Ack! This site is moving to tomhorsley.com since Comcast's efforts to improve their world's worst customer service ranking apparently include terminating web hosting for their existing customers.
Zino HD (Inspiron 410)
I got a Blu-Ray combo drive, 4 gig of memory, and a terabyte disk. It comes with 64 bit Windows 7 and an ATI video card with HDMI output.
The ATI card (or rather the driver) was the first big hitch.
I hook up the TV with the HDMI cable (supposedly the finest quality video connection in the universe), turn it on, and my immediate reaction is: “What the Hell?!”
There are half inch wide black borders all around the screen, and the 1920x1080 image is squashed into what is left, with the characters on the screen virtually unreadable since they don't map one to one on native format pixels. It is just totally dreadful looking.
This is apparently the initial impression Dell and ATI want me to have.
I say that because once I started searching the internet for answers (try ATI and Underscan in google), I found this is an old and well known issue, and ATI seems to consider it a “feature”. They are actually doing this deliberately to protect me from the dreaded overscan which no flat panel on earth actually has a problem with. AAUGH!
It is impossible for my limited vocabulary to adequately express the level of absolute moronic stupidity this feature exhibits. The ATI designers responsible for this should be ridiculed from every corner of the Earth. This may be the single most idiotic design decision I have ever seen, and persisting in propagating it year after year and update after update despite the universal opposition is even stupider.
Worse yet, even though there is a way to disable it, the navigation to the control for it is less discoverable than the silly pixel hunting clues in computer adventure games. To even start looking for a setting like this, I would have to believe it was done deliberately and therefore there might be a way to disable it, and that is so incomprehensible that I might not even try to find the control in the first place.
I did install a newer driver than the one that ships with the system, and it has a completely reorganized ATI control panel which makes it somewhat easier to find, but you'd still have to think of looking for it to find it.
Anyway, once you do find it, you can shove the slider all the way to the right and tell it to scale the screen at 100%.
In my case (and I'm probably not the only victim of this), that didn't actually fix the rotten rendering of characters, because early in the process of trying to figure out how to make the screen possible to read, I had stumbled across the accessibility setting that let me tell Windows to scale everything on the screen up a notch in size. That made big fuzzy characters easier to read than small fuzzy characters, but now that the screen is finally at 100% size, this extra magnification I had forgotten about was still making the characters look horrible. It took another couple of days to remember that and turn it off before things started looking half reasonable.
Another thing I had done earlier was go through the cleartype settings and try to get characters rendered well that way, but since nothing was actually set correctly on the screen, the cleartype settings that process came up with now looked worse rather than better. After finally running the cleartype setup one last time, I can almost look at the screen and not cringe.
The initial out of box experience leaves something to be desired, but after tweaking it for only about a week, I finally have the screen looking OK (pant, pant, wheeze...).
Somewhere in this process, I booted the system up with an Ubuntu live image on a USB stick just to test the hardware with completely different software. The default screen appearance when running Ubuntu is virtually flawless. The out of box experience is vastly superior (and I'm still fairly certain that the screen looks better on Ubuntu than it does on Windows 7 even after the week of tweaks).
The keyboard is kind of nice, but it doesn't really give me the impression it is likely to last very long (I'll see how it works out):
It is wireless, and is a nice size to use from a chair or in bed, but the tiny trackball takes some getting used to. It is very sensitive to just the right amount of pressure being used. Perhaps they knew that, so they made the video settings horrible by default so you'd get lots of practice on the trackball looking for the right video setting :-).
The remote seems to work out of the box with all the media programs on the system, no setup required:
Aside from working though, it isn't very nice. Even in a bright light, the letters and symbols are so tiny you can't really tell what any button is supposed to do, and in a dim or dark room, forget finding a button.
It is begging to be replaced with some learning remote that has a backlight which I can also use to control the TV.
I now have a Harmony 600 remote to replace this, by the way. Backlight that automagically comes on when you wiggle it, and LCD menu buttons for the things that don't map onto standard buttons very well. It works infinitely better than the above remote.
The built in wireless was a pleasant surprise. Clearly modern wireless technology has improved since I last tried to use 802.11b from one side of the house to the other. Now I have a Wireless-N router.
I had thought I might need to buy a pair of MoCA ethernet over coax adapters to get decent network speed, but the wireless has been plenty fast enough to download all the Windows updates I've needed to fetch (along with Windows 7 service pack 1, no less). I haven't felt the need for a faster network yet. (I'll see if I feel the same way when I try to download recorded videos from my tivo :-).
