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Synopsis | Specifications | Delivery
| Pictures | Performance
Several tests were conducted to see if this sub $1K off-the-shelf system could perform,
be a viable contender in the htpc market, and perhaps convince a few diy-ers that there is
an easier and cheaper way.
The htpc is connected to my Toshiba TW65x81 via an Audio Authority transcoder.
The TV incidentally was calibrated by one of the best calibrators in the industry, Michael TLV.
I fired up the system on a 17 inch monitor first to see if it boots properly and to see
how it is configured. WinDVD, dScaler, DTV, and Powerstrip are indeed pre-loaded
which makes it simple and easy for a especially for novice or a non-techie. One can
simply plug it in and it is ready for use. No need to hunt down/download the correct
programs and install them. Not really a big hassle but it could be since this unit
doesn't come with a modem. The only program that was missing was YXY. Not a
big deal since I have a copy already. I host Jim Ferguson's brainchild after all. =)
Everything looked good, so I unplugged the monitor and connected it to the home
Quick note about Noise: One of the things I didn't like about my previous htpc
was the fan noise. Yes, it was quieter than a standard fan but it just was not quiet
enough. Naturally, when the home theater is on with the audio blaring, the fan noise
gets drowned out. But if you had to leave the htpc on full time like some folks do,
the constant hum of the fan can be a bit annoying. The fan on the Hivizone unit is
significantly quieter. I also noticed that hard disk spin up noise is also much
less in this unit. You hardly hear it as opposed to my previous htpc.
Here are the custom resolutions defined in Powerstrip:
- 1600x1024p (SGI)
- 1400x1050p (CRT 4:3 60Hz)
- 1400x1050p (CRT 4:3 75Hz)
- 1360x1024p (DILA)
- 1280x960p (CRT 4:3)
- 1152x900p (SUN)
- 1360x768p (DILA)
- 1280x768p (PDP)
- 1280x720p (HDTV standard)
- 1280x720p (LCD 16:9)
- 1368x668 (LCD 16:9)
- 1184x666p (LCD 16:9)
- 1360x580p (DILA)
- 1920x540p (HDTV derived)
- 1584x540p (HDTV derived)
- 1584x540p (HDTV derived)
- 960x540p (HDTV standard)
- 960x540p (HDTV derived)
- 960x540p 72Hz
- 920x500p (HDTV derived)
- 848x480p (HDTV derived)
- 720x576p (PAL 50Hz)
- 720x480p (HDTV derived)
- 640x480p (HDTV derived)
- 1920x1080i (HDTV standard)
- 1920x1080i (HDTV derived)
- 1280x1024i (HDTV derived)
- 1280x960i (HDTV derived)
- 1600x900i (HDTV derived)
- 1280x720i (HDTV derived)
- 1152x864i (HDTV derived)
- 1024x768i (HDTV derived)
- 800x600i (HDTV derived)
Since the htpc came pre-loaded with Powerstrip along with the custom
resolutions, all I had to do was simply choose the resolution I wanted. Since it
will be used primarily for DVD playback, I chose 960x540p which the Toshiba
supports. With this setting, the image on the screen was shifted a bit to the
right. This was easily corrected through Powerstrip. As expected, there is no
y/c delay error through the VGA terminal. There is some overscan that I plan to tame
later. For the purposes of testing, however, a little bit of overscan is a not
Aside from YXY, I didn't make any alterations to the system. Any changes, e.g.,
software updates, that might need to be made, I will do so after the test. I wanted
to preserve its character to test its out-of-the box performance.
DVD playback is excellent. Colors are vivid and the deinterlacing is superb
especially on good DVDs such as the Fifth Element, Starship Troopers, and Vertical
Limit. Not a surprise really and I didn't expect any. Other DVDs tried
were Austin Powers 1&2, Armaggedon, the Professional, Payback, Alien Legacy, and a few
more. They all looked good.
To me, the test really was seeing how it performed playing what I consider bad
DVDs. One such movie is Stargate. This is the DVD I dislike the most.
No, not the movie but how the dvd was done. It is non-anamorphic, dark, grainy, and
plagued with edge enhancement. Could the studio have done it any worse?
With the magic of YXY, Stargate was at least displayed in the correct aspect
ratio. The image is certainly better than with my interlaced player (Toshiba
SD2109). It's watchable but still not quite good enough. Garbage in, garbage
out. The htpc can only do so much.
The benchmark DVD that I use to test for shimmering and combing (feathering) is Six
Days, Seven Nights. The first few minutes of this movie is a good test for
shimmering. The textured wall in the hallway as Anne Heche strolls into the office
shimmers badly on my interlaced player (Tosh SD2109). The wall is solid, pardon the
pun, with the software dvd player. The same goes for a scene later in the movie when
the camera pans right to left from the ocean to the beach where David Schwimmer and Anne
are sunbathing on the beach. In this scene, the sand shimmers badly on the
2109. Not on the htpc.
With the 2109, there are lots of combing (jaggies) on Anne's hair during close up at
the restaurant prior to this trip. None on the htpc. Another scene was the
venetian blinds in the cottage while Anne was packing up for a photo shoot. The
blinds were very active in the background. Not so on the htpc.
