Saturday, October 29, 2011

PCI TV tuner card review

TV tuner cards
My father requested me to digitally record a tv show for him recently.  I don't have a PVR, so my only option was to use an analog TV tuner card on the analog RCA-outs of the digital Telus Optik tuner box.

I used an ATI TV Wonder PCI card extensively about five to fifteen years ago, and it worked well.  However, my brother left me two other tuner cards, both newer than my ATI card.  I did try them in the past, but had the bare cards only, without any drivers or identification on the cards themselves (other than the chipset).  I had no success in getting them to work.

Over the years, I eventually found the boxing and drivers, but didn't have a chance to try it out till now.  Here are my findings (which won't be too useful to anybody out there now, unless someone is trying to get old hardware to work)
Manufactured: 1999
Software: MMC, version 7.9 (newer versions would not properly redraw the video overlay if, for instance, the window were resized).  Also, there'd be odd problems with the record button not showing up.  7.9 is the newest stable version I could get to work.  Features like video-shifting, while present, do not work or could cause the computer to crash.
Driver: tvw-pci-ve-driver-1-11-0-0.exe
Scheduling: Scheduling programs to either watch or record has always been reliable.
Recording options: Once recording, can set a time or duration when it will stop

Manufactured: 2000
Software: a barebones tv watching and recording software.  No keyboard support.
Driver: On the driver CD are Win2k drivers, which will work with XP.  Caveats: it will greedily use the ATI drivers, which will only provide composite (RCA) and svideo inputs; the tuner itself will be unavailable.  I was using a Windows XP box that I'm going to reghost after this testing, so I made frequent use of System Restore to roll back the system state to prior my ATI driver installations.  Only then could I point the driver search to the CD.
I searched all around the internet for actual working drivers.  It uses a bt878 chipset, which is also what ATI uses, but the generic bt878 drivers I found online don't seem to do the job.
Even after I got the device manager to stop showing yellow exclamation marks, however, I still couldn't get any audio out of this card.  Most PCI tv cards don't provide audio directly to the system; rather, they pass it to the sound card.  With the ATI card, audio passed in through the CD input to the system.  With this card, there's no internal connector, so one must use a 3.5" audio cable to connect the audio-out jack to the line-in jack of the video card.  A bit clumsy, and in this case, not working at all.  There was simply no audio-out, regardless of the drivers I used, regardless of whether I used the 3DeMON TV software or the ATI software (which worked as well since the chipset is similar).
Scheduling: none
Recording options: the TV viewing software sucked so much I didn't bother trying to record.

Leadtek WinFast 2000
Manufactured: 2003
Software: probably the best looking software.  The best feature was the ability to record in whatever aspect ratio was specified.  For instance, if 16:9 was specified, the resulting video would appear in 16:9 (as viewed in VLC).  ATI's would insist on recording the video letterboxed.  The software seems generic enough to work with the ATI hardware.
Driver: I found this on the internet years ago.  I don't know where you'd find it now.
Recording options: When recording, also has ability to specify how much longer to record for, and whether to shut down the computer when down recording.  The other big plus is time-shifting, which allows you to pause the live program you might be watching, and return to it later (and skip commercials)

The one caveat when recording from the Optik box (from any of these inputs) is that Optik will reset the aspect ratio to 4:3 when it detects an HDMI connection (which happens when you switch your TV to the HDMI input).  This isn't terrible - it's just that the picture quality would be squished in sending to the TV card.  One needs to navigate the Optik menus to switch back to 16:9 aspect ratio.

Phantom power - should we care?

