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I’ve had an Asus Eee PC netbook for a few years. I was initially impressed with its speed and the Xandros linux load that came pre-installed. After about a year, however, I concluded that a 7″ screen is just a bit too small for me, and I discovered that the unionfs file system that Xandros used ran out of file handles every few months requiring some major maintenance before it would even boot. So, I upgraded to a larger Eee PC 900A that I found on Craigslist for $100, and I installed Eeebuntu. This satisfied me for a while, but over the past year I’ve noticed the UI starting to become sluggish (particularly in Firefox), with mouse clicks sometimes taking 5-10 seconds to register. And about a month ago, the sound driver apparently became corrupted because the speakers stopped working. So it was time, once again, for some maintenance.
I’ve written before about my travails with Linux, but I’m happy to report that things have improved dramatically — at least within the niche market of Linux flavors suitable for netbooks. In particular, I’m impressed with Leeenux, which so far has performed flawlessly on my 900A. Installing the Ubuntu version of Opera directly from the web was a snap, and because Leeenux (v4.01) has Flash bundled, I was able to avoid the painful tweaking that was necessary in the past to get Flash video working properly in Opera. Everything just worked. And you know what? That’s the way computers are supposed to work.
Abiword has supplanted OpenOffice as the word processor of choice. I’ve never used Abiword before, but it is noticeably faster than OpenOffice in opening the few test documents I tried. The other application that I use often is Remote Desktop Viewer (to maintain a headless media server) which did not come pre-installed, but the Ubuntu Software Center made it painless to add.
- Download the .iso file
- Format a 2GB thumb drive using FAT 16
- Use Unetbootin to transfer the image and make the thumb drive bootable
- Boot the drive by pressing escape at the Eee PC’s flash screen and selecting the USB device
- Login with username ‘eee’ and no password
- Complete installation and enjoy!
A few weeks ago I discovered a very cool and very useful Boxee feature of which I was previously unaware. On the right side of the Boxee home screen is your queue. Normally, this is populated automatically when you include shows in “My Shows”, or when you add an individual video that you find while browsing within Boxee on your TV. But, what if you find a cool video while browsing the web on your computer, and you want to remember to watch it later when you’re kicked back on the couch? Well, that’s simple. Just drag the Boxee Bookmarklet to your browser window, and the next time you are on a page with a video you want to watch, you click the button that says “Add to Boxee” and like magic, the next time you run Boxee, the video shows up in your queue. It’s so cool!
[This is the final part in a series on building your own HTPC]
The primary reason I set out to build a Home Theater PC was so I could get rid of DirecTV. I’ve been a subscriber since 1999, and I’ve never had any complaints about their service, apart from the incessant rate hikes. I’ve made a few successful attempts to stave off the endless increases. A couple of nasty letters and a few hours spent on the phone with their “Customer Retention” department have worked in the past, but I’m just tired of having to fight that battle. Their rates have doubled since I first bought the service, with no noticable improvement in the content. I still have a single decoder box, no built-in DVR, no premium channels, and I’m paying $60 a month for the dozen or so channels that I watch on a regular basis. Couple this with the fact that the satellite feed, while digital, is not HD, so the over-the-air local channels look and sound a lot better and it’s just not worth it. So bye-bye DirecTV!
Another reason for tackling this project (besides being a geek and just wanting to try it) was to see how much I could consolidate the jumble of hardware and cables in my living room. A stack of boxes that used to include the satellite decoder, TiVo, DVD player, and a Roku has been reduced to just two devices: my A/V receiver and the PC. So this is a significant improvement. The software interface has been simplified as well. The Boxee interface (see image) now includes the DVD, Netflix streaming (under Apps), and all other content that used to be served up by Tivo (Photos, Music, recorded shows and movies). I think a single interface is an improvement too. Now, if Boxee just had a built-in PVR, it would be absolutely perfect.
But the solution I’ve come up with is not too bad. Pressing the green button on the MCE remote launches Boxee, and the blue button starts the GB-PVR software. Once the PVR has been configured with season passess for your favorite shows, there isn’t much reason to call it up unless you just want to watch live TV. The shows are dumped to a location that Boxee is configured to scan, so new recordings should automatically show up in the Boxee interface for viewing. The one encumberance that I can’t eliminate at this point is that Boxee will not delete anything. So once you’ve watched a show, the only way to delete it is from within GB-PVR. This is a minor inconvenience, and I believe it is a planned enhancement for a future Boxee release, so it should correct itself eventually.
