sacrificing most of your furniture. In fact my son lives at the beach where space is at a premium. He has a 52" rear projection TV since he is crazy about football ... but unfortunately when we visit him we are forced to either lie on the couch or stand up to eat and talk. The good side is that he has no floors to vacuum :-(

Now, lets talk a little about the word television. In my opinion, the marketplace is confused about what constitutes television nowadays. To me a television set is an all in one appliance that I can connect to cable and see, tune and hear television shows without the need of additional equipment. They can be simply placed in various rooms of the house.

A modern home theater setup does not use a "television". Instead there is typically a cable box or tuner to receive and decode the TV signal, a "Display or Monitor" to view the picture, a receiver or amplifier to receive, decode and amplify the sound ... and some speakers to transmit that sound into the room.  The system we describe here complies with this definition.

At the heart of our system I decided to opt for a Media Center PC since I feel that what I have seen of the Microsoft system will have much appeal for many people mainly because of the flexibility it offers. It's our space that's limited ... not our imagination ... so I wanted to see how these systems have evolved. The folks at CannonPC stepped up to the plate and sent us one of their LX series units to try out.

Flat Panel Displays are the rage now ... and for good reasons. The prices have plummeted in the last few years. The sizes have grown. The pictures are crystal clear. They take up no space at all ... and can be mounted almost anywhere. What more do we need. For our system I chose a ViewSonic N4050w 40" LCD Display. It's plenty big enough for the room we are using (15x15 feet) and I was keen to compare the picture with the plasma screen we currently have (see Part 3). Needless to say I'm not disappointed ... but more on that later.

For the sound system I opted for the new Logitech Z-5450 Digital System which features wireless 5.1 Surround speakers and includes everything we need in small sizes. Not having to run audio cable to the rear speakers seemed to me to be a huge advantage for a condo dweller since there is nowhere to run wires without tripping on them. The sound from this system is pretty good considering that they are really designed to be computer speakers.

Speaking of wireless technology, again I really wanted to bomb test some equipment in the small space. I haven't had much luck with range etc. in the Home Demo environment but in a condo there should be no problem. Consequently, we set up our home network with a Linksys WRT54GS Wireless Router. This is being used for 2 laptops, 1 desktop system and the Media Center PC. It's located a different room than the entertainment system so we can keep our data network equipment out of the way. It has our Vonage VOIP system, a network storage device and a network printer plugged into the ethernet jacks so it's being well utilized (and flawlessly so I might add). Linksys makes great products.

For communicating in your small space you of course need a Phone System. As I mentioned we use a Vonage system (2 lines). Yes, we have cut the cord from the telephone company. So far the system has proven reliable and extremely economical. For the phone system itself I went back to Panasonic and asked for their KX-TG6502B 2-Line 5.8 GHz system. I have always had the best luck with Panasonic phones and I'm not disappointed with this system either. It has all of the bells and whistles we need and again since we are in a small space, the range of a 5.8GHz system is ample. There has been no detectable interference between this system and the Linksys data network. A major advantage of these phones is that you only need one phone jack for the main unit. The rest of the handsets just need an AC outlet for the charger. This makes it easy to use with VOIP, Also, all of the directory numbers, messages etc. are shared by all the handsets so you only need to input your phonebook once and it's available everywhere.

Lastly, we needed somewhere to put all of the entertainment equipment. Yes, you can visit Home Depot and come home with a television stand if you wish. We chose however to try a new company that makes some of the most contemporary looking furniture I've seen. We wanted something simple for mounting our flat panel display and the rest of the equipment. Soundations sent us their "Broadway" model and it works just great.

So that's it ... all the equipment we need is here and now all we need to do is hook it up. Should be easy right :-(

Connecting the Equipment

I won't get into setting up phone systems and wireless networks here. Suffice it to say that these systems have evolved far enough now that they are not difficult to plug and and configure. Instructions books usually cover the topics quite clearly and my experience with both Panasonic and Linksys are such that I don't even need to read the instructions anymore. Plug them in, connect the wires and away you go. I wish everything were that simple.

The first thing I set up for the entertainment system was the Soundations Home Theater Stand. WOW! this thing is extremely well made and the components are heavy duty. Pretty simple instructions and only simple tools required. The tempered glass shelves are a full 7/16" thick so I'm not worried about them holding up the ViewSonic unit or any other components for that matter. You definitely get what you pay for here ... top quality equipment all the way.