The wireless also worked fine when I booted Ubuntu, so it is wireless hardware linux understands as well.
...Unfortunately my old wireless problems returned after a while. It works really well sometimes, but other times it gets very flaky, so I went ahead and got a pair of Netgear MoCA adapters which work very well over the coax (and in a true design miracle they have a button to turn off all the LEDs so they aren't searing your eyeballs with flickering lights :-).
As I mentioned above, it comes with 64 bit Windows 7 installed, as well as a bunch of other stuff, most of which I played with a bit, then deleted.
One of the more useful programs is PowerDVD. It isn't the most recent version, but the important part is that it can play Blu-Ray movies. I tried it out with Pan's Labyrinth, and the playback was very impressive. All the complicated menus seemed to be rendered correctly, and the playback was smooth and looked good in full screen mode. I didn't detect any jumpiness or glitches of any kind, so the machine does have the power required to be a home theater system.
Being a software player, it doesn't pick any nits about NTSC or PAL, so I was also able to play a PAL DVD I had around and it seemed to work as well as NTSC DVDs work.
A more puzzling piece of software I ran into was Windows Live Mail. It is the standard Microsoft mailer (and other things), but no power on earth could enable me to configure it to talk to the postfix mail server I have running on my LAN. The logs show that for some reason it never sends any authentication, even though the needs authentication checkbox is checked for the outgoing server.
I installed both Thunderbird and the Windows port of claws-mail and was able to send mail from both of them to the same server using the same account information with no problems. I used claws-mail on linux all the time so I'll probably like using it better than Windows mail anyway.
I also haven't been able to get the screen saver to come on by itself. Maybe it thinks the trackball is moving a bit. I'll have to try unplugging the little USB keyboard transceiver and see if the screen saver finally comes on then.
[I did try unplugging the keyboard, and that was it. Something about leaving the keyboard on disables the screensaver. It is probably a good idea to turn it off when not using it anyway because after only a week of being on all the time, the batteries died :-].
After playing with the system for a while, it became apparent that the biggest problem is the 300 millisecond or so delay between video and audio when using the HDMI audio output (which I have to do because the TV won't accept audio from any other source when video is coming over HDMI).
I installed smplayer and mplayer from the mplayer downloads page, and it works well, since it has the ability to adjust the delay (something Windows Media Center does not provide). Unfortunately, it is not able to work correctly with most of the remote control functions, which puts a crimp in using it as a home theater PC.
My next adventure was installing Fedora 15 when it was released. I used gparted from the Ubuntu live image I happened to have to shrink the C: partition down a lot farther than the Windows disk management tool would let me shrink it, so I had a nice empty partition waiting for Fedora. I installed fedora to boot not from the MBR, but instead from the install partition, and used the Windows boot manager to dual boot since I didn't want to disturb any of the Dell magic voo-doo lurking in the MBR.
Well, I've been fooling with fedora for a while now, and the roadblock seems to be audio. I can't get audio out the HDMI connection unless I install the ATI binary catalyst drivers, and the ATI catalyst driver, how do I put this?, SUCKS! It has the same moronic overscan thing going on as the Windows driver, and even when I turn the slider all the way down to zero, everything still looks like absolute crap. All the text rendering winds up with fuzzy fringes around all the letters, like it is still scaling the image some small, nonzero percentage.
I captured this alsa-info while I had the binary catalyst driver installed.
I captured this alsa-info while the open source radeon driver was installed.
I'd love to figure out how to get both good sound and good video at the same time on fedora, but it has eluded me so far.
That experiment led me back to Windows and xbmc.
Finally, this seems to be the solution that works best on this PC. I can not only adjust the audio and video delay, but it also has excellent out of the box support for the media remote. Finally one solution does everything I need at the same time.
The only thing that didn't work out of the box was using the Green button to launch xbmc instead of Windows Media Center, but a bit of googling led me here, and now Bob is apparently my Uncle! Pretty much everything works exactly as I would desire. (And if it doesn't work that way at first, there is always a way to tweak a setting so it does do what I want.)
In fact, at this point, I sort of think every other media center software should just give up and die of embarrassment at how feeble it is in comparison to xbmc :-).
Only took a month or two, but now my media PC is indeed a media PC!