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Gear For Your Gear

Dressing up your tech ensembles with devices that expand their capabilities is the kind of accessorizing that even a man can love
Steve Morgenstern
From the Print Edition:
Chris Noth, May/June 2010

(continued from page 1)

TV on your PC
Hauppauge Computer Works WinTV-HVR-950Q

The idea of connecting a TV tuner to your computer has been around for years, but getting decent reception for broadcast television this way has been hit-or-miss at best. The switch to digital TV transmission is a game-changer here, though. Not only can you pluck high-def video signals right out of the air, your computer already has the high-res screen needed to make the most of that HD video. The WinTV-HVR-950Q is a solid choice, complete with a portable antenna for over-the-air reception, wireless remote control and a cable connection for viewing and recording the video output from your cable or satellite box. The system comes with decent software, but the tuner is also compatible with Windows Media Center if it's installed on your PC. I routinely use this setup to turn my laptop into a road-worthy DVR, watching live TV, pausing and restarting the video at my whim and recording shows to watch later. And if you're a Mac user, Hauppauge offers a version priced $20 more that includes both the PC software and Elgato's EyeTV Lite program for your watching and recording pleasure. $99, hauppauge.com

HOME THEATER

Seize Control
Logitech Harmony 900

All too often, setting up a universal remote is a head-scratching, blood-pressure-raising ordeal. What a pleasure, then, to connect the Harmony 900 to your PC, launch the included software, type in the model names of all your gear and take the frustration out of customization. The remote itself is a sleek piece of gear, topped with a beautiful LCD touch screen and featuring a full set of clearly labeled keys, equally suited to punching in a TV channel number, programming your DVR and navigating a Blu-ray disc menu. This Harmony 900 version includes an intriguing extra; a radio frequency (RF) control add-on that goes beyond the usual line-of-sight remote control limitation to let you send commands from room to room or through the doors of an audio gear cabinet. If this RF magic trick doesn't matter to you, the identical Harmony One Advanced universal remote sells for $250. $400, logitech.com

Achieve Multimedia Mastery
Western Digital TV Live HD

Most of the myriad devices released in the past few years that let you listen to MP3s, look at your digital photos and watch videos on your TV set require serious technical skills to set up, and the tenacity of a cheese-starved rat scrambling through a maze to navigate. The compact WD Digital TV Live HD media player, though, has a great menu system, a nice little wireless remote and plays back files stored on a USB-connected drive with no special technical smarts required on your part. There's a standard audio/video connection, but the system really shines when you hook up via HDMI cable to a high-def TV, especially when viewing digital photos (one by one or in an automatic slide show). Connect the system to a home network and it gets even better, playing back files from other computers and networked drives, along with music from Internet-based services including Pandora, photos from Flickr and videos from YouTube. My only major complaint here: no built-in wireless networking. Yes, you can connect a compatible USB network adapter, but these are increasingly rare, and shouldn't be necessary.

This is by no means a dumbed-down system, and if you're the type who has a few gigs of FLAC files stored on your NAS and wants to output them via SPDIF connection, you'll feel right at home. On the other hand, if your goal is filling an inexpensive USB hard drive with music and pictures from your computer and enjoying them on your home entertainment system, this is a solid, easy-to-operate way to get the job done. $149.95, wdc.com

Color Me Impressed
Spyder3 TV

When you first drag your lovely new TV out of the box, it's ordinarily set to "Best Buy Mode"-brightness is cranked up to 11, colors are oversaturated to eye-searing levels, contrast and sharpness are off the charts, all so that when the set is placed in an overlit retail environment next to 100 other TVs, you'll pick it out of a crowd. Get it home, though, and the aggressive behavior that was acceptable on the playground with all the other TVs seems positively rude. Adjusting TV settings by eye is entirely possible, of course, but balancing brightness, contrast, color, tint and temperature isn't all that easy. A hundred bucks and less than an hour of your time per TV solves the problem for all the sets in your house, with the Spyder3 TV color calibration system. The package includes a colorimeter (a light sensor that reads red, green and blue levels separately) that you lean against the screen. This connects to a computer running the Datacolor software. The final piece of the puzzle is a DVD loaded with test patterns, which goes into a DVD player connected to the TV that's up for adjustment. At that point you follow the step-by-step software prompts, tweaking the TV settings and taking repeated readings until you have a properly calibrated picture. It's a bit tedious, honestly, but if it takes you more than an hour you're just not paying much attention, and certainly at my house the picture improvements were well worth the effort. $99, spyder.datacolor.com

PHOTO & VIDEO

Holding Steady
Manfrotto M-Y Tripod

For most of us, Job One for a tripod has been to let the photographer leave the camera and join the family portrait as the shutter timer ticked. However, with more cameras shooting very credible video-many in full high definition-a tripod becomes much more important. Jostling video, shot by hand, can induce sea sickness in all but the heartiest souls. Whether your goal is the freedom to take stills without blur or shoot movies without "blech," the new Manfrotto M-Y 7322YB-BB carbon fiber tripod is a great choice. It folds down to a compact 18.9 inches, tucks neatly into a nice included carrying pouch, then extends to more than four feet tall for maximum shooting flexibility. The ball camera mount can pivot to any position in an instant, then securely lock even a large SLR into place. And the carbon fiber construction effectively combines light weight with solid construction: your camera won't wiggle or wobble when you place these three feet on the ground. $100, manfrotto.com

Taking a Good Bounce
LightScoop

If you're shooting with a digital SLR, photojournalism professor Ken Kobré's ingenuity can improve your pictures dramatically. Using the built-in pop-up flash on these cameras is better than losing a shot in the dark entirely, but it's nobody's idea of a good time. The flash causes blinked-shut eyes, harsh shadows and pissed-off baby moms. Kobré's creation is simple, effective and inexpensive. The mirrored hood fits in front of the pop-up flash, sliding into the hot shoe to mount securely. Now, when you fire off the flash, the light heads up to the ceiling and diffuses as it bounces back, creating a much softer, more pleasant effect. I was impressed with the results I got with the professor's clever, featherweight kludge, and at $35, the price is right for bouncing light. $34.95, lightscoop.com

You're Surrounded!
Holophone PortaMic 5.1

The really-there feeling that your surround-sound audio system provides when you watch a concert or a football game could enhance your home video of the kids' spectacular performances if your mic captured the same kind of directional audio and ambient sound. Holophone, which makes many of the surround-sound recording systems the pros use, developed the PortaMic 5.1 to work with a consumer-grade camcorder, as long as it has a microphone jack and an accessory shoe. Five mics are positioned around the unit to pick up all the sound around you and record it using Dolby Pro Logic II encoding. Your camcorder treats it like an ordinary stereo signal. When you play it back through a home audio system with Dolby Pro Logic II (in other words, pretty much any home audio system made in the last decade), it miraculously transforms into 5.1 channel surround-sound audio. The PortaMic won't turn the high school orchestra into the philharmonic, but it certainly adds audio oomph to your cherished video of those once-in-a-lifetime ordeals... er, magic moments. And if the chance to record top-flight soundtracks awakens your inner Spielberg or inspires Sundance dreams in the kids, so much the better. $599, holophone.com

POWER


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