Tuesday, October 16, 2007

My brief history of the video and audio world Part 1


     So here is my little history of the video and audio world. Upon growing up before 9 years old (1984-1991), I was watching a 14" golden star (金星)color TV with cable feed only available inside the county/suburban area where we live (but the contents are extremely good since most of them are imported from Taiwan and Hongkong so we got to watch lots of Taiwan, Hongkong shows, even foreign shows including James Bond movies, this is NOT available anywhere in the country) and we have transformers on air here!

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     This TV is as old as I am and still working till about 7 years ago, it finally starts to break down. This is how sturdy things use to be and stuff made in China could last long (16 years of service) as well (I think people in US should NOT blame Chinese manufacturers when the products go bad since China is still on its very beginning development stage, and most, just look at Japan and Korea, how long it took them to make quality stuff. And another problem is that the Chinese manufacturers aren't the ones who design the product, the parts are all engineered in US according to the US market, so it's up to the US company to decide the price, the material they want to use, etc. If they decide to cut the costs, it's hardly to blame the Chinese manufacturers to use cheap stuff. Just stop shopping in 99 cents store and Walmart, keep the temptations of purchasing extremely low price stuff from other stores... The consumers create the markets, this is what I believeSad) So the golden star TV is now collecting dust at my grandma's place since she just like collecting everything and never throwing them away. Also I was growing up with another piece of important audio device, a mono radio/tape cassete recorder/player. I forgot which brand it is, but the sound quality is pretty good, it even got unusual sw bandwidth which you can tune in to some foreign language channels. In my photo album, I have a picture wearing headphone listening to this tape cassette player with big smiles which was taken when I was 1 year old. I used it to listen to my favorite Hundred Thousand Whys - a popular educational books/tapes explaining natures using science (十万个为什么)(see picture below) and the Calabash Brothers - a popular paper style short episode-based "cartoon" series during late 80's and early 90's (葫芦兄弟)(see the smaller picture below where has the calabash...).

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And After 9 years old (1993) and moved to the city, we received a Panasonic 21" TV from uncle in America, a pretty good upgrade from the 14" TV, especially appreciate the convenicence of the remote control. The same year we got cable also, which significantly increases the picture quality and expands channels as far as I can recall. Then the summer, my dad borrowed a VHS player from one of his friends for just 2 months. So I started watching VHS tapes although there weren't too many and most of them are Hongkong movies. I still remember that I've watched one movie 7 times before returning the VHS player and tapes. Then time goes to my 1st grade in middle school (1996), my cousin got a PC. I went to his house and lived there for couple days. These days got to influence my later life, I watched VCDs on his PC, played C&C (the legit copy), etc. This is the first time I encountered with a PC, and you can have such an immersive interaction with this electronic device, the Nintendo game machine I played before is nowhere near this level of suffiscation. Then time flys to my 2nd year during middle school (1997), I got a used PC which I didn't quite expect, intel P133 CPU+32M ram+1.2G HD+Creative 16bit soundblaster+14" monitor (The first monitor they gave us is just a crap, it breaks down within 3 months, ironically the company we bought from its main business is for selling their branded monitors. They changed another one and thankfully it lasted till I came to US.) which considered to be a low to medium end machine at the time. The PC's video card, Trident with 2MB video ram doesn't have mpeg accelerate capability, has to rely on an extra ISA based mpeg accelerate card and route the video signal to the video card, then to the monitor, quite a complex process.

