The last remote I’ll ever need

This is the 14th in a series of articles about my recent quest to replace a broken VCR in this era of DVDs, DVRs, and other newfangled gadgets. Click here for the beginning of the series.

Before I try to explain why on earth I would want to start from scratch yet again and asked Dad to rewire a second Sony remote that was especially difficult to work on, I need to go back and tell you some other history that was going on at the time.

Dell W1700This entire adventure to replace my broken VCR began in early April 2007. All of the discoveries about tunerless VCRs and my failed first attempt to rewire a remote to use a new VCR all occurred at around that time. Then in early June my 17 inch Dell W1700 HDTV that I use my bedroom suddenly quit working (see image on the right). I had purchased it on eBay for about $275 as a factory rebuild. It originally retailed for about $700. I’ll tell you about the replacement that I bought in a moment but first I’ll say I gave the broken unit to a guy that Dad works with who likes to tinker with broken equipment. He discovered why factory rebuilt units were available. The luminescent back panel had a poorly designed circuit that burned out easily. Whenever you sent them into the factory they simply replace it with another identical copy of the poorly designed circuit. He had already tinkered around with it quite a bit before he found out about the replacement part and he was scared to invest $80 in it in case he had broken something else along the way.

 Polaroid TLA-01191CAt the time I bought the TV on eBay you couldn’t get a widescreen HD capable monitor anywhere near that inexpensive but as I looked around for a replacement I saw a number of 19 inch widescreen HD monitors available various places for just under $300. We went to Wal-Mart and got a Polaroid TLA-01991C 19 inch HDTV for about $285 (see image on the left).

When I got it home I was seriously disappointed. 95% of the time I watched the TV in bed so I’m laying down looking up at it. From that angle the LCD display washes out almost completely. I had to tilt the mount at a downward angle in order to get a halfway decent picture. And that’s exactly what I got… a halfway decent picture. It was not nearly as good as the 17 inch Dell that I’d had before. There was one other problem however that was a deal breaker. In order to watch HD programs you need to use 5 component video cables or an HDMI digital cable. To watch the VCR you need three composite video cables. You have to switch the TV input back and forth depending on whether or not you’re watching VCR or HDTV. On the Dell TV a single button toggled through the various input settings. On the Polaroid you hit the “input” button and it called up a menu. You then had to hit up or down arrow to get to the proper input and then hit a “select” button to select it. It would have taken three additional buttons on the remote control just for this one function.

Magnavox 19MF387B_27I ended up taking it back and getting a Magnavox 19 inch 19MF387B_27 HDTV at Best Buy (see image on the right). It cost just over $400 which was more than I wanted to spend but I didn’t have any choice. Before I bought it I went to the Magnavox website and downloaded the user manual to make sure that you could change the input function using a single key. When I got it home I discovered it still had the same viewing angle problems that the Polaroid had. It probably had the same LCD in it as the other model with different software and a different brand name on the outside. At any rate I just have to put up with having the television angled downward. The picture quality still wasn’t as good as I hoped at first. It took a lot of adjustment of the various color, brightness, contrast controls to get something that I could live with. It’s been performing pretty well ever since then but it sure took a lot of adjustment.

I mentioned earlier that a second VCR went bad on me and I had a hard time finding a Sony replacement for it through an internet closeout reseller. This entire adventure was a real wake-up call for me that the days of using nine or even 11 micro switches to control my TV and equipment from bed were eventually going to be numbered. VCRs were probably going to become a thing of the past and would be completely replaced by DVRs and DVD recorders. All of these were going to require more and more buttons to use.

Suddenly I had a brainstorm!

If I dedicated some of my buttons to the device select functions on the remote then all of my other buttons could have multiple functions. For example out of the 11 switches, if I made three of them device select buttons then the remaining nine switches could control a total of 27 different functions! Although you can reprogram almost any button on a learning remote to do any function, the one thing you cannot program it to do is be a device select button. That is with one exception… the Sony remote I’ve been using has four buttons at the bottom labeled A, B, C, & D. They are described as “System Control” buttons. They are actually macro buttons that can be used to store an entire sequence of key presses including device select buttons. If I wired into those System Control buttons I can use it to switch which device I was using and I could also put a function of some kind in there. That would give me 27 functions out of the nine non-macro functions plus four more functions piggybacked onto the macro buttons that I use for device select.

With this many buttons there would be all sorts of opportunities to use more sophisticated equipment. I can get a DVD burner if VCRs eventually are totally discontinued or I could have a second DVR in my bedroom. In fact the hassle of swapping tapes and keeping track of what programs were on what tape was getting to be a really big hassle. For just six dollars extra per month I could have my own DVR in the bedroom.

I talked it over with Dad and he said he wouldn’t mind starting from scratch and rewiring another Sony learning remote. We were in no hurry to do it. I already had a remote that was working really well so we didn’t have anything to lose except a little money, time, and effort.

Well we went for it and we did it!

Since the Sony remote has 4 macro buttons, I decided to go ahead and add one more micro switch to the cluster. This gave me 13 buttons. Four of them would be device select buttons and would have a function besides that. Nine of them would be function buttons that depending on which device I had previously selected it would now have 36 different functions available. Surely that would be enough to last me for a very, very long time.

In the next and final installment I will describe what I did with all those functions.

Starting from scratch

This is the 13th in a series of articles about my recent quest to replace a broken VCR in this era of DVDs, DVRs, and other newfangled gadgets. Click here for the beginning of the series.

Image of me using a remote controlWhen I’m not in bed I don’t need to have a rewired remote. I just need remote where I can reach it so I can poke at it with my stick that I use to type on the computer. On the right is an image of me working my remote in my bedroom. In the background you can see a cable box and a couple of VCRs. The remote is connected to a small aluminum bracket that fits in a slot in the front of the control box on my wheelchair. It is attached to the bracket with Velcro so I can change remotes or use it for other purposes such as my scanner radio that I take to the race track.

