Digital Converter Box Shootout

August 18th, 2009
The best of the best - The Tivax STB-T8 Digital Converter Box

The best of the best - The Tivax STB-T8 Digital Converter Box

Finding the right digital converter box for your analog television can be a little confusing.  Analog pass-through, auto-scan, auto-aspect ratio — there are a lot of features and a lot of different boxes.  Hundreds of different boxes from dozens of manufacturers.

And all you want to do is to get a signal on your old TV.  Well, if you want to dive right in there check out all of our digital converter box reviews.

But since we’ve already done the hard work for you, we’ve narrowed it down to the best overall box that won’t bust your budget.

Our pick is the Tivax STB-T8 Digital Converter Box .  At just $49.99 from Amazon, you’re looking at spending a mere $10 after your FCC Digital Converter Box coupon.  The Tivax STB-T8 features solid audio, some of the best picture quality we’ve ever seen, and auto-scan, manual tuning, a signal strength meter, and analog pass-through, which are all the features you need.

The Myth of Monster Cables

August 14th, 2009
HDMI Cables provide the best-quality HDTV connection

HDMI Cables provide the best-quality HDTV connection

Monster Cable has made a small fortune selling people “premium” audio-visual cables for their home theater for years.  Featuring such buzzwords as “gas-injected dielectric,” and “high-density triple-shielding for maximum rejection of RFI and EMI,” Monster Cable charges through the nose for their “high-end” versions of equipment connectors.

Most of the time in life, you get what you pay for.  After all, a $2,000 mountain bike is significantly better than one you can find at Costco or Wal*mart for $300.  And a Mercedes is a lot more costly and high-quality than a Yugo.

Does the same hold true for cables?  Is it worth paying $84.99 for a one-meter Monster Cable HDMI cable?  Or can you get nearly the same quality with a regular cable, such as the Mediabridge 6ft Ultra High Speed HDMI Cable which goes for $9.99 on Amazon?

The answer is that you should buy the reasonably priced cables.  Popular Mechanics backs this up with their article Top 10 HDTV Myths: Fact vs. Fiction, Hi-Def Style:

Myth #7

To get the best-quality HD, you need expensive cables.

Fact: Not true. If the cables running from your DVD player or cable box aren’t particularly long, you should be fine with inexpensive video cables. The extra shielding in expensive cables that prevents interference in analog equipment won’t improve the image of digital video through HDMI or DVI cables — the signal either comes through or it doesn’t. And the savings can be huge: 6-ft. HDMI cables range from $20 to $160.

There you have it.  You can easily save hundreds of dollars on your home-theater cabling by going with a more budget-conscious model like the Mediabridge.  Pick up an HDMI cable for your HDTV today.

Video Game Console Shootout

August 11th, 2009

What next-generation video game console should you buy? It’s a tough question, with three different systems focused on different aspects of video gaming.

The Nintendo Wii is for casual gamers. With its motion-sensing Wiimotes, lack of DVD playback, lack of major storage, and lower-resolution graphics, it’s geared more towards short bursts of multiplayer gaming, whether that’s WII SPORTS, party games like the MARIO PARTY FRANCHISE, a bit of fun like WII MUSIC, or something odd that takes advantage of the controller, like virtual cooking or fishing. There are some Nintendo updates — MARIO KART, new ZELDA, SUPER MARIO, and METROID games all feature on the Nintendo Wii, but the Nintendo Wiii isn’t a multimedia powerhouse or something to satisfy hardcore gamers. The Nintendo Wii is a system for parties and that can be enjoyed by everyone from small children to senior citizens. It’s also pretty cheap at $249.99.

The Xbox 360 is a gamer’s machine.  With DVD playback, online connectivity, downloadable content (movies, games, TV shows), and hundreds upon hundreds of next-gen games, the Xbox 360 is a machine that can power a home entertainment center.  It offers perhaps the most games out of any next-gen console, ranging from casual games sold for a few dollars over Xbox Live to favorites like GUITAR HERO and the latest version of GRAND THEFT AUTO.  Whether you play first-person shooters, RPGs, puzzle games, or platformers, there are many, many games on the Xbox 360.  With the price recently reduced to $299.99 for the Xbox 360 Pro, it’s a great value for a machine that can sit at the center of your digital life

The PlayStation 3 is Sony’s next-gen console.  The most expensive option at $399.99, it also offers the most features, including free online play and access to content, slightly better graphics, and a Blu-Ray player.  You can also power a home entertainment center off the PlayStation 3.  Because it’s so expensive and because Sony was a bit late to the game, Sony no longer enjoys the privileged position it once held in the video game world.  Many console exclusives deserted, selling games also on the Xbox 360 (for its bigger fanbase).  There are still some games that you can only play on the PlayStation 3, but not as many as there once were.

