2011-01-09

New Hardware

Video fidelity on the ancient (Anno Domini 2003) Dell 2400 has been somewhat ... janky. A little hardware upgrade is in order.

First, the replacement device must be a full computer. Roku boxen or other purpose-built devices have limited lifespans and lead no afterlives as re-purposed devices (the Dell 2400's fate: add disks, become file server). Forget a TV with the logic built in; that's just a really expensive laptop.

Second, the box must be cheap. Apple Mac Mini for $700? Seriously? No. Apple TV for $99, tethered to the iTunes mothership and $3/video? No. Hell no.

After spec'ing costs for fully silent, i.e. fanless, hardware, it turns out the low cost and quiet operation of micro-formfactor machines wins. Separate PC components cannot compete with prices of these all-in-one, bare-bones units, and slightly back-level-but-still-capable is always cheaper. Best part of commodity parts: they're easy to replace and they get cheaper over time.

Device of choice: a Zotac ZBOX HD. The naked processor+graphics unit requires memory, disk, keyboard, mouse, and OS, but these commodities are cheap or free. A recycled copy of Microsoft Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit helps lower costs, too. Microsoft Windows™ is alas necessary as CBS refuses to stream to Linux platforms and watching The Big Bang Theory is really, really important.

The box is clean and opinion on the 'Net is happy. The device appears to have tidy engineering. Most of the case is empty space awaiting the customer's hard disk and memory stick. The unit has ports a-plenty: 6 USB, one HDMI, one DVI/VGA (with adapter), one external SATA, one wired ethernet, one 802.11 b/g/n wireless net, a card slot, microphone, audio, and an SPDIF plug (who uses this anymore?).

Box set-up was annoying because loading the OS required copying it to a USB stick. For absolutely no good reason, the Windows 7 64-bit tool to build bootable USB sticks, bootsect, won't run under Windows 7 32-bit. After loading the OS, the usual four- to six-hour cycle of applying Windows updates, installing drivers, anti-virus software, Microsoft Office 2007, and updating everything again ensued. The Zotac folks have some recent BIOS updates, too.

Once installed, the unit nestles into very little space in the entertainment cabinet. The supplied stand lets heat escape its top. The box comes with a mount to fit it on the back of the television but then the on/off button would be out of reach.

Video streaming from CBS (for aforementioned reason), FOX ("Glee!") and especially from ESPN (fooootballl - the computer's final parts arrived Saturday late; getting it running Sunday for Oregon/Auburn's BCS championship game Monday was important), while better than the poor, overmatched Dell 2400, remains merely "adequate". Tests show the image jitter is a function of watching streaming video in HD.  Internet jankiness, while ignorable when watching on small screens,stil appears on big displays. For $60/month and the freedom from Time Warner, it's worth suffering.

Movies, however, look fine. The streaming engine and most of the transfers for Netflix are good enough to watch just about anything. Even junk. Joe Queenan's point about the Bullock Algorithm is well taken: at $2 or less, we'll watch it. At $3 ... meh, not so much.

1 comment:

Paul said...

Ahh. Yes. My son, SuperGeek!!