Sony RM-VL600 remoteI’m used a variety of learning remotes over the years. I had Zenith that worked pretty well for several years but one day I tried to program in one extra button and it locked up on me and wouldn’t do anything after that. I replaced it with a Phillips but it acted rather flaky. Dad had one identical to it and it quit working after six months. Now both dad and I have a really nice Sony RM-LV600 Learning Remote (shown right) that is probably one of the best learning remotes I ever had. I’ve never failed to be able to teach it a code from another remote and the built-in codes are pretty good to begin with.

It can control eight different devices. The “Cable” section controls my Scientific Atlantic HD cable box/DVR in the living room as well as my Pace HD cable box in my bedroom. The “TV” section works the Sony HDTV in the living room. The “VCR” section controls my three different JVC VCRs. The “DVD” section controlled my Toshiba VCR which was broken. The “Satellite” section controls my Dell 17 inch HD monitor in the bedroom as well as a 9″ Motorola TV in the kitchen. The “Tape” section controls a 14″ Toshiba TV in my office. The “CD” section controls the DVD player in the living room. It’s really nice that I can control three different VCRs with one section because they are all JVC brand and use the same codes.

Since this was the best remote I ever had, I decided it would be the one I used for my next attempt at rewiring a remote for use in bed. I had never taken one of these apart before but something about the exterior just told me it was going to be more difficult to adapt because the buttons were smaller than the earlier remote site had rewired. Dad picked up a new Sony remote and we took it apart. Much to our mutual disappointment it was going to be much more difficult to solder wires into this remote. The three images below illustrate why. The top image is of the inside of the Zenith remote that didn’t work and the bottom two images are of the new Sony remote.

Inside of Zenith remote
Trace side of Sony remote
Component side of Sony remote
Click the images for larger versions

The Zenith has silver traces covered with a thin green protective layer of paint or plastic film. Over the top of that are some black carbon traces that are the ones that actually make contact with the buttons. Both of these traces are on the same side of the printed circuit board with nothing but the green plastic layer between them. There are wide areas of light green (actually silver with green coating) that are easy to solder to once you scrape the green paint off. Typically we drill a hole through the printed circuit board and bring the wire up from the opposite side and then solder it onto the shiny stuff.

The Sony uses a completely different system. The component side of the board has the little silver traces but instead of black carbon traces laid over that there are some brown traces on the reverse side that make contact with the buttons. The silver traces are extremely narrow and would be impossible to solder a wire onto. The only place that we possibly would be able solder onto are these little white doughnuts which connect the component side silver traces to the buttons side brown traces through a hole in the printed circuit board. To further complicate matters there is a thick layer of white paint protecting the area where the batteries rest as well as a couple of other pressure points where the case touches the circuit board for support. The task of following traces beneath this white paint was going to be a real challenge. When Dad saw the little white donut areas were the only place to solder, he made no promises as to whether or not we would be able to make this work.

I’m going to take time out from the story to say that Dad and I did rewire this Sony remote using 12 micro switches and much to our mutual surprise it worked perfectly the first time! I continued to use the Sony remote for a couple of months until one day I had a brainstorm. I decided to start from scratch yet again. I purchased another Sony remote and 13 more micro switches and we built another system from scratch. I only mention that now, because I want to explain that the diagrams below are all from this second version of the Sony remote. Its not the version I started telling you about at the beginning of this article.

Here are some images of the wiring diagrams I used to trace all of the buttons that I would need and to find solder points were dad could wire in my micro switches. The middle section of the image below has been colorized to show which buttons are connected in common rows and columns of traces. Just above that you can see the actual buttons. For example the “Fast Forward” button connects the black and purple traces where the little interlacing fingers are located. Similarly “Pause” bridges the black and yellow areas.

Colorized wiring diagram for Sony remote

Note that three separate areas are colored orange, three areas are colored brown, and two areas each are colored red, black, and purple. These seemingly disconnected areas are actually connected by traces on the component side of the board. The bottom section of the image shows the component side of the board where we will actually do the soldering. Note that this image has been flipped top to bottom so that it corresponds with the other two images. The colored lines going off the bottom of the board are the wires that Dad will solder in. However there are also other colored traces that I have drawn on the board outlined in white that show how these traces actually connect seemingly disconnected sections on the reverse side.

This also meant that in some cases Dad had a choice of more than one dot that he could solder onto. It was a good thing because as he attempted to solder onto two of the dots, they act

ually peeled off of the printed circuit board and were ruined. That meant that the connection to the trace side had also been ruined and the original buttons on the remote would no longer work. However as long as there was a continuous line from the alternate solder point that ended up going back to the controller chip, the micro switch would still work even if the buttons on the remote itself would not work.

Here is a chart showing which buttons correspond to which combinations colorized traces.

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That takes care of what goes on inside the remote. We also need a wiring diagram for the micro switches. The image below is a computerized rendering I created to show Dad how to wire up the switches.

Computer rendered wiring diagram

Below are several images of the micro switches after they have been wired. Because there are sharp edges where the wires connect to the pins, we coat the entire underneath side of the switches with globs of hot glue. Not only does it protect my hand but it also provides some strain relief on the wires so that they don’t wiggle loose. Each row of switches is slightly staggered to give me room to actually press the buttons.

Completed wiring of switches
Switches are staggered to allow travel room
Glue protects the completed assembly

Here is the completed product…

Completed remote

In our next installment I will explain why on earth would completely start from scratch yet again considering I had a perfectly good working wired remote.

How to rewire a remote control

This is the 12th in a series of articles about my recent quest to replace a broken VCR in this era of DVDs, DVRs, and other newfangled gadgets. Click here for the beginning of the series.

