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Results so far - laptop as HTPC {Long post!}

Discussion in 'Desktop & Laptop Computers Forum' started by MartinCo, Jul 25, 2002.

  1. MartinCo

    MartinCo
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    okay long post with lots of details...

    just read the top if you only want the summary...

    Thought I would post my results so far using a laptop
    as a HTPC. Others have asked about the viability
    of such a setup against a desktop PC but I havent read of
    anyone actually using one in any detail.

    There also seems to be a bit of a debate currently about the performance
    and easy of use of a well-configured HTPC compared to a good
    pal/ntsc prog scan player (e.g. faroudja based philips or sil503/4 denon).

    So far, I reckon a laptop could be a very good midway solution in this debate.

    To me anyway, it appears to have the best of both worlds:-

    a) the configurable video performance of the HTPC,
    b) much lower noise levels than a desktop PC,
    c) the size and convenience of normal standalone player.


    If you imagine a mix of a portable dvd player with fully configurable vga,
    then thats pretty close as an analogy I reckon.

    Bar a remote control, it covers all areas required for DVD duties.
    The remote situation can easily be fixed by an IR keyboard or a IR device
    (has to be USB for me so either the streamzap or keyspan).
    Combined with my Pronto and maybe girder if needed, this combo
    should let me do anything.

    The only current drawback I can see is not being able to use Dscaler,
    since this is currently limited to being a PCI only product which is
    impossible on a laptop.
    Maybe a USB2 device (upto 400MBs) will come out in the next 12 months,
    and eventually be supported. Alternatively a ProV/ TV4000 would do fine for £150.
    {END}

    if you want the complete details (results, laptop spec, room setup), then read on.

    RESULTS

    okay... I got impatient and just tried plugging laptop and pj together.
    1024 x 768 looked okay but text wasnt quite clear.. movies were okay but not sharp.
    Switching to 800 x 600 improved the text situation so I've stuck there for now.
    Haven't quite got the lcd panel res matched using Powerstrip, but almost there..
    with a bit of tinkering the next evening or two should be perfect.
    800 x 600 looks very good already.

    Put on a mixture of films over 3-4 days to try and all looked
    uniformly excellent, no hint of any artifacts from the dvd and no screen door problems.
    Colour is accurate and showed no problems (orangy skin, blooming reds etc).
    NB I haven't even run a test/ calibration disc yet (like Avia) but will
    do in the next few days.

    I also didnt notice any jumping/ stuttering or problems with motion (at VGA 60hz)
    between PAL or NTSC discs. If people have suggestions for "awkward" discs to try in this

    respect, I'll see what I can do.
    PowerDVD & Zoomplayer have been also installed for comparisons
    and to stretch non-anamorphic dvds.

    the 90" screen is very good. black levels are not
    perfect yet but acceptable for the cost & time it took to do.
    There are still big performance improvements that can be made here.
    Its only the first 5-10 hours with the pj and still at a testing stage
    but very watchable and no signs of any visual or audio problems...
    (and I've really been looking for them after the Denon 2800's artifacts).

    really had to pull myself away from some films because it was so tempting
    to just watch and enjoy them.
    have to say, even just running SVGA, the picture from the laptop is fabulous.

    the dd/dts sound is very similar, if not identical to my pioneer or denon player.


    However.. my biggest finding... and it really is a good one.

    the laptop's full fan did NOT come on at all.

    It only appears to come on when its internal screen is on -
    and since its connected to the projector, this never happens.
    There is some minor whisper type noise and the odd HD click but nothing like
    the full fan noise (think handheld hoover levels).
    certainly much less than what the panasonic does in low power mode.

    This makes a huge difference - you really forget its there.

    UPDATE -
    I've checked in the power management options, and the laptop can have its
    lid shut completely but still be powered up and running for
    when playing DVDs.

    This gives a very small footprint of about 14" across by 1" high.

    Extremely handy when you consider:-

    a) its portable (since its a laptop) so you can use it anywhere
    b) the video/ audio are both excellent
    c) its small in size like a conventional DVD player
    d) not as big/ visible as a full desktop/ tower PC
    e) its even got svideo out so you can take it to friends etc.

    LAPTOP SPEC & REASONS

    Due to my initial Denon 2800 dvd player still being away for
    repairs and maybe a swapout, and no svideo cable at that point for the
    old Pioneer 717, I settled on trying my laptop.

    This is a new laptop bought in Feb/March and spec-ed
    for just playing the odd dvd and maybe the PC extras on discs.
    Not considered for projector duties at the time.

