Friday, March 30, 2007

Or Maybe Not

It was widely reported yesterday that HP is pulling out of the Media Center PC market. Some people seem to be interpreting this announcement as proof that the Entertainment PC is a complete failure or the market for home theater PCs or entertainment PCs isn't large enough for companies like HP to commit valuable resources. I also received an email from The Diffusion Group, a market research firm, with a pretty pessimistic outlook for HTPCs. Here's a link to the PDF version, if anyone is interested. It's really more of an "I told you so" kind of message, but it also reminds me of similar comments from analysts saying the potential market for MP3 players was very limited before the iPod was introduced. Maybe it will take someone like Apple to finally figure out the right design and combination of features. However, HP has gone on to say that they are not abandoning the Media Center business because their latest PCs ship with Vista, which includes Media Center software. They explain that they just aren't going to sell their Digital Entertainment Center (DEC) PCs any more.

These Digital Entertainment Center PCs were designed with a "living room" form factor so they look more like a consumer electronics device than a computer (see image to the right). I'm sure they sold some of these, but obviously not nearly enough to satisfy HP. So, I wonder why they didn't sell more. Maybe because many HTPC enthusiasts thought they were too expensive and didn't provide enough performance. You could easily build a similar PC with better performance for probably half the price. Also, a lot of the HTPC enthusiasts enjoy building there own PCs and the cost savings from doing this, so a prebuilt HTPC is not very attractive, unless it has something you can't purchase on your own (like CableCard, which I won't cover in this post). So they certainly didn't sell well to the enthusiast, which are typically the early adopters. And where can you go with a product if you don't have many early adopters?

Instead they will focus on their new MediaSmart TVs. These function similar to an LCD TV with a built-in Media Center extenders. You just have to connect it to your home network and it will allow you to share or stream any music, photos or videos stored on your computer's hard drive. It actually sounds like a more flexible Apple TV (I haven't really looked into the Apple TV yet, so feel free to correct me if I'm wrong). Instead of using Microsoft's Media Center software, HP has developed their own applications for serving and manipulating content. Here's what Charlie White at Gizmodo had to say about it:

"The HP SLC3760N 37-inch MediaSmart LCD TV is a 1366x768 flat panel display with an HDMI input and a couple of speakers on the bottom. So far it's pretty conventional, but it gets into the world of convergence when you hook it up to your network and then it can stream video, photos, audio and the Web from any computer in the house. Nothing special here, folks. It's pretty pricey for $2700, considering that you can get a LCD TV that's this same size and resolution for $1500 less, and then hide a cheap networked PC behind it running Windows XP Media Center Edition. More capabilities, $1000 less. HP must be aiming this MediaSmart product at the MediaDumb. Nice try, HP."

Maybe HP believes the Apple TV will be a huge success like the iPod and they'd like to jump into this business at a much earlier stage.

I have to admit these types of announcements kind of bum me out. I certainly don't think that HP's decision to stop selling their Digital Entertainment Computer line is good news, especially when we are trying to develop an audio product that somewhat depends on the success of these types of PCs. Anyhow, there are still quite a few companies offering HTPCs, like Sony, Niveus, and Velocity Micro.

I also don't think the big all purpose HTPCs are the way to go. Some of these products include multiple TV tuners, including analog, and standard and high definition digital for over-the-air and QAM. For digital video recorder (DVR) functionality like a Tivo, they have massive amounts of storage space. They are also meant to provide storage for their music and movie libraries. Some have a big VFD display mounted on the front of the HTPC's chassis so you can operate the system without turning on the main display or view status information. It's hard to fit all this functionality and storage into a chassis that looks like other A/V components, let alone keep the interior cool without noisy fans. I would prefer a much simpler, smaller HTPC. Maybe something about the size of Apple's Mac Mini. This HTPC would still have excellent graphics and a fast processor with lots of RAM, but it wouldn't need all the TV tuners or storage space. Instead, you could have a server running something like Windows Home Server or unRaid with lots of hard drives. This could be stored in a closet or basement, so you wouldn't need a fancy expensive chassis. You can also get an HDHomeRun type device instead of all the internal TV tuners. Both the media server and HDHomeRun connect to your home network. You still get all the functionality of a big HTPC, but in a quieter box with a lot smaller foot print.

Friday, March 23, 2007

PCs Will Take Over the Living Room

There was an interesting article titled, "Is Console Gaming Over?" in the online version of BusinessWeek today. David Ferrigno, CEO of DISCover and the author of the article, makes the case that PCs will probably replace gaming consoles in the living room.

David mentions that when he worked in the console industry (for 14 years), the analysts predicted the combination of the PC and the Internet would wipe out console gaming. But the console gaming companies went on to create a multi-billion dollar industry. So, the analysts were wrong, the PC did not replace gaming consoles in the living room (except for HTPC enthusiasts like myself).

Now David believes this will change because the price difference between a gaming console and an entertainment/gaming capable PC has shrunk. The PC used to cost 10 times more than the gaming consoles and now since the price of PCs have steadily come down, the PC is only about twice as expensive. However, since the PC can also be used to play, organize and store massive amounts of games and other media including photos, movies and music, you get much more value.

Other factors like portability (with laptops) and performance are better with PCs. And now, new ease-of use features coming to PCs will make them much more appealing for use in the living room. David is also very optimistic about the potential benefits of Microsoft's Vista and the support for advanced technology like DirectX 10 and multi-core processors. Digital distribution (I assume he's referring to the ability to just download a gaming title from an Internet store) will also contribute to the availability and convenience of obtaining a wide variety of games for your PC.