Next out of the box is the ViewSonic Display. Again this unit is big and heavy so get some help to place it on the stand. Once all of the equipment is placed where you want it on the stand it's time to start connecting wires. I always tend to hook everything up in a messy fashion until I try it all out and make sure things work. Then I go back and unplug it all, clean up the layout and hide what I can before plugging it back in again. The last thing you want is an equipment stand full of beautiful components and a rats nest of wire laying on the floor :-(

OK, now lets talk about the wiring. It seems that each bit of hardware has about 42 optional wiring arrangements and types of wire to use. Seems to me the manufacturers should start being clear about what it OK, better and best rather than listing stuff like DVI, Component, S-video etc. All of us want to get the best out of our systems so please just make it clear what we should use. So here's Bob's explanation :-)

First you got your sound stuff ... you know speakers and such. Lets start at the end of the line ... i.e. where the sound comes out. The Logitech system makes this pretty easy because the wire comes in the box. The rear speakers are sort of wireless ... except you still have to plug them into the wall for power which is too bad really because it still limits their position. In our case I went out and bought some stands to put them on and located them in the back corners of the room. The front 3 speakers connect with small wire to the subwoofer which contains the amplifier for this digital system. This is not the normal arrangement you will come across. The subwoofer plugs into the wall for power and via a computer serial cable to the small controller / transmitter which we located in the middle of the equipment stand so it would be visible to the remote control and our eye. So far no options and all the wire is included in the box. Now we need to get a source of audio into the controller and this is where it can get confusing. As far as I know the best audio signal is via optical digital cable so that is what we decided to use. Oops ... not included ... put it on the list of things to buy but in the meantime we can still test the system because we have an old Coaxial audio cable that will do the trick for now (actually it's just a plain old RCA audio cable but don't tell ... it's only temporary). So, where do we plug the audio system into.

The CannonPC Media Center has connections for almost everything there is so we have lots of optional arrangements here. This is basically a high end computer with all the audio and video inputs and outputs you'll need. It's going to receive the signals etc. from your cable box, photo collection and dvd's etc., process them using all the most up to date software and magical formulas and then send them out to the audio and video equipment so you can see and hear them. For audio we plug into the "Audio Out" spot with our optical audio cable and that should give us good quality audio to our speakers.

Next, lets have a look at the ViewSonic display unit. There is a menagerie of possible plugins on the back of it. Fortunately some of them are for audio and TV signals which we are not going to use in our arrangement so we can ignore those. Now again ... what is the best possible cable to use. The options are composite, component, s-video, RGB and DVI. Composite is the worst and DVI is the best. Choose DVI but be prepared to buy a $75 cable for that. On the other hand why save a few dollars on a cheaper cable when you already have a $4000 display that can show the best possible picture? So, connect the DVI cable to the CannonPC and you're almost ready to go. In fact you could watch a DVD, view your photos or listen to your music collection right now without anything else. But of course we want to watch TV and listen to the radio so we still need to connect to the outside world for that.

Lets have a quick look at the back of the CannonPC box. Just like a PC with more inputs and outputs right. Input from the outside world comes in the form of internet / ethernet, TV, HDTV and Radio signals.

In our case for the internet we are using a wireless network so for that all we need is the small antenna that is included in the CannonPC box. That connects to a special spot and sits on the shelf of the entertainment stand to receive the wireless signal.  

There are 2 separate TV tuners and one HDTV tuner in the CannonPC unit. This is so you can watch TV on one channel while recording another channel on the built in DVR system. Nice feature. Unfortunately if you are using digital cable you will need 2 boxes to do this. You can't set it up with one digital box and one straight cable connection. For our system we plug s-video from the digital cable box into one of the tuners. For audio we are limited to analog audio via RCA connections.  Hopefully there will be more options for inputs in the future. It seems to be an issue of Digital Rights Management that's holding up progress here. Here is a good diagram showing all the connections possible.

For HDTV we went out and bought an antenna to see how that would work. A combination HDTV and FM radio antenna set us back about $25. Well worth it I think. We don't get a ton of HDTV signals but when we get a clean one ... it's awesome.