    P4 1.8Ghz
    512MB RAM
    DVD/CDRW (DVD only also available).
    ATI M6 Radeon 16mb
    SPDIF out
    VGA and TV-out
    Firewire
    Windows XP & WinDVD

    @ £1299

    its a pretty decent box and was available from
    hi-spec, dixons/ pcworld, evesham, mesh and a number of others.
    Its an OEM Asus design with similar models available for £800-900 upwards.


    okay three key things about the spec...

    1. its got a decent ATI graphics chip

    I deal with a lot of laptops at work and know what some
    of the chipsets are like... usually poor especially for games.
    the embedded/ system memory type you usually get in a laptop
    are okay for office stuff but nothing else. the ATI isnt
    state of the art for games (newer M7 or Nvidia would be) but it will play them okay.
    Anyway, the ATI chipset does give you hardware acceleration for DVDs.
    Lower spec ATI gfx chips or other makes may be okay but you'd need to test it.


    2. its got a proper SPDIF out (via mini Toslink).

    this passes through DD and DTS perfectly with no problems.
    this being built in might not be as important as I originally thought,
    since there are now external usb sound/spdif devices available for £30-50.
    even so, still a plus that it has this.

    3. the DVD drive was NOT region free, RPC2 locked, no firmware available.

    to fix this I used the "dvd regionfree" software from http://www.dvdidle.com
    DVDs now play automatically from any regions with any softare player.
    Its RCE compatible, macrovision free, and can even skip the FBI warning.

    Since its using a "virtual" DVD drive, I expect its using big chunks of memory as cache
    instead of the harddrive. probably helps with the fan/ noise levels due to this.

    Anyway, for me, its a really great piece of software.
    I'm surprised there hasnt been more mentions of it on the forums.


    ROOM & BACKGROUND

    Anyway, finally got my Panasonic AE100 projector last week.
    Taken awhile but it did mean the living room is nearly fully decorated, furnished
    and reasonably arranged ready for the projector.

    Since its also our living room and due to the WAF, the screen and projector
    are only in place when needed. Only takes 1-2 minutes to move the projector
    and screen into place though so not a problem.

    The room is fairly large... 13" x 22" to a bay window, where the screen is located.
    There is a huge four seater sofa (8.5+ ft long) at the opposite end
    approx 18-20 ft away - perfectly in line with the screen and
    at a nice pleasureable viewing distance.

    The projector is mounted on a table and can be between 9-13 ft from the screen,
    giving a 7-8 ft 16:9 image with no keystone adjustments required.
    The rest of the equipment is contained in an large Indian Jali TV cabinet,
    recessed on the side wall. When closed, none of the
    TV or equipment is visible but is still usable (via external IR transmitters).
    There is a small side table to the right of this for the projector
    when not in use, and the laptop when playing a DVD.
    There is also another big sofa directly opposite the cabinet for non-projector tv/sat/vcr viewing.
    The Mission FS2-AV speaker set is used for all audio, with the satellites
    all installed high in the room corners, with centre and sub just below & behind the screen.
    There will be a rear centre or two in the next few weeks for 6.1 ex/es duties.

    The screen is only a blackout blind at the moment,
    stretched taught across a 3m tension wire and then weighted down at the bottom.
    Its matt white, but with no bowing/ creasing.

    £22 for a 89" x 50" 16:9 screen isnt expensive anyway
    and much can be improved on it yet at minimal cost.

    This will be properly mounted on a black frame, and maybe painted
    using the icestorm/pva method. When not in use, the screen is hidden behind
    a decorative wall hanging on the opposite wall.

    All in all, the room is fairly adaptable, with the projector visible when required,
    and almost perfect seating distance for both standard TV or big screen viewing.
    When nothing A/V is in use, its just a nice comfy well-furnished living room.
    This was always my goal so not a bad starting point.


    Conclusions so far

    So far so good, I've found no audio/ video problems with using a laptop as source. the exact opposte really... the picture is superb, and very "filmic".
    Have to seriously wonder if I need an expensive pal/ntsc prog scan dvd player now.
     
  2. jrwood

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    Thanks for the info :), out of interest where did you get your roller blind from ? as all the ones Ive seen are 1.8metres max length not 88" or so which I would like to use as a test. I wish I could use my laptop sometimes because it has a massive hard drive and nearly 1ghz of cpu power but it only has the old ATI mobility chip in it, hence no overlay. Im still undecided how my next HTPC will be, whether its a laptop, shuttle pc , or mini tower or slimline desktop...so many decisions!. The only hesitation I have with the laptop for me is I use a winTV card with dscaler.

    To get the best out of the laptop I would assume you need to match the native resolution of the AE100? which is about 848x480 pixels isnt it?. This would bypass the scaler and create a more 'cleaner' picture probably.
     