My first rewired TV remoteHere is a photograph of the first TV remote control that we wired with the switches. It was a remote for a 13 inch Magnavox stereo color TV. It had only four switches. One was for power. Another was for channel up and the last two were for volume up and down. Although this TV was cable ready, at the time there were only about 30 channels on our cable system so it didn’t really take very long to go around the dial to get to the channel you wanted. I limited it to four switches to keep it simple and because I was concerned that I would have difficulty handling more than four switches at a time.

In those days they didn’t have universal remotes. You had a dedicated remote for every device and that was it. If you had to replace a remote you had to write to the manufacturer so it was risky to take it apart and wire buttons into it. Fortunately our rewiring job didn’t damage the remote. In fact I’m still using that television today a good 15 or 20 years later. The TV is mounted on the wall in our bedroom at the Lake.

By the time I was ready to replace that television, it was possible to purchase universal remotes inexpensively. So rather than risk damaging the remote that came with the television, I purchased an inexpensive RCA universal remote and we wired it for use with my next television in the bedroom. That same rewired remote served me just fine until just a few months ago. It originally had a record five micro switches! I finally decided that in addition to power, volume up, volume down buttons, I would splurge and have both a channel up and a channel down button. Those are the five switches shown at the bottom of the cluster in the image below.

11 Micro Switches I think it was only three or four years ago that I decided to expand that remote. I added four more buttons for a VCR. These four additional buttons in the middle row control stop, play, fast-forward, and remind. Then a little over a year ago when I got my first HDTV for my bedroom I need two additional buttons. Those are the buttons shown at the top. One of them controls the zoom feature so that I can switch between the 4:3 at 16:9 aspect ratios. The other one toggles between component inputs and composite inputs. Component inputs are connected directly to the cable box for HD viewing. The composite inputs are for the VCR. If you watch through the VCR you don’t get high definition so I needed an extra button to toggle back and forth. Since the zoom and input toggle features were not available on my old RCA universal remote I had to purchase a second “learning” remote to get these two additional features. A learning remote allows you to copy any function from another remote by pointing the two remotes together at capturing the signal.

Old 11 Switch Remote ControlAs you can see from this image, three sets of wires connecting the buttons to two different remotes is quite a mess. That mess, combined with the fact that I knew someday I might have a device that the old RCA remote would not control, had led me to decide to rewire the entire thing from scratch. It was such a big job to rewire it I hadn’t done it but now that “someday” was today and the old RCA remote wouldn’t work the new Sony VCR/DVD we were going to have to go ahead and do it now. It turns out that the Sony device used DVD codes and the old remote predated DVDs!

I had already purchased a new Zenith ZEN-760 learning remote to replace the old mess. I ordered a new batch of micro switches from Because I was going to need 11 of them I didn’t think I could find that many in stock in a local store.

Here’s what the inside of the Zenith remote looks like inside and out.
Zeneth Zen-760 learning remote
Inside of Zenith learning remoteThe image was created by placing the circuit board on my scanner. The light green areas are silver circuit board traces covered in a layer of green protective coating. The wide black lines are another layer of electrical traces. The large black lump middle left hides the chip that controls everything.

Close-up inside remoteIn this close-up the green S-shaped areas created by the little black interlacing fingers are where the actual keys go. A metallic contact on the back of the rubber keyboard membrane makes contact with the little interlocking fingers. That completes the circuit and the chip figures out what to do from there. You can’t solder onto the black traces… only the green ones. So you have to figure out where the alternate sides of the little black fingers connect to green traces. Then you can solder wires onto the green traces. The round “connection dots” on either side of these interlaced fingers are the locations where the black traces connect to the pale green traces. The image shows a couple of places where it would be good to solder wires for the button location created by the little fingers on the right.

As you can see, the two sets of fingers creating S-curve locations on the left side of the above image share a common trace with the one on the right. That is because you don’t have two unique wires running to every button on the keyboard. If you did, it would take 22 wires to connect my 11 micro switches. If you were to draw a schematic you would see that the keys are actually arranged in a series of rows and columns. The chip in the remote sends a signal down each of the column traces one at a time, many times a second. If a key is being pressed, the signal will come back in one of the row wires. This way the chip knows that the button at that particular row and column is being pushed.

In earlier remotes, I had to use the actual button locations for volume up, volume down, channel up, channel down etc. Sometimes those particular buttons didn’t have easily reachable places to solder wires. In a learning remote you can put any function in any key location. That was going to make the wiring a lot easier. It would also allow me to exploit the row and column arrangement. I could choose buttons that shared common rows and columns and it meant I could run fewer wires to my micro switches.

Close-up inside remoteThe first few times I did one of these rewiring jobs I simply had to sit and stare at the circuit board for long periods of time trying to follow the traces with my bare eyes. Fortunately I figured out that if I put it in the scanner and created a digital image, I co

uld blow it up big and use a paint program to label the solder points so that dad could figure out where to put the wires. Also if you used the “color fill” tool on the paint program you can colorize the little green traces in multiple colors and keep track of where they go a lot easier. In the image on the above left I have labeled the locations of the “6”, “9”, & “TV/VCR” buttons as well as colorizing some of the traces so they are easier to follow.

I spent about a day working with this remote and creating a wiring diagram for dad to follow. He wired up 11 micro switches for all of the functions I talked about earlier. Then we tried to get the remote to learn all of the functions that we needed.

It didn’t work!

Although you can put any function you want into a button, somehow this remote “knew” whether or not a particular function belonged to a TV, VCR, etc. It wouldn’t let you mix codes from different devices. It assumed you were going to put all of your TV codes under one device, VCR codes under another device, cable box under another device etc. It didn’t really care if you put TV codes in a VCR slot or VCR codes in a cable slot. But it would only let you put one kind of device codes in each device slot. That meant I would’ve had to wire more micro switches into the CBL, TV, & VCR device select buttons. The bottom line was we had completely rewired this new phenomenal remote and it was totally useless!

