Thursday, January 17, 2008

Now, about that TV

OK, a long, arcane discussion about our TV follows. Probably only interesting if you are converting a bus, or remodeling an RV or maybe a boat. In which case it should serve as a cautionary tale. If you're not interested, just skip this post -- there's nothing else in it.

To be honest, I've been a bit reluctant to post anything about the TV here. Already, some of our readers have remarked that we've been posting a lot lately about repairing various bits of the bus that have broken down. Even Louise, who has been trying to come up with a "Best of 2007" set of tales from our blog (a suggestion from one of our readers) exclaimed in horror midway through that process that we have done an awful lot of maintenance this year.

That being said, maintenance is a part of modern life. Odyssey is both our home and our transportation, and the level of maintenance around here is probably commensurate with what anyone who lives in a 22 year old home and drives a 22 year old car has to deal with. To be fair, we have a few "extra" complexities with which to deal -- solar panels and batteries and inverters and such, the pieces of the puzzle that allow us to truly enjoy life away from civilization, without being uncivilized.

Thus the story of the TV is really one of everyday sorts of problems with such items as consumer electronics, but with an extra twist thrown in having to do with mating those electronics to Odyssey.

Our story starts in 2003, when we were finalizing the design of the cabinets and working with our cabinetmaker to realize that design. At which time we needed to nail down exactly how much cabinet would be given over to the TV. Now 2003 was fairly early in the evolution of HDTV and 16:9 aspect ratio, but, nevertheless, we realized that high definition and 16:9 was the direction of the future, and we decided to bite the bullet and spend the "early adopter" bucks to get a 16:9 HD set. We wanted something that would give us the "home theater" experience for watching DVD movies on those cold nights in the back woods, and so we decided on a 30" LCD set. LCD because we wanted the reduced power consumption and smaller footprint versus a CRT, and 30" because that was the largest size that would reasonably fit into the cabinetry (or even make sense from a viewing distance of only a few feet).

And so it was that we surveyed the market, and determined an "average" (more like 70th percentile) outside dimension for 30" LCD TV's, and had the cabinetmaker build the TV cabinet to a dimension of about 32" by 22". Soon enough, he needed the actual TV, so that the innards of that box, tambour doors, and mounting hardware could be planned for. Even though we would not really need it for another three or four months (so we thought), we had to pony up and supply a TV.

I ended up buying a 30" Zenith at what was, at the time, a good price. Still, it was a lot of money, but the project needed to move forward. Long-time readers, and those who have been through the entirety of our "main" web site know what happened next: the cabinetmaker died, and all work on the cabinets and thus the rest of the bus came to a screeching halt. In all, we took a six month hit to the project schedule.

Fast forward to late in 2004, when we are finally on the road and enjoying our bus. The infamous TV is now a year old, and the warranty has just expired. Are these vertical lines in the picture from some problem with the DVD? No, wait, now I'm seeing them on DirecTV, too. Maybe it's the heat buildup in the cabinet?

To shorten a long story just a tad, after discussing the problem with Zenith on the phone and determining that they would not even consider warranting their $3,000 TV at all even one day past the anniversary, we've just been suffering with a pattern of thin vertical lines throughout the screen for three years. I took the set apart, used cooling spray on various parts of the circuit board, probed various connectors and such, all to no avail -- it's a circuit problem that is beyond my ability to diagnose. Early on, the problem would come and go intermittently, but it has gotten progressively worse over time, and now it's constantly with us and much more annoying than when it first appeared.

Having the set repaired, like many things aboard Odyssey, presents something of a logistical challenge. It's heavy and difficult to ship, and, moreover, the tabletop stand is back in San Jose. And estimates have run from $500 to four figures. At which point, it makes no sense -- brand new sets can be had for that kind of money today.

So about a year ago I decided to simply replace the set with a brand new one. Ha. Easier said than done. Remember I said it was a 30" set? And that the cabinets had been built for "average" 30" sets? Well, there is no such thing as a 30" HDTV set today. While all this was transpiring, the state of the art had changed, and the current "standard" size for HDTVs in this class is now 32". Moreover, the set we bought four years ago was a "monitor," meaning there was no integral tuner nor were there speakers (although they were available as an external bolt-on option). All of today's sets have built-in, non-removable speakers which add to their overall dimensions (speakers are completely unimportant to us, since we have a home-theater surround-sound system).

It has only been in the last couple of months that further improvement in technology has brought the exterior dimensions of a small handful of 32" sets down to something that will fit in our cabinet. And last week was the convergence of (1) my having the personal bandwidth to deal with this, (2) the availability of sets that will fit, (3) continuing price reductions bringing high-quality sets within fairly easy reach and (4) passing a Costco here in Oregon, who just happened to have a nice Sony Bravia that is a perfect fit for the cabinet.

So we are now the happy owners of a new 32" LCD HDTV. With tuner and speakers, even. Getting that set into the cabinet, though, was also a challenge.

The Zenith was about 20"x30" on the outside. The Sony is about 21"x31.5". Not a huge difference, but a much tighter fit, nonetheless. The Zenith came out before VESA set standards for wall mounts. In fact, a wall-mount was not an option -- we had to remove the tabletop stand, and Infinity made us a nice sheet metal bracket that we were able to use by first removing what amounts to the back of Odyssey's cabinet. The bracket then mounts to the cabinet backboard and the TV, and the backboard is reinstalled in the cabinet. The roughly 1" of clearance above and below the set was critical to this procedure.

Fortunately, we were able to get an "extendable" wall mount for the Sony. I had to move the backboard another 1.5" into the cabinet, to allow room for the mount, but then it was a simple matter of bolting the mount to the backboard, extending the mount and hanging the TV on it, and then pushing the TV back into the cabinet. As a side bonus, we can now extend the TV out of the cabinet and swivel it to be seen either from the penthouse or from the kitchen.

The Zenith, meanwhile, is up for grabs. If you want it, make me an offer. I'll probably let it go for a dinner, or a couple bottles of wine, with the catch being that you'll have to pick it up. It works, and we've been watching it right up until today -- the lines are only annoying at certain times or in certain scenes, and will likely be much less so from ten or twelve feet away instead of four. We'll be in San Jose in a few days, where I will mate it back up with its tabletop stand. I'll even throw in the custom-made wall-mounting bracket.

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