  3. MartinCo

    MartinCo
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    nothing wrong with being thorough! :D



    its not a roller blind.. its a blackout blind.. matt white on one side, slightly rubber-ised on the back. £20 for 90 x 70 pack of 2, so 2 screens to try out.

    others have used this type of material successfully in combination a frame..., either as is or painted with icestorm/ pva.

    yes I will be matching the native resolution of the AE100, 856 x 480, almost there now, will also have a look at 720p (1280 x 720).



    shame - the old ATI chip is no good... that bad?
    wasn't aware the overlay was so important.

    so the old 8mb chip is no good even if you switch off the hardware acceleration in WinDVD et al and run using just the CPU's power?

    its worth trying if you already have the laptop.. add the cheap usb spdif device and you're there.
     
  4. jrwood

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    Well the laptop is fantastic although I dont use it much as I have another p3-500 which I tend to use more and therefore gets more abuse!. It plays DVDs very well with little cpu usage but the main factor is the overlay which the old ATI chip does not support unlike the new radeon series. With the overlay you can improve the picture on the projector by a considerable margin with the use of gamma/contrast/brightness.

    I might trade it up for a radeon based laptop although Im not sure what Im going to do yet for my final HTPC, might wait to see what these shuttle pcs are like as that would look great with my tft in the living room.

    Where did you buy the blackout blind btw?
     
  5. MartinCo

    MartinCo
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    yeah.. I'd seen the ATI settings for control panel gamma/ brightness/ contrast, didnt realise it would make that much difference to quality as you describe.

    surely the control inside windvd/ powerdvd or the projector itself has a similar effect...
    or is this post-processing in some way..and decreasing the quality? (I guess its the pc equiv of a dvd player's DACs).

    even so...for the sake of a £30 usb spdif (if you dont have one)... its gotta be worth trying though.

    got WIDE720 (approx 1280 x720) working last night with the AE100. fabulous picture. very smooth and film-like.

    almost there with WIDE480 also.

    having a play with zoomplayer for the non-anamorphic dvds.. very cool... now have nice easy presets for non-a 1.85:1 and 2.35:1. The Thing, Titanic etc look far nicer.. slightly softer but correct ratio.

    the blackout blinds were from a standard furnishings place,
    varied in price from £15-25 depending on size.
     
  6. ian_guinan

    ian_guinan
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    Thanks Martin.
    More information than I could have hoped for, and a very useful post.
    Even intrigued by your screen ideas...any chance of some pics?
    (Last blackout blind I bought was only 21" wide and £18 so I think you got a bargain...)

    Maybe you should just ask for your money back for the Denon? (still no multi-region firmware by the way)

    Regards,
    Ian Guinan
     
  7. MartinCo

    MartinCo
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    hmm... the level of info. you can never have too much.
    maybe you can tell I work with computers?:D

    saves a lot of questions that would've been asked for starters.:)

    think the blackout blind may've been in a sale.. not sure... think others have bought at a similar cost though. £20-25 for 90" width.

    will see if I can get a picture, but it is only temporary until I get a proper frame sorted maybe with the icestorm paint. fine for starters though.

    the tapestry/ throw to cover it when not in use actually cost far more... £60. but it does look nice and is completely hidden when not in use.

    the picture is already excellent after 2-3 hours tinkering last night.

    currently running in WIDE720 (720p? not sure), which is I think a HDTV resolution.
    the AE100 is meant to be fine when scaling RGB, plus this is exactly 50% bigger than its panel (480--> 720, 856 --> ~1286) so still a perfect match.

    on the laptop, being able to stretch non-anamorphic dvds is something I hadn't considered until I downloaded zoomplayer... so easy to do. results are very good.. plus it means the projector can just be left in 16:9 mode and never touched.

    the Thing's video (R1) is very soft and grainy anyway so the results are good based from that.

    something like Titanic looks much better, but its transfer is light years ahead in comparison.

    3 key presses, plus a default for 16:9. smart.

    and yes, I am working out what to do with the Denon.;) :confused:
     
  8. jrwood

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    Well from what I have tested on my other HTPC is that the Radeon is far better at portraying colours than the older ATI chipset. Also when your displaying a DVD on a projector if you start to fiddle too much with the bias and brightness settings then you can make blacks look very grey. I found that changing the brightness of the overlay I could actually reduce the light being emitted on completely black scenes...not sure why the ATI card was not giving out a pure black signal but who cares..it made dark scenes glorious to look at!. Also edging up the gamma brings out the detail without going silly on the brightness controls of the projector...
     
