PS3 Becoming Easier to Find

Posted on December 30th, 2006 in Electronics,Vancouver by andrija

I was in Best Buy today to take advantage of Boxing Week sales (lots of Xbox360 games for $20 – which is pretty cheap by the way!) and I saw someone at the exchange desk with a PS3.  And that’s on top of yesterday event when while browsing around Best Buy website,  I went to PS3’s 60G page out of pure curiosity (I often go to Future Shop brick and mortar store just to browse, so I usually know prices by heart and can therefore spot a deal or a sale immediately) and found that they had PS3’s in stock online!  Which was strange since it was not announced anywhere – as one could witness by observing the movement of the stock; it took 15 minutes to sell only one of 65 they had in stock at that time.  Even several hours later there were plenty left; only in the morning they were finally gone.  I guess very few people were expecting them to be available, especially since it was not announced even on their website.  It was almost as if having PS3 in stock was “business as usual”.

Combined with Christmas Day sale in Future Shop and quite frequent stories from the US about PS3’s being in stock and people not caring, I would estimate that by mid-January we should be able to see PS3’s when we walk into stores.  Not everywhere and not all the time, just like with Xbox360 same time last year – but with a little legwork it should not be too hard to find one next month.

Of course, the real question is would you want to?  If I wasn’t a technology freak, I certainly wouldn’t get one.  And if I was asked, I would not recommend anyone to get one right now, unless they need a BluRay player.  There are two good games (Resistance and Ridge Racer) and a few sports games that are also good if you’re a fan of that genre (2k7 series in particular).  Also, if you own a PSP, then a PS3 can be quite useful in certain cases.  Otherwise, it’s an expensive piece of electronics that won’t get much use… yet.  And press reviews aren’t too positive either.  Probably because Sony is a much-hated company right now, plus the amount of hype we were all exposed to was just too much.  There’s a backlash, to be sure.  It is not even inconceivable that PS3 could fail.

What a Crazy Month

Posted on December 28th, 2006 in Electronics,Hardware & Software,Video Games by andrija

Well, this has been one crazy month (and a half). I ended up joining hordes of North Americans and contributed more than my fair share towards Christmas and Boxing Day sales. I’ll be paying interest for a few months to come, so that I can (could) enjoy new stuff during my time off in December (of which I had a fair amount of).

Now, almost all of the stuff I bought I got some kind of a deal on. It began with Xbox360 on the PS3 launch day. I couldn’t get PS3 (not then, at least) but Future Shop had a crazy deal where you could get $50 off (consoles are never on sale, except very rare special circumstances) – and get two games for free (bringing total of free games to 4). Now, this wasn’t a bad purchase for a hardcore gamer. As I found out, one year in the field yielded quite a few fairly good games, many of which I already completed.

Of course, it wouldn’t be me if I didn’t purchase another big thing – a 46″ large screen LCD TV by Sharp. A very good one. Now this is what I’ll be paying off till spring; compared to it, the rest are small potatoes, really. And I kind of took a gamble with it, which paid off. To a point, at least. This TV is known to have some nasty issues, but my luck was good and my set is ok for the most part (given that no sets are perfect and no brand is perfect at this time either, this was the best I could hope for).

Now, with those two together I did have a blast with many good Xbox360 games, and some of the best are still to come in these cold winter days. And as you might imagine, these would spark plenty of accessory purchases. Such as universal remote controls, rechargeable batteries, extra controllers when friends come over (which they never do, to play games that is, but did that stop me? No!). Oh, and games. Plenty of games.

Now, I negotiated the TV price down. And even during Boxing Day sales over a month later, the price is still better than in stores. I got a great deal on Xbox360. I didn’t pay full price on any of the games I got for it. Not a single one, including ones that just came out. But still, it all adds up.

Naturally, given the 1080p resolution, I needed a new movie source. A HD-DVD add-on from Microsoft, launched just in time, obliged. I did pay full price for it – but I still got a deal, since Future Shop gave away a copy of King Kong game with it (not to mention that the movie with the same name is included for the limited time with the add-on).

With so much electronics on the shelf, a new true universal remote was needed, and
so I got the Logitech 659, the cheapest of Logitech’s universal remotes. It works well, but you know what, there’s the little matter of Boxing Day, and the higher end model, which usually retails for $300 was now on sale for $100! That’s less than what I paid for my bottom of the line, discontinued model. So now I need to wait for it to get shipped to me so I can return the old one for refund. Or I could sell the new one on Ebay for profit. No kidding. Believe me, you had to spend an hour clicking on Christmas Even to get this one.

And, I got two more benchmark DVDs, since it’s pointless to shell out big bucks and then watch a TV which isn’t properly calibrated. No self-respecting enthusiast is going to ignore a proper set up of their new toy. In fact, that is half of the fun. I build my own PCs and tweak the hell out of everything because that’s what I love to do. And believe me, the amount of issues that you run into with any technology is not small. If you want to watch anime on this or any other TV, you will be running into some nasty picture quality issues unless you are prepared to deal with them. This is a story for another time, and more on that later.

