Archive for the ‘Consumer tips’ Category

Because Everyone Needs a Router

Posted: September 26, 2010 in Consumer tips
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programming and human factors
by Jeff Atwood
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Sep 25, 2010

Because Everyone Needs a Router

Do you remember when a router used to be an exotic bit of network kit?

Those days are long gone. A router is one of those salt-of-the-earth items now; anyone who pays for an internet connection needs a router, for:

  1. NAT and basic hardware firewall protection from internet evildoers
  2. A wired network hub to connect local desktop PCs
  3. A wireless hub to connect laptops, phones, consoles, etcetera

Let me put it this way: my mom — and my wife’s mom — both own routers. If that isn’t the definition of mainstream, I don’t know what is.

Since my livelihood revolves around being on the internet, and because I’m a bit of a tweaker, I have a fancy-ish router. But it is of late 2007 vintage:


Although the DGL-4500 is a nice router, and it has served me well with no real complaints, the last major firmware update for it was a year and a half ago. There have been some desultory minor updates since then, but clearly the vendor has, shall we say, moved on to focusing on newer models.

The router is (literally!) the central component in my overall internet experience, and I was growing increasingly uncomfortable with the status quo. Frankly, the prospect of three year old hardware with year old firmware gives me the heebie-jeebies.

So, I asked the pros at Super User, even going so far as to set up a Recommend Me a Router chat room. (We disallow product recommendation questions as they become uselessly out of date so quickly, but this is a perfect topic for a chat room.) I got some fantastic advice from my fellow Super Users via chat, though much of it was of the far too sane “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” variety. Well, that’s just not how I work. To be fair, the router market is not exactly a hotbed of excitement at the moment; it is both saturated and heavily commoditized, particularly now that the dust has settled from the whole 802.11 A/B/G/N debacle. There just isn’t much going on.

But in the process of doing my router research, I discovered something important, and maybe even revolutionary in its own quiet little way. The best router models all run open source firmware!

That’s right, the truly great routers are available in “awesome” edition. (There may be other open source router firmwares out there, but these are the two I saw most frequently.) I learned that these open source firmwares can turn a boring Clark Kent router into Superman. And they are always kept updated by the community, in perpetuity.

In my weaker moments, I toyed with the idea of building a silent mini x86 PC that could run a routing optimized distribution of Linux, but the reality is that current commodity routers have more than enough memory and embedded CPU power — not to mention the necessary wireless and gigabit ethernet hub bits already built in. Dedicating a whole x86 PC to routing is power inefficient, overly complex, and awkward.

Yes, today’s router marketplace is commoditized and standardized and boring — but there are still a few clear hardware standouts. I turned to the experts atSmallNetBuilder for their in-depth technical reviews, and found two consensus recommendations:

Buffalo Nfiniti Wireless-N High Power Router ($80)


NETGEAR WNDR3700 RangeMax Dual Band Wireless-N ($150)


Both of these models got glowing reviews from the networking experts at SmallNetBuilder, and both are 100% compatible with the all-important open source dd-wrt firmware. You can’t go wrong with either, but I chose the less expensive Buffalo Nfiniti router. Why?

  1. It’s almost half the price, man!
  2. The “high power” part is verifiably and benchmarkably true, and I have some wireless range problems at my home.
  3. I do most of my heavy network lifting through wired gigabit ethernet, so I can’t think of any reason I’d need the higher theoretical wireless throughput of the Netgear model.
  4. Although the Netgear has a 680 Mhz embedded CPU and 128mb RAM, the Buffalo’s 400 MHz embedded CPU and 64mb of RAM is not exactly chopped liver, either; it’s plenty for dd-wrt to work with. I’d almost go so far as to say the Netgear is a bit overkill… if you’re into that sort of thing.

I received my Buffalo Nfiniti and immediately installed dd-wrt on it, which was very simple and accomplished through the existing web UI on the router. (Buffalo has a history of shipping rebranded dd-wrt distributions in their routers, so the out-of-box firmware is a kissing cousin.)

