Technology today is flat-out amazing. When I was a kid, walking uphill through the snow to get to school, cordless phones were massive (and amplitude modulated near the broadcast band), and video recorders had wired remotes. If you could quantify it, I’d venture that today’s capabilities are 3 or 4 orders of magnitude above what we had 30 years ago.
And at some point, almost without exception, I’ve hated every piece of technology I own.
My current rage is fueled by Home Theater equipment. A little over a week ago, we sat down to watch the original Kingsman movie in our home theater. But I couldn’t get the Apple TV to show up. Or the Blu-Ray player. Or even the TiVo. I spent almost 45 minutes mucking around with the gear in the equipment shelf, while melting ice watered down my rum and coke, then finally we gave up and went to watch the movie upstairs. (Spoiler: The movie was a lot of fun).
I poked around online the next morning, and found that Onkyo receivers were prone to having their HDMI inputs just flat-out fail. And that, apparently, I was incredibly lucky that this unit had lasted a decade. Of course, it doesn’t get a lot of use, so that probably worked in my favor.
Unfortunately, though this seemed like a “result,” it wasn’t very scientific. Is this a problem with all Onkyo gear? Just certain models? Just certain years? Nobody could really point to specific data points, test results, post-mortems, or internal memos documenting a problem and whether it had been resolved. It was, as is the case with much community-based tech support, not much more than voodoo.
Still, it was hard to argue with the reality that, at least on my particular Onkyo TX-SR805, the HDMI was toast. So I ordered a new receiver, and bowing to the psychological pressure of all that AVSForum voodoo, I bought a Denon instead of Onkyo.
It arrived within a couple days, and I spent a couple evenings getting it installed and working. We even watched a movie as a family Saturday evening, and had a great time. The next day I carefully cleaned up the connections and generally neatened the back of the rack, and re-tested all the various inputs, even watching a little of Doctor Strange in 3D, to exercise all aspects of the system.
Then that evening, after the kids had gone to bed, I decided I needed to un-stress a bit and went back down to finish the movie. At first, I got a warning that “Your television doesn’t support 3D.” I told it to play anyway, and the screen went dark. And the Blu-Ray player seemed unresponsive – I couldn’t even get it to pull up the player menu (let alone the disc’s title menu or any actual video). It was totally dead, and even the receiver registered “no input.” Several times (I think – it’s a bit of a blur), I ejected and re-inserted the disc, and the player just wouldn’t play, and sometimes wouldn’t even respond to the remote.
I spent some time verifying that I was at least getting IR commands to the player (I use a Harmony remote RF-to-IR blaster setup). When I’d finally eliminated the remote as the problem, I dug deeper. Moving the Blu-Ray to the Apple TV input didn’t help. Moving the Apple TV to the Blu-Ray did – boom, there’s the hi-def National Geographic screensaver. So the receiver is working. Maybe the Blu-Ray finally died?
Finally, I directly connected the projector to the player, and saw the hardware menu on the screen. So the HDMI output of the player was working after all.
I replaced the disc with the 2D version of the movie, and everything worked just fine. So then I put the 3D disc back in, and the menu came up, it played the opening Marvel Studios animation, everything was great. Then as soon as it switched to 3D, the screen went dark and the player became unresponsive.
At this point, I shut everything down, ranted on twitter, and went to bed.
The next morning, after the rage and depression had faded a little, I realized what the problem was: I used the wrong cable.
My old receiver had been built before the 3D HDMI spec was published, so it didn’t support it – wouldn’t even pass the 3D signal through. So I had two HDMI cables going to the projector: One connected to the output of the receiver (for TiVo, Apple TV, etc.) and the other directly connecting to a second output on the Blu-Ray player. For movies, the Blu-Ray sound went via one HDMI cable to the receiver, and video went straight to the projector.
When I swapped out receivers, I re-used the same HDMI cable I’d used before, but dropped the direct connection, since the new receiver supported 3D. Somehow, this worked just fine when I’d first played the 3D movie, but that evening, it didn’t. I switched the cable for a “High Speed” HDMI cable, and boom! Everything worked just fine again.
For fun (as much as any of this story is fun) I downloaded and reviewed the owner’s manual for the receiver. Only twice, once in a troubleshooting section for 4K video, and once in a footnote in the appendix, does it mention the need for a “High Speed” HDMI cable. (For reference, there are several different types of HDMI cables.) It’s not mentioned in the Quick Start guide bundled with the receiver, and it’s not noted on the receiver ports.
I know what I’m doing. I know about the different kinds of cables. And I know that even the wrong component can sometimes seem to work properly. And still this totally flummoxed me. How in the hell can we expect “normal” people to get these things to work?
I’m not even going to mention how I managed to get the receiver into a “enter firmware file” update mode via the web interface, which wouldn’t go away despite power cycling, all while the receiver only showed a black “DENON” splash screen on the projector (that one took me another half hour to figure out while I was setting it up). And I’m definitely not going to talk about actual firmware updates, which I expect to be a royal pain and will probably happen at inopportune times. In fact, I’ll probably disconnect the receiver from the network to prevent such shenanigans.
What would’ve been nice is if the Blu-Ray had failed more gracefully. Dropped down to normal 2D resolution with a warning that “3D HDMI communication failed.” Or something. ANYTHING other than just not working at all. And why on earth did it remain in this broken mode when displaying the hardware menu with no disc?
This rant is all about how I bought some new gear, made a (minor) configuration change that I totally forgot about, and then ran into a not-so-much-edge-case problem that took a while to diagnose because of poor error handling by both the Blu-Ray player and the Receiver, all of which was made worse by the fact that, by pure chance, everything had worked just fine a few hours earlier.
But there’s a far more important lesson here, one which maybe I’ll delve into later. Consumer electronics suck. When they work, they work great, but when they fail, and they fail sometimes for the silliest of reasons, they fail big, and without much regard for helping the end user to figure out what’s going on.
AV equipment, iPhones, Car Play, the entertainment center in my new Honda, web cams, hell, even my microwave, all fail in one stupid way or another. In almost all cases, a little more engineering, a bit more testing, just a smidgen of additional user experience design, would’ve solved the problem. But instead, they went a little cheaper, a little faster out the door, cut a couple corners for simplicity, or simply didn’t consider that some “really weird edge cases” aren’t that obscure after all.
And the worst of it? We’re all so used to such issues that we collectively just say “Meh.” Even the best of products from the biggest tech companies in the world have these problems.
It’s enough to make me want to move to a lakefront cabin in New England and take up woodworking. But then I’ll probably find just as many problems with power tools.