That's about it for wiring ... oh except for the IR receiver (supplied by CannonPC). Plug that in and set it up on the equipment stand. This is what directs the IR remote control signals into the Media Center and also blasts them to the other components such as the cable box. It allows you to use the supplied Microsoft remote to control some of the digital box features and change channels etc.

OK, now we're ready to fire up all this stuff and see what hits the fan :-)

Setting Up the System

For details about the various features of each component have a look at the individual reviews. Here I will cover some of the basics and highlights of the system setup as a whole.

Firstly we need to set up the CannonPC since it it the workhorse that sends out the information we will be seeing and hearing. Windows Media Center Edition is what we will be working with here and it has a fairly simple and comprehensive setup procedure to follow (like a wizard). Using this interface you go through the steps necessary to set up your audio and video signals as well as the other features such as TV, PVR etc.

As you can see, this is going to be an involved process so leave yourself some time to do a thorough job. One of the ugly things about the procedure is that if you get it wrong and have to come back to this setup wizard ... you basically have to re-enter everything. It's is a mystery to me why you can't just change the settings that you want to ... but that's the way it works. CannonPC has some good pdf documents that you should have a look at to get the scope of what you will be up against. http://www.cannonpc.com/downloads.html

Here are a few tips and highlights:

1. Setting Up TV Signal

Here you input your zip code and the system goes and gets the appropriate TV guide for you. If you are using a digital cable box it also walks you through the process of setting up the Media Center remote to work with that box. Basically what you end up with is a system where the remote sends it's "CH+" signal to the Media Center and internal software converts that to "CH+" for the set-top box and sends that signal back to the box via the IR blaster device. This works OK but is really a bit slow reacting for channel changing jockeys (like my son). I also find the Microsoft remote is less that thrilling to use. You really have to jab at the volume and channel buttons to get a response.

2. Configuring your display

This is the most important thing you will do since your display probably cost you more than the other equipment and with HDTV etc. you really want great pictures ... not just good ones. For me, the wizard did not do a good job of this. It set me up for 720i resolution using the automatic process. I ended up going into the display settings for the desktop (remember this is just a computer) and tweaking it to get the "native" resolution of the ViewSonic Screen (1280x768 pixels). This gives me the awesome HDTV picture I expected. If you need help with this part of the process ... get it wherever you can because it's crucial to your viewing pleasure. Don't settle unless you are completely happy.

3. Set up the speakers

Pretty straight forward stuff here. The wizard asks a few questions about how many speakers etc. and then plays a test tone in each so you can confirm that the system is working OK. The Logitech system seems to work pretty well in that it detects the incoming signal and changes configuration accordingly (ie DTS or Dolby 5.1 etc.)

Setting up for the internet and wireless network are pretty straight forward so I'll leave that to you. Mostly automatic or at least should be familiar if you already have an internet connection and / or home network.

I've got to admit though that I was a bit disappointed with the setup process of MCE. I think it still needs work and the stability of the platform is not what it needs to be to satisfy the average user. That said, once I got everything working satisfactorily and got my head around the idea that this is just another computer with all of it's inherent quirks and frustrations ... the tradeoff is well worth it in my opinion. With one simple remote control and a wireless keyboard (if I need it), I have access to Live and recorded TV and HDTV, DVD's, My Movie and Concert Collection, My Music Collection, My Photo Collection, Radio, Internet browsing, internet services such as Napster. movielink, xm radio online, msn music. reuters news services, fox sports online, gaming on demand and many others. All of this is displayed and played via a widescreen display and whatever sound system I wish. In addition I have a powerful computer which I use to store my home and business files and since it runs 24/7 I can set up automatic backups etc.

A great experience I just had. Over Christmas the kids were home and I took a ton of photos on my digital camera. All I had to do was take out the memory card and plug it directly into the CannonPC via it's handy front panel socket. Immediately I was able to show everyone all of the photos on the big screen. I just told it to show as a slide show and we all sat back and enjoyed the show while one of my favorite music playlists was playing in the background. This was all seamless and instantaneous. I made the right decision selecting this for the Small Spaces Demo as far as I'm concerned. And the best part is that I'm sure the system will just get better as time goes on and because it is a computer I will be able to upgrade at will.

Now we're off to CES to see what other trouble we can get into in 2006 :-)

Enjoy!

