Blu-ray Review: Dragons Lair II

May 19, 2009

Dragons Lair IIWithout rehashing my entire Space Ace review from last March I’ll just say that Don Bluth’s animated games (Dragons Lair, Space Ace and Dragons Lair 2) left a pretty big impression on me, that is to say once I saw Dragons Lair in an arcade my idea of “graphics” were changed forever. Now looking back that obviously wasn’t the best comparison as these aren’t games as much as animated shorts with brief shots of interactivity. I think more than anything else Don Bluth’s art style all but ruined me from ever thinking another game could be as beautiful.

My gaming preferences aside the good folks over at Digital Leisure were kind enough to send over a copy of ‘Dragon’s Lair II: Time Warp‘ on Blu-ray the sequel to 2007’s ‘Dragons Lair’ in high definition. This time around Dirk is once again out to rescue Daphne but the game play is more linear and the storytelling even more engaging than its predecessor.

Plot: The game opens with Daphne kidnapped by Mordrok once again and Dirk right behind them. Dragon’s Lair II Time Warp moves beyond the straight dungeons and dragons theme of the first installment and into themes as varied as Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, the Garden of Eden, a performance by Ludwig van Beethoven and a tomb sequence in ancient Egypt.

A note about the game play, Dragon’s Lair (any iteration) can prove to be frustrating for gamers who enjoy puzzle solving versus quick, random button twitching. One thing to keep in mind however is that in a pinch you can “watch” the game but I don’t recommend jumping too far ahead, at least not until you finish then the playback is a nice reward for your hard work. Remember, we’re talking about a short from a former Disney animator, an important piece of “film” history even if it was for a video game.

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Posted by Bryan Greenway | Filed Under Blu-ray, Reviews | 3 Comments 

Preview: Windows 7 Media Center

May 16, 2009

windows_7If you’ve resisted the temptation to “upgrade” your windows based HTPC to Vista this long, hopefully what follows will reinforce that decision. Windows 7 could be as little as 5-6 months away and given the fact that Microsoft didn’t release a QAM/ATSC tuner update to the public (its technically only available with new OEM builds), the wait may very well be worth it.

I decided Microsoft’s recent Windows 7 RC1 was a good time to check out the sights and sounds and specifically what might be new or different with media center in Windows 7. Before we get into the specifics of Win7 MCE I should bring you up to date on my systems specs, I’m running a AMD 64 5600+, 3 GB’s of ram, a NVIDIA 9400GT video card, a 250GB SATA drive and a LG Blu-ray/HD DVD drive.

I started out by formatting the SATA drive, then I popped in the disc and quickly noticed the installer was a near clone of Vista installation process sans a few colorful swatches here and there. The installation process was quick and smooth; after the final process was complete the desktop was instantly recognizable, intuitive and familiar to anyone who’s used Vista.  That’s not to say the interface was unimproved over Vista, it’s a lot more polished and yet at the same time, softer, almost organic and certainly more pleasing to the eye.

One nice surprise was the fact my motherboards SPDIF output was detected and ready to go, no muss, no fuss. This was not the case with my Vista install. Futzing around with sound drivers proved to be a somewhat frustrating and time consuming experience, if this early look at driver handling is what can be expected with Windows 7 I’m all for it. The actual MCE setup was a breeze, I chose the express setup and punched in the usual TV data, region carrier, etc. This portion of the setup allows you to distinguish your QAM settings from your regular analog cable carrier settings. Read more

Posted by Bryan Greenway | Filed Under HTPC, Media Servers, Previews | Leave a Comment 

New Surround Features from Dolby and THX

May 13, 2009

surround speakerIf you’re in the market for a new surround receiver you’ll no doubt find a bevy of new bells and whistles awaiting you, especially if its been a few years since your last upgrade. Aside from things like HDMI switching, iPod docks, satellite radio integration and automatic calibration there are new speaker configurations and volume balancing technologies available.

Starting off with Dolby, as any discussion of surround sound should we have Dolby Pro Logic IIz, which builds on the venerable Pro Logic IIx by adding two “front height” channels. The additional front channels are intended to give a more realistic sense of height in the sound stage. For example rain would sound as if it was falling from high to low as opposed to just reverberating in a horizontal plane.

Moving on to THX’s Loudness Plus we get into the volume balancing part of the equation.  Loudness Plus is designed to make reference level (0 db) a little more practical in real-world listening environments. Or to quote THX directly: “THX Loudness Plus automatically adjusts the front-to-back speaker level relationship as you turn the volume level down”. In that same vein Audyssey’s new “Dynamic Volume” and “Dynamic EQ” are designed to make sure subtle details aren’t missed at low volume levels.