After rebooting, I was in love. The (more) modern gigabit hardware, CPU, and chipset was noticably snappier everywhere, even just dinking around in the admin web pages. And dd-wrt scratches every geek itch I have — putting that newer hardware to great use. Just check out the detailed stats I can get, including that pesky wireless signal strength problem. The top number is the Xbox 360 outside, the bottom number is my iPhone from about 10 feet away.

 

Worried your router is running low on embedded CPU grunt, or that 64 megabytes of memory is insufficient? Never fear; dd-wrt has you covered. Just check out the detailed, real time memory and cpu load stats.

 

Trying to figure out how much WAN/LAN/Wireless bandwidth you’re using? How does a real time SVG graph, right from the router admin pages, grab you?

 

It’s just great all around. And I haven’t even covered the proverbial laundry list of features that dd-wrt offers above and beyond most stock firmware! Suffice it to say that this is one of those times when the “let’s support everything” penchant of open source projects works in our favor. Don’t worry, it’s all (mostly) disabled by default. Those features and tweaks can all safely be ignored; just know that they’re available to you when and if you need them.

This is boring old plain vanilla commodity router hardware, but when combined with an open source firmware, it is a massive improvement over my three year old, proprietary high(ish) end router. The magic router formula these days is a combination of commodity hardware and open-source firmware. I’m so enamored of this one-two punch combo, in fact, I might even say it represents the future. Not just of the everyday workhorse routers we all need to access the internet — but the future of all commodity hardware.

Routers; we all need ’em, and they are crucial to our internet experience. Pick whichever router you like — as long as it’s compatible with one of the open source firmware packages! Thanks to a wide variety of mature commodity hardware choices, plus infinitely and perpetually updated open source router firmware, I’m happy to report that now everyone can have a great router.

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Comments

Also, if you’re upgrading your router, don’t forget to choose fast DNS nameservers when setting it up!

http://code.google.com/p/namebench/

The NameBench tool will use your browser’s history to tell you which (free) DNS servers are optimal for you. Very, very slick tool. (and yes UltraDNS wins for me as well.)

Jeff Atwood on September 25, 2010 3:00 AM

I see you’re sharing your MAC address. Is it risk-free? Don’t you fear being tracked?

Federico Poloni on September 25, 2010 3:11 AM

MAC addresses are routable only on the local ethernet, so feel free to post those all over the place 🙂

Thomas on September 25, 2010 3:35 AM

> I’m so enamored of this one-two punch combo, in fact, I might even say it represents the future

It has been for some time with a range of manufactures, so that is a safe bet! I mean, using the GPL sources the vendors are obligated to share it, and the community has pretty much ‘forced’ the issue by providing forked versions of the firmware.

By now, vendors are beginning to understand.

Seth Heeren on September 25, 2010 3:35 AM

These open source firmwares are indeed great, but I have one major problem with them: They are just inferior to my old clunky USR Robotics Router when i comes to QoS/Traffic Shaping (a very importing feature for me).

I am still using a 2005 US Robotics 9107 (http://www.usr-emea.com/support/s-prod-template.asp?loc=grmy&prod=9107), which has a horrible web interface and doesnt have a lot of options, but its QoS Technology is, for some reason, just way better than anything else i tested. I wanted to replace this router for years and tested a couple of different models (dlink,linksys,zyxel) with a lot of differnt firmwares (openwrt, ddwrt, tomato, oem firmware) but a soon as i turn on my Torrents web access becomes slow. If you use Traffic Shaping with them it gets a lot better. (Accessing web pages is not slow anymore, but you can still tell if your torrents are running or not).

With my old USR i can upload with uTorrent at 80Kbyte/sec (~85 is my connection’s maximum) and ping/latency goes up from around 40 ms to around 50-55 ms for most of the web sites i visit. I can even play online shooters without noticing that my torrent-pc is pumping stuff at almost full throttle. When using other routers you can just feel that web pages come in more slowly.

