October 13, 2005

In This eNewsletter:
• Setting Up the Big Picture by Thomas J. Norton
• Blu-ray And HD DVD- Format War Heating Up by Shane Buettner
Lost: The Complete First Season & Battlestar Galactica: Season One by Thomas J. Norton

Setting Up the Big Picture

By Thomas J. Norton

You've just pulled that shiny new projector out of the box. So what's next? If you're like most buyers who aren't dealing with a custom installer, you've probably already tossed that manual into the nearest corner. How hard can this be, anyway? You ran your folks' 8mm movie projector as a kid. Isn't this the same sort of thing?

Not really. The new digital projectors are relatively easy to set up, but there are a few wrinkles involved that are rarely found in the owner's manuals—even by those who read them! And with prices coming down more projectors are showing up in homes that have never had one before, with a do-it-yourself installation the norm.

Even if you plan to hang the projector from the ceiling, you should first try a dry run with a tabletop setup. This will give you a good idea of where the projector should be positioned relative to the screen before you start drilling holes in the ceiling. Once you have an optimum tabletop setup, use a plumb bob to find the spot on the ceiling where the projector mount should be centered.

I'm assuming that you've researched the throw distance of the projector to make sure it will work in your room and on your screen. If the projector must be located 14-feet from the screen to fill it, even at the far end of the lens' zoom range, and your room is only 13 feet long, you need to choose a different projector, a smaller screen, or another room!

Place the projector on a table, center it approximately on the screen, fire it up, feed it a bright 16:9 image (I assume you have a 16:9 screen), and focus. Put the projector's zoom control in the approximate center of its operating range, then move the table so that the image fills the screen from left to right. If this is a reasonable spot for the projector, you're off to a good start. If not, move the table to a convenient distance and see if the lens can be zoomed to compensate. In theory a zoom lens will have a "sweet spot" at which it performs its best. But in practice I have not found a projector whose performance was visibly degraded by using any of its available zoom positions.

Once you have the distance correct, zoom the image smaller by a couple of inches on both sides and center it from left to right on the screen. For the moment, don't be concerned about whether or not the image is centered on the screen from top to bottom. The edges of the image should now be parallel with the sides of the screen; if they are not, either the projector or screen is tilted up or down.

Next you will have to adjust the height of image so that it is completely on the screen from top to bottom. Tilting the projector to accomplish this should be a last resort. Except in very small doses, tilting the projector will invariably result in a non-square image, with the top wider than the bottom or vice versa. (The digital keystone adjustment provided on most projectors is a poor way to correct for this, as it sacrifices resolution.) If your projector has a vertical lens shift feature, you can use that to raise or lower the image. If it does not, you will have to raise or lower the projector, the screen, or perhaps both.

The image should now be centered on the screen on all sides, and still just a little smaller than the screen so we can more easily judge its shape against the screen's borders. If the left side of the image is taller than the right side, you need to move the projector to the left; if the right is taller, move the projector to the right. In other words, move the projector in the direction of the tallest edge of the image. Often it will require only a small shift to put things right. After you move the projector sideways you may have turn it slightly to re-center the image on the screen.

The image should now be centered on the screen and square to it. Zoom the lens so that the image once again fills the screen. After you do this you may have to slightly tweak the height of the image by moving the projector up or down or fine-tuning the vertical lens shift, if available.

If the image looks slightly tilted (this often happens if the floor is not precisely level) you can use the adjustable feet found on most projectors to compensate. Or use my high-tech solution—a few cheap, wedge-shaped rubber doorstops.

If all this sounds complicated, you don't remember the good old days of CRT projectors. The above setup should take you a half hour if you're really slow and new to this stuff. A CRT calibration would take hours.

The rest of the setup for a digital projector involves the usual picture adjustments (brightness, contrast, color, tint, sharpness, etc.) along with more the more exotic controls available on many projectors—color temperature, individual intensity adjustments for each primary and secondary color, gamma, lamp output, iris setting, etc. But you already know about those, don't you? If you don't, that's a whole other story we'll delve into in a future newsletter.

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Blu-ray And HD DVD- Format War Heating Up

By Shane Buettner

Although the number of digital displays with full 1920x1080 resolution is proliferating madly, there's still the pesky fact that as of yet there isn't an established medium of packaged HD content for us to feed these displays. Most movie fans with shiny new HD displays are at the mercy of their cable or satellite providers' programming schedules, and watching standard definition DVDs on movie night.

Toshiba's HD DVD format and Sony's Blu-ray Disc format are fighting it out for next generation optical disc supremacy, and lately the news from the format war front has been coming in faster than we can assimilate it, let alone print it.

