November 18, 2005

The Mis-Design of Everyday Things

by psu

We in the computer business tend to have a complex about ease of use. "Computers are so powerful and yet so arcane" is a constant refrain in our lives. Well, I am here to say that I don't think that we should feel too bad. I have been investigating the world of HDTV because we are thinking about buying a big TV for Christmas. Compared to what you have to go through to get a decently usable TV, setting up a home wireless network is like falling off a log.

Let's review. Here's what you do to set up a home network:

1. Buy DSL or Cable high speed network from someone.

2. Plug Airport base-station into modem.

3. Run the admin program to change the password on the basestation. Make it configure its network connection automatically from the cable modem.

4. Turn everything on.

5. Start surfing.

At this point, all the laptops in the house will just connect to the basestation and have high speed access to a glorious world of automatic package tracking. You turn on the laptop and it does a magic dance with the base-station and the data just flows.

By comparison, setting up my home receiver was much more complicated, involving almost a dozen runs of audio and video and power cables. Furthermore, after all that work, it's still a lot of work to play Xbox. Here's what I do (assuming the TV and receiver are on):

1. Turn the big knob on the receiver until the letters say "XBOX" on the main display.

2. Turn on the Xbox

3. Put in Halo.

At this point, the video and audio for the game come out of the TV and the speakers hooked up to the receiver. I only have two speakers, no surround sound.

Now let's consider throwing an HDTV and a single HD source into this mix. First, rather than only needing to understand one interconnect, suddenly there are three:

1. Composite/S-Video

2. HDMI (huh?)

3. Component Video

Worse, most of the receivers in the world do not allow you to easily mix and match devices of different types. I only have devices of type (1) in my house right now. Also, my receiver can only handle either S-Video or Composite sources. So when I get my Xbox 360, my whole user experience above falls apart. I have to run the audio from the 360 to the receiver, and the video directly to the new TV. To play a game I would now have to do this:

1. Turn the knob to "Xbox 360" on the receiver.

2. Pick up the TV remote and hit some button I can't find until the TV says something like "Component Video 3", which I remember is where I connected the Xbox 360.

3. Turn on the Xbox 360.

4. Put in Madden 360.

It turns out that the extra few steps here are actually enough to keep anyone else in the house from being able to run the TV. This is because no one but a crazy techical dork can remember that "Component Video 3" is the Xbox and "Video 7" is the normal video from the receiver. TV manufacturers don't seem to realize this, since every big new TV comes with 15 inputs of various types, none of which will ever be used.

I also looked into what it would take to fix this issue at the receiver end. Surely I could find a receiver that gives me the "simplicity" that I currently enjoy. Reasonably priced receivers do not allow you to run a composite input to a component output and vice versa. This means you have to run two different kinds of cable between the receiver and the TV. And, after going to all that trouble, you get the same shitty interface described above.

To do better than this, It turns out that what I would need is a $500 receiver that can automatically route and up-convert composite video to component video or HDMI (huh?). In other words, to get a simple video routing device, I need to buy something that costs as much as an Xbox 360, and then I have to spend an entire afternoon rewiring everything behind it. The truly mind boggling thing is that even at that price, you can still find receivers that do not allow you to program custom source names. All that money, and they can't even keep 2K of persistent memory around to store a little bit of ASCII.

Finally, one has to realize that even my "easy" scenario for turning on the TV is really too complicated. Here is how it should really work:

1. Turn on Xbox. Receiver notices that the Xbox is on and sets the input device correctly.

2. Put in Halo 3.

I think we can all agree this scenario is a drug-induced fantasy world. And yet, and yet, this is exactly what happens with my wireless network. I turn on my laptop, and everything just hooks right up automatically. So, computer geeks rejoice! You have managed to build an end to end system whose user experience is signitifcantly easier than turning on a modern television.

Additional Note: Don't tell me to buy a universal remote control. The universal remote is just an admission that the industry can't build the right thing. All of this stuff should just work. Anything less is unacceptable.

Posted by psu at November 18, 2005 07:37 PM | Bookmark This

I had a receiver once that got this right; Kenwood made a fancy but not supid expensive unit (the VR-4080, I think?) that would select and display audio and video per source, automagically dealing with things like converting composite to S-Video, dealing with digital audio and 5.1, etc.

But it didn't do HDTV.

Posted by Goob at November 18, 2005 10:03 PM

The answer is obvious: Apple should design a home entertainment system.

I'd buy it.