That was super quick gloss-over version of these new features and formats and if you’re in the market for a new AVR definitely research each of these features in more detail as they offer the potential for significant sound improvement over previous generation AVR’s.

Posted by Bryan Greenway | Filed Under Surround Sound | 6 Comments 

Physical Media is (Nearly) Dead, Long Live Physical Media

May 11, 2009

dvdBack during the HD DVD/Blu-ray catfight, a common call among HD DVD supporters was that Blu-ray may win the battle but ultimately digital downloads would win the war. This was often countered with “I’ll never move to digital downloads, I want a physical copy of my purchase”.

As with many arguments the truth is often somewhere in the middle, in the time since Toshiba pulled the plug on HD DVD it’s become clear that Blu-ray may never achieve the total marketplace saturation of DVD. While Blu-Ray’s sales have indeed trended up recently, the steep mountain ahead is no less daunting, especially in the face of a recession.

Think of it this way, Blu-ray was launched in November (ostensibly) 2006, the “format war” ended over a year ago and it’s almost impossible to even find a standard definition television on many store shelves, and Blu-ray hovers around a 10% market share against DVD. Significant ground has been covered but the race is far from over.

That doesn’t mean that Blu-ray won’t go on to eventually become the disc du jour, however I’m seeing a coexistence between Blu-ray and non-traditional formats (in the short term) becoming more likely; with non-traditional formats (read digital downloads) eventually leaving physical media a moot point with greater convenience, selection and portability.

Take a step back and remove yourself from the argument for a second and it’s pretty clear that convenience is king, MP3’s have all but relegated the CD to yesterday’s tech from a convenience standpoint. Any argument that other forms of physical media won’t take the same route as CD aren’t based in historical evidence. The cassette eventually trumped the 8-track, the CD eventually replaced the cassette and MP3’s eventually outgrew CD’s in overall popularity and portability.
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Posted by Bryan Greenway | Filed Under Blu-ray, HTPC, Media Servers | 2 Comments 

Myka: IPTV Done Right?

May 4, 2009

mykaBy now we’re all at least somewhat familiar with networked video appliances like AppleTV, Popcorn Hour, etc. And while those products have their fair share of fans, some home theater aficionados are left wondering, what else is out there? Are these closed, proprietary systems really right for me? Well as it turns out there is an open source solution on the horizon and from all accounts it appears to be quite promising.

The Myka is a download/streaming media player and self described “magic box” for watching hi-def movies on your television. Heard that one before? Yeah so have I, but the Myka would appear to be a little more than your typical movie box. One thing, the first thing really, that sets the Myka apart is the fact that it’s open source. Open source as in actively encouraging developers to write custom interfaces and even custom applications (think the iPhone app store, albeit on a much smaller scale).

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Posted by Bryan Greenway | Filed Under Media Servers | 6 Comments 

Mini-Review: CoolerMaster Silent Pro M500 ATX Power Supply

April 27, 2009

CoolerMaster Silent Pro M500 ATX Power SupplyAs time marches on I find myself using my HTPC more and more and my other source equipment less and less. With that, I’ve wanted to address one of my systems biggest hardware shortcomings, the noise. Unlike off-the-shelf consumer electronics devices, HTPC’s aren’t necessarily as quiet as a DVD player, cable box or vacuum cleaner for that matter…

My HTPC has been a work in progress for two years now and recently I got the itch to wrap it up. I started off with a video card upgrade (I’m now running a GeForce 9400GT), another gigabyte of memory, and ultimately tackled the noisy power supply. Word to the wise, those of you building your first HTPC will feel inclined to skimp on certain components; it’s natural, I did it too. So take my advice, buy the quietest power supply you can the first time around, don’t skimp on parts that don’t need upgrading.

The CoolerMaster Silent Pro M500 is a 500 watt, single rail, ATX power supply with modular connectors, an 80 Plus rating and a 135mm low rpm fan. There was another somewhat unique feature with the M500, a pair of rubber rings designed to isolate the power supply from the case. A good idea in theory at least, I was unable to discern any real difference using the rings or not.
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Posted by Bryan Greenway | Filed Under HTPC, Reviews | 6 Comments 

Twitter Roundup for the Week of 3/20/09

April 24, 2009

Follow Home Theater Blog @ TwitterI thought I’d post a link to our Twitter profile (@hometheaterblog) as much of what we write about here at Home Theater Blog starts there (Twitter). While I’m at it, here are just a few of the things we discussed this past week.

Now that the Roku box supports Amazon HD I’m a little more hesitant to call the $99 price-tag a waste, what’s next?

What (if anything) will end Apple’s hot streak of late? The iPhone seems unstoppable at this point, Palm what say ye?

