The Mystery of the Glowing TV Power Light

Why do power lights on TVs and computer monitors stay on when the device is powered up? I’ve been scratching my head over this question for quite a while now.

That obnoxious light in the corner of my eye

Granted, these status indicators make perfect sense for showing that the device is in stand-by mode instead of being completely powered down. Then again, most modern TVs and monitors don’t even have a true power switch anymore. Instead of actually disconnecting the device’s circuitry from electrical power, the on/off button just toggles between “stand-by” and “on.” In other words, “stand-by” is “off.”

The TV's power light is housed towards the left edge of a clear plastic bar that runs along the full length of the TV screen's bottom edge. Its glow is at least as bright as a regular daylight TV image.

Of course, power lights do provide meaningful feedback, e.g., when the TV is receiving a command from the remote control, while it is powering up (if there’s a delay between switching the device on and the screen lighting up), or if there is a technical issue (as commonly indicated by unique blinking patterns).

Once the device has fully powered up, though, the fact that an image appears on the screen is more than enough feedback. At that point, a continuously glowing power light just does not provide any uniquely useful status information anymore.

These lights do bother me immensely.

When watching a movie, I often find that bright, ruby-red LED very distracting, especially if the movie’s scenery is dark and ominous. I’ve tried to find a way of deactivating the light, but short of ripping the LED out of its socket, I have yet to find a cure.

Screen on, power light off

My external computer monitor has a similar power light, and I find it at least as distracting as the one on the TV — even more so when working at night in a dimly lit studio. In its default configuration, the light glows red when the monitor is in stand-by mode, and blue while it’s switched on.

Several hardware buttons are embedded in the bottom right corner of the computer monitor's bevel. These are used for interacting with the device's on-screen configuration menus. The power LED is to the right of the power button, and it glows blue when the screen is lit.

(This monitor also lacks a true power switch, but it does have distinct “off” and “stand-by” modes. When in stand-by, the monitor will automatically light up as soon as it detects an active video signal. This is very handy as the monitor automatically switches the screen on and off when the computer wakes up or goes to sleep, respectively. In the “off” state, the screen always remains dark.)

After some research, I found a pair of promising settings deep in the monitor’s configuration menu. Besides being able to choose a blue and green color for the LED in “on” state (which I find somewhat gratuitous), there is an option for “LED Brightness.” And, yes, you can set the brightness to 0% to fully dim the LED.

As an indication of how much thought the designers invested in the monitor’s behavior, the brightness setting only applies when the monitor is on. When it’s in stand-by, the LED still glows red to help distinguish between “off” and “stand-by.” Great!

After adjusting the settings, the power LED is now completely switched off, even though the screen is lit. Success!

This is the exact behavior that I would love to see for every device that features a video screen: Provide feedback via an LED in response to certain user actions, as well as for indicating device failures — but please allow me to fully dim that light while the device is in standard, error-free operating mode, so I can focus on whatever’s on the screen, instead of what surrounds it.

Apple DVD Player’s Way of Failing Silently

Our media collection contains a number of DVDs whose region code is 2, because I had bought them when I was still living in Germany. The region code of our DVD player is 1, though, and unfortunately, it is one of the few models for which you can’t find an unlock code online. (Here’s an older blog post, dating back almost ten years, on how simple it usually is to change a DVD player’s region code.)

For reading legacy CD-ROMs, we use an external USB optical drive with our Macs, so I decided to try the following route: set the external drive’s region code to 2, play movies with the DVD Player application on the Mac, and stream audio and video to our TV via an AppleTV using AirPlay .

A map view in DVD Player's preferences panel shows the six geographic regions and their codes. It also displays the region code of the DVD that is currently in the drive, and the drive's own code.

Things looked promising — until I activated AirPlay on the Mac: While the computer’s desktop was mirrored on the TV, and the movie’s audio played through the TVs speakers, a gray rectangle had replaced the video viewport in DVD Player.

The Mac's desktop, showing the DVD Player video window with all the controls, like timeline, playback control buttons, etc. In this case, though, since AirPlay is activated, there is just a even gray rectangle in the window instead of the video signal from the DVD.

To sort out the problem, I connected the Mac directly to the TV via an HDMI cable. Interestingly, that changed the display resolution, but the movie did appear on both the internal and external screens.

Third-party software to the rescue

Next, I opened the DVD in VLC Player and tried using AirPlay again. Now, finally, everything worked as intended: The video and audio played on the Mac’s screen, and both were properly streaming to the TV using the default resolution.

The same setup as above works just fine with VLC Player, a third-party video player application. Its main window properly displays the video stream, even when AirPlay is activated and streaming to the same destination.

Considering that the video was grayed out in DVD Player as well as in my screenshots, unless I was using VLC Player, leads me to believe that Apple intentionally blocks playing DVD movies via AirPlay for “copy protection” reasons. Being able to stream HD videos via AirPlay from iTunes without any hiccups is further indication that this is not a technical issue, but a conscious design decision.

Failing silently is among the Mortal Sins of UX Design

Enough has been written about how “Digital Rights Management” punishes honest, paying media customers.

The annoying aspect about this particular experience, however, is the utter lack of meaningful feedback: How about popping up a dialog box that states that, “For copyright reasons, you cannot stream a DVD via AirPlay”? In fact, that message could appear right inside the DVD Player video window where the user is looking for the now-missing video signal.

Instead, all you get is a gray window where the movie used to appear.