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     My mom later bought me a ¥100 ($12 USD) no name computer speaker. Both my dad and I agree that the speaker is junk, lots of hissings, especially I had hearded how good my cousin's DIBA (迪霸)555 speakers (one of the earliest computer speaker manufacturer in China). But we still kept it, I don't know why... My parents bought the PC mainly wanted me to study on it, but I never did that, the only thing I learned is how to format the hard drive and install windows 95 on it... The PC is mainly a game machine, a CD/VCD player to me... And my life had changed quite a bit after I got the PC, I no longer have to play pingpang against wall, laying out the mini plastic soldiers on the ground, playing legos and transformers, or go to friend's place to play Nintendo game... The same year the pirated VCD business was suddenly booming (yes, the transition is so sudden almost like a day we are in stone age, the next day we are in iron age or something) in China, you can buy a VCD, usually 2 disc set for like ¥15 RMB (Chinese currency), less than $2 USD. (so this is how China skipped all the analog age, aka betamax, VHS, LD, and jump into the digital age) Best thing is that you can play those VCDs on computers. But I was never satisfied with the playback of the PC (software is very limited and the damn CD drive doesn't have super error correction so lots of pauses, skips, pixelations) and the convenience on it. So in order to watch those discs, I begged my parents to buy a VCD player (equips super error correction specially designed for playing back the pirate VCDs), which is quite popular at that time since VCD is everywhere on the streets. Back the time, a VCD player is still quite expensive, ranges from ¥700 - ¥1500 (about $90 - $180). We went to a huge electronic expo and bought a VCD player, brand name is IDALL (爱多). It's one of the most competitive brands on the VCD market at the time because of its huge advertisement input. Even Jackie Chan became the embassador of this brand. (And I still remeber that our state governer - Arnold Schwarzenegger went to China and made an TV advertisement for the other brand called bbk (步步高), apparently also rumored to be the manufacturer of the popular brand - oppo, who sells well known high performance DVD player on the US market from where I read). Back to the VCD player, I'm extremely satisfied with its performance and convenience. Due to the limitations of the Panny TV, no AV video input, we can only use a coxial cable to branch out the signal to feed the TV, and I bought a very long extension cable to share the crappy computer speakers to the VCD's audio ports. And I'm happy with the image quality, sound quality, plus no more pauses, skips when playing pirate VCDs.) And most importantly the source, my dad just borrows VCDs from his friend, usually 10 disc sets or even 20 sets at a time, so I never have to worry about not having something to watch or have to go out on street to buy anything. I have very limited taste of certain genre such as sci-fi and action, the others usually I never check them out. I sometimes just lend the discs to another classmate who is a huge movie fan, you can throw him virtually every disc, and he would watch them one by one very fast, even the most crappy ones... After a while (1998), I do begin to buy bootleg CD, VCDs I liked, but very few, computer discs are the dominant ones I buy. Then fast forward to my 3rd year in middle school/1st year (2000) in high school, the VCDs slowly transform to DVCDs, a type of highly compressed VCD which they manage to fit a 90min to a single disc, so lord of the rings don't have to have 3 discs but rather 2 discs... But the image quality is very very bad, I never check them out. At the same time, with the advancement of computers and development of Internet (mainly 56K dial-up with ¥4/hr (40 cents USD)), a new type of media - the real media aka rm files became popular, a 100 episode anime series could be compressed into 7 CDs and people start to find information online. Also the CDs and computer discs are becoming so cheap which costs only ¥5 (50 cents USD) a piece that everyone can afford. Also at the mean time there was a war between the "next generation" disc format war between CVD and SVCD for a very short time. Unfortunately the brand I picked up - IDALL, chose to support the wrong side, the CVD, and went bankrupted I think, at least you no longer see their products, and their old ones are being cleared out by retailers (Later I do see their DVD product though, never really clear what happened to them). SVCD won at last but can never reach a tiny fraction of what the VCDs can achieve, consumers don't care about them so do the pirating vendors, you can hardly find a copy in SVCD format. Another good thing my friends and I found out is that you can buy the discs, copy them onto hard drive, and later return to the vendor and exchange for something else, usually we complain the discs aren't readable, they don't say anything since the competition between them is also very intense, and they have to sell underground since the government does put somewhat more efforts in controlling/stopping pirating business. About two month before we came to US, the VCD started to die, hard to read discs. This is after 3 years of medium usage, I'm kind of disappointed but can't live without it now. This is also when the DVDs start to coming out very very slowly, mainly the hardware manufacturers are trying to push the sales of the machines under ¥2000 ($230 USD) a piece, but you don't see any DVDs selling on the street, not even the legit ones, VCD is still the dominant ones... Since we are about to leave China, plus there's this DVD technology coming out, I'm very reluctant to send the VCD for repair. But finally I did, and it cost an arm and a leg to do, ¥200 ($25 USD) for changing a laser head, but it's the price tag directly from IDALL's service center (funny thing is that they still have the service center, but can't see any products on the marketEye-rolling). This summer when I got back my home, yes the one in Shanghai, the one I've been leaving for 5 years, I saw the VCD player sitting there and collecting dust, so is the Panny TV (the cable expands the channel bandwidth, this TV is no longer have enough memory to place all 63 available channels unless attaching an external box thing)...

