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Sunday, February 13, 2011

The big picture

Our weekend started off on a rough note, as we discovered that the monitor on the main computer at blog headquarters had died overnight the night before. It was an oldie but a goodie -- a CTX purchased used for $15 three years ago, and seemingly going strong -- but its power supply finally conked out. We tried different power cords, but to no avail -- we couldn't even get the on-off indicator light to come on. Tot.

It wasn't as if we were cut off from the outside world. We have three other PCs and two iPhones in the house. But as some of our best stuff is on the mothership computer and none of the others, having no monitor on the big one was disruptive.

And so hi ho, hi ho, it's off to Free Geek we would go.

We dropped off the dead screen and threw five bucks in the jar to cover their time and trouble. It's quite the beehive of activity down there these days. All sorts of staffers running around, and our "donation" took all of about two minutes. We checked their thrift store to see if they had a suitable replacement, but they had only a bunch of smaller screens. We'd gotten used to about 21 inches, and so retreating to a little guy was out of the question.

As we sat in the car and searched around on our iPhone for the nearest Best Buy, a light went off in our head. What about Costco?

Sure enough, our big box warehouse buddies had a nice candidate, for about $280. We were tinkering around with the back of the display model, looking to see what kind of connector it took, when we accidentally disconnected the power to it. Along came some friendly Costco types to stop us from doing any more damage, and in the course of getting the monitor hooked back up, one of them mentioned that we could get a similar display device, with a TV tuner in it to boot, for just 10 more dollars.

It's been years since we thought about this sort of thing, and we were a little incredulous about the dual-purpose unit actually working. But Costco Man assured us that it would satisfy our computing needs, as well as providing us with our first HDTV. Sold.

It is a Vizio M260MV -- a 26-inch LCD LED HDTV. Whatever that means.

We got it home and hooked it up, and lo and behold, it does indeed function quite nicely in both capacities.

Getting the new unit up and running took some time, due to a comedy of errors. The TV connection worked great, but we couldn't get the output of the computer to display. The Vizio kept telling us "No Signal." We called in to an extremely polite, helpful, native-English-speaker Vizio customer support center, and the folks down there (in Salt Lake City) helped us troubleshoot the issue.

Their first instinct was that our computer was set to a screen resolution that the Vizio couldn't handle. We would need to change that. But without a working monitor, of course, we couldn't see what we were doing on the computer. Therefore, we had to unhook a monitor from another computer and hook it up to the mothership to change the resolution.

The other monitor we chose for this role was hard to disconnect, and it had a cord that was quite short, and so we had to situate it on the floor next to the computer tower, which sits under our desk. Not the easiest thing to do, and when it was hooked up, it wasn't the easiest thing to see, either. Our lower back, which was still squawking a bit from a burst of yard work last weekend, wasn't pleased.

To make matters worse, changing the resolution wasn't working. Every time we disconnected the working monitor and reconnected the Vizio, we still got "No Signal." And when we reconnected the working monitor, somehow our Windows Vista computer had reset to a higher resolution than the one we were trying to test.

Just when we were getting ready to give up, we mentioned to the support helper that the input menu on the Vizio screen wasn't exactly the way it was portrayed in the user manual. The manual told us that the computer input would show up on the menu as "RGB," which is what the port says on the back of the Vizio unit. But on the menu on the screen, "RGB" was nowhere to be found. We had it set to "Comp," which we assumed stood for Computer.

Oh, no! the support gal explained. That stood for "Component." After we read off the options on the menu, she informed us that the computer input would be identified as "VGA." Our struggles had been going on for an hour or so, and this new information had us laughing out loud. Suddenly, we felt like an old guy who couldn't work his VCR -- which was pretty much what we were.

We pushed "VGA," hooked the computer back up to the Vizio, and everything was just as it should be.

Having the screen be able to play computer monitor or HDTV is pretty cool, but as it turns out, it will let us do just one thing at a time. There's no way to split the screen and have both TV and computer displayed simultaneously. And so when we work on the computer with the TV on, which we like to do, we'll still need another screen. But now that we've broken the ice with HDTV, a smaller, portable digital TV is likely in our future.

God bless our modern world. But what a way to kill half a day.

Comments (21)

Very similar story here ... Bought a big 32" HDTV at costco for a song even though we dont even have cable TV hookup. In my case, the only thiNg was having to go back to costco for something called an MDI cable, for about one sixth the price of one from one of the other big boxes. Plugged it into the back of the mac mini and boom, off to the races, no setup needed.