Maybe it has sth. to do with the way the USR applies his rules to the traffic. On the webinterface you can specify an ‘atm priority’ which I havent seen on other firmwares.

 

Erik Winter on September 25, 2010 4:08 AM

Forgot to mention, that the issue is even bigger when working remotely.

I do a a alot of stuff over ssh/rdp and with ddwrt/tomato i always had to close uTorrent or limit the upload rate. (I hate it when a console has a delay for every keystroke you make, really annoying) With the USR router the ssh/rdp connection stays responsive.

I know im whining like a crybaby here, but does anyone know a router/modem which has a simliar QoS?

thanks,
erik

Erik Winter on September 25, 2010 4:23 AM

The problem I have with routers is that I prefer the adsl/router combo (because buying two devices seems silly), but the product lines in that area seem a lot more crappy, for some reason.

Oh, and don’t buy anything from Linksys. I’ve got some of their stuff and it is some of the worst hardware I’ve used so far.

WimD on September 25, 2010 5:34 AM

@Erik Winter

Look at this: http://ace-host.stuart.id.au/russell/files/tc/tc-atm/#details

If this is indeed your issue, you can get an experimental build of Tomato with the tc-atm patch here: http://touristinparadise.blogspot.com/2008/04/linksys-wrt54gl-routers-improving.html

The implementation of the tc-atm patch is very early, though, and it hasn’t yet been integrated with the web GUI.

Matt Horner on September 25, 2010 6:02 AM

Which version did you flash? mega, VPN, voip, etc?

Churnd on September 25, 2010 6:06 AM

Interesting. I would have expected you to go for a DrayTek (what with being geeky *and* having built in VPN endpoints…).

Thefalken on September 25, 2010 8:13 AM

If the author cares that much he really shouldn’t be using an all in one anyway. He should be rolling with separate access points and router. I do the whole Airport Express (for music streaming) and pfSense / m0n0wall thing (lately I’ve been using the ALIX boards from PC Engineshttp://www.pcengines.ch/alix.htm).

Jared on September 25, 2010 8:27 AM

> I’m so enamored of this one-two punch combo, in fact, I might even say it represents the future

So…does this mean that you will be replacing your iPhone with an Android phone?

Michael Ross on September 25, 2010 8:37 AM

I’m still running a router from circa 2001.

I tried upgrading once. The results were… less then acceptable.

Miff on September 25, 2010 8:55 AM

I just ordered an ASUS RT-N16 two days ago. It was pretty much a tie between that and the Buffalo, but I decided to go with the ASUS because, if you’ll skim over the Buffalo WZR-HP-G300NH forum thread on dd-wrt.com, you’ll notice that there are different versions of the router, and some simply refuse to work normally with that firmware. Also, I haven’t seen much info on Tomato being able to support the Buffalo router, and I’ve been itching to try it and maybe even get away from DD-WRT, which my current router is running.

Arktronic on September 25, 2010 9:16 AM

To some extent you get what you pay for. My old Linux-based router would break persistent SSH tunnels after about 24 hours. When I upgraded to an expensive but rock-solid Cisco 877 (running IOS, not the consumer Linksys crud), my problems stopped.

Facebook on September 25, 2010 9:16 AM

Good article, but would have been better without the sexism.

Lloyd Budd on September 25, 2010 9:51 AM

What about using a Mac Mini? We don’t own any desktop computer, and as much as I love my TimeCapsule it doesn’t do all the nifty things I’d like it to do, like upload the weekly snapshots to S3, for example. Right now I use the Capsule as a router, but as it’s now time to move on, I was wondering if replacing it with a Mini made sense? Any insight on this?

julien.genestoux.myopenid.com on September 25, 2010 9:51 AM

I recently went and replaced my modded ASUS WL500gP (32MB ram stock, 128MB ram after mod) with a newer Netgear WNR3500L. The L = Linux as would be the case alot so it was easily modded and I dropped DD-WRT almost the day I got it. Internally it contains a 453Mhz Broadcom BCM4716 processor, 8MB flash, and 64MB ram which is plenty. The added bonus is that this particular router came with a TTY interface not only available but the header was already installed. 😉 Therefore if I do happen to brick it then I can easily recover. The cable can be had for $20 and modded to work with the TTY pinout on the router. It went for $90.