Another good movie for the combing test is Star Trek Insurrection. In the opening
scene where the camera pans right to left from the field to the village, the rooftops and
other horizontal lines, the 2109 displayed excessive combing. Those same lines were
solid and stable on the htpc.
One last combing and shimmering check. During the opening scene of Lost in Space,
details on the spaceship and the station shimmer and exhibit jaggies on the 2109.
Not so on the htpc.
With my previous htpc, some DVDs like the Matrix and the World is Not Enough would skip
or freeze. Not with this htpc. DVDs played uneventfully. That's a good
Sound reproduction from the Coaxial SPDIF out of the Nightingale card into the
DD5.1/DTS capable receiver is very good... no discernible performance difference, however,
between it and any of my standalone players.
Using the capture card and dScaler was a lot more interesting. Instead of just
plugging in the equipment and seeing what and how it does certain things, the basis of
comparison came down to the simple fact of whether the image looked good with and without
the dScaler/capture card.
VCR 1: Sharp 4 Head VCR - The player doesn't have an Svideo out so I had
to use composite. I initially had problems with this setup. The image on the
screen was jerky. As best as I can describe it, the picture was contantly advancing
it seems two frames forward and two frames back as the movie played on. It was as
though someone was clicking the fast forward and rewind back and forth. I thought
that I perhaps had a feature or setting incorrectly selected in dScaler. I tried a
number of possibilities but to no avail. I also scoured through posts at avsforum
but still came up empty. I later realized that it wasn't dScaler or the pc at
all. It was the tape. The jerky image on the screen was an actual visual of
the tape steadily wounding itself around the heads of the player! Ouch, there goes
the tape. After a few minutes of fiddling with the tape, I eventually managed to
release it from the player. I cleaned and demagnetized the head, then loaded
Independence Day. This time the player worked fine and the tape played through
The default settings were off the mark. The image was brighter than just the VCR
straight into the TV. Default colors were also muted. By adjusting the
settings in the Video Adjustments window, the values were reined in to something more
palatable. Aside from the pulldown and aspect ratio control, one advantage that some
might find in routing the vcr through dScaler is that you get black bars vs. gray
bars. No need to tweak the ADDR codes if you own a Toshiba. dScaler does it
for you automatically. The difference in image quality with and without dScaler/capture
card however was marginal if any, at least with the tapes I used.
VCR 2: Samsung 4 Head VCR - Default image was not as bright as VCR 1 but
still required some tuning through the Video Adjustments sliders. Results were very
similar to VCR 1.
OTA via DTC-100 tuner - RF signal was out of the DTC-100 Svideo into the
capture card Svideo in. The signal was stable and image quality was good.
Video tweaks were made along the way depending on the channel and the program.
Looking at various materials, e.g., newscasts, sports, and primetime shows, dScaler worked
well. Deinterlacing schemes primarily used were Scaler Bob, Adaptive, and Greedy.
The image on the set without the card is already very good, thanks to the good
upconversion by the local stations. I didn't see any perceptible benefits in
channeling the signal through the card. So given the choice, I'd opt for the direct
connect and bypass the card.
Tuner via VCR1/VCR2 - Not much difference from the results using the DTC-100 tuner.
Sony DSS DirecTV - I don't have Directv activated on the DTC-100 so I used my
old reliable first generation Sony receiver via Svideo. Image was surprisingly
good, not a quantum leap mind you, but enough to warrant full time viewing through the
dScaler. Twitter was reduced considerably and sports is now watchable on this
miniDV Camcorder: Connected via Svideo. The image on the screen
via a direct connection from my Canon Optura Pi miniDV is excellent. It is a
remarkable single ccd camera that records true super sharp images. Being able to
display such sharp images however comes with some unwanted artifacts: twitter and
combing. dScaler to the rescue. The deinterlacing by dScaler worked
wonders. It doesn't completely eliminate them but it reduces them significantly
enough for the image to be even more enjoyable now to watch. I also didn't have to
make any video adjustments, e.g., color, hue, etc. It was the same or very close to
the miniDV without the dScaler. There's no question here that I prefer the image
with the dScaler vs. without.
Interlaced DVD player1: Toshiba SD2109 - To round out the test, I thought I'd
check how an interlaced player looks fed into the htpc. The 2109 was connected via
Svideo. The resulting image was good but clearly lags the image quality from a
software dvd player. I had to make quite a bit of video adjustments to rein in the
picture. Purple stripes caused by macrovision reared its ugly head on Mission
Impossible 2. I also noticed six faint vertical noise bars about two inches wide
and evenly spaced across the screen. I'm not sure what is causing them but I'm not
concerned about this since I will be using the htpc for dvd playback.
Interlaced DVD player2: Skyworth 1050P - This time I connected the
Skyworth 1050p via Svideo. Image is significantly darker than the 2109. Again,
the video adjustments sliders were exercised. Performance is similar to the 2109
including vertical noise bars. I didn't see the effects of macrovision with this