In August the Wall Street Journal reported that Paramount, Universal and Warner, HD DVD's committed Hollywood studios, were getting cold feet about the fledgling format and decided to shelve plans to support the planned 2005 holiday season launch. This launch was announced in January at CES 2005 and was to feature 90 titles and sub-$1k players in a pre-emptive strike timed to establish a foothold with consumers for HD DVD before Blu-ray could get product to market. This news was followed in early September by an official announcement from Toshiba delaying the 2005 product launch to 2006.

Just when things looked particularly grim for HD DVD, Intel and Microsoft in late September dropped their previously neutral stance and announced that they had joined the HD DVD Promotion Group, and seemed to indicate that the two computer giants would build support only for HD DVD into their next generation products, including Microsoft's upcoming Vista operating system. The two companies seemed particularly enamored of HD DVD's guaranteed "Managed Copy" feature, which will enable Intel-powered Windows Media PCs to distribute HD DVD content throughout networked homes.

I also considered the possibility that the Intel/Microsoft announcement, which seemed to intensify the format war, might actually increase chances for success of the on-again, off-again talks between the HD DVD and Blu-ray camps to unify the formats since it gave the HD DVD camp more bargaining power than it had after the launch delay.

But just as quickly as the Intel/Microsoft announcement appeared to restore balance to the format war, Intel began backing off their bullish support for HD DVD. Only a week after the joint HD DVD announcement various reports had Intel saying it would consider supporting Blu-ray if it were convinced that users would be allowed to copy Blu-ray content to their computer hard drives so it could then be distributed throughout the home on private networks.

Given the fact that Intel and Microsoft's announced support for HD DVD is not exclusive, the speed with which Intel started to backpedal begs the question as to whether the two companies are firmly committed to HD DVD or simply trying to force the Blu-ray camp into supporting the connectivity features they so strongly desire. Intel and Microsoft's vision is of a convergence-drive future in which their co-branded multimedia PCs will become the center of consumers' home electronics systems. And keep in mind that two of the biggest manufacturers of Intel-based Windows Media PCs figure to be Dell and HP, both of whom are entrenched in their support for Blu-ray.

Before any of this could sink in, early October saw another bomb (or perhaps a series of them) dropped: Paramount Home Entertainment has jumped ship and will release its movies on Blu-ray. Although Paramount did not officially pull the plug on HD DVD, reports were swirling that that no studios will be supporting both formats by the time the next generation disc formats launch in the US next year, and that Warner was getting ready to announce support for both formats as a prelude to supporting only Blu-ray by launch time.

Even if Warner doesn't announce Blu-ray support, as things stand now four of Hollywood's six major studios are committed to releasing movies in the Sony-backed format. While only Warner (for now) and Universal are still supporting HD DVD solely, Blu-ray has the support of Disney, Fox, and Columbia Tristar (which now also owns the MGM library) exclusively, as well as the joint support of Paramount.

On the hardware front HD DVD's biggest supporters on the computer front are NEC, and Intel and Microsoft for what their support turns out to be worth. Blu-ray's supporters include Apple, HP, Dell, and Sun Microsystems to name but a few companies. On the consumer electronics side Toshiba and Sanyo are the biggest names aligned with HD DVD, while Blu-ray has broader support with Panasonic, Philips, Pioneer, and of course Sony in their corner.

And then there's the PlayStation3 factor. Gaming consoles are dual-purpose devices that not only give gamers their fix, but also play DVDs. While Microsoft's upcoming Xbox360 will launch later this year with support for current-generation DVD, Sony's PlayStation3 will support Blu-ray and is launching in the Spring of 2006 with the promise of creating an immediate and sizable install base of Blu-ray disc players. Paramount stated up front that PS3 played a role in their rolling over to Blu-ray, and the gaming console figures heavily in Warner's reported vacillating as well.

Only a single format will succeed spectacularly enough to give the studios the shot in the arm they need to cure sagging growth in DVD sales, and give the electronics manufacturers the killer app they need to drive consumers to buy new, more expensive players and recorders. No one wants to see two formats put in front of consumers because the confusion would likely keep them from adopting either format- other than early adopter types reading UAV, it's not clear that consumers particularly want either format, let alone both!

This increases the likelihood that the studios will settle on one format or the other before any major launch occurs, making it the de facto format war winner. The news is changing by the minute, but right now Blu-ray is gaining momentum while HD DVD has delayed its launch and appears to be losing critical support in Hollywood.