My aging eyes really appreciate the big Screen, and the total cost was way under what apple wanted for a monitor plus computer.

Jack,you're better than I am in setting all these devices up. My wife's patience is what does it. But how's your barbecue fix working?

Still going strong. The chimney starter may not make it through the summer, but the Weber kettle looks like it still has years to go.

There was a card in an envelope taped on the Vizio box that offered to set the TV up for $89.99. Hah! But there was also a toll-free Costco "concierge" number to walk you through for free.

>>>we've broken the ice with HDTV, a smaller, portable digital TV is likely in our future.
Jack, why go small with HD? You can't appreciate it until you see it in at least a 42" format. (Trouble is, they'll milk you for the HD service.) Still, when you see the grain in the hardwood during an NBA game, you'll appreciate that you have something with a little perspective. Don't tell us you are holding out for 3D.

A few things:

That Vizio monitor tempted me too - all the right inputs and a tuner to boot. At this rate of falling prices, someday they'll be free. :-)

Great discovery of the year for me is remote login. Computers here are all networked together, and with Remote Terminal login on most of them, able to log in over the network from one computer. The desktop of computer X shows up on the main computer. A lot cheaper than a KVM switch, and seems to work nicely.

All built in to Windows XP, Vista, and 7. Requires Pro or Ultimate,though. Not Home Premium.

As for those HDMI cables...
These range in price from the $5 cables hiding in obscure places at Frys (Shaxon) to those $99 "Gold Plated HD" monsters at the big box stores. The difference? About $94, with pretty much the same video and audio quality. Those folks out Hillsboro Airport way can find all sorts of computer cables and adapters - various lengths and configs - all at wholesale prices. www.pchcables.com.

No affiliation with any of the named companies except as a satisfied (or unsatisfied) customer.

Finally, the family room 61" TV makes a mighty fine computer monitor. Could be useful when my vision diminishes.

Mark, I want something small that I can put on a small stand and wheel around the office, or even take down to the kitchen now and then.

When we get ready to replace the main set in the "TV room," we'll be going at least 42, maybe higher.

LOL! Great writeup. I've never found CostCo to be worth the Cost, tho. Tried them a couple of times, and going "You know, I can get toilet paper for less over at Freddie's."

Same with screens and most other stuff. And the other stores don't pat you down as you enter/leave.

I'll buy screens and other stuff at Bi-mart (employee-owned, Northwest business, no pat-downs, nobody at the exit examining your purchases), $5 for a lifetime membership.

I absolutely refuse to buy from any store that has guards at the exit (Best Buy, CostCo), and I certainly won't pay $40 or $50 a year for the privilege of entering the store after showing my i.d. and then waiting in line as the guards ensure that your checkout ticket matches your purchases.

It's a little too Soviet for my taste.

CostCo may have the occasional good deal, but insufficient to justify the cost of membership and Soviet-era policing. They do serve inexpensive and delicious sausage at the front of the store, however, and not only do they not charge for condiments, they don't frisk you before you eat.

There's no way to split the screen and have both TV and computer displayed simultaneously.

Actually, there are solutions for that. Check Major Geek or the screen provider.

I use a Samsung and found a split-screen solution on their website. It wasn't intuitive, and Samsung provided absolutely no help, but I eventually found a way to make it work.

Best of luck; it can be irritating.

Funny and entertaining write up.

I just decommissioned an 15 inch diagonal Dell monitor Friday and replaced it with a 22 inch Samsung. from Frys. Old eyes wanted bigger monitor.

I would have cheerfully given you the old Dell. It still works fine.

Any body else want it?

Free is a very good price. (I once heard an old philosopher say that.)

By the way, I will still fix your fire starter chimney. Just bring it to the Law School, I'll puck it up one day and return it the next. It needs two small bolts, a couple of lock washers and a couple of nuts, all of which infest the workbench in the garage and all of which I need to get rid of. Slowly (very slowly, according to She Who Must Be Obeyed) I'm cleaning excess stuff out. Its a late 60s thing.

And I renew

Ate you using a VGA or DVI connection? Definitely go with the dvi if your video card outputs it.

Max, I disagree with your anti-Costco rant, which you've posted on this blog before (in between bannings for being a hater). I don't know about Bi-Mart, but on the whole you are not going to do better than Costco prices at retail stores. Or at any gas station, for that matter. Or optician. Or pharmacy. It's not even close.

Moreover, at year's end, we get a rebate that covers our annual membership fee. There are other benefits as well, including an American Express card that also pays a nice rebate.

