Sunday, February 6, 2011

Of Course, Of Course...It's the Famous Mister EDid

My life with a permanent Windows Media Center as my central "TV hub," began back in 2007 when I upgraded all of my home components to Vista. (You can read about those upgrades very early in this blog.)  Before Vista, Window Media Center was confined to XP, which meant there were problems with the system with regards to multiple streams, user interface, etc. In essence, XP Media Center was a toy (sound familiar?), and home entertainment components were still pretty crude devices when it came to interactivity: there was no nice way to have the components operate with more than one remote reliably, devices didn't understand what they were connected to, and multi-zone systems were in the stratosphere of the very rich - or at least the well to do - and even then those systems required intervention from a CEDIA installation expert if you wanted to be audacious and add a new DVD player.

However, things began to change pretty quickly at this point. Components began to catch a clue as to what was on the other end of previously-dead wires, remotes began to work and play well with others (although, that is still lagging and will never be completely solved until most components have an IP hook), and a old standard for displays called Extended Display Identification Data, or EDID, began to be taken seriously by not only display manufacturers, but systems connected to displays.

The idea behind EDID is a simple, yet powerful, concept immediately familiar to computer engineers. It's a simple handshake protocol that allows one device to ask if anyone is at the other end of a wire, and get an acknowledgement. Well-behaved EDID compatible displays not only say "yes, I'm here," but identify themselves in gory detail. Again, this is a familiar concept to anyone that's ever done client-server application work, but to the consumer electronics companies this was a magical, mystical idea. (Device acknowledgements and uni-directional, stateless remotes singlehanded kept home theater components in the realm of wizards for decades. I have my own theories about this almost willful ignorance which revolve around OEM A not wanting to play nice with OEM B via a standards committee so the consumer would be compelled to by exclusively from the same OEM for all of his/her components. Too cynical?)

In the blog posts involving my move from XP Media Center to Vista Media Center, I explicitly call out my first encounter with EDID. I had a first generation Sony plasma TV that was connected to my Vista Media Center through a direct DVI connection. The first gen Sony and the new Vista had an EDID communication problem. You can read about in that blog post if you're interested, but the short story is: the Sony plasma did not implement EDID standards correctly, and would not identify itself again to the Media Center once the plasma was put in standby and then revived. It would send the "I am going into standby signal," but never told the Media Center it was awake when it was brought back from standby. The end result was that the Media Center thought the TV was off, so never sent a video signal. (The only solution at the time was a hardware one. I bought a device from Gefen for $60 that stored the EDID from the plasma when it was first turned on, and then continually presented that EDID to the Media Center so it never realized the plasma was in standby. Idiotic, but simple.)

Flash forward to a later in 2007 - I started a company in LA, and moved myself from the east coast to the west coast. In the process, I bought a new plasma (a Pioneer Elite 60") and a new A/V Receiver, a Sony 5200ES which not only did video switching, but converted lower resolution, non-digital sources to 1080p output. It was cool, and it worked really quite well...until it didn't... read on...

Over the course of the next few years, I upgraded Vista Media Center to Windows 7 Media Center - the improvements were as dramatic as moving from XP MC to Vista MC. 7MC really is currently the best way to record, store, search, and broadcast video from many discrete sources around the house. Put a 7MC server somewhere, load it up with cable cards, place XBox 360s around the house and you've got yourself multizone, HD video. It can be done on the "cheap," with the highest pricetag going to a nice 7MC server with 1-2TB of drive space. I repurposed an old Sony VAIO desktop - this one here, actually - with a better graphic card (an ATI 5600HD) to push a true 1080p monitor, 2TB of RAID0, and a couple of cable card adapters. I put 7MC on it, and never looked back.

It's long about now that I started to notice some ghosts in the machine. I use the video switching on the AV Receiver a lot - I began to notice that when I would move between devices of different screen resolutions, the 7MC would try to hold the resolution of the previous device. (For instance, dropping the screen resolution to 480p and leaving it there.) More annoyingly, when I would bring the entire system out of hibernate, the Pioneer plasma would stay black. It didn't take long for me to realize that the problem was, again, with EDID identification. It took me a little longer to realize that the problem was, again, with another Sony component: the 5200ES A/V Receiver.