The PVR interface is different from TiVo, but seems to provide all of the same functionality (including a To Do List). I did not previously have dual tuners in my TiVo, so that’s a huge improvement by itself. There are frequently two shows on at the same time that we want to watch, and now we don’t have to miss them anymore.
Overall, I have been impressed with the performance of this rig. It seems to have plenty of horsepower to spare — even when recording two shows simultaneously, and watching streaming content, CPU usage hovers around 50 percent. I had concerns that the hard drive might be too small (and I’m sure some day it will be), but with about 60 shows and 3 full-length movies on it right now, it’s only 33 percent full. It also runs completely silent — I have to lean down and put my ear right in front of the intake to hear the fans at all. The remote takes some getting used to, and I’m still considering alternatives that would provide mouse and keyboard inputs, because there are times when you need to type something into a search box, for instance, and Boxee’s virtual keyboard is at least as painful as TiVo’s. Or maybe I’ll just wait until the Boxee remote (unveiled at CES in January) becomes available. In the meantime, there is a Boxee app for the iPhone and iPod Touch that I really like, but I don’t really want to be wearing out the battery on my Touch just to have occasional keyboard access.
I am pleased with the results, and I think anyone who builds this rig will be too. If you have any questions, or run into any problems with the instructions, please leave me a comment below.
[This is Part IV of a series on building your own HTPC]
Once you’ve assembled the hardware, and collected the software, it is time to begin your install. You can expect this entire process to take between one and two hours to complete. Please follow these instructions:
- Install Windows
It is assumed that you partitioned your hard drive as specified in the previous post. When the Windows install is complete, don’t forget to format the D: drive with 64K block size. You will also need to disable User Account Control, and the Windows firewall to save yourself some headaches later on.
- Install Hauppauge software
Insert the CD that came with the Hauppauge tuner, choose your language and then install both the drivers and WinTV (although WinTV may actually be optional, I’m not sure) and then reboot
- Install Gigabyte motherboard drivers
Download the latest drivers from the Gigabyte web site. It is assumed that you have already done this on a different machine with internet access, since without the LAN driver installed, you will not be able to connect with the HTPC. So download these drivers in advance and either burn them to a CD, or put them on a thumb drive. Specifically, you will need the Realtek HD Audio, which provides Dolby Pro Logic II support through both the HDMI connection and the optical digital audio port (if your receiver has one). You will also need the chipset driver package which includes the ATI Radeon 4200 HD video driver necessary if you are driving a true 1080p HD display. Install both of these drivers and then reboot.
- Install GBPVR
Early on, I had some issues with GBPVR crashing. If while configuring it, you run a channel scan, and for some reason it does not detect all of your local channels and you force a rescan, there is a bug that causes it to crash when you start mapping the channels to your Electronic Programming Guide. I recommend you join the GBPVR forum. There is a wealth of support information there which is publicly available, however, the search function is a lot easier to use if you are a registered user and logged in. The Boxee forum uses the same software, so the same is true for it. I recommend joining both.
I also recommend joining Schedules Direct and paying the $20 annual fee for their TV guide data. There are a couple of free sites out there, but I can’t vouch for the quality of their data, and I can say that Schedules Direct is already integrated into GBPVR, so setting it up to pull your TV listings every night is a snap.
Download GBPVR (I am assuming version 1.4.7) and install it, and follow these instructions to configure it.
Now install the Visual J# redistributable, followed by the WizRecordingRename utility, which you will install into the GBPVR folder. This utility allows automatic renaming of the recording files that GBPVR creates. This is important because Boxee will automatically catalog the recordings and download IMDB data about them, but only if the files follow Boxee’s particular naming convention. Once you have installed these two items, copy the PostProcessing.bat and the WizRenameRecording.xml files into the GBPVR folder.
- Install Boxee
In order for Netflix to work within Boxee, you will need to install Silverlight, so do that first. Also, to make sure you are using the version of Flash that Boxee expects, go to http://www.boxee.tv/flash and install it from there. I can tell you how critical it is that you get the right version of Flash. There are a lot of versions out there, but only one that makes Boxee work. Lastly, install the Boxee beta (I am assuming version 0.9.20.10711).
