Dear Dave

Friday 22 February 2008


Dear Dave,

When I was small, my parents' TV had a remote control with a handful of buttons on it. You could turn the set on, select a channel (from a choice of three) and maybe even change the volume. It worked by sound rather than infra-red but it was probably pretty swish for the time. Pulling the curtains shut quickly did always switch the programme over to ITV, though. The remote apparently never functioned quite the same after I buried it in a bowl of washing powder, either. Oh, and we had to wedge a matchstick under the power switch on the set itself near the end. Still, getting to watch Button Moon was a simple affair: Turn on at exactly mid-day, insert matchstick, press button three. In the event of unwanted BBC news due to remote control failure, close curtains violently. Sit back and enjoy.

It was quite a contrast, yesterday, when Fraser rushed upstairs while I was giving the other two a bath and demanded to know how to pause Ben 10 so he could go to the toilet without missing anything. I suggested the old-fashioned method of waiting for the adverts and then making a mad scramble for the facilities. Unfortunately, he'd already wasted half the ad break coming to find me. I didn't want to leave the two younger ones alone in water, so I had to attempt to explain to Fraser what to do. This was tricky because the show was playing from the TiVo but he was watching it in the kitchen. The TiVo isn't in the kitchen. For the remote to work, he needed to turn on the video sender. Turning on the video sender was liable to switch the TV to the AV channel, though. This wasn't likely to go well.

The alternative was to fire up the TV in the lounge and control the TiVo locally. Except, of course, there was no guarantee that the lounge TV would be displaying the correct AV input. Also, the TiVo control in the lounge is kept out of the reach of children, so he'd need to fetch the one from the kitchen - if he could even be certain which was the TiVo remote from amongst the pile of five controls. More than that, we don't normally let the kids touch the TiVo remote in case they somehow delete things, so he would probably need to bring the remote to me, in order for me to show him which button was 'Pause'. Since he was unlikely to figure any of this out before the ads ended, I knew I would also have to teach him how to rewind. This was bound to go badly.

I told him to just go to the toilet and that I'd sort it out later.

Luckily, he had substantial business to attend to, so, before he was finished, I was able to safely nip down, turn on the video sender, rewind, pause and tell him how to get it going again. Phew!

Twenty minutes later, he came and found me to complain that the Wii wasn't working in the lounge. I realised the problem instantly. Since the video sender was on, the AV auto-switching was automatically disabled. He needed to switch the video sender off. He's not normally allowed to touch the video sender, however, because... Well, I don't know, he just isn't. I gave him precise instructions what to do. He came back and told me that the video sender had more buttons than I remembered.

I lost it a bit.

After I'd calmed down, I left Marie under a towel and went to check. Fraser turned out to be right. I switched the thing off, the Wii came on and Marie finally got dried. It was all a bit of a palaver.

Thinking about it later, I really shouldn't have got frustrated with Fraser. Babysitters frequently give up trying to get our AV equipment to show them anything other than blank screen, Mario or CSI. These tend to be what come up by default and viewing anything else can be fairly complicated. This is partly because we've got too many gadgets chained together but it's mainly because electronics these days can be very confusing.

Take our DVD player, for example. The remote control has forty-eight buttons. Most days, I get by with five of them. I normally only ever use sixteen of them. This means that two-thirds of the buttons I haven't touched since I was fiddling around with it on the day we bought it. (Actually, that's not entirely true - I have accidentally touched most of them a few times but I've always regretted it...)

I can only imagine that gadgets are designed by people who use short-cut keys. The kind of people who can press Control-Shift-#-K followed by Alt-Tab-Backspace-Q and then Escape-/-[-H and make their computer download The Matrix, burn it to DVD and print a label while they're still reading the online version of T3.

The average consumer doesn't use short-cut keys. I've been using computers for twenty-five years and I still save files by clicking on the menu. I was quite pleased with myself for utilising the 'Home' key the other day...

I like technology and I'm not stupid, so it makes me wonder how everyone else is getting on. How many buttons on their DVD remotes are they ignoring? Almost all of them, I suspect, and that's turned out to be very bad news for Toshiba.

Yes. HD-DVD is dead. Long live Blu-ray! The great high definition disc format war is over.

And do you know why? It's because modern TVs are too complicated for the assistants in electronics stores to operate.

