Six Buttons and a Volume Knob

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Probably there's not many people who can remember when TVs had just six buttons and a volume knob. You simply tuned each of the buttons to one of the five available channels (which were helpfully numbered 1 to 5), hopefully in the correct order so you knew which channel you were watching, and tuned the sixth button to the output from your Betamax videocassette recorder.

As long as the aerial tied to your chimney wasn't blown down by the wind, or struck by lightning, that was it. You were partaking in the peak of technical media broadcasting advancement. Years, if not decades, could pass and you never had to change anything. It all just worked.

And then we went digital. Now I can get 594 channels on terrestrial FreeView and satellite-delivered FreeSat. Even more if I chose to pay for a Sky or Virgin Media TV package. Yet all I seem to have gained is more hassle. And, looking back at our viewing habits over the previous few weeks, pretty much all of the programs we watch are on the original five channels!

Of course, the list of channels includes many duplicates, with the current fascination for "+1" channels where it's the same schedule but an hour later (which is fun when you watch a live program like "News At Ten" that's on at 11:00 o'clock). Channel 5 even has a "+24" channel now, so you can watch yesterday's programs today. A breakthrough in entertainment provision, which may even be useful for the 1% of the population that doesn't have a video recorder. How long will it be before we get "+168" channels so you can watch last week's episode that you missed?

What's really annoying, however, is that I've chosen to fully partake in the modern technological "now" by using Media Center. Our new Mamba box (see Snakin' All Over) is amazing in that it happily tunes all the available FreeView and FreeSat channels and, if what it says it did last night is actually true, it can record three channels at the same time while you are watching a recorded program. I was convinced that it's not supposed to do more than two.

However, it also seems to have issues with starting recordings, and with losing channels or suddenly gaining extra copies of existing channels. For some reason this week we had three BBC1 channels in the guide, but ITV1 was blank. Another wasted half an hour fiddling with the channel list put that right, but why does it keep happening? I can only assume that the channel and schedule lists Media Center downloads every day contain something that fires off a channel update process. And helpfully sets all the new ones (or ones where the name changed slightly) to "selected" so that they appear in the guide's channel list. I suppose if it didn't pre-select them, you wouldn't know they had changed.

Talking with the ever-helpful Glen at QuitePC.com, who supplied the machine, was also very illuminating. Media Center is clever in that it combines the multiple digital signals for the same channel into one (you can see them in the Edit Sources list when you edit a channel) and he suggested editing the list to make sure the first ones were those with the best signal so that Media Center would not need to scan through them all when changing channels to start a recording.

Glen also suggested using the website King Of Sat to check or modify the frequencies when channels move.

This makes sense because Media Center does seem to take a few seconds to change channels. Probably it times out too quite quickly when it doesn't detect a signal, pops up the warning box on screen, and then tries the other tuner on the same card. Which works, maybe because the card is now responding, and the program gets recorded. But when I checked yesterday for a channel where this happens, there is only one source in the Edit Sources list and it's showing "100%" signal strength.

And a channel that had worked fine all last week just came up as "No signal" yesterday. Yet looking in the Edit Sources list, the single source was shown as "100%". Today it's working again. Is this what we expected from the promise of a brave new digital future in broadcasting? I'm already limited to using Internet Radio because the DAB and FM signals are so poor here. How long will it be before I can get TV only over the Internet?

Mind you, Media Center itself can be really annoying sometimes. Yes it's a great system that generally works very well overall, and has some very clever features. But, during the "lost channel" episode this week, I tried to modify a manual recording by changing the channel number to a different one. It was set to use channel 913 (satellite ITV1) but I wanted to change it to use channel 1 (terrestrial ITV1). Yet all I got every time was the error message "You must choose a valid channel number." As channel 1 is in the guide and works fine, I can't see why it's invalid. Maybe because it uses a different tuner card, and the system checks only the channel list for the current tuner card?

It does seem that software in general often doesn't always get completely tested in a real working environment. For example, I use Word all the time and - for an incredibly complex piece of software - it does what I expect and works fine. Yet, when I come to save a document the first time onto the network server, I'm faced with an unresponsive Save dialog for up to 20 seconds. It seems that it's looking for existing Word docs so it can show me a list, which is OK if it was on the local machine or there were only a few folders and docs to scan. But there are many hundreds on the network server, so it takes ages.

Perhaps, because I use software like this all day, I just expect too much. Maybe there is no such thing as perfect software...

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Six Buttons and a Volume Knob