Posts in Category: Geek

Breaking Windows

Thursday 7th June 2012

Sometime this year (I think), Microsoft will release Windows 8. I’ve just been reading an article from the Windows 8 development blog, about how the design team has changed the user interface for the new release. It’s interesting reading; mostly because the design for the Windows 8 UI currently seems to be a complete mess, so it’s interesting to see the justification.

Here is basically what they’re doing. They’ve noticed that touchscreen tablets and phones are quite popular, so they’re trying to build more touch capability into Windows. Except they’ve done more than that; they’ve designed this new interface – Metro UI – specifically for touchscreen devices. And to be fair, it basically looks great; a tablet with that UI could easily be as good as the iPad, if it had the right hardware. But they’ve made Metro the default UI, for everything. If you have a desktop PC with one (or more) big non-touchscreen monitor, then if you upgrade to Windows 8 you’ll be presented with the same interface as if you’re using a Win8 touchscreen tablet. You’ll have to click an icon to get back to the desktop, and even then the new UI replaces the start menu. So if you want to launch a program, you’ll press the start button and the new interface will open in fullscreen.

I’ve not used the latest version of Windows 8, so it might be better now. But when they released the first beta version to the public a few months ago, I installed it onto a non-touch laptop. My thought was that it’s pretty much unusable. It’s perfectly stable, don’t get me wrong. But they’ve moved everything around, hidden basic stuff (e.g. turning the computer off), and basically messed it up. I think that if I bought a new computer that came with Win 8, it wouldn’t take me long before I gave up and “downgraded” to Win 7 (quotes because it just isn’t a downgrade; Windows 7 is a great OS, much better than 8).

I genuinely don’t understand why Microsoft are going down this route. No-one needs or wants a tablet that can do everything a desktop can, and using an interface developed for touchscreens on a non-touch PC is inherently annoying. And also, touch isn’t always useful; do you really want to be reaching across your desk to touch your display?

I can understand an argument for there being a degree of interoperability; for the two types of system to be able to talk to each other, and easily share files. That’s pretty much a given. But different types of machines – touch versus non-touch, mobile vs non-mobile – really place different requirements for the UI.

Microsoft seem to think touch is the future. I think they’re right, for some cases. I think tablet computers like the iPad (although actually, at the moment it’s just the iPad) could work really well as main computers for a large number of people. I use my iPad a lot (right now, for instance!), and there are really only specific instances where I actually need to use a proper computer. I think Microsoft think that too, hence why they’ve put so much emphasis on Metro.

But, if that’s the case, then people will be using devices that look very different to the computer they use today. And as I’ve mentioned, those devices are designed to be used in very different ways, so the UIs need to be designed differently to cater for that. The backend of a tablet and PC OS might look similar, but there’s no need to require the same interface on both. That is, Microsoft could design one version of Windows, but with two very different interfaces, depending on the device it’s installed on; the difference being that you only install and use one type of interface, rather than having both and flitting between the two. That’d be a bit messy (they should start their tablet/mobile OS afresh, like Apple did with iOS… and like Microsoft have already done with Windows Phone), but it’d possibly be a cost-effective way to provide software to various classes of device, and maintain interoperability between the two.

As it is, Windows 8 is basically a complete mess. If they release it like this, I reckon it’ll get a terrible reception, even worse than Vista got (Vista was actually a pretty decent OS, the problems were mostly not Microsoft’s fault). If that happens, I can only guess as to what’ll happen to Microsoft. Bad things, probably.

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“Foolproof, and incapable of error”

Saturday 21st January 2012

Whilst I was thinking about and writing the previous post, a couple of extra things came to mind which I couldn’t really fit into the post. So I thought I might as well do a follow-up with a couple of extra observations. I did intend to write this earlier, but partly I was busy (more on that in a following post) and mostly I just didn’t get around to it.

1) The previous post was not so much about aeroplanes, but more about interfaces in general. Be that with machinery like a plane, or a device like a phone, or even infrastructure or services. And it struck me that one of the few organisations that consistently manages to create things with great interfaces is Apple. Not so much with their computers (I’m really not a big fan of MacOS, probably because I’m more used to Windows), but their iOS devices (iPhones and iPads) are really good examples of things which simplify tasks through good interface design.

It strikes me that if the computing business ever starts to go slack (!), Apple could do a good business out of consultancy; imagine if they applied their UI design skills to things other than making iPhones and iPads. This isn’t as daft as it sounds; some ex-Apple employees recently set up a business to make a better thermostat. That’s a specific example of someone applying the Apple approach to interfaces to a different type of product, and I’m sure there are other things which would benefit from the same approach.

2) For some reason, I also started thinking about 2001: A Space Odyssey (spoilers follow. Although, it’s a 40-odd year old book/film, so I guess most people at least vaguely know the plot. If you don’t, then go read the book and watch the film. They’re classics). The first – obvious – point is that a lot of the interfaces in that film do appear to tend towards simplicity. There’s loads of little things: the video phone booth that Dr Floyd uses near the start of the film, the tablets that Bowman and Poole use on Discovery, all the spaceship status screens look like they’re intended to be simple, and of course there’s HAL9000

On the topic of HAL, it occurred that his demise is pretty relevant too. HAL was programmed to help the crew, to convey information to them about Discovery and about the status of the mission. But before the crew left Earth the parameters of the mission were changed; this was secret, and the crew were not to be told until Discovery reached Jupiter. As the central computer, HAL knew the real purpose of the mission, but was not allowed to tell the crew. He was being asked to hide information, to lie. This ran counter to HAL’s programming – he was designed to give information, not to hide it – and because of that conflict he perceived there to be a problem. Which he then set out to rectify…

The point is, HAL failed because the people who defined his tasks for the mission did so incorrectly. The computer carried out its tasks as it saw best, but those tasks were in conflict with each other. And so the failure of the mission was the result of misuse of the computer. Now obviously the details in this and in the example in the previous post are very different, but in general, it’s the same fault: the computers behaved exactly as they were asked, the error arose from the way people were trying to use them.