Let me explain. HD-DVD had a head start and cheaper players so it really should have done better than it has. A million machines sold globally? That makes the Dreamcast look successful. The problem is, an HD-DVD player is pointless without a high definition television. So, before Toshiba could convince us to buy HD-DVD players, they had to convince us to buy HD-TVs.

That really hasn't gone hugely well. For a start, television technology has already changed a couple of times in the last decade, with both widescreen and integrated digital taking off. The kind of people who want a large TV have shelled out for one relatively recently and don't necessarily have space and cash for another. On top of that, there's not much high definition stuff to watch and most of what there is involves significant extra expense. HD-TVs aren't the obvious objects of desire that manufacturers thought they would be. We need them sold to us. Heck, it's only about five years since I was watching Buffy recorded Long Play onto VHS from a fuzzy aerial signal. That was good enough. Now I can watch Galactica on DVD in widescreen. It's like a cinema in my own home! How much difference can HD make?

Which is where those assistants come in. I should walk into the electronics section of a department store and be blown away by the clarity and resolution. For some reason, however, most places that sell HD-TVs don't seem to think it necessary to set up their display models properly or to feed them with an HD source. In fact, most of the sets usually look like they're showing something recorded on Long Play VHS. Considering a decent HD-TV costs two or three times what I paid for my pin-sharp 'normal' telly, this doesn't make for a hugely tempting purchase. And that's before getting into the nitty-gritty of contrast ratios, response times, pixel counts and AV sockets.

I barely go out, I'm a keen gamer and I watch DVDs all the time - I'm a prime target for being sold a high definition entertainment combo. Admittedly, I was never going to be in the first wave of those buying HD-TVs but, if I'd got one a year ago, I might well have also got the HD-DVD add-on for my Xbox 360. That I haven't got an HD-TV yet was always going to spell HD-DVD's doom.

Sony meanwhile (at great expense) has slipped Blu-ray into ten million homes via Trojan PS3s. Sure, PS3 games look better on an HD telly, but you don't need an HD-TV to give a PS3 purpose. Sony is hoping that, as people get round to buying new TVs, they'll discover the joys of the Blu-ray player that's already in their living rooms and start buying discs in a big way.

I'm not so sure that's going to happen, though. Just because HD-DVD has lost, doesn't mean Blu-ray has won. Not yet, anyway.

I'm curious as to how many people are playing Blu-ray movies on a standard TV via the composite AV output of their PS3 and are wondering what all the fuss is about. Word of mouth from that can't be good for future sales.

Even those who know what they're doing may not make Blu-ray the success which Sony hopes. Personally, when I do finally get an HD-TV, I'll almost certainly get a PS3 now because they're still relatively cheap as Blu-ray players and far more versatile. I'll even rent some Blu-ray discs. I'm not going to buy many, though. Replacing my DVD collection isn't worth the expense and DVDs are more useful anyway. We have at least nine devices in the house capable of playing DVDs. I can watch DVDs everywhere apart from in the shower. More importantly, I can sit the kids in front of a DVD anywhere, whether we're at home or not. I can't see Blu-ray replacing DVD. Yeah, it will be nice for a bit on the big telly in the lounge but I'll still be using DVDs most of the time, right up until digital downloads finally take over.

The only way Blu-ray will survive long term is if digital download devices remain a complicated faff to use. However, if Toshiba can quickly turn their resources to producing some really simple ones, they may have the last laugh yet. How simple? Well, let's just say that the testing should involve a harassed adult two floors away from the equipment relaying operating instructions to a seven-year-old who desperately needs the toilet. If the thing functions correctly without inducing frustration, sarcasm or warm dampness in any of the test subjects then they'll be onto a winner.

I'd be in the first wave for that.

Yours in a woman's world,



Anonymous said...

My brother just bought a blu ray player for his hd-tv and won't stop talking about it. No really, he won't stop. I've asked. Something about the clarity and feeling like he's standing next to Bruce Willis during Live Free or Die Hard . I don't know. I start to glaze over when he explains the resolution and the pixel difference in his tv.

Wait, what was I saying?
Oh yes. My children still watch most movies on VHS. I'm a mean, cruel mama.

DadsDinner said...

And in further bad news for the manufacturers of high definition electronics:

I'm not so fussed about the clarity - I'm more jealous that you guys get to call the film Live Free or Die Hard rather than Die Hard 4.0.