- Install EventGhost
I struggled with getting the Hauppauge-included MCE remote to work correctly. The source of the problem is that the IR receiver plugs directly into the Hauppauge card, and is not a USB device, so it uses special drivers and Windows does not natively recognize the events that are generated when you push buttons on the remote. As it turns out, you don’t need anything beyond the drivers on the Hauppauge CD. You just need to disable the IR program that gets installed with WinTV, by removing it from the Startup folder, and then install EventGhost. Run EventGhost and go to File -> Options and set it to autostart and minimize to the system tray when closed. Then copy the HTPC.xml file to your Windows 7 user folder and load it into Eventghost (File -> Open…) — it then becomes your default config file and will be loaded automatically every time you start the machine. I have it set to autostart Boxee too, but you can remove that if you like.
[Continued in Part V, The Results...]
[This is Part III of a series on building your own HTPC]
I started out thinking this would be a Linux-based PC, but two things changed my mind. First, I’ve written before about my travails with Linux. I want to like Linux, I really do. But I can’t. Mabye I’m just not geeky enough, or maybe I’m just lazy, but configuring the guts of an operating system is not enjoyable, and I will avoid it every chance I get. If that means I buy Windows, so be it. Second, and more importantly, at the time of this writing streaming Netflix movies to a Linux box was still not an option — this was a deal-breaker.
So I began with an old OEM copy of Windows XP for this build. Let me say that you can get this build to work with XP SP2 (I know because I had it working, but then got lazy about my configuration management and wound up in tweak hell that I couldn’t seem to back out of), but you might be better off avoiding the hassles, and investing in an upgrade to Windows 7. This is the path I chose, and for the purposes of this guide, I am assuming the Windows 7 OS. But if you choose to go the XP route, I’ll just point out that SATA support is not native in XP. So you will need to obtain SATA drivers from the motherboard manufacturer, and create either an install floppy with these drivers, or a slipstreamed XP install disk with the drivers integrated. I won’t go into details here on how to do this, but I used a free tool called NLite, and it was relatively painless. It even allows you to remove all of the unnecessary Windows components, and I was able to get my install time down to about 18 minutes.
An important thing to keep in mind when installing Windows is that you will enjoy better performance by creating at least two partitions and putting Windows on one and storing your media on the other. I partitioned the 500GB drive into a 20GB C: drive and a 480GB D: drive. After your install, the first thing you should do is format the 480GB partition with a 64K block size (4K is the default). The larger block size lends itself to fewer and less frequent drive accesses, which will prevent jerky or choppy video when you play back recorded HD content, and drive fragmentation becomes less of a problem as well.
There are two main software components that you will be installing and configuring: Boxee and GBPVR. My goal was to integrate these two as much as possible since they are both free, relatively mature, products with more or less mutually exclusive, but highly complimentary, features. GB-PVR is, as the name would suggest, a Personal Video Recorder that uses the TV tuner card to record over-the-air television to the hard drive, and Boxee provides everything else from my list of requirements. These two packages were not designed to work together, but I’ve found that they can be made to play nice with each other, and perform satisfactorily — at least until something better comes along.
One caveat right up front: if you install Windows 7 and think you might want to play around with Windows Media Center, do that first. When you’re done playing with it, reinstall Windows and never run it again because when you run it you will be prompted to install all manner of helper apps that Media Center needs to function, and one or more of them prevent Boxee from working correctly. I learned this the hard way. Let me add that I like Media Center. I like it a lot. The user interface is the slickest and most sophisticated I’ve seen, configuration was painless, and it does everything! With one exception: the Internet TV module is severely limited and was enough to convince me that Boxee was a better choice. Although Boxee is still in beta testing, all you have to do is install it and play with it for a few minutes to see that it has far greater potential for future expansion.
[Continued in Part IV, The Install...]