Recommendation: If you’re looking to buy one system and you’re a fan of video games, you can’t go wrong with the Xbox 360.  It’s a bargain at $249.99, has the most games, and with the ability to hook up to Netflix Instant Watch, offers you a cheap way to expand your entertainment options at a very low cost.

If you’re looking to get two systems, or you aren’t interested in anything beyond having fun with some friends or family, buy the Nintendo Wii.  We’ve seen everyone from toddlers to grandparents enjoying themselves playing its games, and that’s what it’s about.

If you’re thinking about buying a Blu-Ray player anyway and would like to add on a game system, get yourself a PlayStation 3.  Otherwise, go for the Xbox 360 or Nintendo Wii.

PlayStation 3 80GB Review

August 11th, 2009
The last of the next-gen consoles we reviewed, the PlayStation 3

The last of the next-gen consoles we reviewed, the PlayStation 3

The other hard-hitting next-gen console is the PlayStation 3.  Like the Xbox 360, the PS3 has come down in price a bit from its debut.  It’s now possible to pick one up (sans games or a second controller) for just $399.99.  The PlayStation 3 offers possibly better graphics than the Xbox 360 (check out our Xbox 360 Pro review); it’s hard to compare systems because their hardware specs are so radically different.  It features a built-in Blu-Ray player, so if you’re thinking of upgrading your movie/DVD collection to the next generation, you can basically add on a game player for only a couple hundred bucks more.  

An additional nice thing about the PlayStation 3 is the fact that there are still some franchises, like DRAKE’S FORTUNE, RATCHET & CLANK, METAL GEAR, and FINAL FANTASY, that are PS3 exclusives.  While a lot of titles like GRAND THEFT AUTO have made the jump to Xbox 360, if you’re a hardcore gamer or Sony fan, there are many franchises that can only be played on a PS3.

The final exclusive feature of the PlayStation 3 is that unlike Xbox Live, PlayStation’s online service — the PlayStation Network — is completely free.  This saves you $49.99 a year and allows you the same networking, friend-chatting, online matchmaking, and content (like movies and TV shows) that Xbox Live does, but without the yearly membership.

The PS3 delivers full-HD gaming, output through an HDMI cable.  This means games with stunning graphics and sound, sometimes indistinguishable from real life.  At this point, there are also quite a number of games in many genres, from first-person shooters to puzzle games to casual games downloadable through the PSN.

What do you get?  The PS3, one DualShock controller, a free membership to the PlayStation Network, Internet-ready Wi-Fi, an  (another advantage over the Xbox 360), 80-gig hard drive, built-in Blu-Ray player, and the ability to play Blu-Ray, DVD, and CDs.

Overall Rating: 7/10 – even though the price has been reduced to compete with the Xbox 360, the PlayStation 3 is still by far the most expensive console around.  While the graphics are marginally better than the 360 and you get free online play and a Blu-Ray player, by the time you add in another controller and same games, you’re dropping $600.  You can buy a pretty decent computer (either laptop or desktop) for that price.  Or a new HDTV.

Recommendation: If you’re a hardcore gamer who needs three systems, if you’re a die-hard Sony man, or if you’re planning on getting a Blu-Ray player anyway and like to play video games, you should probably get a Sony PlayStation 3.  If not, buy a cheaper system with more games.

Nintendo Wii Review – Casual Gaming Grows Up

August 7th, 2009
The Nintendo Wii

The Nintendo Wii

Remember when you were a kid and you played your first home video game?  It didn’t matter if it was PONG (if you’re really old), WAR on the Atari 2600, or SUPER MARIO BROS. on the NES.  The graphics stunk, the only sound was bleeping, but you didn’t care.  The games were fun.

That’s what the Nintendo Wii is all about.  Nintendo knew it was pointless to keep upping the hardware, trying to compete with Xbox and Playstation in the console wars.  Let those guys worry about rendering engines and mflops.  What matters is if games are fun or not.