In our next installment we start from scratch with a Sony remote.

The best $2.69 I’ve ever spent.

This is the 11th in a series of articles about my recent quest to replace a broken VCR in this era of DVDs, DVRs, and other newfangled gadgets. Click here for the beginning of the series.

Sony SLV-D370P (front)After all that complaining about tunerless VCRs, not only was I able to replace my broken Toshiba VCR in my bedroom with a really nice Sony SLV-D370P DVD/VCR combo, when my JVC VCR in the office failed as well, I was able to get another of those same Sony’s to replace it. I had to get it through a third-party reseller through which is a little bit scary. Since the guy had good feedback I went ahead and ordered it. It came in a couple of days and has worked fine.

However there was still a problem using the Sony in the bedroom. 95% of my viewing in the bedroom is while I’m in bed. Handling a remote control in bed is a bit difficult for me. I couldn’t get my very old programmable remote to work the new Sony VCR. Since I have two VCRs in the bedroom and I only need to watch one of them in bed, I decided to swap the new Sony with my older JVC VCR and make the JVC my primary recorder that I use while in bed. Unfortunately this old programmable remote wouldn’t work the JVC either. I was going to have to buy a new remote control.

That doesn’t seem like a very big deal. $20 at Best Buy gets you just about any kind of remote you want. However I have to specially adapt the remote so I can use it. I can’t really hold the remote in my hand in a way that it’s pointing at the cable box, VCR, and/or TV. Instead I set it on a shelf and I have some extra push buttons on the end of a long cable that I hold in my hand while in bed.

Remote controls with 11 button wiring harness

The image on the right shows the two remote controls and the mess of cables leading to a cluster of 11 little switches that I hold in my hand to control the TV, cable box, and VCR. The story of those little micro switches and various remotes and devices I’ve wired with them is a pretty interesting story. So let’s set the time machine for about 25 or so years ago and review my history with rewiring devices with remote buttons.

Many years ago the first remote control TV I had in my bedroom only had two buttons on it. The first button was a channel up button. The other button cycled through four different settings. The first click turned it on and set the volume and a fixed high level. Subsequent clicks reduced the volume to medium and low volume settings. A fourth click turned the television off. It was sort of like the settings when you pull the chain on a ceiling fan. There was no channel down or volume up buttons but this was pre-cable so the were only 5 TV channels to cycle through. It used radio control rather than infrared so it didn’t have to be pointed at the TV set. I still had enough strength in my hand in those days to hold the entire remote and push the button with my thumb.

Later I got a new TV with a traditional infrared remote with the usual volume up and down, channel up and down etc. buttons. Because it needed to be pointed at the set, I couldn’t find a way to hold it in my hand properly. That was only a minor problem for me. I would simply have my dad rewire the remote with a few small micro switches.

Radio Shack Model Number 275-016 SPDT Micro Switch without RollerOf all the pieces of adaptive equipment I’ve ever used, the one piece of equipment that ounce-for-ounce and dollar-for-dollar has been the most useful gadget I’ve ever had is the “Radio Shack Model Number 275-016 SPDT Micro Switch without Roller” currently selling for $2.69 at Radio Shack’s everywhere. This handy little switch measures just 3/4″ x 1/4″ x 3/8″. The very first one that I used was probably the most important adaptation of a device I’ve ever made.

In the winter of 1978 I was working full-time at Indiana University Department of Medical Genetics as a computer programmer. There was a blizzard that winter and we were off work for several days as the city shut down. I had nothing to do for several days except read computer magazine about these new wonderful devices called “personal computers”. As soon as the weather cleared I went right out and bought my first kit to build my own personal computer.

a Cromemco Z-2It was a Cromemco Z-2 S100 bus computer with a 4 MHz 8-bit Zylog Z-80 processor and 16k bytes of RAM memory. It was my pride and joy. Initially I used an old 12 inch black-and-white TV as a monitor and audio cassette tape for storage. This photo shows it later upgraded with two 5.25 inch floppy drives and 48k of memory. Click on the images for larger versions.

At that time I had pretty good use of my hands. Although I couldn’t dress myself or go to the bathroom without help, I could feed myself and most importantly for my career I could type on a regular computer keyboard. I was able to do some of the construction on the kit computer. I soldered many of the circuit boards myself using a small lightweight rechargeable soldering iron. Dad did all of the mechanical assembly. The image below shows a close-up of the S-100 circuit boards some of which I built myself.

Close-up of circuit boards some of which I built from kits myselfIt wasn’t long after I completed my computer that my disability got worse. Congestive heart failure and deterioration of my muscles from Spinal Muscular Atrophy took its toll on me. I had to quit work and go on disability. The worst part however was as I slowly began to lose the use of my hands. That meant I couldn’t use my computer anymore.

The breakthrough came when I realized I could prop the keyboard up on an easel so that the keys were facing me. I discovered I could prop up my right arm, and poke at the keys using a very long pencil. The image below from 1984 shows me (with much more here than I have now) typing on a similarly adapted Radio Shack Model 100 Computer.

Me typing at an old Radio Shack Model 100 with the keyboard popped upThe real problem was what to do about the “control” and “shift” keys. You can’t hold down those keys and type another key when you’re just poking at the keyboard with a stick. Note that in those days computer keyboards did not have “Alt” keys on them. Some of keyboards I used had a “Shift Lock” key which not only converted to upper case but also turned a number keys into punctuation marks like a real typewriter. Computer keyboards today have only a “Caps Lock” which only affects letter keys so for modern keyboards so not only do I have to worry about “control” but also “shift” and “alt”.

