Monday, January 16, 2006

Linksys Cordless Internet Telephony Kit - CIT200

I have been buying and discarding PC phones for some time. Until recently, the experience has been universally bad. Most devices were just cheap microphones and speakers embeded in plastic made to look like a phone. In operation however, the sound quality was bad and the functionality marginal. In most cases, the devices just acted as a microphone and speaker, screwing up your PC in the process.

Happily, Linksys has come out with a truly useful cordless phone that integrates seamlessly with Skype. The phone looks like any other cordless phone, but the base plugs into a USB port on a PC instead of to a phone line. A software program is installed on the PC to make the link between Skype and the cordless phone.

The result is that one now has a cordless phone that can display the Skype contact list, in colour, with the same status symbols one is used to on the PC. Using SkypeOut, the "for pay" long distance service, it is possible to call any phone number in the world for about 2 cents US$ per minute.

My parents were travelling in India and Pakistan over Christmas, and I was unable to reach their cellphone using Starhub or Singtel. Amazingly, I got through using SkypeOut, and for considerably less money than the carriers in Singapore wanted to charge.

I have to say that Linksys has hit a home run with this product. It does exactly what is supposed to do, has a clear colour display, feels good to hold, and has good audio quality. The price is a bit steep (S$179 from South Asia in Funan), but the operational savings are worth it.

Pioneer PDP-436HDG

I have been uncharacteristically patient when it comes to getting a plasma TV. When they first became available in Singapore a few years ago, the technolust was real. But doing some research indicated that the technology was developing rapidly, prices were likely to come down significantly, and specs were likely to improve. Of course the fact that they cost more than triple what I had paid for a top of the line TV was also a factor.

With the death of our main TV however, it was time to make a move. The choice was between Hitachi and Pioneer, visibly the best pictures on the market. Nearly identical in price, it came down to features, and this is where the Pioneer wins.

Unlike the Hitachi, Pioneer uses a separate control box to interface with other components. This means that instead of having to run cables from each component to the display screen, all wiring goes to the control box. The control box looks like any other Hi-Fi component, and just sits in the stack with the other devices.

Since I have an AV amp (the Yamaha DSP-A1), it should have been a simple matter of moving the monitor out cable from the old TV to the new Pioneer. However, time has marched on, and the Yamaha does not support component video. There is a visible difference when using component interconnects, so I bypassed the Yamaha and plugged the DVD, DVR, and cable TV directly into the interface box.

Along with the usual inputs, the Pioneer also supports SVGA signals from a PC. There is a video connector on the front of the interface box. This is where the Pioneer really shines. The resolution of the screen is 1024x768, the same as a PC. I connected up the same laptop I have been using to control the CD Jukeboxes, and it worked - full readable text on a 43" screen!

Surfing the web on a 43" screen while sitting in the living room is certainly an addictive experience. I actually find myself looking things up on Google while watching TV. This is either progress or really disturbing...

The only downside to the new setup is the need to switch audio and video separately. Turning on the TV is non-trivial - power on the Pioneer, select input 3. Turn on the Yamaha, select TV. Turn on the cable TV box. Select channel. Control volume through the Yamaha. Yuck.

Time to look for a new AV amp.

Santa Summary

Now that the holidays are over and visitors have been safely returned home, it is time to take stock of the new technology arrivals in the Haunt.

In a genuinely thoughtful manner, our main TV expired just before Christmas, providing an incontrovertible excuse to upgrade. We had purchased this Sony Wega 16:9 format TV on arrival in Singapore ten years ago. It provided yeoman service, and the shipping box served as our dining room table for our first month in our new apartment. So there were no hard feelings involved with the demise. On the contrary, I had been hoping it would expire so that I would have an excuse to get a new plasma.

Along with the need to replace the main display, it was apparent that something needed to be done about the ever mounting long distance telephone bills. While I have long been a user of Skype, the Spouse has never really taken to being tethered to a computer in order to talk to family. Indeed, when she does talk via computer, I lose use of the device, which is no solution at all. Luckily, Linksys had just released their Skype wireless phone and that proved to be the answer.

With some time on my hands, I finally got around to rearranging the PC's in the Haunt. My main workhorse is built on an Asus P4P800E-Deluxe motherboard with a Pentium 4 3ghz CPU and an ATI Radeon 9600XT All-in-Wonder video card. I originally put 1gb of memory, but have been noticing that it is being routinely consumed by all the bloatware one is forced to run. I added an additional 1gb of RAM and things are back to being snappy.

The other PC, also built on the same motherboard but with a 2ghz CPU is now mostly a server, running Skype and the Linksys wireless interface, as well as hosting Slinkserver, which runs the Squeezebox for streaming music to the main Hi-Fi. I tend to also use this machine for lengthy downloads and maintaining backups.