Friday, November 13, 2009

Kicking & Screaming

Despite my fairly high degree of technical aptitude, I’m not big on experimenting with the technology that I rely on around my home. For instance, I bought an 802.11G wireless router several years ago for some reason I cannot recall, and then never hooked it up – my old one was working fine and I didn’t want to risk breaking something in the process of swapping them out. I was, figuratively speaking, dragged kicking and screaming into even that minor upgrade because I discovered that one of the ports on the back of my old router was no longer working. When I got my new office computer recently, I finally needed that last port, so I went ahead and swapped them out. It wasn’t smooth, precisely, but it wasn’t too bad, either. It’s just an hour or two out of my life that I begrudge because – other than for the non-functional port – it didn’t add any new or useful functionality. The older 802.11a wireless standard was fine considering that the only wireless devices on my network are my TiVo and my Wii – neither of which needs to send large amounts of data over the network.

I’m also pretty happy with my home entertainment system. Back in 1998, I went whole-hog. I went to Clarke Music, where they had some A/V experts (which I emphatically am not) and a whole series of demo rooms displaying all sorts of different equipment and configurations. I picked up a Marantz amplifier, a set of Paradigm speakers (two tall front speakers will built-in powered subwoofers, a center-channel, and two rear-channels), and a Toshiba Cinema-Series 55” rear-projection television. This was my first entry into the “home theatre” concept. It wasn’t exactly what I wanted. Actually, my brother-in-law has exactly what I want. The guy’s a whiz at building stuff and he has the most kickass home cinema you’d ever want to see – it’s the kind you see in those fancy home theatre magazines that are usually in multi-million-dollar homes. Sadly, even if I had the money to outfit such a space, I simply don’t have an appropriate place anywhere in my house to put it (I’ve measured. It won’t fit.) Pretty much the only item on my bucket list at this point is to one day own (or build) a home with a proper home cinema in it (or the place to put one, anyway).

Anyway, that’s neither here nor there. My point is that over ten years ago, I outfitted myself with what I considered to be a pretty sweet home theatre setup. I added a reasonably good-quality VCR, and later a DVD-player, and eventually a TiVo (and then a second TiVo when the first one started to get flaky). More recently, I made a significant upgrade by adding an Escient Fireball digital media manager along with a 400-disc Sony DVD-changer. Those two units together give me a centralized menu of all of my DVDs, allowing me to select and play the one I want from that menu without having to get up and swap discs or fumble through a library of DVD cases. I’m delighted with my setup now and I’m definitely finding myself in the position of not wanting to mess with something that’s fundamentally and emphatically not broken.

As a result, I have had absolutely zero interest in technologies like Digital Cable. One of the things I like about my current setup is that the analog coaxial cable can plug directly into my various components – my TiVo, my amplifier, even my old VCR can all take direct control of the signal and “change the channel” at will. With digital cable, there’s always some sort of “converter box” that has to sit in the middle somewhere. Converter box? Hell, I haven’t had a converter box on any of my own TVs since the early 1980s. And I don’t really want one. I don’t care if the picture’s clearer or if I get a bazillion channels (though I would probably get some mileage out of the Discovery and National Geographic channels), I just don’t want to have to mess around with a converter box and the impact I suspect it will have on my setup. My TiVo has duel tuners – it can currently record two channels at once, and all I have to tell it is what I want to watch. It dials up the desired channel at the appropriate time and records the show(s) I want to watch. No amount of clarity or extra channels would be worth giving that up. Moreover, while TiVo is recording two shows, I can watch a third on my TV, and with Picture-in-Picture I could technically be onto a fourth show (though I’ve never actually done that). So my fear of a converter box, or my preference to avoid dealing with one if you prefer, has resulted in my avoiding this particular new technology. Let’s leave that aside then for a moment.

Next new technology – digital phone. I confess, I really, really like my plain old analog landline. I like the fact that when there’s a power outage or a paralyzing blizzard I can pick up my phone and get a dial-tone at any time of the day or night. Sure, the digital phones tend to come with battery backups that can last for up to eight hours. Sure, my wife and I have cell phones. But I’ve been in power outages that lasted a lot longer than eight hours, and my wife and I honestly aren’t that good about keeping our phones charged. We use them so rarely that it’s not uncommon to grab one and find that it’s nearly (or totally) out of juice. So, to this point, I’ve fervently avoided the lure of digital phones.

So tying those two thoughts together – it’s pretty common to get fairly lucrative offers from Time-Warner Cable or Verizon FIOS to save a bunch of money by bundling Internet plus Digital Cable plus Digital Phone together. We’d potentially save some real money with one of these packages, and gain some nice features at the same time. For instance, we pay through the nose for long distance right now, which makes us less likely to make those calls to my parents or to anybody else who’s not in the immediate vicinity.

So the Verizon FIOS guy was here last night, putting together a fairly sweet offer for us, if only I’m willing to make the moves on digital phone and digital TV. There’s even a 15-day period where I can have them yank everything back out and put it back the way it was if I’m not happy. BUT, the guy mentioned that new Cable TV installs are getting converter boxes because of the government switch over from analog to digital. I never thought about it, but apparently my current setup is basically an analog signal over coax that’s been grandfathered in. But if I have Verizon pull the plug on my Cable, then decide later that I want to go back because the converter box is messing with my setup in an unacceptable way, I could end up screwed anyway.

I’m being dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century and I’m not sure I like it one bit.

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