Tuesday, April 17, 2007

My experience with line conditioning

In January I was given a very nice Viewsonic CRT monitor by a friend. It worked and looked great, but after some use I was noticing some odd things about it. I had seen the screen in use before, and it had always seemed much brighter and clear at those times compared to when it was in my home. Soon after that, I began noticing an even more annoying problem- to the right of any very dark or bright parts of the monitor, there were dark or light streaks that were more noticeable in line with how much the section of the monitor contrasted the rest of the items of the screen.

This problem soon extended into videogames and movies, where any characters, buildings or other figure would have a shadow. So, I decided to investigate why this was happening. It was the first time any kind of electronic device that looked fine during constant use before it was in my home could be seen functioning poorly with the same kind of use in my home.

Several different factors led me to believe it had something to do with my home and not the unit itself:

-While my previous monitor (another flatscreen CRT, 17ish inches from vpsMatrix) didn't have the streaking issue, it was much smaller, but it did share a similar problem: it's brightness was always much lower than it should have been, leading myself and others to have to turn the brightness up to very high amounts (eventually a solid 100 in it's configuration) to get it to look right. This shift took about 5 years and while the monitor worked fine otherwise it never looked right.
-The power in my home is very flaky. The breaker box pops easily and the lights dim when things like space heaters are turned on ( especially the outside air conditioning units).
-My stuff works better at other people's houses. Every LAN party was pretty confusing: My computer would perform many times better, my screen would look somewhat better and I never knew why.

So, after asking around and googling like crazy, I concluded that A. the problem was power related and B. the problem was likely caused by low voltages and line noise in my house.

Line noise is caused by a multitude of different things, but here are some (all of which are found at my house):
-A recent (within years) increase in the number of houses running off the same power at the street.
-Lots of heavy-power usage devices and those that use electric motors, such as a refridgerator, ceramic space heaters, 2 air conditioning units and 2 central heat/air systems, etc.
- Wireless phones at 900Mhz, 2.4ghz, 5.8ghz and a wireless network, as well as a wired network with a total of 200ft of cabling through the house.
-Plenty of other electronic equipment, projector, xbox360, surround sound system, all on the same power section of our circuit breaker.

After a great deal of research in favor and against line conditioners, I decided to buy one and see how it goes. I decided to go with APC since I'm familiar with the brand, but I'm pretty certain other companies such as Tripp Lite would be just as good. The APC website is kind of tricky- it's matching service definitely has an affinity for pushing one toward the battery backups that are 1200-1500VA and cost $100-200 or more. While I didn't really need the battery backup, since the higher end battery backups come with Automatic Voltage Regulation (AVR), and APC customer service responded that all their UPSes definitely act as noise filters, I was pretty much sold on one for around $150-170 because while the lower end UPSes did have AVR, they didn't both boost and trim the power signal.

However, while playing the price/shipping comparison I ran into something that both wasn't made a big deal about on the APC website... and happened to be exactly what I was looking for.
The APC Line-R 1200VA (LE1200) automatic voltage regulator that boosts, trims, and explicitly is listed as a noise filter as well. It was $52 with "free saver shipping" on Amazon but while I appreciate free shipping, the only reason I didn't get it from Newegg was because I couldn't find it there (didn't use the right search terms), even with a shipping charge.

I ordered the LE1200 from Amazon, and a week or so ( :( ) later it arrived in it's full 10lb. glory. My brother hooked it up before I got home and when first looking it at it, I was not impressed at all. The dark streaks were still there. I figured it might be latent noise or something like that, still stuck in the various capacitors, etc, so I unplugged the monitor and let it sit for a while. After plugging it back in, it still had all the same problems. I gave up, figured it would cost an arm and a leg to send a 10 pound glorified surge protector back to Amazon anyway so let it sit as a testament to my being swindled by fancy 'line noise' talk and how the naysayers of line conditioners were right.

However, soon my attitude changed. A day or so later, my heater kicked on while I was using my computer. I heard a distinct "click" and looked under the desk at the line conditioner. It sat there humming away, it's middle green light on indicating a normal voltage. I grabbed the heater remote and turned it off and, while watching the line conditioner, turned it back on. There was the same "click", as well as another indicator light switching on showing the drop in voltage. If the AC unit would come on, there was another click just as the lights dimmed. I was pretty impressed with the fact that I could at least actively see this thing do something worthwhile... but that wasn't the end of it.

A few days later, I had a firefox download dialogue opened over a white page.. and I couldn't see the streaking. I looked more closely and moved the box around, and then noticed it finally, but only as a faint greyness in an otherwise normal looking screen. Eventually, the streaking completely vanished, I haven't seen it in games or movies, in Windows or Ubuntu since. So, the LE1200 really did work, but oddly enough took a few days and was a gradual change instead of an instant one that I expected. My computer has been running better than it ever has (I have both the monitor and computer power supply running from the line conditioner) and every time I hear it "click" I become more satisfied with my purchase. I got exactly what I was looking for for 1/3rd the price I was willing to pay. I haven't had to turn up my screen brightness to play games effectively in over a week or two and everything on my screen seems brighter and colors look better (probable due to the loss of shadowing blurring the image).

While they are a source of debate, if you have any similar problems to those that I was having and have the same kinds of electrical issues (my house is around 20 years old or more), I definitely suggest a line conditioner for electronics/computers that are worth the $50 investment.

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