Oh and it is gigabit ethernet too.

shinji on September 25, 2010 10:55 AM

Forgot to mention that I usually go by the “if it ain’t broken, don’t fix it” rule but my ASUS was going on the fritz on me.

shinji on September 25, 2010 10:58 AM

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The Art of Motion Control: Beyond the Hype

By Hubert Nguyen, Posted on Jun 4, 09 12:22 AM PDT

The Art of Motion Control: Beyond the Hype

[E3 2009] I don’t think that anyone had envisioned a post-E3 motion controller war, but that’s what’s happening in the forums and elsewhere right now. After the cool on-stage demos from Microsoft and Sony, gamers are split on what’s “better”, Sony’s Motion Controller magic wand or Microsoft’s full body project Natal. Our first take was that Project Natal was “better, but let’s try to go beyond the hype to review how each technology works, how it could be used and which might ultimately win.

The Nintendo Approach

Let’s establish some facts with the precursor: the Wiimote. Wiimote is a two sensor system made of one 3-axis rotation sensor and one optical (IR) sensor located in the pointer lens that tracks where on the screen the Wiimote is pointing at, relative to the sensor bar that comes with the console. An additional Nunchuck that also contains a motion sensor can be connected by a cable to the Wiimote. The recently introduced Wii Motion Plus is an add-on to the Wiimote that contains an angular rate sensor that can help differentiate between “twisting” and linear (movement) motion, thus making the overall motion sensing and interpretation more accurate.

Note that all these sensors only know what’s happening (rotation, acceleration) relative to their own position. They are the center of their small universe. Because of that, every Wii game is using some sort of context to “guess” how to interpret the data. They often need a “start position” that will tell them what the point of origin is (archery or golf are good examples) or games like Tennis sense simple swings and mostly adapt themselves, depending on the player’s position on screen. It’s robust because there are no external factor that can interfere and it’s arguably an efficient way to tackle the problem.

The Sony Approach

The Sony Motion Controller also use a motion sensor but it is augmented with visual information fed by a camera that can see a tracker (the glowy end of the remote). The presence of the motion sensor in Sony’s product is significant because that’s what propelled the visual motion tracking from “relatively bad” to “really cool”. Why? Because optical (color) tracking alone was simply not good enough. But when combined with a motion sensor, it actually surpasses the Wii Motion Plus.

Thanks to the internal sensor, the Sony Motion Controller knows exactly what orientation/acceleration it currently has but it also knows exactly where it is in space and what kind of motion the controller is really doing in the real world. Unlike the Nintendo solution, Sony has much less “guess work” to do because it can “see” what’s going on, although we think that games will still have to make some assumption about the current activity.

Optical tracking is not without challenge. Some external factors such as strong lights or sensor occluders might be problematic, but overall, Sony has done a good job of demonstrating the capability of their concept. We will know for sure when this will be an actual product but Sony’s motion sensing solution is theoretically superior to Nintendo’s. The controller itself will have buttons, so it is something that players should be accustomed to.

