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Sunday, October 16, 2011

Tip for switching video inputs on the hotel TV

This is how to easily bypass this system and watch videos from your laptop on a hotel set.
(If you don't want to read my story, the second picture shows you what to do)

Recently I stayed at an Embassy Suites hotel in Maryland, and they had a nice LG HDTV and an OnCommand remote control with a box on the back labelled OnCommand as well.  I think the system may be built by LodgeNet.

I had brought some DVD's and we wanted to watch a movie using my laptop as the video source and the room HDTV.  That sounds fairly reasonable, right?   Lots of people want to hook up a PS3 video game console, or use streaming movies, netflix, slingbox, and the like and watch video from their own laptop while staying at a hotel.   I should be able to use this HDTV as the monitor, I payed to rent the room!

First I wasted $25 at the neighboring best buy buying an HDMI cable, because I noted that the TV had HDMI connectors on the back and my laptop has an HDMI output.  I could have gone VGA but then I'd have to listen to the sound from the laptop, which is horrible, or have an audio cable plugged into the headphone jack too.  HDMI will also carry sound to the TV.    HDMI cables are a major profit source for Bestbuy because people price shop for the tv and then buy a stupid $50 cable to give them back the profit.   The cheapest they had was $25.  Now high quality cables do make a difference for long runs or marginal equipment, but if you only need a 3 foot cable, a $1.50 cable from monoprice is fine.  I know all about cable bandwidth, speckles and dropped bits, but that is a post for another time.  I should have packed a cable from home, but you can't bring everything.

I get back and I plug the HDMI cable into the TV and laptop and go to switch the input to the AUX or HDMI 1 source.  Whoops, no button on the hotel remote to do that.   I go to the set and push the input button on the side.   Nothing.  It is clearly disabled.   The menu button doesn't work either.  I can't change channels to the new video source either.   Curse you red baron!!!!!!!!   The hotel has lobotomized the TV.  I can sympathize because the hotel doesn't want every new guest calling up that the TV is messed up and all that needs to be done is to change the inputs back to the hotel feed.  So they save a lot of time and headaches with a TV that only tunes to the channels that work.   They also are looking to earn a buck from pay movies too, that is a little less understandable.

At first I thought the solution was to go back to the best buy and get a universal remote so I could push the input/menu buttons.  But I didn't want to spend any more money and the family was getting tired of waiting.   Years ago I used to carry a universal remote on business travel because that was the way to see the blocked channels with the old analog hotel systems. The old time hack was to simply connect the coax cable from the wall directly to the TV (a car key wedged in the metal shield turns it) and bypass the extra hotel box to see the pay per view movies using the universal remote to change channels directly on the TV.  Ahh the old days when technology was so easy to hack.   I'm sure it is not that much harder these days.  I don't want to see their crappy pay per view movies, the laptop has all the video anyone would ever need.

A little googling gave me this
It has a bunch of suggestions and random information about universal remotes, installer remotes, TV hospitality mode.  It looks like a lot depends on what equipment you are facing.  It definitely isn't worth buying a universal remote until I try some basic unplugging.

The first thing I tried worked!   There is a grey phone line cable that connects from the back of the TV to the parasitic OnCommand box on the back (I saw a similar thing with bugs hanging on your back in star trek and doctor who ).    I simply unclipped the phone cable from the box and let it hang.  Now the input buttons work on the side of the TV and I can change inputs.  TV is unlocked!  Woot!   I plugged in the cable to the HDMI input and laptop and played the movie.  Family hero.

I simply reconnected the grey phone cable when I was done, turned off the set and turned it back on and it was back to hotel normal.  No worries.

Just so you don't miss the hacking fun, on the first try of disconnecting the phone cable, the TV went dead for a minute and wouldn't turn on.  I thought I was going to have to call the front desk and play dumb, but turns out I accidentally knocked the power plug loose turning the TV around.  :-)  Unhooking power and putting it back in fixed the issue.   False alarm.  But as a last resort if things go wonky on you, unplug the TV from the wall and plug it back in after you remove or reconnect the phone cord and all should be right again.  I later confirmed that unplugging the TV from the wall between steps is not necessary to reset the box, I went back and forth several times from locked to unlocked during our stay.

Update... stayed in a Hilton Garden in Texas and it also had an LG TV, but the grey hotel box was hidden down inside a cabinet out of sight.  There was the same grey phone cable plugged into the back of the set, and the input button didn't work.  Simply unplugged the phone cable from the back of the set and I can now change inputs to HDMI using the buttons on the side of the set.  Plugged it back in when I left and it went back to working like a lobotomized hotel TV.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Is this a red light camera blocker?

I pulled in a parking lot behind this guy yesterday.   Not sure if you can tell from the photo, but the area around the license plate was entirely mirrored.  In the bottom center of the plate a hole was drilled in the license plate that was larger than a quarter, maybe a silver dollar.  Whoa!

Either he had a serious "bling" addiction, or he was up to something.  I couldn't tell what.  It looked like some of the things I discussed in my other posts on building a red light/speed camera blocker.   I was considering making some small holes in my plate for lights.