February 28, 2010 20:45 | Comments (1) | computers, HTPC, software |
When you start the research, like I did, on building your own Home Theater PC, you inevitably come across a page or two that claims to give you all the information you need to build the “ultimate” rig for yourself. Some of these pages do provide a wealth of valuable and useful information, but none of them (that I’ve seen) actually provide you everything. How do you define everything? Well, if I’m going to make the leap to a HTPC, I’m probably doing it for one of two reasons (there may be more, actually). You either want to build one for the fun of it or just to learn how, or you may be choosing that path to escape the burden of your current cable or satellite company. Coincidentally, NPR just did a story yesterday on the number of people who are starting to tell their providers to take a hike. If it is the latter (like myself), “everything” is defined as the path of least resistance. That is, cost is not the primary driver, as I recognize that if I use it long enough I will eventually make my money back in the savings I will enjoy after I tell my provider to go pound sand. Cost is second to the time and hassle factor of setting up the system. This means that “everything” is not only a foolproof hardware configuration that has been tested, but step-by-step instructions for installing all the necessary software as well.
So you’re about to read a page that provides you all of that. I know this is a incredible claim, but when I set out to do this, I promised myself I would do it right, and I would keep detailed notes so that I could then provide this information to others. This is truly a turn-key system — no bullshit. You buy the hardware I have listed, you follow my instructions for installing the software, and you will have the ultimate HTPC. You will be out $500, but you will still have your sanity. And your hair.
So how do you define ultimate? Well, at the time of this writing, ultimate means a confluence of several established platforms as well as integration of emerging and future techologies. The ultimate HTPC isn’t about specs. It isn’t about raw CPU horsepower. It isn’t about bells and whistles. It is about performance, but without sacrificing aesthetics. The ultimate HTPC will replace cable/satellite as your primary source of television content. There are sacrifices implied in that statement. You are ready to say goodbye to premium channels (like HBO and Showtime), although most if not all of their content is made available on DVD at some point. You are ready to say goodbye to a lot of second-tier channels, although the same is true of most of their content, and a lot of it is also available online. The ultimate HTPC will also replace your standalone DVD player. By the way, my design is not Blu-Ray capable. Blu-Ray, in my opinion, is a solution in search of a problem. It’s an industry conspiracy to steal our money, and I’m not participating. If you’re like me, standard DVDs are just fine. The ultimate HTPC allows streaming of Netflix movies as well as any other internet content that is consumable through a web browser. The ultimate HTPC is also capable of storing a significant amount of content — both PVR-style, as well as traditional movies ripped from DVD.
So those are my criteria: use over-the-air HD as the primary source, play standard def DVDs, stream all known content from the internet, and hold at least 500GB of video content either internally or through Network Attached Storage (NAS). If this sounds like the kind of system you would like, and you have the money, here begins the journey.
[Continued in Part II, The Hardware...]
August 28, 2009 20:34 | Comments (0) | computers, software |
I’m lucky to work at a place that doesn’t mind its employees listening to music (on headphones) while they work. Years ago, I carried an actual MP3 Player to work everyday, but I quickly outgrew the limited storage capacity, so I ultimately transitioned to carrying a simple USB drive. The drive also served as a convenient courier for documents and other non-music content. However, installing a suitable MP3 player on my work computer was not really an option. I had an old copy of a very useful and lightweight MP3 player called Sonique, along with a sizable collection of visual plugins, and to my delight it could be installed on the USB drive and run from there. I was very pleased with this solution, and for years it served me well.
However, a few weeks ago, for no apparent reason, Sonique stopped running on my work computer. I tried several remedies to no avail. So it was time to seek out a new alternative. I settled on Winamp, and I have to say I am very pleased with its performance. With some instructions I found in the Winamp forums, I easily installed it on my USB drive and it runs very well from there. The player is packed with features that I will probably never use and there is an army of developers out there writing new plugins for it all the time. I even found one that will let me control the player with my Dell multimedia keyboard at work (drivers for which are notoriously difficult to find)! I’m going to miss Sonique’s slick visuals, but I have to recommend Winamp to anyone who transports their tunes on a lowly thumb drive.
If you’ve ever gone through the process of getting a new phone number, you know that the previous owner’s reputation and associations may haunt you. The phone companies are supposed to let phone numbers lie fallow for some period of time (usually a year) before they reassign them to new customers. This isn’t always done, and in some cases a year is not enough time, so you may find that acquaintances or customers of the number’s previous owner continue to call you. As I have recently learned, the same is true for IP addresses.