I've never been frisked at a Costco. They do stop you on the way out to make sure you paid for everything you're leaving with. I don't have a problem with that.

Here's the thing with Costco and electronics. 90 days to return even if you used the item, and there are no questions asked. Just retain the orig box. Plus, extra 1 year warranty tacked onto the existing manufacturer's warranty. No one else does it, so it's still the the best place to go when buying tvs, computers, etc...

Costco. Vizio. HDTV. LED LCD. 47". With Wi-Fi and a sensible remote. Nothing better out there.

I agree with Gibby. On electronics its hard to beat their prices or warranty deal if they have what you want. Costco is worth it if you buy enough things that save you money. I dropped my membership a few years back because I was buying nothing there. I'm a member again as I've had reason to shop there.

Also, as some mentioned don't buy the expensive HDMI cables, like the "Monster" ones. Even amazon has better deals now. Another online store is monoprice.com with cheap cables and good quality.

I devoted one computer to my 42" LCD HDTV about a year ago. Stuck a video card with a DVI output in it and attached an HMDI cable to it. The TV serves dual purpose of TV or computer monitor, great for watching streaming videos or anything else we want/need to do on it. It's not my main computer monitor or machine, but when I want to use it, it's fun.

Say, what's that website there on the right....the one with the girl on the motor scooter? That blog looks awful familiar....

Thanks for "shout-out."

Anyway, a quick electronics-related anecdote from my term overseas in the Netherlands. I couldn't figure out how to hook an Xbox up to my laptop so I hiked down to a second hand shop about ten minutes from my apt. I found a cheap set for 30 Euro but didn't consider how hard it would be to get it home. My arms were giving out on me after a few blocks and I had to stop every 20 yards on the way back. Of course, it started raining. Thankfully, the shop owner gave me a trash bag to keep it dry.

Supposedly, local channels do broadcast over the air but I have yet to find a pair of rabbit ears for sale anywhere. Everyone over here has cable, it would seem.

Are you sure that your tv will not do PIP? I have a similar model, and mine does. Or consider adding a tv card to your computer.

I'll buy screens and other stuff at Bi-mart...I absolutely refuse to buy from any store that has guards at the exit ...It's a little too Soviet for my taste...CostCo may have the occasional good deal, but insufficient to justify...Soviet-era policing

But Bi-Mart requires you to show your credentials BEFORE you walk into the store - they even have a guard positioned at the door whose sole job is to make sure you have the card, and they must buzz you in and unlock the gate that allows you access into the store.

(Granted, Costco has the card people too, but at least I don't get stopped by a gate and a loud buzzer go off when I walk through the entrance.)

Seriously, though, I got a Bi-Mart card about a year or two ago; it is the closest store to my home. But their prices are just too high for most things. I'll run over there if I need something quickly but for most things I'd rather go elsewhere. The electronics department has too spotty and inconsistent of selection, and is often pretty poor quality merchandise to begin with. Most of the household goods is lower brand/quality stuff; the food is more expensive than the grocery store.

Bi-Mart IS good if you're looking for sporting goods...which, I'm generally not.

Brandon -- For rabbit ears, try Radio Shack or Amazon ($10 - $60.

True, recent Costco story. A friend bought a TomTom GPS for his car at Costco more than 3 years ago. Warranty on the unit is 1 year, Costco doubles it to two. About a week ago, the unit craps out. Instead of just buying a new unit, he takes it to Costco. They look at it, decide it is dead, and hand him the price, in cash, of a brand new Tom Tom model, no further questions asked. Nowhere - I repeat nowhere - can you get that kind of service on electronics in Portland. Costco charges reasonable prices, sometimes extraordinarily low prices, and has a warranty service that simply cannot be beat. Shop at BiMart if you will, but I dare you to compare what I just described as the norm at BiMart. Our Costco membership pays for itself by February of each year.

The unfortunate part of using an HDTV as a computer monitor, is that the pixels-per-inch (PPI) is usually less dense than a computer display, for the same money.

For future reference: here's a local distributor that has two locations in the Portland area that usually has good prices on this kind of thing:


They have some displays listed there that have better-than-1080p resolution, in the same or slightly smaller size, for about the same price. Higher PPI = better on your eyes = less headaches. Also, since it's made to be a computer display, there's no monkeying around with what input it should be on - it only has two, maybe three -Analog VGA 15-pin, DVI, perhaps HDMI or DisplayPort.

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