The solution was to wire in a couple of these handy dandy Radio Shack micro switches on the end of a long wire and connect them to the “control” and “shift” keys inside the keyboard. I would hold these remote keys in my left hand in typ

e with the stick in my right hand. It worked beautifully!

Soon I had Dad wiring these little switches into all sorts of devices. The next one was a $75 electronics stopwatch that I had bought at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway so that I could time the race cars. It took four of the switches to make that work. The stopwatch had various split time and reset buttons in addition to start and stop. That was much more challenging to solder wires into a tiny circuit board in a watch than it was to solder it into a full-size computer keyboard. Dad managed to do it somehow.

If I had ruined my computer keyboards or the stopwatch they would’ve been easy enough to replace however my next project was very scary. I had spent $650 on a new video camera. I need to solder in three micro switches to toggle record off and on and to zoom in and out. We managed to take apart the handle of the camera where the switches were in find a place to solder in some wires for my handy micro switches. Fortunately it worked and we didn’t blow up a $650 camera. Various other computer keyboards and gadgets got similar treatment over the years. I can’t begin to remember all things we wired up that way.

Eventually they developed some software for MS-DOS that use a special keyboard driver that would turn your “shift”, “control”, and “alt” keys into toggle keys. When Windows was introduced it had this accessibility feature built into it as an option. So I haven’t had to wire a computer keyboard remote in a long time. Most of the rewiring we do these days has been for television remote controls.

In the next installment I will explain more about how we go about rewiring remote controls with the switches and the difficulties we encountered this time around.

Worse than I thought: R.I.P. analog cable

This is the 10th in a series of articles about my recent quest to replace a broken VCR in this era of DVDs, DVRs, and other newfangled gadgets. Click here for the beginning of the series.

I think the thing that bothers me most about this tunerless VCR situation is that there wasn’t any warning about this change. On the contrary they said repeatedly “Satellite and cable users have nothing to worry about.” For satellite users that’s pretty much true because everything comes through a satellite box that is already converting your digital satellite signals into something your TV or VCR can use. You typically connect to a satellite box by a composite video cable using red, white, and yellow RCA-style cables. Note however that some satellite systems are setup so that you can share a single satellite box with two or more devices (and presumably one of those could be a VCR). Typically these secondary connections use an RF coaxial cable and analog channels 3 or 4 or sometimes even old-fashioned UHF channels. If you are relying on such a system to connect your satellite box to a VCR and that VCR breaks, you’re going to have a hard time replacing it.

However the situation is much more complicated for cable users. When they said “Cable users don’t worry” I always presumed that it also meant that cable services would continue to transmit at least some of their channels via analog cable. For example I get my cable TV from BrightHouse Cable. For example local channel WTHR which is the local NBC affiliate is currently broadcasting in standard definition signal on Channel 13 and its new high-definition signal on digital channel 13.1. Over my cable system the HD version can be received on Channel 713 and the standard definition version is on Channel 12. I presumed that after February 2009 when the station stopped transmitting its older standard definition signal, the cable company would down-convert the HD signal and continue transmitting it on cable Channel 12 so that “If you subscribe to cable or satellite, you have nothing to worry about.” Your old obsolete TV can still be used.

If indeed cable services are going to continue to provide analog cable for the foreseeable all future, then the elimination of cable ready VCRs is especially problematic.

However some of the people who replied to my question on the AVSForum said that some cable systems are already beginning to phase out analog cable completely! Although internet discussion boards aren’t really 100% reliable sources of information, one of the posters said that Comcast cable in Chicago is already planning to phase out analog cable this summer. That means that the sentence “Cable users have nothing to worry about” really means “analog cable users will have to begin renting digital cable boxes for all of their televisions and VCRs.” There has been a very slow migration of channels from analog to digital but most of them have been relatively unimportant channels. I wouldn’t be surprised if more of th of em moved because, as I said earlier, you can get many more digital channels in the same bandwidth as a single analog channel. However I had no idea that analog cable was on its way out entirely.

I have 6 televisions in my home. Two of them have dedicated cable boxes and the other 4 are connected to analog cable. I have 4 VCRs connected to analog cable. If analog cable goes away I don’t think renting 6-8 additional cable boxes is my idea of “cable users have nothing to worry about”. Okay so 6 televisions is extreme but one of those is a little 9 inch set on the kitchen counter that my mom watches while she’s fixing dinner and mom and dad both watch while eating breakfast at the counter. It’s going to be totally impractical to the cable box in the kitchen given all the other appliances and limited counter space there. If analog cable does disappear it’s going to be a real hardship for avid television watchers such as us.

I sent a lengthy e-mail to one of the local TV stations to suggest that they cover this issue and encouraged them to ask Comcast and Bright House win and if they were going to discontinue analog cable anytime soon. I’m not gotten any reply from that station. I may try writing to a different reporter or perhaps to the other local TV stations. If I get any response, I will report it here.

That basically concludes the story of the disappearing VCR and tuners for now but my struggle to replace my broken VCRs wasn’t over yet even though I had found in older VCR that still had a cable ready tuner. I discovered that my old remote control which I had specially adapted so that I could use it could not be reprogrammed for the new Sony VCR.

In my next installment I will begin a lengthy story about adapting my remote controls so I could use this new VCR.

Uncle Sam is at fault as usual

This is the ninth in a series of articles about my recent quest to replace a broken VCR in this era of DVDs, DVRs, and other newfangled gadgets. Click here for the beginning of the series.

In our previous post, we noticed that the only VCRs or DVD recorders that had tuners were the top-end models which have newer ATSC digital tuners in addition to the older NTSC analog tuners.