In the thirty or so years since the first spam email, the most successful method found so far to combat the problem is to blacklist the IP addresses of known spammers, and block any internet traffic that originates from these IPs. This works well. Too well. Especially if you inherit an IP address from a spammer, like I recently did. It is a serious pain in the ass to have your IP removed from all of the various blacklists that are maintained around the world. Some are open source lists that are available to anyone, some are owned by individual Internet Service Providers. But they all have one thing in common — they all have their own unique way of administering their lists, and processing your appeal to be removed from them.
The most ironic and painful thing about this process is that I requested and paid extra for my own static IP address specifically because I was having a problem with some of my emails bouncing back as spam! Now, I’m running into this problem even more than I was before, so the cure is worse than the disease.
So let me take this opportunity to thank all of you assholes out there who feel the need to fill up people’s inboxes with offers for penis enlargement, hot singles in my area, Nigerian bank scams, and Viagra. Like pissing in someone’s pool, you’ve ruined it for everyone else.
Last month I wrote about what a colossal waste variable speed limit signs are. As I was driving to work this morning, and saw someone in the opposite lanes flashing their headlights, it occurred to me that it might not matter anyway.
It is only a matter of time before cars have internet access. They will either be sold with this option, or it will be available as an after-market add-on. It is a certainty. Once this happens, and the vast majority of cars on the road have it, inevitably there will be a whole series of distributed software applications that act to tie all the cars together. Something like instant messenger for cars, only these messages will also contain useful information for the driver beyond the normal inane conversations. Traffic information like debris in the road, or emergency vehicles approaching from the rear, could be passed from car to car, traveling in both directions on any given stretch of road, giving the driver insight into driving conditions both in front of him and behind him.
Once this is well-established, it is not hard to see that the next logical step will be notifying motorists of speed traps. The information will be much more sophisticated than simply flashing one’s headlights at oncoming traffic, however. These packets of data could include precise GPS coordinates, for instance, reconnaisance photos of the area (because no car with internet access will be without a hood-mounted or dashboard-mounted webcam), as well as brief notes describing the trap. With all of that information available to a driver, who needs radar detectors anymore? The effect will be, on a macro scale, that traffic will naturally slow around the location of a cop, and speed up again once the threat of a ticket has passed. Much the same way it works now, only infinitely more efficient. So efficient, in fact, that it is likely that no cop will ever write a speeding ticket again.
You heard it here first, folks. Tell your friends. The days of speeding tickets are numbered.
[Update: Sep 24, 2012] My prediction is closer than I thought to coming true. Wired reports that Cisco has been working on this as a “skunkworks” project for three years. Hmmm… that is shortly after I wrote this post.
Look, I’m a software guy, okay? I’ve been banging around on computers since my first TRS-80 that my dad bought in 1982. I’m a software engineer for the world’s largest aerospace company. And I’m here to tell you that as far as computer operating systems go, we as a civilization peaked with DOS. Microsoft Windows sucks. We all somehow intuitively know this, but we’ve been in denial for twenty years because until recently there just weren’t that many alternatives.
I have a little bit of experience with Unix/Linux. I had a Silicon Graphics workstation on my desk for a few years. I played around with an early version of Red Hat. I even downloaded the original Ubuntu and loaded it on an old Toshiba laptop just for kicks. My opinion back then was that a lot of progress had been made, but that we still weren’t there yet. The Windows-like GUIs were pretty good, but the application software support still wasn’t there.
So recently, after seeing the slick Xandros load on my Eee, I decided to give Linux another shot and tried to install the latest versions of both Ubuntu and Kubuntu on a home server that I’m setting up. You know what? Linux sucks too, albeit for different reasons.
It’s an extremely difficult operating system to configure right out of the box. There, I said it. We all know it’s true, but everybody seems to be in denial about this too. But the complexity of Linux is a well known punchline, as you can see here. That video is several years old, but nothing has really changed. Despite the open source community’s best efforts, Linux is still cumbersome, buggy, and frankly, not ready for primetime. Or at least not ready to expand their market much past the legions of nerds who have nothing better to do than “check your version dependencies.”
Now I know that many of the Linux faithful will attack me for saying this, so I’m going to offer this little challenge. Point me to a Linux distro that 1) installs from a single disc (either CD or DVD), 2) includes both VNC and Samba right out of the box, and 3) won’t take me to “sudo pico” hell trying to “config it” and I’ll take back everything I just said. Any takers?
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