The Microsoft Approach

In short, Microsoft senses more: color, depth and voice. From a high-level, takes a visual approach to the problem, but the additional depth perception helps Microsoft overcome the barrier onto which Sony’s EyeToy color-based approach crashed. That makes it less prone to color interference, except for occluders (too much junk in your place) and even then, a simple subtract operation can probably wipe out the static object (including you, if you’re a couch potato). Anyhow, by using a virtual skeleton of the player (created once, then stored), Natal is capable of figuring out the body’s motion, including its position in space. Microsoft’s Natal greatest strength is that it can scan full body motions, something that neither Sony or Nintendo are capable of doing with their motion sensing solutions. Natal should, in theory, be much better for a boxing/fighting game or for the next Dance Dance Revolution type of products. It could also teach you to swing perfectly by comparing your skeletal motion with Tiger Wood’s…

It is however far from being a product and while we think that it mostly works, we wonder how much setup is involved. The video footage that shows how Natal works in the living room

is a concept, Microsoft warns, and while we hope that it will be as good in reality, we are cautiously optimistic.

Theoretically, with Natal you could also hold a rolled-up magazine and use it as a “sword” – no accessory needed. In its promotional video, Microsoft hinted that you could use any objects with Natal and it depends entirely on the application. We have heard that Microsoft has already approached game developers, and that so far, it is “very usable”.

Conclusion

We thought that Sony and Microsoft would have come up with something to counter the Wiimote years ago, but “late” is be better than “never”. Both companies have realized that non-hardcore gamers represent their future growth – that’s what Nintendo itself said too- and if they want to cash on this new manna, they have to have motion-based games that seem so popular.

On the paper, Microsoft’s solution looks to be the most flexible one, but as always the content (and pricing) will dictate its success. In our view, the lack of button is a problem (do you believe in gestures for everything?) that is easy to solve with a cheap, small, wireless controller. But, because it is so different (superior?), developers might take a wait-and-see approach before creating games that cannot be ported to PS3 and Wii even if we expect an initial rush to be bundled with the hardware when it launches.

Sony’s solution is factually better than Nintendo’s and uses relatively known and proven concepts. It looks close enough to be a product, so we don’t expect bad surprises at this point. Sony’s Motion Controller might not be as “cool” as Microsoft’s Natal, but it might be enough to get new gamers on-board, and that’s what counts in the end. We think that because it is closer to Nintendo’s solution, game developer might port their Nintendo titles to the PS3 easily.

Nintendo seems to be the “loser” of this story, but the low price of the Wii will protect them in the short term, and they have another year before competitors have real products. Conceptually, they too could come up with a vision-based solution, although the weakness in processing power would probably come back to bite them in the butt. Another non-negligible fact is the incredible branding credit that Nintendo has acquired in non-gaming (aka new customers) circles. Finally, the Wii might be just “good enough” for these games – at least for this round of consoles. For sure, Nintendo will have to find another trick for its next-generation console.

The gaming world just entered into a new motion sensing arms race. Prepare for sweating!

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8 Comments  

  • dqbeast 1 month ago

    First I would like to state that I own a ps3 and that I think its a pretty good console with great games. I believe xbox’s natal will be fun. It will be a good add on to the 360 to play fighting and some sports games. But in the end I believe that the ps3 motion sensing controllers have more potential due to having a controller and buttons. This will make it easier for game companies to make more in depth like the wii has. Natal on the other hand will have fun mini game style games that will be cool to pick up and play. In the end though, hard core gamers like myself wont really care about the motion sensing and would like to play re5 or lp with their normal controllers.

  • john prince 1 month ago

    ps3 has most potancal

    natal sucks i tryed it

    wii will lose this war in the end

  • It would be interesting to compare how much profit each company has generated from their respective consoles.

  • Jerome 2 months ago

    Not a bad article, but you messed up on a big point.

    The Wii’s control system does allow for absolute positional tracking. The PS3’s scheme achieves this with a fixed-position camera tracking mobile round shapes of a particular color, while the Wii uses a mobile infrared camera to track two fixed points of infrared light. The Wii’s method will entail the reference points not being visible to the camera at times, but this will also happen, though less frequently, with the PS3’s. With either system, internal sensors alone will be relied on for measuring position and orientation until the reference point(s) is/are visible again. In fact, the Playstation Eye camera only has a resolution of 640×480, nowhere near enough, by itself, for the “sub-millimeter accuracy” claimed in the demo. This shows that the internal sensors can track motion and orientation with a higher degree of accuracy than the camera, and mainly rely on it to prevent drift, or accumulated error. This would also hold true with a Motion Plus-equipped Wiimote. The only thing standing in the way of a Motion Plus game tracking absolute position would be the lack of proper calibration options in software.

