Saturday, May 27, 2006

Signal Strength Script for EyeTV 2.2.1

[Update: check out Signal GH, an iPhone utility for monitoring the signal quality of an HDHomerun].

The following script works with EyeTV 2.2.1 to speak the signal strength every 5 seconds. I'm posting this because the script I posted a few weeks ago was broken by the new release.

tell application "System Events"
if UI elements enabled then
tell process "EyeTV"
-- make sure everything between "tell" and ""EyeTV Preferences"" is
-- on one line when you copy and paste
tell progress indicator 1 of UI element 1 of group 1 of tab group 1 of UI element 1 of UI element 4 of UI element 6 of window "EyeTV Preferences"
set mySignal to get value
set mySignal to mySignal * 100
set mySignalInt to mySignal as integer
end tell
end tell
display alert "Enable GUI scripting in the AppleScript Utility"
end if
end tell
say mySignalInt
delay 5
end repeat

Monday, May 22, 2006

Tuner card versus an HDTV receiver

A coworker, who knows I am an HDTV know-it-all, asked me whether he should get a tuner card for his desktop PC or buy an ATSC tuner box for use with his new 1080p LCD monitor. He wasn't going to build or buy a specialized media PC, and in the beginning he just wanted to watch TV with no DVR functionality. Nor does he want to pay for cable or satellite. I immediately told him to buy a standalone receiver, and recommended the Samsung SIR T-451 based on comments on the AVS Forum.

For many years, I did not own a TV, but I watched a lot of TV. In the days of Mac OS 7, 8 and 9 I used my desktop Mac (first a Performa 6214 and then a PowerMac 7600) to watch cable TV via a tuner card. It became tiresome waiting for my "TV" to boot, or worse reboot. Plus, it was noisy. Then I bought a NTSC tuner box sold by ViewSonic to which I could hook to my TiVo, my DVD player, my computer, and analog cable; this was quite a step up as I could still use my VGA monitor, but I didn't have to boot my TV.

When it looked like the dreaded broadcast flag was going into affect, I bought a pcHDTV card for my Dell, and started playing around with MythTV and was hooked on the quality. Then I bought an LCD HDTV ready TV, and hooked my MythTV computer to it, and it was good. But it was noisy; and in exchange for perhaps an hour a night of watched HDTV programming, my TV room was noisy 24/7 with the sound of cooling fans. Thus the banishment of the MythTV computer to the basement. The upstairs TV gets its HDTV programming via a Dish Network receiver, and my TV room is blessedly quiet.

The same thing with the digital TV I threw together for the bedroom using an LG HDTV receiver. It's quiet, boots in seconds, and doesn't drain my electrical bill while off.

There is a place for media PCs in the entertainment center, but they should be quiet, specialized PCs (or of course iMacs or Mac Minis), not cheap, noisy, general purpose boxes. If you aren't in a position to shell out the big bucks for a new PC, a standalone OTA receiver is a good value and a good match for the "HD Ready" TV.

Don't act like a tourist in New York

My friend Mindy has another blog site exploring New York City both day and night. It's New York City Nomad.

I read her first post about visiting the new flagship Apple store, and later finding good Korean food, and think she's off to a fine start as a blogger.

[Update: My friend has lost this domain, so this post is no longer operative.]

Saturday, May 13, 2006

SphereX versus Logitech Z-5500 5.1 Speaker Systems

After banishing my noisy MythTV Linux box to the basement, and returning that sweet iMac to work, I had no way of watching recorded programming on the MythTV, or rather no way to listen to recorded programming. I needed a speaker system downstairs which would take TOSLink in and decode Dolby Digital. I considered buying another Z-5500 set, but the price was a little too high for me to pull the trigger. Then one day, I saw a mention on AVS Forum of several low price SphereX 5.1 surround speakers being sold on eBay (the lot has since sold out). These are XBox branded computer speakers, but do not require an XBox, and with shipping were selling for less than half the Amazon price. I'm only human, I pulled the trigger and bid on a set. Did I mention I have a wonderfully forgiving wife?

After happily playing with them for the last day, I decided to write a comparison between the SphereX and the Logitech Z-5500s, as anyone who was considering buying the one would should be considering buying the other.

Images eyeballed to scale.
Logitech Z-5500 Control Unit

SphereX Display Unit

Clear advantages of the Z-5500:

  • Cheaper. Amazon price $240 versus $380.

  • Can be controlled without the remote, including big, beautiful volume knob.

  • Has 3 analog inputs versus 1 on the SphereX.

  • Uses standard bare speaker wire, easy to replace and substitute longer runs.

  • Uses English words instead of red and green dots to give information.

  • Conveniently located headphone jack.

  • The satellite speakers are lighter at 800 grams versus 1180 grams.

Clear advantages of the SphereX:

  • 2 optical inputs versus 1.

  • Finer grained volume control.

  • Potentially upgradable via either firmware upgrade or expansion card.

  • X-Box users can use the USB port instead of an optical port.

  • Power usage. See below.


  • 1 digital coax port

  • Decodes Dolby Digital, dts, PCM and Dolby Pro-Logic

  • 5.1 surround sound

I used a Kill-A-Watt energy meter to measure typical usage (for me), and found the SphereX used less energy at the loudness levels I prefer. 29 Watts versus 37 W while playing optical. 29 W versus 39W playing analog, and 21W versus 24W muted. The SphereX did use more energy when "off" at 12W versus 9W.

Subjective differences:
I think the THX certified Logitechs create more accurate sound, but I have no proof of this, and I could probably tweak the SphereX to do less processing. On the other hand, I feel the SphereX fills space better; if you like an immersive experience, you'd probably prefer the SphereX. Spherex claims their hi-tech speakers are tolerant of placement errors, and that does appear to be true. Regardless, I like how both systems sound.

