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June 15, 2008

FiOS TV First Impressions

I switched one week ago from Echostar Dish Network to Verizon FiOS TV. Here are my thoughts after the first week of service.

The most important thing to say is that the picture quality is noticeably better with FiOS TV than Dish Network. Much less loss in the compression. That was the most important factor for me in switching, so I score myself happy. I also prefer the FiOS system's way of setting up and managing scheduled recordings. The search feature in particular is much better than Dish Network's.

The selection of HD channels is not very good today, but is supposed to improve very soon and supposedly reach 150 channels by the end of 2008. That will be nice when it happens…

I like the video-on-demand feature very much. I've looked at some of the free content but haven't purchased anything yet. It appears that if you get a movie channel package, you get access to a large library of movies through video-on-demand for free, which is an excellent feature. A shame I can't buy a la carte from that library, though…

The switch hasn't been seamless. Some things are annoying. As someone with a professional inclination toward validating computer systems, I feel obligated to report what I've found. Some of these things are usability issues that might be difficult to correct. Others are just plain bugs that I'm surprised escaped internal testing. If I can find them after a week of fairly light usage, a deliberate testing effort could easily find them too.

I have crashed the STB once already and had to reboot it. For reference I have the HD DVR STB, software release 1.5.0, build number 05.92.

I have two display-related disappointments with the STB. One is that the on-screen menu system only uses the regular 4:3 footprint for displaying information, rather than the entire 16:9 screen. It knows I have a 16:9 TV. There's no reason to waste all that display area, especially given the next problem.

The font size in the on-screen menu system is way too big. It may be correct for people with poor vision and old televisions, but some of us would like to use a smaller font in order to show more information on our 1920x1080 displays. The program guide is the most disappointing here, fitting only 90 minutes on-screen by using a large font in a 4:3 footprint. If I could tell it to use a small font and a 16:9 footprint, I would be able to see many hours.

I'm unable to change the STB's volume. (Main Menu --> Settings --> Audio --> Set-Top Box Volume) This control appears to do nothing at all. This is annoying because my STB is louder than any of my other inputs, so I have to adjust the volume whenever switching between them.

The remote's * button is supposed to toggle closed captioning. That isn't what it does. It actually does nothing at all. I can turn on closed captioning through the menu (Main Menu --> Settings --> Accessibility --> Closed Captioning) but in addition to being cumbersome to get to, it works poorly. The font is very bad and in some programs (e.g. Doctor Who) the caption is visible too briefly for most people to read.

Worst, the caption data isn't sent to my television through the HDMI connector, so I can't use my TV's own high-quality and very configurable closed caption display.

I'm not fully happy with the remote control. My Dish Network remote control was UHF, so I could use it anywhere and didn't have to point it toward the STB at all. My FiOS TV remote control is directional, and I have persistent trouble navigating through menus and options. It's difficult to tell whether that's caused by a sluggish interface dropping button presses, or by them not being received in the first place. This is a step backward.

My DVR documentation says I have four speeds for rewind and fast forward: 3x, 15x, 60x, and 300x. I do not have 300x. When I'm scanning at 60x and try to increase, it rolls over to 3x. I definitely miss having 300x; I used it often on my Dish Network STB.

I have trouble with the STB's front panel display. (Main Menu --> Settings --> Set-Top Box --> Front Display) I'd like it to display a clock all the time instead of the channel number I'm viewing. But when I select "Show Clock" and then press Exit, it immediately switches back to showing the channel number! At seemingly random times it switches back and forth between the clock and the channel. I want it to stay a clock! If it's going to be unreliable like this, I'd actually prefer to turn it off to avoid confusion.

The installers gave me a new router with a coax input, apparently necessary to connect the STB to the internet. The new router is an Actiontec MI424WR and I do not like it. The configuration menus are much less straightforward than my old router's (a D-Link DI-624). The most annoying trouble I've had with the new router is that it seems to be impossible to assign a static IP address to a computer on my LAN through the router's DHCP.

The router claims to have this functionality, but when I enter my computer's information it either fails telling me that something about that computer is already in the router's database, or it accepts the settings but then when I connect the computer gives me an ordinary dynamic IP address instead. It does give me the option to convert an existing dynamic lease to a static one, but in that case I don't get to choose the IP address, and in any event once the lease expires it reverts back to a dynamic lease!

I care about assigning a static IP address to my home fileserver. Thus far I've been lucky with my dynamic IP address not changing, but if I have any trouble with it the only solution appears to be reconfiguring that computer to ignore DHCP and just take an address. Not what I wanted.

June 13, 2008

Cedar Rapids Flooding

This isn't my usual writing fare, but so many people are wondering how my family is doing that I think pointing them to the blog makes more sense than writing a bunch of similar e-mails.

I grew up in (and my parents still live in) Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Due to the recent series of storms in the midwest, the Cedar River running through the center of town is flooding.

Here's a live river level chart. The large gap in the data is because the gague was lost and had to be replaced.

There was severe flooding back in 1993; at that time the river reached 18ft. Flood stage is considered to be 12ft. The record crest was 20ft in 1851 (and also in 1929). Currently the river is at nearly 30ft and is expected to crest around 32ft Friday.

Let's see if I can make this sound as bad as possible: they're calling this a 500-year flood. Most of the bridges downtown are closed. The CRANDIC railway bridge collapsed. Downtown is flooded and power is out in that area. Mercy Hospital isn't accepting new patients. The city is under curfew and mandatory evacuation for the whole 500-year floodplain, plus anywhere within one block of the water's edge.

How's my family? Just fine. My father can get to and from work, albeit taking a significant detour to avoid the closed bridges. My mother is actually in Arizona right now visiting my sister, where it's quite dry. Our house is way up on a hill (many tens of feet) and is under absolutely no danger of flooding. The more realistic risk is that the roads at the base of the hill could flood, cutting off access.

June 08, 2008

One Man With a Gun

Could have stopped this:

The violence began when he crashed a rented, two-ton truck into pedestrians. Kato jumped out and began stabbing the people he'd knocked down with the truck, then turned on horrified onlookers, police said.

Police confirmed seven deaths — six men and one woman — but they could not say whether the victims had died of injuries from the truck or were stabbed to death.

Reports said the attacker grunted and roared as he slashed and stabbed at Sunday shoppers crowding a street …

Seventeen people were stabbed, and seven died, because there were no guns on the scene until police arrived.

Tiny Island