Monday, June 09, 2008

A Mangle of Spaghetti – But Not the Kind You Can Eat

Yesterday, I had my brother over to hang out, watch some movies, and catch-up. It’s always a pleasure having him over – we’re both so busy in our daily lives, we don’t get to see each other as we used too.

We did typical guy things – played some computer games, checked out the score in the baseball game (the Jay’s lost) ordered in some greasy fast-food, and watched a gory guy’s movie.

He brought over the movie – a two disc compilation. The first disc worked perfectly in my DVD player, the second disc kept skipping, and dropping frames.

So, we tried the disc in my laptop’s DVD player – and it worked just fine. My laptop is one of those new fangled toys, a complete multimedia station, with all the latest digital outs.

The trick was, figuring out which cables went to and from where to where. I have digital cable, so I have a multitude of spaghetti-type wires going from all my various components. To complicate matters, it isn’t well lit behind my home theatre station, so I had to grab a flashlight to see all the different ports.

Whoever’s bright idea it was to engrave black lettering on a black video/audio component should be hung by his or her private parts. Even under the bright glare of a flashlight, it’s still pretty hard to see what is what.

Still, being an old television-production geek, I knew the old rule – for every in there must be an out. Eventually, I managed to get everything wired just right – and we were able to watch the rest of the movie.

Though after the movie, I had to remove my laptop from the puzzle, and re-assemble everything. It didn’t take that long, but again I had to deal with a mess of spaghetti-strung cables, while reading black engraved text on black components.

It sort of reminded me of the old days, when VCRs were just starting to appear in people’s homes. I remember the loud sound hiss of static, and the grey snow which appeared on the screen when we hooked up our first VCR, all while the VCR’s clock continued to flash “12:00.” The sounds of my dad cursing and swearing could also be heard – probably clear across the neighbourhood, as he fumbled with poorly written instructions, and just as poorly labelled ports.

The grey hiss of static has long since been replaced with the so-called blue screen of death. You know something is out of alignment in audio/video land, when you see nothing but a blue screen.

Technology has progressed quite a bit over the years. Instead of using analogue-based video cassette tapes, everything is completely digital and often in high definition. These days people are more concerned with getting 1080p high definition than a four-head VCR.

Funny, in all this time, despite the technological advances, the manufacturers still can’t clearly label the ports on their boxes. Back in the days of VCRs, the terms may have differed, but they still just engraved those port names, much as they do today.

RCA cables make things somewhat easier, as they are color-coded (red, white, yellow and black), but if you are using an S-Video cable, or an optical digital cable, or an HDMI cable – or as in my case (and probably yours too) a combination of these cables – unless you have Superman’s X-Ray vision, finding the right port becomes quite the challenge.

Some companies do try to make things better – but only if you use nothing but their brand. High-end LG and JVC components have special “smart” ports, which are designed specifically for their hardware. Just plug in an LG television to an LG home theatre set and pretty much all you have to do is balance the audio and video signals, and you’re done. Same goes for JVC, and I think Panasonic and Sony have similar systems.

Problem is, if you have a mix-mash of components, say some JVC, some Sony and some from other vendors (like the digital cable box top), they don’t just plug and play as easily. Often they require quite a bit more tweaking to get things to work.

At least there’s no more hissing grey static to distract and annoy you while you tweak your JVC television, to your Sony home entertainment system. But sometimes, I miss that old familiar sound, and the flashing “12:00” too.

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