Posted by PZ Myers at November 18, 2005 10:36 PM

I didn't feel like upgrading my receiver just yet when I filled up all the inputs on the back; Pelican makes a relatively cheap switchbox that supports 8 s-video/composite or component inputs. Plus it also has three optical SP-DIF inputs for the surround sound, and just for the hell of it some ethernet ports, too. It's excellent and helps manage my system wonderfully. Sure, I still have to walk up to change game systems, but I'd need to do that anyway to turn those systems on.

It also comes with pre-made faceplates like "xbox", "playstation", "gamecube", "vcr", "cable", etc. I bet that'd solve the problems you're describing. Here's a URL:

Also, what kind of TV do you have? My Samsung will let me assign descriptions to all the zillion inputs, so I don't have to see "Component 3", I see "Game".

(And finally, HDMI is like DVI -- a purely digital connection. Great for HDTV, because it avoids the digital -> analog -> digital conversions you get with component cables. I'm kinda bummed the 360 isn't supporting them.)

Posted by Adam Rixey at November 18, 2005 11:24 PM

Which Samsung TV do you have? Having English source names in the TV would potentially help a lot.

Posted by psu at November 18, 2005 11:29 PM

Huh. I found the owner's manual for a couple of Samsung TVs at Crutchfield. While they do le let you program the names, you can only pick from a fixed enumeration of names they have already chosen. This is pathetic. If I can't call one of the inputs "Gamecube", then they have not done their job.

Posted by psu at November 18, 2005 11:37 PM

I have a HL-P5063W (50-inch DLP). I can't put in any old arbitrary text, but I can choose from about a dozen options. That's plenty enough for me and I've got 7 input sources.

The one thing I dislike most about the tv is that there aren't distinct buttons for the input selection, I have to either toggle through them sequentially or use a menu. But the menu cursor starts based upon current position, which means macros are impossible. I can't set anything up like "Turn on the dvd player and switch to it on the tv and receiver" because I'd need a separate macro for each possible starting point. Other than that, I love this tv; indeed, it's my primary computer monitor now, thanks to the VGA port.

Seriously, I recommend you check out the Pelican System Selector. It WILL let you call the thing "Gamecube", in a pleasant green LED glow.

Posted by Adam Rixey at November 19, 2005 12:27 AM

Surely there must be some way to hook up your Xbox 360 to Front Row running on a new iMac.

Posted by peterb at November 19, 2005 12:50 AM

The most infuriating thing about this is that all of the manufacturers know how to do automatic source switching, since each one implements it if you buy an entire system of components from the same company. But rather than make the functionality generally usable, they choose to keep it stupid.

There is always this

Posted by psu at November 19, 2005 07:44 AM

Yeah, the audio authority products are supposed to be very good I almost got one before settling on the Pelican. I wound up picking the cheaper option just because it's essentially a temporary measure until I upgrade to a receiver with more inputs. Still, it is kind of nice to have all my game systems on just one tv/receiver setting called "Game", since I'd never be using more than one at a time.

Posted by Adam Rixey at November 19, 2005 10:03 AM

Or, you could just buy a Sony Video router for 70 bucks at best buy. Has 4 inputs, auto-detects which one is one. OK, no ASCII - but for me, it's really switch on XBox, play Halo. (I don't need to insert the disk, either - I'm addicted ;)

Of course, no fancy HD for me. There's *no* point in spending money on that for me.

Posted by Robert 'Groby' Blum at November 19, 2005 09:38 PM

For the life of me, I can't understand how this is not considered an complete and total failure of the A/V equipment industry. This technology has barely advanced in 20 years. The thing is, as soon as you have to explain a solution, you've already lost. And to everyone who says to get a programmable remote... the programmable remote is an admission of failure. It's like putting a band aid on a severed limb.

First, programming them is like writing in assembly language. This is a task I do not want to do. (OK, I'll admit this is less of a problem with those Harmony remotes, but the rest of my complaints hold true for those as well).

Second, they take ... wait for it ... forever ... to switch a complex system.

Third, most of the time they are sensitive to the state of the equipment. "I tried to turn on your TV. Did it turn on? Is it in AUX2 mode? If not manually turn on the TV and switch it to AUX2 mode, then continue." Thanks, go programmable remote. Yay!

Fourth, they're STUPIDLY EXPENSIVE. OMG! It's a remote control, people. Spend your money on an iPod, you'll be much happier.

Fifth, undoubtedly you have *that one button* ... you know the one ... the one you really want to change with the remote but it just won't do it. I've got a couple. The first is turning on/off the A and B speakers on my receiver. They are manual buttons. Ain't no programmable remote in the world gonna do that. But I need that to switch sound from downstairs to upstairs. Second, for some reason, my stupid Sony VCR (still around so I don't have to buy Elmo on DVD) has this data screen that pops up and won't go away unless you have the original remote control.