  9. MAW

    MAW
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    Funny, but I've just started using my laptop.... got a creative extigy USB sound 'card' which doesn't pass DD, but accepts 48khz, and decodes it, so with 3 cambridge walkman cables, it goes into the 6ch input on the Yam. DSPE800, sounds much better than the SB Live! in use before. My system is not really cutting edge soundwise anyway, so any deficiencies in decoding are lost on me. It gives plenty of 'bang per buck' and picture wise the same really, I have an NEC VT440, chipset is S3, so at 800x600 it's very adequate, have yet to sort colour/contrast to my satisfaction, but it's good already. The VT440 must be the least known PJ bargain, reliable, good picture, and if you are a grand prix fan, you need a 4:3 image.

    Likewise, more results to come from this, only seen 1 whole movie so far, and a few bits.
     
  10. MartinCo

    MartinCo
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    strange that.. thought that the extigy definitely did pass dd & dts through the spdif. odd if it didn't having an spdif out sitting there.

    it pretty much states this on the web page...
    "Dolby Digital Multi-Channel playback - yes"

    and this is stated separately from
    "Dolby 5.1 Hardware decoding - yes"

    have a play with Powerstrip if it works for your laptop (maybe).

    then try and match the projector's panel size to your laptop's output.

    and as for the 4:3 for grand prix stuff.. there is a normal 4:3 mode on the panasonic, so no less there.

    there is also a Just mode same as on Panny TVs.. watched most non-widescreen stuff on my TV like that without a problem.

    the ae100's mode is exactly the same and fine for general viewing.. apart for a few films.
     
  11. MAW

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    Buried deep deep in the european knowlege base, they state that DDand DTS are not passed through, and this seems so, my decoder can detect no signal. Only PCM is passed, via spdif or toslink. Still, it does decode, and has 6ch output, so there you go. I didn't get to find this out till I'd failed to get it to work as expected, it's not in the handbook. Naughty naughty I reckon. Still, I got it very cheap, returned product(??!!), the previous owner kept the power supply and software, unbeknown to PC world, so I beat them up on the price. My favourite hobby? The quality of sound is otherwise as good as I've heard on a PC.

    As to the PTAE 100, it's not worth starting a debate about the picture here, as so many seem to think they're the business. I'd just be shouted down. How many have you had? The average seems to be 3, and still in dispute. That's why the comment about reliability. I'd be livid if it was my £1200.
     
  12. MartinCo

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    shame about the audigy... thats very odd.. spdif but no passthrough.

    no problems here with the built-in sound and spdif on my laptop. very impressive so far...
    there are also a few others external usb devices for £30-50 that do pass the sound through succesfully.

    I'd dont think you'd be shouted down about your opinion on the panasonic... debate is the whole point of the forums after all.

    I was only pointing out the formula 1 thing... 4:3 is on everything still but not that important really. if F1 isnt widescreen, it will be eventually.

    as for the ae100, I've only had 1 projector, no faults so far.

    dont know about average no owned, but certainly the intial batches upto may or so, all had faults with power that has now been fixed.

    when it works, I dont think anyone disagrees its a bargain price at £950-1200.
     
  13. MartinCo

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    for those who might be interested, looks like a version of this laptop is up at special price of £998.

    see here http://www1.novatech.co.uk/NOVATECH/EWspec.html?c=NNB-019CH

    spec is listed as
    Intel Pentium 4 2.0GHz Processor
    - 14.1" XGA TFT Display
    - 256Mb RAM (Supports up to 1024Mb)
    - 30Gb Hard Drive
    - CDRW/DVD Combo Drive
    - 56K Modem
    - Includes Microsoft Windows XP Home Edition

    The P4 2.0GHz Notebook Also features
    - ATI 16Mb Integrated Graphics
    - SoundBlaster Pro Compatible Audio
    - 2 x USB Ports
    - 56K/V.90 Built-in Modem
    - 1 Parallel & 1 VGA Port, 1 IrDA, 1 Mic, 1 Audio-Out, S-Video Out Port, IEEE 1394a Firewire Port
    - Built-in 10/100 based-T LAN
    - Glidepad with 2 buttons & 1 scroll button
    - AC Power Adapter
    - Weight - 2.95Kg


    add SPDIF to the specs above... its definitely is with a mini-toslink cable. DD/DTS pass through perfectly.
     
  14. MAW

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    I've had a few weeks with my laptop/extigy to play with now. It all works very well in fact, the sound is an iprovement over the live! player in the previous PC, the extigy does what it says on the tin as far as decoding. I've got 3 cambridge minidisc cables from Richer to connect it to the 6ch input on my yam DSPE800, tried it with LOTR, really rather good. The extigy seems to require a whole bundle of system resources though, and causes the odd pause for breath while starting DVD software. Ok when it's running. I had a lot of trouble installing drivers, endless sysem crashes, blue screens etc, but then I am running ME...It's settled down now.
     

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