If you can get the SphereX for $70 less than the Z-5500, as I did, the SphereX is a better value. If you pay full price for both, then the (cheaper) Z-5500 is a better value. If you visit the SphereX page on, you will see that 82% of visitors who end up buying speakers buy the Logitech versus 2% who buy the SphereX. This seems a bit excessive, but is indicative of the value equation. If they were the same price, it would be a contest between a person's need for immersion and the value placed on human interface. But they aren't the same price and the Logitechs win on value.

BTW, Dell sometimes sells the Z-5500 at a discount; as low as $205 with free shipping. Check DealMac for such specials.

I like both. If you can get the SphereX cheaper than the Z-5500s or if you absolutely must have an extra optical port, then buy the SphereX. (Or the Logitech Z-5450 which does have 2 optical inputs, but which I don't own.) Otherwise, Logitech's human friendly wired controller, cheaper price and good sound make it the clear value winner.

BTW, don't remove the integrated stand from a Logitech satellite if you want to get it back on again, because you won't be able to. The nut inside the shell will fall off and rattle around uselessly.

Here is a picture of one of each system's satellite speakers with the Logitech on the left (both with the covers off).
SphereX and Logitech Z-5500

Here is a picture of each system's remote with the Logitech on the left. Many of the SphereX buttons are useless unless you have an X-Box.
SphereX and Logitech Z-5500 remotes

[UPDATE: A year and a half of use later.
I recommend the Z-5500 over the SphereX. The lack of head unit controls on the SphereX is the deal breaker. Many has been the time I've scrambled around my little basement office looking for the remote control to drop the volume; whereas upstairs I can always just jump up and twist the big knob. Also, I just don't like the SphereX assuming stereo input is Dolby Pro-Logic encoded—when it never is—forcing me to look for the 2.1 button on the remote rather than hearing the oddly distorted, mildly nauseating sound of mis-interpreted stereo.

Also, I banished my noisy MythTV once again, this time to the laundry room. Now my SphereX speakers are driven by an ever so quiet Mac Mini.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Cool looking product

This is interesting, a container for a Mac Mini which mounts on the VESA mounting holes flat panel monitors and TVs. The mount effectively give any compatible monitor the form factor of an iMac. I wonder if you could extend the mount, and make a TV/Mac Mini/Wall sandwich. Wouldn't be able to use the DVD drive if you did, I bet. [Via MacIntouch ]

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Using EyeTV 2.1 to Orient a Roof Antenna

[Update: check out Signal GH, an iPhone utility for monitoring the signal quality of an HDHomerun].

[Update: also works with the 2.2 update]
If you own an EyeTV, you should know that the Preferences dialog, of all places, displays the signal strength and signal quality.

EyeTV signal strength Dialog

There's even a nice little check box to speak the signal quality with the Mac's text to speech service. It occurred to me that I could put a phone next to my computer, call my cell phone and listen to the signal quality change as I adjusted my antenna on the roof.

EyeTV Tuning Tools

Unfortunately, in my setup, signal quality is useless. When I tune into a marginal channel, the signal quality bounces between 0% and 100% with nothing in between. The signal strength, on the other hand, oscillates in a meaningful range. But there is no check box for speaking the signal strength. If only I could have the computer speak the value of the signal strength indicator. There must be a way.

First, I looked into Apple's Voice Over universal access software. Command-f5 starts the computer speaking the text for everything the mouse rolls over. Unfortunately, I wouldn't be there to roll the mouse back and forth.

Second, I looked at AppleScript. Perhaps, El Gato had made the signal strength property part of its AppleScript dictionary. No luck, but in looking in my AppleScript folder, I stumbled on the solution.

AppleScript Utility

I accidently launched the AppleScript Utility application, and was struck by the checkbox "Enable GUI Scripting" What was that? There were sample scripts under "UI ELement Scripts" in the global scripting menu, and they appeared to enable scriptors to access widgets buried in otherwise unscripted applications.

I launched EyeTV 2.1, and brought up the Preferences Dialog, and through trial and error, came up with this script:

[UPDATE: I've posted a slight modification of this script that works with EyeTV 2.2.1]

tell application "System Events"
if UI elements enabled then
tell process "EyeTV"
tell progress indicator 1 of UI element 1 of group 1 of tab group 1 of UI element 1 of UI element 1 of UI element 6 of window "EyeTV Preferences"
set mySignal to get value
set mySignal to mySignal * 100
set mySignalInt to mySignal as integer
end tell
end tell
display alert "Enable GUI scripting in the AppleScript Utility"
end if
end tell
say mySignalInt
delay 5
end repeat

Running this script in the AppleScript Editor will cause the signal strength to be spoken once every 5 seconds until you tell it to stop. I set EyeTV to display a marginal channel (in my case the Boston Fox affiliate) and started my script. Then I connected two cell phones together, leaving one next to my computer's speakers, and attaching a head set to the other. I listened to it as I made my way to the roof "58, 58, 56, 58, 54, 58, ..." always an even number for some reason. Then I adjusted my antenna until I was satisfied it wasn't going to get any better "62, 64, 64, 66, 62, 64, 64...". I had improved my antenna orientation just enough that EyeTV could now watch Fox consistently as it was over the magic 60 level. Success.

I would not be surprised if the script breaks with a different version of EyeTV. It depends on the window hierarchy being just so.

Monday, May 01, 2006

On redecorating a small apartment

My friend Mindy has started her own blog, concentrating on personalizing her first home: a condominium in Brooklyn. Small Space Big Idea If you want ideas on paint, opinions on movers, or just want to see the glamour of living in the big city, give her a click.