I took a photo with a flash and without a flash on a cloudy day, from inside my car.   As you can see there were no lights or flashback.  However the car was not running so maybe they were off.  If he was just relying on the mirror it didn't work!   Sorry about posting your license plate on the web dude, but it was so outrageous I had to do it.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Installing a DirecTV 5LNB Dish

Despite being "Mr. Hi Tech", I've made my family suffer with SDTV.   They don't much care about the picture, and the direcTV SD digital signal looks pretty good as it is.   Wifey loves the TiVo and all the channels, high recording capacity, etc so there has been no reason to upset the apple cart.   I've been buying used DVRs and upgrading storage (a hobby that predates starting this blog) and have recorders with 100s of hours of space and she has years of stuff saved.  You can buy these things for <$40 on ebay, people practically give them away.  There is no TiVo for directv HDTV, only knockoffs.  So no reason to break something that is working.

However I decided to upgrade my dish to HDTV capable, in case this Christmas I weaken and decide to move to HDTV.    Of course I don't want the directv install monkeys at my house, I'm going to do it myself.  Then I can just pick up a receiver at my leisure and activate it.  My plan is to install it myself and align it just using the signal meter on the screen. 

I have the older 2LNB and 3LNB dishes on my house that won't work with the current HDTV broadcast and HDTV local channels.  I need to upgrade to a 5LNB Slimline Dish.  These used to be expensive but have come down over the years.   5LNB is needed to receive 101°, 110°, 119° degree satellites, plus the new Ka Satellite (99°, 103°) for local HD MPEG4 programming.

There are two types of 5LNB.  The difference is only in the LNB head, and the heads can be swapped without taking down the dish.  The heads look like this.   Note the four connectors at the bottom.

The newer ones have SWM in the name, and have both channels multiplexed onto one wire.  With those you will see one red cable connection.  The older ones have four, and work like the old fashioned ones that require a multiswitch to split.  Apparently the newest receivers use SWM and if you have the old style two wires you need an adapter.  I decided to go with the old style SL5 LNB instead of paying more for a SLF-SWM LNB since my house is already wired with the old style.  Plus the old style LNB is $50 cheaper.   If I went SWM I'd have to climb into my attic and replace my multiswitch and buy a power inserter and adapters for all my old boxes.  Blah. 

Bought a dish off ebay, got this one:

$98 was the lowest total cost I found between price and shipping.  I had $6 in ebay bucks so that came off and I paid $92.  Note that these things are big and heavy and some people charge $30 for shipping, so watch out.  Shipping is fair but that doesn't mean I have to pay it ;-).   I tried Amazon, Weaknees, Ebay, Froogle.  Seller had reasonable feedback and I got it in a week.  Looks new, all the parts, Win!   You might do better from a private seller on a used dish if you work at it a bit and bid.

The dish came with no instructions, and even for a mechanically adept and experienced dish assembler, it is not obvious how it goes together.    So I found this doc on the web:
I fired up the signal meter in the guided satellite setup on one of my TiVo DVR's and encountered a setback.  My receivers don't give you the option to pick anything past a 3LNB.  So I won't be able to fully align this dish but I think I can at least align it to work with the boxes I have, and tweak it in if needed when I finally get the HD DVR.

However I need to know the azimuth, elevation and tilt for this dish. Since my receiver doesn't support it, it doesn't tell me the tilt.  So I looked around the web.
Found the directv satellites in the list, but still can't get tilt from this tool

Bingo! This tool allows you to enter your location, select Directv 5 LNB from under the multi-LNB Setups and gives me the skew/tilt.  

Your LocationSatellite DataDish Setup DataView dish alignment line in Google Earth
Latitude: 39.0993°
Longitude: -76.8483°
Name: DirecTV 5 LNB (99, 101, 103, 110, 119W)
Distance: 37919km
Elevation 38.3°
Azimuth (true) 215.4°
Azimuth (magn.) 226.4°
Dish Skew [?]:  63.3° 
Turn clockwise standing behind the dish

These numbers disagree slightly from the Directv basic tool, 225.1/38.4
Also the three LNB setup said 56 degree tilt.   So it looks like I will be doing some hunting.

Found an app called SatelliteAR.  Neat.  You can search the database for "directv" and it will show you only those 5 satellites.    Hold up the smartphone and you see where they are.  It is a little imprecise of course, but you get a good general idea if you are looking in the right direction and if a tree is in your line of sight.

I assembled the dish according to the instructions, which were pretty bad on the assembly section.  I aligned it roughly like they say in the document too.  Note that I used the 3LNB setting on my receiver and was able to get it to work just fine.  At least I'm back to getting all the stuff I was before.  I won't know if the HDTV alignment is good until I get an HDTV receiver.  I plan to tweak it in at that point.

If you are wondering if you can align a satellite dish yourself, the answer is yes if you can hold a wrench and have ears.   I find it's best to set things up so you can hear the satellite signal strength meter tone from the settings menu from where you are aligning the dish.  Just move it around slowly until you hear the tone.  Done.  I have used two cell phones when I'm too far away to just turn up the TV volume to max.   Using a second person to watch the meter is ok too, but they often get bored and complain a lot :-).

I will update this post in a few months when I get and HDTV receiver.