NTSC stands for “National Television Standards Committee” and it is the standard for all analog television used in the United States and Japan as well as a few other countries. Wikipedia has an extensive article about NTSC. ATSC stands for “Advanced Television Standards Committee” and it is the standard for digital television including the new HDTV standards. Again Wikipdeia has an extensive article about ATSC. On February 19, 2009 all over the air broadcasts using NTSC analog signals will end and only the newer ATSC digital channels will be broadcast. Much of the hype about the conversion to digital has typically said something like “Only people who rely on over the air broadcasts through an antenna have anything to worry about. If you have cable or satellite you have nothing to worry about.” I was beginning to look like that statement wasn’t true at least when it comes to VCRs.

I logged into my favorite video support and asked the question “Are VCRs with tuners ancient history?” Click here to read that thread. The people there confirmed my suspicions that our beloved federal government was to blame. A new ruling which took effect March 1, 2007 said that video equipment imported for sale in US that has an older NTSC TV tuner in it must have a new ATSC to capable of receiving a digital television signals.

Here’s a link to which has an excellent guide to HDTV and explains the March 1 rule.

In general that’s a pretty good rule when it comes to televisions. You would hate to put hundreds of dollars into a television set that was going to be unable to receive broadcasts in less than two years. This is similar to a previous rule regarding UHF tuners that were mandated to become standard on TVs back in the early 1960s as I described in a previous blog entry.

The loophole in this regulation is that if a device has no tuner at all, then the regulation doesn’t apply. For several years now they’ve been selling HDTV’s that did not have the new ATSC tuners. The industry has been very good at warning consumers that these less expensive HDTV’s require some sort of external source of HD content such as a cable box, satellite boxes, or external tuner of some kind. Note however most of these so-called HD monitors have traditionally also had regular cable ready NTSC tuners for standard over-the-air television and analog cable reception. The fact that after March 1, 2007 these lesser expensive models would drop the NTSC tuner probably isn’t that big a deal assuming they keep doing a reasonable job of warning customers about the limitation. As I explained before, they are doing a really terrible job of warning of public that the VCRs are completely tunerless.

I did some more research on a couple of those models of VCR/DVD recorders which had newer ATSC tuners. They were about $100 more than a comparable unit without a tuner. One thing I could not determine in every case was if they still have older NTSC tuners. Just because you have a new digital tuner doesn’t mean you can still tune to the older channels.

In our next installment we will see that the situation may affect more than just your VCR use. Cable and satellite subscribers may have more to worry about than you think!

Where oh where did the tuners go?

This is the eighth in a series of articles about my recent quest to replace a broken VCR in this era of DVDs, DVRs, and other newfangled gadgets. Click here for the beginning of the series.

Just because I had difficulty finding a cable ready VCR that was the brand and style that I wanted, doesn’t mean that VCRs with tuners are really disappearing. So I decided to do a little survey of my own. On July 9, 2007 I visited web sites for the three major consumer-electronics retailer’s here in Indianapolis:,, and The results can be seen in a table by clicking on this link.

H.H.Gregg did a pretty good job of being honest about which VCRs had tuners and which did not. On Best Buy’s web site they generally had images of the back of the VCR so you could tell whether or not it had coaxial RF cable inputs and outputs or just RCA jacks. generally has pretty good information with lots of really good user reviews but this time they had the least information of all. In some cases on particular models I had to go to the manufacturer’s web site and even then in a couple of cases I had to download and Adobe PDF file user manual to find out if it had a tuner or not.

One clever manual author suggested that if you needed a tuner for your VCR that you could hook your new VCR to an old VCR using AV cables and use your programmable tuner in the old VCR to record programs. Pretty clever idea and one that I may use myself someday but of course that resumes you still have an old VCR that works!

Although some of the models clearly were described as “tunerless”, one of the greatest bad euphemisms I’ve heard in a long time was one of the models which was described by the manufacturer as “tuner ready”. Apparently it meant that it was ready to be hooked up to in external tuner. That borders on deceptive advertising because it could be implied that it was ready to go with its own tuner. I laughed out loud when I read that one.

You will notice that the only VCRs that I found that had tuners in them had newer digital ATSC tuners. That was my clue that led me to discover the reason why the older tuners are being phased out.

In our next installment we will explain the difference between NTSC and ATSC and how the federal government is the culprit behind the disappearing tuners.

Digital cable messes things up

This is the seventh in a series of articles about my recent quest to replace a broken VCR in this era of DVDs, DVRs, and other newfangled gadgets. Click here for the beginning of the series.

For many, many years it’s been relatively easy to connect TVs and VCRs to cable systems. The cable simply comes in from the wall, goes into the VCR, comes out of the VCR, and goes into the television. If you wanted a slightly better picture quality out of your VCR you could also connect AV cables from the VCR to the television. These consist of a set of three red, white, and yellow RCA-style cables that transmit video on yellow and left and right audio on white and red cables respectively. In fact that you have a stereo VCR and a stereo television, these AV cables were the only way you can get to stereo sound out of your VCR. Although the cable signals coming from the cable company have stereo audio in most cases, and the VCR tuner is capable of decoding a stereo audio signal and recording in stereo. The Channel 3 or Channel 4 output of VCR does not output stereo audio to your television. Many people don’t realize that but they don’t seem to notice.

Over the years the number of cable channels increased dramatically. At one point Time Warner cable had channels all the way into the low 90s but in more recent years these analog cable channels only reach up to Channel 74 and then skip to 98, 99 on our system. As our cabin in Brown County, the cable system we use only goes up to about 48 and then skips to 98, 99.