But the craziest thing came on Christmas Day itself, while I was chatting with a friend. We were discussing of going to Future Shop on the Boxing Day to see what we can see. Then he told me to take a look at the website. And there, there was a sale of 1000 PlayStation 3’s. You can probably imagine the rest… Today I went to Wall-Mart to find the only game worth playing on that console, which I did find, for $10 off of course.

The fun never ends. Oh wait… it does. Because the money runs out. And even if it doesn’t, there just won’t be so much stuff to tempt me in the near future – because the last half of the year was very unusual in the gaming and electronics industry, with many new technologies being released.

CBC said that Canadians will spend 2.9 billion dollars on Boxing Day. Most of it on clothing (I did make company to a friend who spent over three thousand dollars on clothes on that day), and then the electronics (to which I contributed, well, you add – PlayStation 3, a Blu-Ray movie, a high end remote control and a wireless keyboard/mouse set (only $20 though)). Between two of us, we certainly managed to “fit in”.

I won’t go into reasons for the shopping spree. But if I were to guess, I’d say that I decided to spend and enjoy while the going is good, because experience tells me that times will change to bad again. And when that happens, even if I can afford to purchase new big shiny stuff, I won’t be able to fully enjoy them.

Buying a Big Screen TV in Canada

Posted on October 24th, 2006 in Electronics,Vancouver by andrija

Here in Canada, Future Shop in Metrotown, Burnaby got the 46″ Sharp LCD TV, 46D62U yesterday. Not even a price sticker is up on it, but I tested a passing employee and he mentioned he believes it’s $3499 and it’s a great bargain – I was impressed he knew about it.

But it’d be hard not to – It’s truly a beautiful set. It’s the best looking LCD in store – better than XBR2 which I used to look for but never once it managed to impress me (never mind the $5000 MSRP). I spent 10 minutes yesterday looking at it – unfortunately there was no remote and I don’t think it has a menu button
so I was stuck with whatever settings there were. There was definitely some red push but I couldn’t see any banding, even with many uniform color screens on FS loop. However I did notice some thin horizontal lines and horizontal banding during some scene transitions – these looked like processing artifacts, compression artifacts or insufficient colour palette (so they probably fall under the technical definition of banding) – I don’t recall seeing this on any other set if FS and I’ve been looking at TVs several days a week for the past 2 years at least (used to ogle Pioneers, but in Canada they’re insanely overpriced, MSRP for 50″ is $5000, even 42″ is $3.5k which is midpoint price for 50″!!).

I looked hard and long but I could not see any horizontal “banding” as presented here – and I had no trouble seeing it in any of the pictures. Nor I could see any vertical “banding”, but not being able to change the viewing material, I would not In Canada most of the logic that guys in US use to determine what to buy does not apply. For example, there’s very little HD content so anyone claiming HD is more important than SD will get laughed out of the room. Same for HD-DVD or BlueRay – DVDs still rule very much (and I doubt US is any different). And some companies put a sticker price on their products that is way over what they charge in US. Examples are Pioneer, Sony and Panasonic, making the US comments such as “but Pioneer or Panasonic is cheaper than Sharp, pick up that plasma” laughable. Personally, I prefer giving my money to companies that actually care about Canadians, such as LG (similar prices but double warranty!). Samsung is weird, their plasmas have prices in line with US but their LCD are WAY overpriced here – I mean, come on, $3.5k for 4092? And ranges of to 2-3k for any of their 720p 40″ sets? You’d be stupid not to pick up great-looking LG42LC2D for 1k less and double the warranty. And Sony, $5k for 46″ XBR2 (2, not 3)? Eh?

Also, BB lets you negotiate? What? Here, they actually ADVERTISE “no commission, no pressure”! That’s right, fixed prices are a feature they use to advertise, as if it’s a good thing. They now own FS which used to allow some negotiation but not any more. And having driven many smaller places
out of business, there’s only Visions that I know of which would allow negotiating prices. So when a moderator on, say, the crazy AVS Forum sees a Canadian posting prices, he or she can safely gloss over the post because MSRP=STREET up here… thanks to US companies, ironically.

However, having followed a thread on the said forum since summer and seeing the red push – which means these are still sets from the first batch, if we’re to believe one of the earlier posts about Sharp doing better QA now – and seeing occasional horizontal artifacting, I am held back from running back to the store and picking one up.

iPod Hiss, Alternative Firmware Issues

Posted on August 23rd, 2006 in Audio,Electronics by andrija

Today I was randomly reading Head-Fi, which I do extremely rarely (a few times a year at most) and I ran into some interesting new information. Well, it probably isn’t as much new to others as it’s to me, but this is my webblog after all, so news it is. Anyhow, it seems that a lot of people use or are advocating the use of RockBox firmware for iPods. What I find interesting is not that, but one of the alleged reasons for using RockBox – namely, hiss that can be heard when using iPod original firmware. The other reason – allegedly better sound quality – is another puzzle that is worth exploring.