You don’t get a Nintendo Wii for the graphics.  Although some of the games are quite pretty, in an almost retro kind of way.  And you can’t do fancy things with your box like watching DVDs or Blu-Rays or storing tons of pictures or hi-def videos.  What you can do is pop in a game and use the motion-sensing controls to have a good time.  That’s what the Wii focuses on — making enjoyable games that are usually meant to be played for short periods of time with groups of people.  And everyone from little kids to senior citizens seems to enjoy swinging the Wiimote (controller) like a tennis racket in WII SPORTS or twisting it this way and that to play minigames in things like WARIOWARE or RAVING RABBIDS.  There are some more “serious” games, but they’re usually versions of Nintendo favorites, like the latest iterations of Zelda and Mario.

And that’s about all you need to know about the Wii.  If you’re looking for deep, immersive games that test your patience (like the FINAL FANTASY games or OBLIVION), you’re barking up the wrong console.  But if you want to spend an hour with GUITAR HERO or try virtual cooking or fishing, the Wii is the console for you.

The other nice thing about the Nintendo Wii is that it has some degree of connectivity through Nintendo’s online service. While not as varied or easy to use as Xbox Live (multiplayer gaming with an online friend is a bit of a pain when it’s even offered, involving exchanging long codes), it does feature several “Channels,” including the ability to share your Mii (a virtual avatar) and to buy classic Nintendo console and arcade games at a decent price (and other old console games as well, like the Sega Genesis and TurboGrafx). This allows you to build up a library of old favorites fairly inexpensively.

What you get: the Nintendo Wii, a Wiimote, a Wiimote nunchuk (a controller add-on), WII SPORTS (a fun, basic game that introduces motion-sensing controls through a variety of mini-games), a sensor bar, cable, and stand.

What you’ll probably need to buy: At least one other Wiimote and one other nunchuk, more games.

Overall Rating: 8/10

Recommendation: Buy it — if you’re into casual games, want something the whole family can play, or are looking to pick up a second (or third) console.  If this is your only console and you’re a hardcore Xbox/Playstation/PC Gamer, you’ll be disappointed.

Xbox 360 Pro Review – Gaming Power and More

August 7th, 2009
The Xbox 360 Pro

The Xbox 360 Pro

Everyone’s looking to get into next-gen gaming.  But there are so many choices — a Nintendo Wii, an Xbox 360, or a Playstation 3.  Playstation has a few interesting games and a Blu-Ray player.  And the Wii is a great console for party and casual games.  But if you’re a fan of next-gen gaming (i.e great graphics and sound and games), you’ll want an Xbox 360.

The 360 has come down in price quite a bit from its debut.  And the Xbox 360 Pro 60G console is a great value at $299.  You’ll get the 360 itself (basically a super-powerful computer), a 60 gig hard drive for storing your downloaded content like games, enhanced gaming updates (like episodic games or add-ons) and videos, a silver faceplate, one wireless controller, one wireless headset, and an Xbox Live Silver membership.

We could review all the technical specs of the console, but what’s under the hood is now so completely different between different consoles that it doesn’t really matter.  What does matter is that the 360 is capable of pumping out amazing HD graphics at a blistering framerate and room-shaking sound.  So whether your fingers are flying over the frets on the latest version of GUITAR HERO or you’re chainsawing a buddy in GEARS OF WAR 2, you’ll be blown away by the visuals and noise coming out of your 360.

Where the Xbox 360 really shines, though, is in its Xbox Live service.  For $49.99, you’ll want to upgrade to a Gold membership, which allows you a year of playing games online against your friends, as well as access to features like Netflix Instant Watch, where you can stream films instantly on your bigscreen.  Whether playing games, watching a DVD, downloading videos (many in HD), or enjoying Netflix Instant Watch, you’ll soon find that your Xbox 360 has become the hub of your digital life  Not bad for something that costs under $300.

Overall Rating: 10/10

Recommendation: Buy it

Please note, the Amazon Associates link goes to the Xbox 360 Arcade for some reason.  You could buy this box for $199, but the Pro 60G is a much better value.

Canon PowerShot SD1000 7.1MP Digital Elph Camera Review

August 7th, 2009

The Canon PowerShot SD100 7.1MP Digital Elph

The Canon PowerShot SD100 7.1MP Digital Elph

Everyone needs a good point-and-shoot digital camera.  And Canon makes some of the best.  Our favorite is the Canon PowerShot SD1000 7.1 megapixel Digital Elph.  Like most Canon Powershot cameras, it comes in a sleek, silver aluminum body with a retractable automatic lens.  7.1 megapixels delivers amazing resolution and picture clarity (and you’ll be able to print out your photos at larger than 5×7″ and still have them look great — in fact, you can print out photo-quality 15×20″ prints if you so desire).