The whole thing is a coup for Warner, $4.95 + S&H? They’re selling the same movie (in HD) to the same person twice!

$99 Blu-ray players by Christmas? I’ve heard that one before..

LOTR Blu-ray pre-order on Amazon, theatricals only……

Need 3D floorplans for your home theater?

Looking forward to the new Star Trek flick, it has to be better than Fast and Furious…

Follow Home Theater Blog at Twitter for peeks at upcoming content, suggest new topics or even just to say hi.

Posted by Bryan Greenway | Filed Under Commentary | 6 Comments 

iPhone: The Ultimate Home Theater Interface

April 14, 2009

Savant iPhone AppI was careful not to use the word remote, or controller in the title because I think those words pigeonhole the iPhone into an unfair category. Love it or hate it, Apple’s little color, touch-screen remote, er iPhone has shaken up consumer electronics world and I for one continue to be impressed. Pandora’s iPhone app for example is a study in simplicity and perfection, pop in some headphones (or headphone out to speakers) and enjoy the same Pandora functionality as you would on your PC. By the way, if you haven’t discovered Pandora yet don’t blame me for the hours of your life about to be lost thumbing new music up or down.

Ok Pandora isn’t a “home theater” app per say but there are plenty of those as well. One of the biggest to hit the market, at least in custom installation circles is Crestron’s Control App for the iPhone. This application expands system control to literally every room in the house and beyond. Not to be outdone, Control4 launched their iPhone/Touch app last fall and in typical Control4 fashion allows for full system control including lighting, A/V, heating and air, internet radio and access control from any room in the house.

If a full-blown home automation system isn’t your bag, there are plenty of other ways to integrate the iPhone into your home entertainment system. Starting with Apple’s own “Remote” app, you have a perfect example of how the iPhone has changed the home entertainment landscape. Don’t have the budget for a Sonos or Sooloos system? No worries, just download “Remote”, install iTunes on your HTPC (or move your Mac mini into the living room as I did), and voila you’ve got an instant mp3 music server with full cover-art and customizable playlists.

Other applications such as Intelliremote give you full-fledged Windows Media Center functionality including keyboard and mouse control. For those of you using the popular media center alternative XBMC there are actually two apps. First is the cleverly titled XBMC Remote followed by the XMote, described as a “Native iPhone WiFi Remote for XBMC. Use your iPhone/iPod Touch as a replacement remote control for Xbox Media Center running on Windows, Mac, Linux or the original Xbox.”
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Posted by Bryan Greenway | Filed Under Home Theater Equipment, Universal Remotes | 20 Comments 

Own a Piece of Movie History, Good Buddy

April 8, 2009

banditOf all the cars used in movies, going back as far as I can remember (and admittedly my memory gets foggy around 74-75) the black Trans-Am(s) used in 1977’s ‘Smokey and the Bandit’ certainly rank among the most notable of notables. Well gear-heads here’s your chance to own a real piece of movie history, an *original “BAN ONE” is going up for auction on May 2nd.

The car has been in Burt Reynolds private collection since taking possession of it sometime in the early nineties and now it’s set to go up for auction for the very first time. The auction will take place in Houston Texas at the fifth annual “Houston Classic Auction”. I wouldn’t even speculate on what the car will go for but considering its notoriety and the fact it comes from Mr. Reynolds private collection I wouldn’t rule out six (or even seven) digit bids.

I imagine the folks who organize the “Bandit Run” would even let the winner take lead in the annual procession of Trans-Am’s, which retraces the route the Bandit and Snowman took in the film on their “beer run”. Interestingly enough the auction is a mere seven days before the Bandit Run 2009 takes off from Branson, Missouri on its way to Georgia.

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Posted by Bryan Greenway | Filed Under Movies & Television | Leave a Comment 

Wide Load: Philips Cinema 21:9

March 26, 2009

philips-21-9-cinemascope-lcd-tvWhile browsing the booths at CEDIA 2007 a friend and I were blown away at the number of 2.35:1 front projection set-ups on display; it was actually harder to find a 16:9 demo than a “scope” screen. I told my friend, this is all well and good but if we ever see a scope flat-panel then we’ll know this is moving beyond the front projection/hobbyist market. Well Philips has met the challenge but I’m not sure I still believe it’s a sign of things to come.

Touted as the “world’s first cinema-proportioned LCD television”, the 56″ Philips Cinema 21:9 would seemingly cater to wide (really wide) screen aficionados who want the maximum amount of screen real estate possible for their movie watching experience. Oddly enough those who are simply looking to eliminate those “pesky black bars” would just find them moved to the sides (or worse yet, stretched) with traditional 16:9 programming.

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Posted by Bryan Greenway | Filed Under High Definition Televisions | 4 Comments 

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