"Where am I supposed to put the center speaker" is a question increasingly asked by new owners of flat-panel sets like say, oh, Panasonic plasmas. Above the screen? Below the screen? No, to the sides, insists Panasonic, but the company proposes going beyond the usual "phantom center" surround-processing solution. The idea is to keep the center as a discrete channel but move the drivers into the left and right speakers. Each tower has a separate enclosure to hold the center-channel drivers, as you can see on the righthand side of this speaker, which I denuded before anyone could stop me. See more pictures and details from yesterday's Panasonic press event in the Gallery.
Netflix is eyeing the movie-download market, according to Variety. Eric Besner, VP for original programming, told a movie- and TV-production conference in LA that a new service would download movies overnight into a proprietary set-top box. Pricing may be the same as existing subscription fees for hard copies by post. Though scrapping with Blockbuster to shore up its existing business, Netflix sees the writing on the wall (and the profits in the rack). Various services are already bidding to replace videodisc rental. One of them, Movielink, is reportedly up for sale. The 800-pound gorillas are Verizon and AT&T, whose set-top boxes may ultimately become ubiquitous for movie downloads and dozens of other uses—but only if they cut the right deals with Hollywood. If Netflix wants a piece of the movie-download pie, it'll have to move fast. Besner said the service may begin before year-end.
Meet AVCHD, the latest disc format from Sony and Panasonic. No, they're not throwing another body into the moshpit that currently includes Blu-ray, HD DVD, and a few others. AVCHD will be a camcorder format that records 1080i or 720p images using existing DVD-R, DVD-RW, DVD+R, and DVD-RAM media. Panasonic will also use it to record onto SD memory cards. The AVC in AVCHD is the MPEG-4 AVC video compression standard, also known as H.264. This highly efficient codec is the presumed heir to MPEG-2. It's already being used by DirecTV to transmit high-def signals and will also be supported in Blu-ray and HD DVD. No word yet on availability of AVCHD products.
A product as wildly successful as the iPod inevitably produces a few bad Apples. Anecdotal evidence of consumer unhappiness like this British newspaper report are common. Then again, so is evidence of consumer happiness, as in my torture test of an iPod case—the nano inside it survived repeated abuse. The only reports that should be taken seriously are those involving enough people to be statistically meaningful. That's why this survey from MacInTouch is compelling, if not exactly conclusive. It covers more than 4000 users and nearly 9000 iPods in the field. Please note that the methodology is loose. Among other things, it doesn't factor in time, and you know everything fails eventually. The good news for nano owners is that flash-based players, not surprisingly, are more reliable. In fact I'm rather pleased to discover my 2GB nano is twice as reliable as the 4GB (now I can stop feeling inferior). The bad news is that hard-drive players are more failure-prone, though the newer video models do quite well. The good news about the bad news is that the hard drive may be not dead but merely disconnected. For safety reasons, our lawyers would probably have me add, have a qualified service person do the work.
Do you want your home fed with the highest bandwidth for HDTV, Internet service, and telephone? Then you want this. It's an optical network terminal, it goes with Verizon's fiber-optic FiOS service, and the company has begun installing them in 14 states (seven with video delivery service) as part of a nationwide rollout that will take many years. Not that I'm their publicist or anything—as a matter of fact, I'm a former Verizon customer—but no other company has set itself such an ambitious task. AT&T is Verizon's leading competitor, but that system is a hybrid of copper and fiber, while Verizon brings fiber right up to the wall of your house. Of all the digital pipes that might feed your home, a pure fiber-optic system is the most capacious. This particular wall belongs to a demo house at Verizon's R&D and network facility in Waltham Massachusetts. For more details and plenty of pictures see the Gallery.
Oh so carefully selected reporters swarmed the Samsung Experience store at New York's Time Warner Center to get a first hands-on experience with the BD-P100. The player took one minute to warm up by my pocket watch (vs. a reported three for Toshiba's HD DVD player). Picture quality on a Samsung 61-inch DLP projector was stunning, showing every hair and pore on Guy Pearce's stubbly face in Memento, and maintaining that degree of detail when accompanied by moderate subject or camera motion. Resolution softened when I turned off the projector's DNIe video processing though rapid motion also became smoother. On the whole I found it jolly convincing. Once you've seen 1080p at a high data rate, you'll never want to go back, at least on those releases that are true 1080p (as opposed to line-doubled fakes). Incidentally, there is no truth to the widely blogged (though not here!) rumor that the Samsung player will be delayed to late summer in the U.S.—the delay will be in the U.K.Delays have been confirmed for Sony and Pioneer players but Samsung expects to hit the scheduled June 25 release date.
Bose product demos always come with a dash of entertainment. At last week's New York press demo for the QuietComfort 3 headphones, hapless reporters entered the room to find a mannequin wearing a pair of large Bose headphones, only to see the earpieces whipped off to reveal the newer, smaller model. The QuietComfort 3 is the third generation of Bose noise-canceling headphones. They cover the ear without enclosing it. They're the first noise-canceling headphones to use a rechargable battery, a 20-hour lithium ion type, and the charger is a cute earcup-shaped object with flip-down prongs that plug into the wall without a cable. A $39 accessory cable allows users to switch between cell phone and music. Check bose.com to see if your phone is compatible. The demo in New York actually used a Nokia cell phone with MP3 files at 192kbps. The headphones were accurate enough to reveal smeary compression artifacts—no surprise to me, since I already use the original QuietComfort 1, as well as the non-NC TriPort, and thought highly enough of the former to have the earpads renovated when they wore out. If you want full-sized cans, the QuietComfort 2 remains in the line for $299, but the new QuietComfort 3 sells for $349 and is available from the Bose site as of today.
Why pay $1,300 for a DVD player when you can get one for $100? You might as well ask, why fly first class when you can fly coach? Membership in the club of videophiles has its privileges. There will always be people who can afford to pay extra for tangible benefits, like top picture and sound quality, and intangible ones, like pride of ownership.
Crime in New York gets more and more bizarre. The other day, someone broke into my apartment and redesigned my speakers. I'm not sure if our local burglars are capable of this. No, the KEF KHT 3005 is clearly the product of an extraterrestrial mind. Who else would reimagine a loudspeaker as a glossy-black egg? Indeed, who else would reimagine a subwoofer as a giant, staring eye?
Today MusicGremlin started selling the first player to download without a PC and The Wall Street Journal has got hold of it. (We all can't be Walter Mossberg and Katherine Boehret.) The Gremlin downloads via wi-fi for 99 cents per song. You can also use a PC but it must be a Windows PC. For music sharing, it can even beam music from player to player, as long as both parties subscribe to MusicGremlin Direct for $14.99/month. The WSJ does describe a few DRM limitations: "you can't share certain kinds of songs, including legally obtained MP3 files that you transfer to the Gremlin from your computer." Also, while the player downloads from T-Mobile hotpots, it can't do some forms of PC-enabled wi-fi-ing. The player has a two-inch LCD, 8GB capacity, and sells for $299 from musicgremlin.com.