Controls are easy to use, with a slider switch allowing you to select between Camera, Video, and Review functions.  The Canon PowerShot SD1000 comes with a 3x optical zoom, 4x digital zoom, optical viewfinder as well as the 2.5″ LCD screen, face detection, built-in redeye reduction (in playback mode), DIGIC III image processor (for sharp in-camera image auto-manipulation, including color tuning), 17 shooting modes, and variable ISO settings.  You also get a battery, battery charger, a wrist strap, software CD for both IBM and Mac, and USB and component cables, for hooking the camera up to your computer or TV.

The Canon PowerShot SD1000 has a focusing range of:
Normal: 1.0 feet/30 centimeters to infinity; macro: 1.2 inches to 1.6 feet/3 to 50 centimeters (wide), 1.0 to 1.6 feet/30 to 50 centimeters (telephoto); digital macro: 1.2 to 3.9 inches/3 to 10 centimeters (wide).

A lens focal length of 5.8-17.4mm, f2.8-4.9 (35mm film equivalent: 35-105mm).  And a shutter speed of 15 seconds to 1/1500 second.

These are pretty much all the features you could want in a point-and-shoot camera.  We’ve been using this camera for almost 3 years now and absolutely love it.

Overall Rating: 9/10

Recommendation: Buy it

Flip Mino HD Camcorder Review – World’s Smallest HD Camcorder – Big Performance, Tiny Package

July 13th, 2009
The Flip Mino HD Camcorder is a lot of camcorder for not a lot of money.

The Flip Mino HD Camcorder is a lot of camcorder for not a lot of money.

The Flip Mino HD Camcorder is pretty amazing. A full 720p HD camcorder in a small form – just 3.94” x 1.97” x 0.63” and 3.3 ounces total weight! The Flip delivers stunning HD video and high quality audio in a tiny camcorder that you can easily slip into a pocket.

Flip’s known for making no-nonsense, easy to use gear, and the Flip Mino HD Camcorder is no exception. Shooting is easy, just press the red button and line up what you want to shoot in the viewfinder. Want to play it back? Just press “Play” and watch the action on the built-in 1.5” LCD screen.

Transferring video to a computer’s a snap as well. You just flip out the Flip’s built-in USB connection and pop it into your computer. The included FlipWare software makes downloading clips, editing videos, and even uploading to Youtube incredibly easy. You can also create snapshots from your video clips.

It’s time someone made a camera for the digital age, one that doesn’t require tapes, DVDs, or annoying hard-drive access. And that camcorder is here – the Flip Mino HD Camcorder. Amazon’s having a great deal on the black version right now – just $194 (although you’ll have to add the camera to your cart to see the price).

The Flip Mino HD Camcorder comes with 4GB of memory, enough for 60 minutes of HD video footage. You also get a wrist strap, a soft carrying case, and a TV connector cable, in case you feel like watching your videos directly on your TV.

We can’t recommend the Flip Mino HD Camcorder highly enough for everyday video making. Its small size, cheap price, and ease of use make it perfect for capturing key life moments or shooting Youtube videos, and its cheap price mean you can give it as a gift to elderly parents who might be confused by a more complicated traditional camcorder (or even grads or teens). Some enterprising young filmmaker will probably release a feature film shot entirely on the Flip Mino HD Camcorder – the quality is good enough.

The only reason the Flip Mino HD Camcorder wouldn’t be right for you is if you were using it as an event videographer or for a professional-level video camera. The lack of picture adjustability and the fact that you have to dump footage off to a computer after 60 minutes are drawbacks in those instances. But you have to remember that you’re talking about an HD video camera that fits in a pocket and costs about as much as a digital still camera.

Recommendation: By all means, buy a Flip Mino HD Camcorder.

Overall Rating: 9/10

Logitech Harmony Xbox 360 Remote Review

July 10th, 2009
The Logitech Harmony Xbox 360 Remote is a great buy for a universal remote.

The Logitech Harmony Xbox 360 Remote is a great buy for a universal remote.

If you’ve made the transition to the digital age or are just thinking about it, odds are you’ve got a lot of home theater gear — TV, DVD player, game consoles, digital cable or satellite, home theater stereo. And with that gear comes a lot of remotes. Nobody likes to scramble to find four remote controls to change from TV to a video game or DVD. That’s where a good universal remote control comes in, letting you use one control for all of your digital devices.