  • Thanks for the comment. I believe that the Wii’s infrared system can be used only as a pointer (mouse, lightgun), not to track the absolute position of the controller in space. I’m not sure how much credit I would give to the sub-millimeter accuracy claim, if any, although do we need sub-millimeter accuracy for gaming?

  • Facebook User 2 months ago

    Porting Wii titles to PS3 ? You gotta be kidding. Audiences, prices, hardware, differ so wildly that ports between those two are more than unlikely.
    No buttons to Nadal a problem ..? What about those on the 360 controller !? Games will most likely let you use both. I see much more potential in {controller+body motion} control schemes than the latter alone.

    I agree with the bulk of you analysis though.

  • Smartq7.com 2 months ago

    I like it. All games company are innovating. I think that is a good thing!

    ———————
    get Smartq7 at “www.smartq7.com”

  • strider_mt2k 2 months ago

    Good stuff!
    I was wondering about that stuff!

    I just gave my wife a Wii for her birthday, so motion sensing been a topic of discussion.

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    By Jason Chen, 4:00 PM on Tue Aug 25 2009, 53,355 views (Edit, to draft, Slurp)

    The single largest roadblock that prevents most people from picking up a PlayStation 3 is the price. Sony’s just taken that roadblock and shrunk it. You’re now $100 more likely to buy a PlayStation 3.

    The Difference

    The PlayStation 3 Slim is actually more similar to the current PlayStation 3 fat than you’d think. Sony has been slowly phasing out features in the PS3 for a while, dumping USB ports, dumping card readers and dumping the PlayStation 2 backward compatibility. So the step to a Slim, now, isn’t actually that steep, compared to what you’d get if you switched from a launch PS3.

    What you do get with the Slim is a smaller size, a reduced power consumption rate and a lower price. The lower power usage partially comes from the 45nm manufacturing process, and provides a 34% decrease in power consumption. (It’s also 32% smaller and 36% lighter). And, the Slim adds the ability to bitstream Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD audio, which only matters if you’re an audiophile with a modern sound system. You also get a new matte finish, which makes the console look less “premium”, but eliminates the crazy fingerprint and dust problem the original had. Overall, it’s a net gain in goodness.

    The Experience

    Because it’s basically the same console, the only differences you’re going to notice are audible ones. Like we said in our hands on, the disc drive in the PS3 Slim is louder than in the original PlayStation 3. Think of it like a laptop optical disc drive vs. a desktop optical disc drive. When you’re seeking around, it makes a louder grinding noise than its larger counterpart. This noise makes no difference in Blu-ray movie watching, since it’s all sequential, and is only occasionally encountered in games, especially since many game install bits and pieces to the hard drive.

    Other than that, yeah, it plays the same PS3 games, and it watches the same Blu-ray movies.

    The Takeaway

    Think about the PlayStation 3 and the PlayStation 3 Slim like this. You have two wives (I don’t know, imagine you’re Bill Paxton). Ninety-five percent of the time, they both do pretty much the same things. One is slightly chubbier, the other is slightly svelter. The skinnier one is quieter most of the time, but can get yappy when she can’t find something. The thinner one also costs you a little less money, and…has a matted finish? This metaphor isn’t going anywhere good, but you get the point. They’re basically the same console, except now it’s thinner and cheaper.

    So the only question now is whether or not you should buy a PlayStation 3 now, or wait until September for the PS3 Slim. Both options are $300, but if you want the ability to install Linux, you’ll have to get the PlayStation 3 fat. Then again, the three of you who want that probably already have a PS3.