I wanted measure the relative electricity consumption of various devices around the home, especially with regards to the so-called phantom power.  Phantom power is a power draw used by devices that are plugged in, even when they are not actively turned on (like televisions, VCRs which do nothing except for display the time, and computers). You've probably heard the occasional reminder from your power company about the significance of phantom power.  I've wondered just how significant this is to our power usage, so I bought a power metering device from Zellers.  It provides the real-time power usage of any device plugged in.  Here's some data:
Compact fluorescent lamp: 19w
My Windows Mobile PDA on, and charging: 12w
Same, only charging and not on: 1w
24" LCD monitor, on: 22w
same monitor, off: 0w

Yamaha 67 key musical keyboard (on): 7w
Same, off: 3w
PC: 9w when off, 112w when on
laptop (on): 53w

Phone charger (microUSB), nothing plugged in: 0w

Phone charger (microUSB), phone plugged in: 3w

The phantom power of a bunch of devices plugged into my computer power bar 17w
Phantom power of a bunch of devices plugged into my media centre: 22w

BC Hydro charges our home a basic fee, and a variable fee.  The variable is $0.0667 per kWh.  A kWh is the amount of energy used by 1000W for one hour, or 100W for 10 hours.

As far as phantom power on all my devices goes, that's about 40w * 720h = 28.8 kwh , or less than $2, which is basically not all that significant, costwise.

D complains whenever I need to leave the computer on overnight, so I calculated that for 8 hours:
112/1000 * 8 * 0.0667 = $0.06.  For those who leave your computers on 24/7 for the the entire month, this is $5.38.

Where is most of our power going then?
lighting - incandescent bulbs are notoriously inefficient
cooking - there's a reason they're plugged into 240v outlets

We don't use the drier, and seldom use the dishwasher, so none of our power is going there.

As an experiment this month, we've refrained from switching on our home heating (forced air) and will only use  electrical heating (portable space heaters) for our home.  When our next bill comes, we will compare it with the same period last year where we used our home's gas heating (which doesn't work very efficiently anyways in our home) and will compare costs.  I suspect the cost difference will be less than $10 since our regular variable rate for gas is also quite low.  If so, the savings won't be worth the inconvenience of lugging our space heaters around and the temporary pain with leaving our localized warming areas.

**all costs are minus HST**

Friday, October 7, 2011

Hard drive reliability

The problem with modern day reliability tests of hard drives is that it is difficult to test how time affects drives.  Running a drive for five years is not the same as reading and writing terabytes of data to a drive for a month.  Voltage spikes on booting up a computer and vibrations from removing a drive from a case can't be mimicked in a lab.

Brand reputation doesn't mean a whole lot either.  No brand that I've owned has been immune to the click of death or the high pitched wheeze that accompanies a dying or dead drive.

I've gone through lots of hard drives in my time.  Thankfully, most have died after being decommissioned, or I was able to recover the data from them before putting them out to pasture.  As a service to someone out there (and for my own record), here are the hard drives that have died on me.

Western Digital 2.1 gb.  This is the first ever drive that died on me.  The motor spinning it just got weak, and I'd have to give it a quick twirl in my wrist to get it in motion.  Once in motion, it was fine for a short while.  Eventually, I got write errors, so I put this drive out to pasture.  I was glad for the excuse--it was by far the loudest drive I've ever owned.

Samsung 20g (SV2002H).  I've always liked Samsung as the maker of the quietest drives.  Unfortunately, they do have a reputation as unreliable drives.  I'm 1 for 2 as far as reliability is concerned for this brand.

IBM Deskstar (IC35L040AVER07).  I chose this one mainly for the performance reports from some online source.  They were commonly referred to in the hardware community as Deathstars.  This is the only IBM drive I've ever owned.

Western Digital (WD1200).  I didn't buy this drive; it was part of a RAID config when it failed, so no big loss.

Quite a few Maxtor drives have passed through my possession, but surprisingly none have died.

The moral of the story is that all drives will die.  Even you fans of Solid State Drive might one day be disappointed that your drive is dying (though I'd expect them to be more reliable).  Run a back up system.  For a while, I was running a file mirroring software over network shares, but that required me to be diligent about running it.  Currently, I use a software package that backs up the folders on your computer to another computer on the network, which takes care of the two most likely reasons to need a backup - drive failure, and theft.