Anyway, I've strayed from the topic a bit, but the point is, all the technology exists and it's cheap. Why doesn't somebody frickin' build it already.

The real answer to this is on-demand digital content (for example, Front Row), so I'll just sit tight and watch while the A/V equipment business is slowly eaten alive. Of course, I'm not sure how the XBox plays into all this. I'll just says that someday all this crap should be wireless and auto-negotiate the best configuration for each given environment (how's that for hand waving?)

And speaking of mis-design, my daughter received an Amazing Amanda doll for her birthday. She loves it, but it takes like an hour to program the thing. Why, for the love of God, doesn't it have a little bluetooth interface so I can configure it from the computer? Or my cell phone? And why does it sound so bad? Is it really that hard to get a decent sounding speech syntesizer. It sounds as bad as my old Cricket speech synthesizer that I had on my Apple //e like 20 years ago. And the speech recognition is barely usable. My daughter says "it doesn't look this hard on TV." ARGH!

One final rant while I'm at it, my daughter had this little battery powered Barbie VW Beetle car to drive around. It had hard plastic wheels. These things wouldn't grip on any surface known to man. Carpet? Nope. Concrete? Nope. Grass? Nope. Gravel? Nope. Hardwood floor? Nope. Linoleum? Nope. Where the hell are you supposed to drive this thing. And then, it takes like 100 feet to turn it around. And the truth is, at that age, they can't steer anyway? So as a parent, you have to walk around behind it to guide it and keep it moving. ARGH! Put some rubber tires on it, make it turn and give me a frickin' remote control.

One last thing... now admittedly I live where it's hilly, but why doesn't anyone put a CVT in a children's bikes?

I'm not even going to start on cell phones.

The thing that really bugs me about all this is that within the first 3 minutes of use, all of these flaws are obvious to me. (One should not conclude that I have some uncanny ability to detect subtle flaws in products, but that these products are basically broken by design). I just can't believe that someone didn't figure this stuff out before shipping the product. And I can't believe that no one calls them on it now.

I need a drink...

Posted by mlehrian at November 19, 2005 10:50 PM

The one thing that struck me in this post is your admission that your current setup is all composite or S-video. Apparently this blog's gourmet tastes don't extend to video interconnects... How can you even _stand_ to look at composite output ?


Posted by Jonathan Perret at November 20, 2005 10:03 AM

1. My TV doesn't take component video and is not broken. Until the "need" for a larger set and the coming of the Xbox 360, I had no reason to get a new TV. It's just TV.

2. The complication of setting up both component and composite video sources (say, component for DVD and composite for Tivo) is too much overhead to to pay to get the small amount of marginal gain in picture quality.

Now that there is actually a reason to want higher video quality (Madden 2006 baby!) we can take the leap and figure it out. There was just no reason for it before.

Who cares about high res. broadcast TV anyway.

Posted by psu at November 20, 2005 10:29 AM

1. Any TV made round these parts since decades takes RGB through the SCART ( connector (and falls back to composite if RGB is not available from whatever device you hooked up).

2. I'm inclined to believe that you have not compared composite to component on the same TV. Crawling dots around fixed parts of a video game display are not a fatality ! And I'm not talking about high-res here, just image "steadiness". And color fidelity, too.

But I don't mean to be obnoxious so I'll leave it at that. Even if it takes Madden 2006, you'll see the light eventually :)


Posted by Jonathan Perret at November 20, 2005 02:15 PM

It's true. It's only recently that TVs in the U.S. had any kind of connector besides composite/s-vid.

Posted by psu at November 20, 2005 03:39 PM

Buy a Harmony 880 remote. Set it up on the web with its little wizards
which ask you all kind of nice questions. Press the button that says
"Play a game." Your tv comes on, switches to the right input your
stereo comes on, switches to the right input, pick up your 360 control
and press the guide button. Train your kid to switch the game discs in
the 360.

Life is good again.

Of course, you won't really be able to appreciate the 3d because you'll
have jammed a pen in your eye getting everything set up so it works this

Posted by honus at November 23, 2005 01:47 PM

A friend of mine just upgraded his Harmony remote and gave me the old one to try out.

The layout of the buttons blows, but the overall operation is better than other universals I've used. It's still annoying that it can't read your mind do "setup" on the tv when i want it and "menu" on the tivo when i want it without making me switch into the device mode.

Maybe I'll get the xbox version of this remote.

Posted by psu at January 1, 2006 04:20 PM

Please help support Tea Leaves by visiting our sponsors.

November October September August July June May April March February January

December November October September August July June May April March February January

December November October September August July June May April March February January