    By lowering the price and making a more economical console, Sony’s finally more or less evened the hardware landscape with Microsoft, and continued to ensure that the PS3 is still the best-value-for-your-money Blu-ray player. Now all that’s left is getting some more games on there. [Amazon]

    Lighter, thinner, less power hungry

    Way less fingerprinty

    Matted finish and new “squarer” styling might appeal to some, repulse others

    Needs a $24 stand to be stable in the vertical position

    Continues the tradition of removing features (USB ports, backward compatibility, Linux support) in the PS3 to lower the price

    By matt buchanan, 5:00 PM on Tue Aug 25 2009, 17,660 views (Edit, to draft, Slurp)

    With the Sony Reader Daily Edition, the 3G-enabled ebook reader battle is pitched. At the end of this year, it’ll fight Amazon’s Kindle 2 and DX and Plastic Logic‘s eReader to the death. Here’s how they all stack up now:

    Aaaand we can’t not do a proper sizemodo, naturally:

    It may be difficult to believe, but just a decade ago cathode ray tube-based TVs (CRTs) were the biggest sellers. CRTs have excellent viewing angles, outstanding black levels and high contrast ratios. The technology’s Achilles heel (aside from sheer bulk) was a lack of brightness compared to today’s flat screen sets. However, for most indoor viewing environments, the light output was adequate.

    Not surprisingly, store lighting in the TV departments of major retailers like Best Buy and Circuit City a decade ago was subdued to better emulate home ambient lighting conditions so the sets wouldn’t look dim and washed out.

    That’s hardly the case today, with store lighting levels purposely cranked up as much as 50 times typical home lighting conditions. Why the change? Because these intense levels can make the best displays with the blackest black levels and highest contrast levels look inferior to cheaper, lower performance displays. Not surprisingly, this leads consumers into buying the cheaper sets because they think they’re getting as good a set, if not a better one, for less.

    Contrast, Brightness and Resolution

    A TV’s native resolution, black level and brightness (called white level) controls its perceived image sharpness. Resolution of almost all HDTVs falls into two categories, 720p and 1080p, so from a static resolution standpoint, almost all large screen TVs today are about the same (either 720p or 1080p).

    “Contrast ratio,” for example 1000:1 (or 1000 to 1) indicates how many times greater is the highest intensity white signal than the lowest intensity black one (the number 1 is the black signal). While that gives you a ratio it tells you neither how bright are the whites, nor how dark are the blacks.

    Here is where stores utilize intense lighting to manipulate your judgment. In a typical home environment, the set that will appear to have a better picture and be seen as sharper will be the one with the blackest blacks and reasonably white whites (around 30 ft lamberts) rather than one that’s similarly bright but with lighter black levels.

    Viewers perceive just the opposite in a high ambient light showroom. Invariably they choose the set with the brightest picture as having the clearest image, even if the set has poor black levels because the bright ambient lighting masks poor black level performance.

    The Measurement Methodology

    Last month, using a Konica Minolta T-10 illuminance meter, HD Guru measured the amount of ambient light in the TV sections of  national retail stores and warehouse clubs located around Long Island (Sears, Best Buy, Target , Walmart, Costco and BJ’s.).

    The measurement total depended upon the set quantity at each retailer; the more sets on display, the more measurements taken. See below for average reading per retailer. Daytime measurements in homeowners’ bedrooms, dens and living rooms also published below were taken with window shades and room lighting adjusted by the homeowners to their particular preferences. Not measured were kitchens, which tend to be far brighter than other rooms and where viewing time is limited and their smaller dimensions usually mean smaller screen sizes.

    Store and Home Readings

    Store averages (measured in lux) were: Walmart 411.66, Costco 742.77, Target 371.38, Best Buy 180.3, BJ’s 412.13, and Sears 236.58. By comparison, ambient light levels measured in 10 rooms of various homes ranged from just 1.2  to 110.1 lux, with all but two rooms reading less than 35 lux.