I had iPod with me when I read it – it’s a 40G 4th generation one. I paused it, set the volume on maximum, listened carefully and then pressed my Sennheiser HD25-1 headphones against my ears… and then I heard it. Indeed it’s there. And it depends on the volume setting – if you lower it, it’s gone.

Let’s put it into perspective though. The hiss is very faint. Perhaps on very low impedance headphones it gets more evident, but it’s unlikely to be of any consequence in just about any listening situation. Furthermore, the question is whether it even matters when actually playing music. The fact that it’s only there when volume is at or near maximum points towards issues in digital domain. So the analog amplifier has low enough noise; perhaps iPod is playing digital zero signal (rather than real mute or DAC off) when paused, in which case one can hear the noise floor of 16-bit signal. I would say this is the most likely possibility. And if that’s true, it’s completely irrelevant to music listening – as long as you do get the full dynamic range that those 16 bits can provide.

So I did a RMAA measurement of my iPod (that’s headphone out, line out measurements are here). The results I got are very decent, though it looks like the noise is a bit higher than it should be and therefore it is not using the entire dynamic range. A 16-bit system is capable of about 98dB – for example my Flute 2 DAC measures like this in 16-bit mode (ignore measurements other than dynamic range and noise – this was before the DAC was further optimized). With iPod we got around 93dB – but I did have to increase input volume on the soundcard by 3dB (4dB for line out) to raise levels to what RMAA requires; this might mean that the noise floor and dynamic range are actually 96dB which would be perfectly in line with WM8971 DAC typical parameters (it is alleged that this one is closest to codec that my iPod is using). Another measurement on the web, of 3G iPod, is in line with my own regarding noise and dynamic range – about 93dB, though. These results are all superb for a portable device though

Note also that this measurement is done with no load on the iPod – it is only driving high impedance recording (line) input of my E-MU 1212m professional soundcard. When driving headphones, an ideal amplifier will still measure the same no matter the load; iPod and most other amplifiers will however change for the worse, and that change will be drastic. It’s not really their fault – there’s only so much you can do with low voltage, especially when you are also not allowed to use a lot of current. Some people – audiophiles, notably – would certainly consider sacrificing significant amount of battery life if it meant significant improvement in audio quality.

I do, however, also have an oscilloscope (or two). So I turned it on and measured the iPod, or rather just watched how the signal looks like on its output when it’s paused and at max volume. I got about 15mV peak to peak of what looked like broadband noise. At some point I thought I could isolate a 1MHz signal somewhere in there, but I could not reproduce it, so I will assume it’s mostly a broadband noise. If I capture a real-time “spectrum analyzer” (RMAA running in calibration mode, 24-bit!) screenshot, I get this. When iPod is turned off, I get this. There’s about 20dB difference between those two graphs across the board. If I play with the volume, with iPod still paused, I can easily see that the amount of this noise changes in sync with it. If you reduce volume to zero, you get below oscilloscope’s noise floor except for some high frequency spikes that seem to be around 150kHz.

I then turned on my IRiver iHP-120 which is incidentally running RockBox firmware. This player also produces hiss when paused – but the hiss is much less noticeable and does not seem dependant on the volume setting (however, when iPod’s volume is reduced, its hiss is lower than iRiver’s or even disappears). Therefore iRiver’s hiss is most likely due to analog amplifier’s noise. On oscilloscope, this player shows 10mV peak-to-peak, but there is a very strong presence of approximately 1.5MHz signal this time around, so a lot of the noise is way beyond audible range. I wonder why I was even able to hear any hiss – so I plugged headphones into my Flute 2. Even this amplifier seemed to create some hiss but at this point I was really wondering if it was audible or just my imagination; it cannot be measured by the oscilloscope’s as it is below its noise floor which is about 2mV peak to peak (at least with probes that I have which aren’t original so they pick up a bit of noise even when grounded). It could have also been the EMI from my room inducing noise in the long headphone cable – there’s plenty of EMI in this room full of cables and electronics.

In the end, I would say that iPod’s pause noise does not seem to present any kind of concern in terms of influencing the sound quality. Were it present with any volume setting, it could’ve been the reason of iPod not being able to reach limits of 16-bit sound (assuming my soundcard did not lose dynamic range for 16-bit due to having to increase its gain). However, that doesn’t seem to be the case.

I am not sure about the other claim – RockBox firmware somehow increasing audio quality. I will need to read up more about it – someone might have already found an explanation for it (I sure would hope so, this doesn’t look like very fresh news).

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