Failing silently like this will lead users to wonder whether there is a technical problem, and likely make them trouble-shoot their setup, and search online for more details on the issue. Apple could easily avoid this waste of time and effort by showing a simple notification — even if that might come across as somewhat embarrassing for a company that takes an outspoken (and highly commendable) public stance against “copy protection” mechanisms.

Error Messages in Bounced Emails

Error messages are always annoying, but designers and developers can make them less painful by addressing three questions (in a language that is meaningful to their users):

  1. What went wrong?
  2. Why did it go wrong?
  3. What can the user do to fix it?

This applies to all error messages, regardless of the context in which they appear. Case in point: Messages that mail servers add when they reject — or “bounce” — an email.

Feels like email support purgatory

When I tried to send a command to an email list server a few months ago, the email was rejected with this error message:

SMTP error from remote mail server after initial connection:
host [REDACTED]: 554 [REDACTED] ESMTP not accepting messages

The message text makes it sound as if this server is not accepting any messages. But then there’s the 554 error code, which is commonly used when a server rejects an email which it considers to be spam.

To fix the problem, I contacted the help desk at the university that hosts this list server, using their publicly accessible website.

They responded via email, saying that they had assigned and update the support ticket, and included a link to the ticket on their website. After clicking the link, I was asked to sign into the university website — which I couldn’t do, since I was not a student there and, thus, had no account for the site.

My direct email response bounced as well, so I had to open another ticket to follow up with them. In response to which I received another update email with the same kind of useless-to-me link. So I submitted yet another support ticket, explaining to them the original problem; that my direct responses to them bounced too; and that I could not sign into their support website, either.

Although they had already received complete headers from my original email and from the bounced response to their help desk’s email, their next response said:

Please attach or copy/paste the original message to the ticket so we can review of [sic] troubleshooting purposes.

Picture me, sitting in front of my computer, a desperate look on my face, flailing my arms wildly, and screaming, “BUT HOW?!”

So I simply gave up.

My original email just wasn’t important enough that I would endure this nonsense any longer.

A clear and simple path towards un-blocking your emails

A more meaningful error message for the exact same condition (namely that the receiving server intentionally rejects an incoming message) is this one from EarthLink:

SMTP error from remote mail server after MAIL FROM:[REDACTED] SIZE=2379:
host [REDACTED]: 550 IP [REDACTED] is blocked by EarthLink. 
Go to earthlink.net/block for details.

It clearly explains the issue, and does so in a language that does not require in-depth IT knowledge to understand. More importantly, the page that the included link points to answers the three key questions listed earlier:

  1. What went wrong,
  2. why it went wrong, and
  3. what you can do to fix it.

The EarthLink page provides detailed information, starting with a

While it was still a bit of a hassle to have our server removed from EarthLink’s black list, the error message and the support page provide enough information to understand what to do next.

An essential component of this process is that the admins at EarthLink provide an email address — blockedbyearthlink@abuse.earthlink.net — that does not block any incoming messages. It’s this detail that makes direct email communication with the support team possible, so that the workflow is much more convenient and efficient than what the above university had to offer.

Addressing rejected emails the Google way (and it ain’t pretty)

Alas, sometimes even a meaningful error message and a link to further information still doesn’t suffice.

For reasons unbeknownst to me, Google has been considering me a spammer for the last couple of months. Emails to Gmail accounts regularly end up in the recipients’ spam folder, even though the messages’ contents don’t feel at all “spammy” to me. We also never found evidence (in the log files, etc.) of spam emails being sent from the root server that we share with some friends.

This problem has gotten to the point where Gmail has rejected my emails outright. The error message that was contained in the responses is very well-phrased, and it also contains a link to further information.

Delivery to the following recipient failed permanently:

    [redacted]

Technical details of permanent failure: 
Message rejected by Google Groups. Please visit 

http://mail.google.com/support/answer/188131?hl=en

to review our Bulk Email Senders Guidelines.

This does not make sense, though: The messages were sent to individual Gmail accounts, not to Google Groups, and they did not originate from an account that would even remotely qualify as a “Bulk Email Sender,” either.

Following the link to their support page provides an “outstanding” example for what I think is the biggest flaw in Google’s overall philosophy.

Under the heading,

For Google, there is a solution to every problem — but it is always a technological one.

If you have any problems with a Google product as a regular user, you can’t simply call a human at a support hotline. Instead, you’re referred to a support forum, which is often maintained by other users (but no official Google representatives), or you’re offered another tool to help you fix the problem you have with the first tool.

Same here: The help page explains perfectly well what happened, and why it might have happened. But the question “what do I do now?” is “answered” by pointing to the Gmail Postmaster Tools.

The

The help page for these Postmaster Tools states that this is for you, “[i]f you send a large volume of emails to Gmail users.” What, then, if it’s been only a handful of emails that were rejected, as in my case?

What’s more, the Postmaster Tools can only be used if you have your own domain. So what do you do if you use another large email provider like, say, Yahoo! or Hotmail, without your own domain?

Considering how many companies are using Gmail as their sole email service, not being able to reach these companies, because Gmail blocks your emails for some obscure reason, is not just annoying, but actually a bit scary.

Not having any way to easily fix any blocking, though, is just unforgivable, especially when we’re talking about a modern-day IT giant with a resource pool like Google’s.

Two of my rejected emails were job applications. I don’t know what, specifically, was wrong with them. But I do know that I have no alternative communication route into these companies, short of stalking their employees online. All because Google does not let me contact a human support person to help me solve this.

And people ask me why I am so critical of Google sometimes.