    Why Do Stores Crank Up The Brightness?

    Today, there are two basic retail categories: aided stores with salespeople, such as Best Buy and Sears, and unaided (self-service) ones like BJ’s, Costco, Target and Walmart. Price generally drives consumer purchases in unaided, brightly lit stores where the lower priced, poorer performing sets can appear to be as good as, or better than the more expensive sets. Get the set home and with no reference point, you’ll end up assuming you’re getting the level of performance observed in the store.

    Management directs aided store salespeople to maximize profits. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, it does conflict with making the right HDTV choice. How? Let’s assume you have a budget of $1500.  HDTVs pricing is very competitive and store margins are low. Stores maximize profits by convincing you that a $1000 TV looks as good, if not better than the $1500 set placed next to it. That leaves you with $500 to purchase high profit margin items such as service contracts, “high speed” HDMI cables and power conditioners, when a perfectly adequate HDMI cable can be had on-line for under $10 and a relatively inexpensive surge protector is all you really need. Read this before buying a service contract: (link).

    Vizio TVs offer retailers lower profit margins compared to other brands according to industry sources. Not surprisingly, with the exception of Sears, which is an aided store, Vizio’s retailers are unaided stores, where high lighting levels and Vizio’s low prices allow it to compete with and beat Sony and other established brands to win top sales positions.

    The MHT Exception

    Best Buy’s Magnolia Home Theater division (MHT), located within many Best Buy locations, sells the best and most expensive HDTVs, including top of the line plasmas and LED backlit LCD flat panels not found on the main showroom floor.In order to demonstrate the best displays’ rich inky blacks, guess what MHT does? Correct! They match the store’s lighting  to about the same levels found in a typical home environment. Measurements taken at our local Best Buy’s MHT measured from 24.4 to 49.2 lux with an average level of just 34.7 lux!  Yes, Magnolia understands that for its customers to see and appreciate the deep blacks, high contrast ratios and superior image quality produced by the more expensive sets it sells, it needs to duplicate home light levels.

    Tips

    Setting optimal black level for a given display requires adjusting user controls via the TVs remote control, with ambient lighting set to levels similar to what’s found in your similar level found in your home and specialized test signals.

    Unfortunately, these conditions are not possible in the big box retailers and warehouse clubs listed above, so you’re stuck with the store’s showroom mode settings. However, you can get a relative idea of the black level of a given display regardless of the stores high ambient light levels by using this trick.  Cup your hands forming a tunnel with your thumbs and index fingers making the front opening. Place the pinky side of your cupped hands against the TV screen and place your eye against the front opening. You will need to find or black area of the picture, if you’re lucky, black bars will be present at the top and bottom of the screen on a letterboxed demo material. This will give you an idea of just how light the blacks are on different displays.

    Contrast Ratios Specs Are Useless

    No accepted TV industry standard exists for measuring contrast ratios. Numbers provided by manufacturers are meaningless. The fake spec race is getting worse with many vendors now providing two contrast ratio specs, standard and dynamic. “Standard” is with white and black areas on the screen at the same time. “Dynamic contrast” is measured using a black screen with no content, versus brightness with a white area on the screen, resulting in a useless number. Who cares how dark a blank screen looks? HD Guru continues to get stonewalled when we query set makers for the methodology of their respective published contrast ratio numbers. The current record absurd claim is a published dynamic contrast ratio spec of 7,000,000 to 1. To add to the confusion, there is a natural maximum eye contrast resolution of just 300:1, according to a paper published by Siemens Technology (PDF link) (http://www.eizo.eu/html_76/ftp/bb_ensuring_image_quality.pdf.)

    In an effort to rebut these published specs, HD Guru will be using a newly acquired Konica Minolta meter to make its own contrast ratio readings and will publish the results in all future  HDTV reviews.

    HDGuru® with Michael Fremer

     

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