David concludes by basically saying that 'the combination of cost, portability, performance and ease-of use will make the PC fun and easy to use for all forms of media and living room entertainment.'

I hope he's right because it looks like their target market is very similar to ours, except they're going after the gamers and we're targeting the audio enthusiasts.

Coldamp Plans to Offer 750W Class-D Amp Module

I also came across an announcement from another potential supplier of amplifier modules.

Coldamp, another Class-D amplifier module manufacturer, recently announced they are developing a bigger amp module. Here's what owner Sergio posted in the diyAudio forums:

Now that you ask... the module you are referring to is to be launched at the end of March, we are making the production boards after having tested the prototypes throughly.

We are really very proud of it: it can produce >750W at 4ohm with no problem (more with lower loads) and it does it happily, with more than 30A peak current capability (electronically limited). Some features...
  • Needs only a symmetrical supply. No need for input voltages, driver voltages, etc. It has a small switching DC/DC converter inside so power dissipation is extremely low (around 8W at +/-85V rails with no signal). So it is even more efficient than BP4078 but with more power.
  • It has a header for what we call "input plug-in boards": small PCBs (10x20mm) that implement high pass filter, low pass filters, etc. and that very very cheap and easy to install. Making a triamp application is extremely simple by simply installing the suitable plug-in board in each amplifier.
  • Small sized (80x95mm) rugged flat-base chassis, allowing top mounting on heatsinks (similar to VICOR half-brick dc/dc converters) and also the usual inserts for bottom mounting on a chassis, like in the BP4078.
...All this with the extremely good sound and abundant features of the successful BP4078: clipping indicator, on/off control, sync capability, lossless overcurrent, undervoltage and overvoltage protections, etc.

We have also designed a special version of our most powerful switching power supply, SPS80HV, to feed one of this modules at full power, with +/-85V rails.

Best regards,
Sergio

It would really be great if there were standard physical sizes for these amp modules. Similar to what we have for hard drives, like half-height, full-height, etc. There would be a standard size for 100W modules, 200W, 400W, up to 800W. Then they could fit into a standardized cartridge or some kind of enclosure. So if someone were to buy one of our systems, the chassis could work with several configurations. If a newer, better amp module is developed (like the ones from Coldamp or Hypex) the customer can upgrade their system by swapping out the older amp modules. So far, none of these manufacturers have shown any interest in this sort of thing, but we'll keep pursuing this.

Hypex has a 700W module as well, but I doubt we will ever use these in our multichannel products unless there is a lot of demand.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

More Information on the new UcD Amplifiers

Jan-Peter responded to more diyAudio inquiries with the following information:

We have taken our time to review a lot of different brands of capacitors, the caps we have chosen perform extremely nice. To be honest we are very happy to find such a good performing capacitor.

The complete list of changes are:
  • Audiophile version of the UcD Modulator (small PCB).
  • using Mini Melf resistors and NP0 capacitors on critical places in the Modulator and around the buffer op amp.
  • Audiophile decoupling capacitor, 220uF/100V. (with own printing)
  • PSRR improved of the local power supply regulator for buffer stage.
  • Audiophile AC coupling capacitor in input stage.
  • THD further reduced.
  • improved temperature stability.
  • all potentiometers are Sealed Bourns 3362 P.
  • optional a soon-to-be-released extra 12V full discrete regulator with extremely good specs.
  • and we will use the LM4562...we love this op amp...
UcD180HG extra updated:
  • better power FET, lower gate charge for faster switching/lower THD.
  • the same type of output coil as the UcD400ST/AD/HG
In about 3~4 weeks we will have them available.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Exciting News from Hypex


We are using Hypex amp modules in our current prototype. So far, they are the best Class-D modules we've found and are the leading candidates for our commercial products. According to a recent post in the diyAudio Class D forum by Jan-Peter van Amerongen, Hypex's Founder and General Manager, their next generation 180W and 400W amplifier modules will receive the following upgrades:
  • Audiophile version of the UcD Modulator (small PCB).
  • Audiophile decoupling capacitor, 220uF/100V. (with own printing)
  • PSRR improved of the local power supply regulator for buffer stage.
  • Audiophile AC coupling capacitor in input stage.
  • THD further reduced.
  • improved temperature stability.
  • optional a soon-to-be-released extra 12V full discrete regulater with extreem good specs.
  • and we will use the LM4562...we love this op amp...
"It will be our state of the art product.... "

We've been very happy with the performance of the first generation, especially after a few tweeks. I can't wait to hear these. Now, I wonder when they'll finish their SMPS...

Thursday, March 08, 2007

But How Does It Sound?

Oh, it's detailed with excellent soundstage, tight bass, yet musical with a lot of presence. There's a real purity to the sound and it has the ability to produce instrument on top of instrument without standing in each other's way. There's a real honesty to the sound, it's warmer with a deep bass, yet transparent, exciting and musical, clearer and tighter. The latest tweaks have improved the sound stage, clarity and imaging, blah, blah, blah...

What the...?

I come across these sort of comments in reviews all the time, but I'm not sure what they mean. It's hard for me (and I'm sure a lot of people) to describe how they perceive something like a sound system. Is it any easier to describe how we see things, like a beautiful painting or photo image. Or even the difference between video displays. How about when you are describing how something tastes. The steak was tender and succulent. That's how it felt, but how does it taste? I guess the enjoyment of eating a steak includes a lot of other sensory experiences like touch or feel. I think the most entertaining reviews are for wine.