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By Thomas J. Norton

Lost: The Complete First Season
Matthew Fox, Evangeline Lilly, Josh Holloway, Dominic Monaghan, Terry O'Quinn, Naveen Andrews. Aspect ratio: 1.78:1 (anamorphic). 7 discs. 2004-2005. Dolby Digital 5.1 (English). Buena Vista Home Entertainment. $59.99.

Picture 3.5*
Sound 3.5*
Program 4.0*

Battlestar Galactica: Season One
Edward James Olmos, Mary McDonnell, Katee Sackhoff, Jamie Bamber, James Callis, Tricia Helfer, Grace Park. Aspect ratio: 1.78:1 (anamorphic). 5 discs. 1993-1995. Dolby Digital 5.1 EX (English). Universal Studio Home Entertainment, $59.98.

Picture 3.0*
Sound 3.5*
Program 4.0*

A Sydney to Los Angeles flight crashes on an uncharted island after wandering a thousand miles off course. Miraculously, over forty passengers survive with only minor injuries. They're an eclectic bunch, each with his or her own unique background, told in isolated flashbacks that lend depth to the characters while offering a welcome change from the lush but forbidding greenery of the island.

The survivors aren't, as it turns out, alone. There are not only strange and frightening creatures on the island (some of which have not been clearly seen a year-plus into the story), but possibly other humans as well. There are more questions than answers, which keeps the viewer coming back for more even as new questions are piled onto old ones not yet fully resolved.

If Lost grabs us with a series of riddles within riddles, Battlestar Galactica entices us with a deep, rich, complex story. While it follows the basic plot of the old, rather campy TV show that ran for one season back in the late 1970s, it's darker, deeper, and far more serious.

A human civilization in a solar system far from our own has been decimated by Cylons, a rogue "race" of robots the humans themselves created. The remaining humans, in a ragtag fleet led and protected by the giant warship Galactica, are wandering in search of a planet that their mythology suggests was populated by one of their wandering tribes. A planet called Earth.

The original has its legions of fans, but few of them would argue that it was one of the science fiction greats. But this re-imagining spearheaded by Ron Moore (formerly associated with various Star Trek series) is nothing like the original, apart from the basic story outline. It was launched in 2003 as a successful miniseries on the Sci-Fi channel, then morphed into a weekly series in early 2005.

Sci-Fi runs original episodes on successive weeks from July through September, then another block of new episodes starting in January. Each block is, curiously, called a "season," though it totals only about half of what counts as a season for most series. This box set includes the original miniseries plus the first season's 13 episodes, which aired starting in January 2005. A second group of episodes, not included here, just finished airing in September.

The miniseries begins slowly, but becomes increasingly compelling as it gathers steam. The series continues where the miniseries leaves off. And the series itself is even better—a dark yet stunning mixture of action, politics, religion, and rich character development, supported by great writing and superb acting.

One warning, however: because of the dark nature of the show, not to mention some, as they say, "mature sexual elements," you may not find it suitable for children. Check it out yourself before assuming that it is. This is a mature drama and not a "kiddie" show in any respect.

Both box sets have extensive features and commentary tracks. They're a lot of fun, but both sets would be must-haves even if they were completely devoid of extras.

Lost has the better-looking video transfer. Bright, crisp, and colorful (though there are plenty of dark scenes), it's very nearly as superb looking as the weekly 720p high definition broadcasts on ABC, and better than many feature films in my DVD collection.

Galactica's style is far grittier. It utilizes the jumpy, hand-held camera work that has seen increasing use on television, combined with low light photography. There is considerable grain in some scenes (more evident in the miniseries than in the series episodes, which generally look cleaner and sharper). The grain may have been a creative choice. Galactica also has far more dark scenes than Lost, and the bright scenes it does have often employ colored filters. But Galactica's less polished look fits the story perfectly.

Both sets have terrific soundtracks, less impressive than the best film work only because of their less complex mixes. Both have exceptionally strong, deep bass, excellent music tracks (Galactica's music is particularly striking), very wide dynamic range, and clean, always intelligible dialogue.

(There was an earlier release of Battlestar Galactica's first season, sans miniseries, sold largely through Best Buy stores. It used the British TV version, which differed from this one only in some of its music. The set reviewed here appears identical in technical quality and is the better value, with the miniseries and extras that were not included on the other set, plus superior packaging.)

If I had to choose the better of these two great shows, I'd pick Galactica. It's richer and more complex in its plot and character development, and appears far less likely to run out of ideas as the series progresses. Lost is one of the two best shows on television. Battlestar Galactica is the best.

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