Because the capabilities of analog cable had been maximized, the cable companies have come up with a new system to add more channels and more features such as pay-per-view and video on demand as well as onscreen channel guides. They achieve these additional channels and features using what is called “digital cable”. Again we now needed some sort of cable converter box. Fortunately a modern cable box has a remote-controlled electronic tuner and tons of features. The modern digital cable box is actually a small computer connected to the cable company on a computer network that runs through the cable lines. It’s sort of like a closed internet system. Each cable box has an IP address just like the computers on the internet. Information travels both ways along the network. The cable company sends information to your cable box and the cable box can send information back to the cable company. This facilitates such features as pay-per-view and on demand viewing. The cable company can even upgrade the software in the cable box to add new features in the future.

Channel numbers starting at 100 and upwards are not transmitted using traditional analog television signals. Rather they are transmitted as computer information stored in compressed digital form. They can transmit many more channels using the same amount of bandwidth if they are transmitted in this digital form. As many as six digital channels can be transmitted using the same bandwidth as a single analog channel. The real problem is that your so-called cable ready TVs and VCRs can no longer directly access these channels.

Most of your premium channels such as HBO, Showtime, Cinemax as well as some of the more obscure cable channels have all been moved into these digital channel numbers. But for the most part the most popular basic cable channels are still in the 2-99 range that are accessible from cable ready TVs and VCRs. These include all of your broadcast channels which are retransmitted through the cable, ESPN, ESPN2, all the cable news stations, history, discovery, TBS, TNT etc.

A typical hookup for one of the systems is as follows: the cable comes in from the wall and goes into a RF splitter. One of the outputs of the splitter goes to the cable box. The other output goes to your VCR. Your cable box is then connected to your television using red, white, yellow AV cables although some people use a short RF cable. Note that using an RF cable to connect your cable box to your TV means you do not get stereo audio. Also you connect the output of your VCR to another AV input on your TV. If you have a three-way cable splitter you can also connect a third RF connector directly to your TV which gives you even more capabilities.

Given this set up, you can simultaneously watch any cable channel through the cable box and record any analog cable channel to your VCR. Or alternatively you can use your VCR to record a digital channel through the cable box and watch and analog channel on your TV. The only thing you can not do is record one digital channel while watching a different digital channel.

For many years I had a cable box in the living room and in my bedroom. If I desperately needed to record two digital shows at the same time I could record one of them in the living room and one of them in the bedroom.

People who have satellite dishes have to have a satellite box to watch any channel. All the channels from a satellite are digitally encoded. There is no analog cable when using a satellite and so a cable ready tuner doesn’t do any good. Satellite users either need a separate satellite box for the VCR or they cannot watch and record two different things simultaneously. (Note: some satellite boxes are dual tuner so you can record and watch different things at once but most are single tuner.)

This limitation of satellite and the expanded capabilities of analog cable are the main reasons I’ve always had cable rather than satellite.

The consumer-electronics industry realized that it had innovated its way away from one of its greatest interventions: the cable ready tuner. They convinced the cable industry to come up with a new system called a “Cable Card”. Newer top-of-the-line HDTV’s have been made with a slot where you can insert small electronic card about the size of a credit card. You rent this card from your cable company for about $1 a month. It allows your television to receive all of the digital and analog channels that your cable system uses. With such a card, you would no longer need a cable box and your television would once again be cable ready.

Recall that I said cable boxes actually have two-way communication between you and the cable company. Such two-way communication is necessary for the onscreen guide, pay-per-view and on demand services. Unfortunately the cable card system is only a one-way system so the advantages of these features are not available if you have just a cable card. I never used pay-per-view and have rarely used on demand services but I would really miss the onscreen cable guide. My HDTV in the living room has a cable card slot but I still use my regular cable box anyway. I’ve never seen a VCR or DVD recorder that is cable card ready although I have read that some DVR/TiVo recorders may have cable card slots. In fact if your DVR needs to record two shows at once it actually needs two cable cards. The latest TiVo model HD DVR has two cable card slots.

The cable industry is still arguing over standards for a more useful two-way cable card system. So if we ever get full cable ready TVs with a second-generation cable card, it’s going to be a long way off. One of the problems is that the cable industry can charge you more for the rental of a cable box than they can charge for a cable card. They can also customize their features more easily in a cable box. Although they want happy customers who can easily use their service it is not completely in their best interest to adopt cable card technology.

Given that the cable card system really isn’t as functional as it could be and given the increased flexibility provided by cable ready tuners in TVs and VCRs, you would think that the consumer-electronics industry would want to keep cable ready tuners available in TVs and VCRs for the foreseeable future.

By the way, although these articles have been focusing mostly on VCRs, the
same thing holds true for DVD recorders and digital hard drive recorders such as TiVo and DVRs. Cable ready tuners are disappearing from these devices as well.

In our next installment we will try to determine if this absence of tuners is a limited thing overly widespread and we will try to discover the reasons why it is occurring.

The cable era begins.

This is the sixth in a series of articles about my recent quest to replace a broken VCR in this era of DVDs, DVRs, and other newfangled gadgets. Click here for the beginning of the series.

When cable TV systems first came along, they typically transmitted about 30 channels of television through the cable. In order to receive these stations, you needed a cable box. The first cable box we had was about the size of a book. It had a slider switch with about 30-some positions on it numbered 2 up to 40 I believe. The cable was a coaxial RF cable just like you would use to connect a roof antenna to your TV. It would come from the telephone pole at the back of your house into your home. From there it generally went through the attic, down the wall and exited out a small plate in your wall. You would connect that to the cable box and another coaxial RF cable would connect the cable box to the antenna connector on your TV set. You would set your TV on channel 3 or channel 4. Because Channel 4 was already occupied in this area we always used Channel 3 for connecting external devices such as cable boxes or VCRs. You would then position a slider lever on whatever channel you wanted to watch. There was also a small thumbwheel on one side that you would use as a fine-tuning wheel because the mechanical tuner did not accurately select the proper frequencies.