The receiver, it turns out, was replacing the EDID from the Pioneer with one of its own. In other words, it wasn't allowing an EDID passthrough, it was identifying itself to the 7MC as a Sony A/V Receiver. This was causing dozens of unwanted side-effects inside the Media Center. The problem didn't materialize in Vista Media Center because of VMC's caching of the EDID. 7MC does not cache the EDID (which is "correct" behavior) - so it was getting a new EDID every time a component switched on, and the identity was coming from the receiver rather than the display.

Because I didn't want to replace the receiver, for about a year my solution to the problem was: anytime the Pioneer never turned on properly, I would get up, walk over to the receiver, unplug it, wait 2 minutes until it reset itself, and plug it back in...

...12 months was enough. Two things snapped in my head:

  • another expensive purchase seemed worth it to counteract a lifetime of unplugging a receiver
  • I was no longer a Sony fanboy
Normally, my first impulse would be to search for another Sony component, but after disappointment after disappointment with Sony gear (both home entertainment and computer), I just couldn't re-invest. So, I began a search into non-Sony waters to find an A/V Receiver that:
  • had the most recent rev of EDID
  • the most recent rev of HDMI
  • handled video switching of a wide variety of components
  • was internet upgradable
  • uprez capabilities
  • excellent sound reproduction/separation
  • excellent video output
  • on screen controls
This lead me to a couple of choices: the Onkyo TX-NR808 and the Denon ACR-3311CI. The price points and feature sets were pretty identical, and the reviews were about neck and neck. I am a fortunate man, in that I now work with both Robert Heron and Patrick Norton, of HD Nation fame. After some quick email back and forths, and bugging them both at their desks, Denon quickly rose to the top. (Both Robert and Patrick both claimed the sounds were a bit warmer with the Denon.)

The unit came quickly, and now the weekend I dreaded: pulling out the old Sony 5200ES and putting the Denon in it's place. It sounds easy, until you consider the rats nest of cables I had to deal with, plus the reprogramming of my Logitech Harmony 900 remote. (As an aside: really a great remote. The RF-to-IR functionality cannot be understated.) The components going into the new receiver? The 7MC, of course, plus a PS3, XBox 360, Roku, and Sonos. This still left me with enough space for expansion - so I can begin to play with some of the other 10' experience boxes out there.

Turning the Sony on for the last time, I wanted to make sure that the 7MC was "inert," and not recording anything important. (I also ran the check on all my other components.) 

After turning it all off, the Sony went into a box and into the ever growing "I need to eBay this crap" pile in the basement. (Home to another Sony receiver, an old Shuttle computer, a TERC HD roof-mount antenna, old car stereo equipment, some pretty great floor-standing Infinity speakers and a dozen laptops of dubious variety. Yeah. eBay. Next weekend.)

Flipping the cabinet around revealed the Thing I Hate Most in the World: stereo wiring. It took a few hours of getting it under control, but once I did I was able to pull out the Sony and slide in the Denon. A little cable management and I now have a new back end to the A/V center.... ok, fine, not that much better....but better. (You can see photos of all the steps on my Flickr stream, if you're up for it. Excuse the dog, she was just curious.)
Bringing the system back up, I ran the setup for the sound field, and then put the system through its paces. The EDID problem was gone. The system operates as it was intended, moving easily from input source to input source, properly switching from unit to unit.

So, is EDID your friend? Now, yes. Device identification is one of the two keys required for all of these systems to interoperate properly - and the display component is probably the trickiest problem to solve. At the beginning of 2011, most new components now handshake correctly using EDID - but if you are wrestling with older components that were once "cutting edge" in this arena, you may run into some of the difficulties I've had plaguing me for a while. (HDMI 1.4a, which supports 3D output, is today's version of "cutting edge," so expect your components to act oddly for the next few years while that standard shakes itself out.)

Best of luck with all of this, and drop me a line to let me know how dark your particular entertainment hell is...