Harmony makes the best universal remote controls around. And the Logitech Harmony Xbox 360 Remote is no exception. Coming in a spiffy white that matches the sleek décor of the 360 console, the Logitech Harmony Xbox 360 Remote allows you to program the remote via a USB hookup to your computer. A setup wizard lets you select which devices and brands you have, making configuring your multiple devices a snap. The old days of entering codes and pointing your remotes at the universal remote while pressing buttons are over.

The heart of the Logitech Harmony Xbox 360 Remote is a contextual function LCD screen with six buttons, allowing you to choose functions by what you want to do (you can also label them how you’d like). Instead of remembering that to play a game in your Xbox 360 you need to turn on your TV, switch the input to Component Two, turn on your home theater receiver and switch the input to DVD, and then turn on the 360, the remote does it all for you when you press “Play Xbox 360.” And should something go wrong, like one of the devices doesn’t turn on or switch to the right input, there’s a handy “Help” button, offering contextual help on the LCD screen and checking to see if each of the steps it takes actually resolves the problem.

The Logitech Harmony Xbox 360 Remote works with literally thousands of devices from hundreds of manufacturers. And because you set it up with your computer, Harmony is constantly updating the devices it works with.

One small note – if you have a Nintendo Wii, the remote can’t turn the Wii on or off (because the Wiimotes work on Bluetooth instead of infrared). However, it can still set up your TV and home theater stereo receiver so that all you have to do is pickup a Wiimote and hit a button to start playing your favorite games.

We highly recommend the Logitech Harmony Xbox 360 Remote. You could buy a more expensive Logitech model costing hundreds of dollars, but this one does it all.  And for only $79.99.  So we’re giving it a 10/10.

Samsung LN32B650 32-Inch 1080p 120Hz LCD HDTV with Red Touch of Color Review

July 8th, 2009
We love the Samsung LN32B650 LCD HDTV

We love the Samsung LN32B650 LCD HDTV

Picture Quality: Picture quality on the Samsung LN32B650 HDTV is pretty darn solid. Both black level and color performance rival that of much more expensive TVs. The 32-inch screen delivers a nice sized picture for most apartments and small- to medium-sized living rooms. The only quibbles we have is with the image uniformity – sometimes the screen is slightly darker or brighter in spots than elsewhere. However, this a flaw common amongst practically all HDTVs (unless you’re spending thousands of dollars).

An additional nice feature is that the screen isn’t super-glossy, so you don’t lose the picture in reflections from bright lights (like sunlight).

Audio Quality: Audio quality is what you’d expect from an HDTV. The LN32B650 32-inch 1080p 120Hz LCD HDTV puts out acceptable sound from its included 10-watt, bottom-mounted speakers. Although if you’re upgrading to a TV like this, odds are, you’re going to want to output the sound through your surround sound home theater system for true movie-theater quality try this. And hooked up that way, the sound quality is amazing.

Product Features: The Samsung LN32B650 HDTV features full HD 1080p resolution (the highest level resolution you can get), red “Touch of Color” design (basically a red accent around the frame, which is a nice visual touch and complements any home décor), Auto Motion Plus (for fluid motion), 100,000:1 dynamic contrast ratio, a super-fast 4ms response time, and Wide Color Enhancer 3 for more vivid colors. It also includes InfoLink, which lets you add RSS feeds for weather, sports and news using an Ethernet connection and your Internet connection; and a USB port to display JPEG and MPEG files and listen to MP3s. Plus a removable stand. And plenty of inputs – 4 HDMI, 2 component, 2 composite, 1 PC, 2 USB, the aforementioned Ethernet hookup, and an optical digital audio output, allowing you to connect to a home theater, computer, and pretty much anything else you want, including multiple next generation game consoles. And the features roll on, including a built-in digital tuner for receiving over-the-air/broadcast HD stations, Picture-In-Picture (for viewing multiple programs at once),SRS TruSurround HD, which simulates a full surround sound multi-speaker setp with just the two TV speakers, a variable sleep timer, trilingual on-screen displays. And a nicely functional remote.

Recommendation: This is a great TV at a great price (currently a bargain at $899.99 – you’ll have to add the item to your Amazon shopping cart to see the price). It’s decent size, has great performance, and plenty of inputs and outputs. And 32 inches is plenty of screen for most homes. If you don’t need a bigger TV, we highly recommend it.