There was no remote-control capability. The slider box generally had a very long cord on it that you have to route behind some furniture or drape across your living room floor where you would trip over it.

You would think that if you already had a TV that could tune channels 2-83 that you wouldn’t need an external tuner to get channels 2-40. The problem is that cable TV systems use different frequencies than broadcast TV. Keep in mind when I said earlier that a channel number is NOT like the frequency on a radio dial. If you turn your FM dial to 93.1, that is an actual frequency in megahertz. The number of a TV channel has no mathematical relationship to the actual frequency used. They could have designed radio with channels and said that for example radio channel 17 would be assigned to specific frequency like 93.1 but that’s not how radio was designed. Television was indeed designed that way. The channel numbers are just arbitrary positions along a frequency spectrum.

It’s difficult to get UHF frequencies to travel along a cable. VHF frequencies travel much better. In cable TV systems, channels 2-13 are identical to the broadcast VHF channel frequencies. If all you wanted to watch on cable TV was channels 2-13, you could simply plug the cable directly into an older TV set and it worked just fine. Cable channels 14 and higher are a completely different set of VHF frequencies that are lower than UHF frequencies. Also I mentioned that there is a gap between channels 6 and 7. Some cable TV systems put as many as five different channels in frequencies in that gap.

One early alternative to the cable tuner box was a gadget called a “block converter”. It was a little electronic device you could buy at TV/video stores. It would convert VHF cable channels 14 and upwards into UHF frequencies. You can then use the UHF tuner on your TV or VCR to access all of the cable channels. The problem was the block converter was only good up to about channel 35 or 36. In the early days of cable, Comcast only had about that many channels but Time Warner cable (which is now called Bright House cable) had about 40 channels so the upper few channels with a block converter didn’t work very well with Time Warner systems.

Eventually they began producing TVs and VCRs which were advertised as “cable ready”. These were remote-control TVs and VCRs with electronic (non-mechanical) tuners that would precisely tune the proper frequencies for not only VHF and UHF broadcast channels but most if not all VHF cable channels. Initially they advertised them as “108 channels cable ready” or perhaps 109. Various cable systems throughout the country use different sets of channels and not all “cable ready” devices worked with all cable systems. Eventually TVs and VCRs which had 127 channel cable ready tuners were created and they worked with all cable systems in existence.

For those of us who struggled through the eras of clunky mechanical channel changers, fine-tuning dials, UHF tuner dials, mechanical slider cable boxes with no remote, block converters that barely worked and God knows what other hassles… the introduction of the truly cable ready tuner in TVs and VCRs was an absolute godsend!

In the next installment we will see how the introduction of digital cable messed things up for those of us who really love our cable ready devices.

TV B.C. (before cable)

This is the fifth in a series of articles about my recent quest to replace a broken VCR in this era of DVDs, DVRs, and other newfangled gadgets. Click here for the beginning of the series.

Before we go exploring the mystery of the disappearing tuners in VCRs let’s take a look back at how cable ready tuners came into being and why they were such an important development.

TV signals are just radio waves that travel through the air like regular radio. Such signals are often called RF signals (radio frequency). In television, the RF signals not only contain audio information, they also contain video information as well. The tuner on a television set could be a smooth turning dial with frequency numbers on it just like a radio receiver. However to simplify things they picked specific frequencies and assigned them channel numbers. Originally only numbers 2-13 were defined. These are known as VHF frequencies (very high frequencies). It wasn’t until 1952 that the FCC designated additional channels 14-83 called UHF (ultra high frequency) channels. In the early 1980s channels 70-83 were reassigned to wireless phones. Click here for a Wikipdeia article about UHF broadcasting.

Early televisions had only VHF tuners which were a clunky dial that snapped into place from one channel to the next. Because this mechanical dial didn’t always hit the frequency exactly, you usually had another dial that you could turn back and forth smoothly that was called “fine-tuning”. It would adjust the frequency of the RF receiver in your TV set. In order to get UHF channels, typically would turn your VHF dial to a position “U” and then turned a smooth turning UHF dial to tune a UHF channel. Some UHF dials actually had fixed positions for each channel that would click into place but most simply had a smooth turning dial like a radio dial.

In 1962 the federal government mandated that all new television sets have a UHF tuner by 1964. The argument was that it was unfair to license a television station to broadcasts on a frequency that no one was able to receive. There are those that argue that this saved UHF stations but there are others who argue that initially cost consumers millions of dollars for TV tuners but most of them did not really need. When I was growing up we only had four channels here in Indianapolis. Channel 13 was the ABC affiliate. Channel 8 was the local CBS channel. Channel 6 broadcast NBC and Channel 4 was an independent channel from Bloomington. (No that is not a typo… at one point Channel 13 and 6 swapped affiliations to the current state of affairs where 13 is NBC and 6 is ABC). Eventually a local PBS station began broadcasting on UHF Channel 20. It’s much more recently that religious broadcasting began using Channel 40 and a local Fox network affiliate was established on Channel 59.

As I explained in a previous post, my first VCR had about a dozen individual tiny tuner dials that you would tune to specific channels using a small thumbwheel. There was also a small three position toggle switch to select lower VHF, higher VHF, or UHF channel ranges. If you drew a frequency graph and plotted the channel numbers on it you would see there is a large gap of frequencies between VHF channels 6 and 7. That is why the VHF channels were split into low and high ranges.

Eventually mechanical tuners and dial tuners were replaced by more modern electronic tuners that were much more compatible with remote controls. Early remote control TVs actually had a motor which turned the TV dial for you. Electronic tuners had no moving parts and were able to select frequencies precisely so a fine-tuning dial wasn’t necessary. For this brief era, everything was just fine. That is until cable TV came along and missed everything up!

In our next installment, we will discuss the chaos that came with the introduction of cable TV.