Update Jan 15th, 2006

OK, back from CES and had a great package waiting at the door. We wanted to try a more traditional audio system in the demo so we asked Jamo to let us try out their speakers and receiver. They recommended that we try out the A 775 HCS 4 speaker system powered by their AVR-793 receiver. OK ... so this is a big jump as far as power and range for the audio system but I must admit ... I love it ... and it really doesn't take up any more room. My DVD concerts and music collection especially benefit from this addition to our room.

I used the optical output from the media server again and the quality is terrific. The Jamo receiver has all of the standard Dolby and DTS modes for audio. No problem setting up the system except running traditional speaker wire from the receiver to the 5 speakers and subwoofer in the system. I managed to conceal the wire along the baseboard to the rear speakers ... not too bad and an acceptable compromise given the sound quality improvement.

I think there is a market opening up for audio system manufacturers. With the Media Center, I have everything I need to select and control all of my media. The only thing it doesn't have is is an audio amplifier. The digital system that we tried was good ... but I still like the idea of being able to select from the thousands of traditional speakers available (CES had tons of beauties). It just seems a shame to have to use a Home Theater Receiver just to do audio. With our setup we don't need any of the tuner or video functions nor do we need to connect other devices to it. All we need are the audio options (Dolby 5.1, 6.1, 7.1, DTS etc. and the amplification thereof). I could not find an audio only amplifier to do this.

So, here is what the system looks like now!

There are still a few things to add to the system but that will have to wait for the next article. One buggaboo I have is with remote controls. I need 3 to fully control the system (not bad considering the functions we have but still 2 more that I would like). The Microsoft remote has 3 programmable buttons so I can turn the ViewSonic screen On and Off and control the volume of the Jamo receiver with that. For normal viewing and listening that is fine but to change sound modes and turn off the receiver etc. I still need the Jamo remote. I also need the Cable Box remote to turn that box on and off (not really necessary on a daily basis). For me this setup is not a huge problem ... but for anyone else it makes the system a nightmare to operate since most people do not want to hear about how to use 3 remotes to watch TV :-(

Update Mar 1, 2006

We needed a remote control to handle the Media Center PC, LCD TV and Receiver. Logitech stepped up to the plate and sent us the Harmony 880 Remote Control  to see if it would fit the bill.

This is in fact more power than we need for our simple setup ... but it gave me a great opportunity to try out the Harmony system of programming and operation to see for myself whether it indeed simplifies the setup for those who don't have the patience or understanding to do it with many of the remotes out there on the market now.

Indeed the setup process is easy to follow. The software puts you through a step by step process by first asking you to identify each component. The Logitech software is essentially a web client that connects the user to the Harmony online database and finds all of the codes for these and I must say that impressed me. The equipment we are using includes the latest models from several manufacturers and happily they were already in the Harmony database.

The next step in the setup process is to tell the software (step by step) what "Activities" you want it to setup for you ... Watch TV, Listen to Music, View Photos etc. For each of these it sets up a standard configuration assuming for example that for Watch TV you need to turn on the TV, Cable Box and Receiver. This works quite well except when it comes to using a Media Center PC as one of the components.

I have found that I just don't want to put the Media Center into standby mode ... ever! Just like a PC, it takes way too long to wake up and half the time something is out of whack when it does :-(  And of course if you have a sequence to perform ... Wake up PC - Go to MyTV - Click OK - Click Live TV - Etc. ... then the whole thing falls apart ... because it takes a few minutes to wake up the PC and it never gets those other commands. Perhaps the folks at Harmony just need to re-program that function if a Media Center PC is one of the components.

Not a big problem however. Once I found that quirk I just had to go back and tell the software to let me decide which components to turn on and off for various Activities. I ended up setting it so the Media Center stays on all of the time. It took a bit more work and tweaking but in the end the system sets up fine. It's always a challenge for designers to decide how much leeway to give users. Thankfully we have moved from an era where designers gave you so many options that you needed a week to learn how to operate devices. The Harmony engineers have reached a pretty happy medium for most.

So, that's about it for now. Perhaps in the future I will be able to add some Home Automation to the system. This may be a great time to try out some wireless home automation technology to see how if works in this kind of environment. It may also be a chance to try out one of the PC based software solutions with an MCE interface since it could easily reside on the media center PC which runs all the time.

Stay tuned :-)

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