     After coming to US (2002), I immediately got a PC. I was originally planning to purchase a branded PC, but after going around various shops, reading the advertisements (when I read them, I saw the term "rebate" on almost every single item they put on the ads, and didn't know what these are, I asked my uncles and aunts who have been here 40 years and have sufficient English, but none of them can tell me what exactly a rebate isSurprised. And now after living here for 5 years, while sitting on a manager's chair bought from Staples for $14 after rebateTongue out, I know exactly what a rebate is, and I do over $200 rebate per month on average. Over the first four years, I had a success rate of about 90% getting the rebates; after I join fatwallet and slickdeals (two online deal sites), I start to keep tracking every single rebate very carefully and have a 100% success rate so far. And now I can judge which rebates should do, which ones are risky based on the processing company and other factors. This should be another story but once I see rebate, I just got all excited...). Back on track, basically none of the branded PCs satisfy my needs. I'm upgrading from a 6-year-old P133, I want a better one! So finally I went out to Fry's (a computer warehouse sells computer parts cheap mainly located in west coast) got all the parts and assembled my first PC. (Thru purchasing, I did several rebates just trying, after 3 months, most of them did come back, and I was impressed. A little scientific method proved that the rebates are working.) The PC has Celeron 1.7G+VIA P4PB MB+60G HD+256M ram+ATI 7000 64M video+17" envision CRT+RA 2.1 speaker. I didn't pick a better CPU since the budget, but the MB is definitely the most featured one on the market at that time, the CRT looks a lot better than the 14" one, the speaker is also at least 5 times better than that crappy no name speaker. The most difficult part is the internet, since I don't know which ISP is there, I followed one of my aunt's advise, picked up a free AOL trial CD. The good thing about US ISPs are that they are unlimited, so I just leave my PC on all the time, downloading "huge" files. But I had to pay a hefty $21 per month and we were living with my not blood related grandma, who was not happy with me turning on the PC all the time. But thankfully, one of my cousins (I've got so many cousins here) live in the basement very generously offered to share her wireless signal using fast cable internet with me, which eliminates the $21 monthly payment and long time downloading time (don't have to leave the PC on during the day, and grandma's happy). This specific period is the booming of the P2P sharing technology, with BT, emule, people can finally share their large files very easily rather than relying on individual FTPs. I learned how to use BT and winmx at that time. (BT is easy but still on the early stage lack of convenient tools, the original client program has to scan the files whenever you resume your work which takes a lot of time, plus if you want to download two or more files, you'll have to open multiple instances of the client program which eats a lot of resources... Winmx is very hard to use, lots of tricks to learn, and you have to be willing to share your files, or you'll go into the lines and wait forever to start downloading... I've never bothered emule 'cuz it looks really profound...) The files I downloaded are mainly rm/rmvb files, and I enjoy watching them on my monitor. In year 2003, I upgraded the onboard sound card to a creative external soundcard, to tell you the truth, I don't hear any difference at all... But I still kept it due to the card bring the audio inputs out, it's a little convenient to plug in the headphone, the sound card costs $40 after rebate which I think is quite a good deal... Couple weeks later I got the Koss KSC-17 behind the neck headphone for free after rebate which I keep on wearing for 3 years until the ear cushions start to wear out and the cables was short inside so that no right channel sound coming out, I still keep the headphone though, guess it's a bad habit inherited from my grandma... Sound quality wise headphone is pretty good when paired with the creative sound card or I won't even use it for 3 years.

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I'll stop now, too tired to type, but I think it's a very good blog entry for summarizing what I've experienced during all these years in the video and audio world.

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