And, really, how clever is that? That 40 years ago, people were thinking about how we’ll be using these ultra-sophisticated computers, and were (in a very broad sense) predicting some of the problems that we’re starting to see. Just makes me realise how great a job Clarke (and Kubrick, I think) did in writing that story, and how many ideas they’ve managed to pack into it. I’ve read the book many times already, but I really need to re-watch the film.

Posted In: GeekMoviesTechnology Tagged: | No Comments

The Uncertain Eye

Tuesday 28th June 2011

As I was watching the match last night between Nadal and Del Potro, I started to wonder just how accurate the Hawk-Eye system is. Turns out that Hawk-Eye reckon that the average error of the system is 3.6mm. Which is actually pretty good, but is it good enough?

For most calls, yes, probably. When it’s clear that the ball landed on or off the line, the system is probably adequate; a few millimetres won’t change the call. But we often see it showing really close calls, where a few millimetres would make a difference. But as far as I can tell, in those cases the system is still trusted, the uncertainty of the measurement isn’t taken into account. Which seems a bit bizarre, really.

So given that for close calls Hawk-Eye isn’t accurate enough, should it be trusted as much as it is? Perhaps not. Or at the very least, the margin of error of the calculation should be displayed whenever the system is used.

On the Hawk-Eye website, there are several documents which look at controversial Hawk-Eye calls. For example, from the 2007 Wimbledon final where Hawk-Eye showed a shot to be in by 1mm (3.6mm uncertainty, remember), which looked from the camera to be out. Here’s a short clip:

The manufacturers recreated this shot and filmed it with high-speed cameras, to show that Hawk-Eye might not have been wrong in this instance. But that seems to me to be a bit backward; why not just use the high-speed cameras to check line calls in the matches? Then there would be a definitive record of what the ball actually did, rather than a back-calculated approximation of its movement.

Posted In: Geek Tagged: | 2 Comments

HTPC – Up and Running (projectlog part 4)

Thursday 25th February 2010

I actually wrote this back in November, but I didn’t publish it at the time because I wanted to get some better photos. I never did, and I can’t be bothered to tidy up the living room and scrounge some batteries to take some now. I realise that the last post about this – in September! – said “part 4 tomorrow”, but well, oops…

Just as a refresher, I’ve been putting together a home theatre PC for the living room at uni-house. This is basically a normal pc with a TV card in the back, that’s hooked up to a normal TV rather than a computer monitor. You then use the PC to watch TV, the advantage being that you can then record stuff or timeshift, as well as stream media from other c0mputers, use iPlayer/4od/YouTube on the TV, and also play video files on the TV.

This started as a way to re-use an old PC, and I started off using my old computer from like 5 or 6 years ago. That plan died off though, because I bought myself a new desktop when I came back to Uni, so I used the computer that replaced for the htpc. Important specs:

  • Core2Duo E6300 (dual core, 1.8GHz)
  • 2GB Ram
  • 500GB Hard Disk (I added this, because I used the old hard drives in my new PC)
  • Leadtek Geforce 7300 graphics card (I also added this, because it’s fanless)

I did a few things to keep it fairly quiet. Firstly that graphics card. I did have a Radeon X1950pro when this was my “main” pc, but it was pretty loud so I swapped it for the 7300. I also pinched a quieter power supply from another pc, and disconnected one of the smaller case fans. So it’s pretty quiet now, which is good.

Because it’s a fairly powerful computer, I went with Windows 7. I’ve ran 7 on all my computers since the Beta was out in January, and it’s pretty bloody good. Everything works really well, and really easily. By way of example, when I was setting up the htpc, I needed to connect it to the internet, but only had one Wi-Fi dongle, which I use on my main pc. So I connected the two computers with an ethernet cable, shared the wireless connection on the main pc, and had the internet running on both PCs in minutes.

Whilst I’m on the subject of OSs, I was looking at laptops a few months ago and looked at MacBooks as well as proper computers (because whatever you want to say, Apple hardware looks really good). I wanted to see what MacOS is like, so I installed it on my desktop for a bit. I can now say that anyone who says that they actually like using MacOS is either a masochist or an idiot, because it’s one of the worst operating systems I’ve ever used. It’s amazingly unintuitive and confusing, and just a pain in the arse to get working properly. It felt half-finished; some bits were really polished but other parts of the UI felt like they’d been carried over from the dark ages. Going from 7 to that felt like such a retrograde step. I also didn’t like the fact that all the “working” bits were hidden from view. I didn’t have a clue where anything was saved, which was really unsettling. The fact that one of the selling points Apple use when selling their computers is that you can run Windows kinda says it all. I digress.

Anyhow, once I got it all up and running, I hooked it all up to the TV:

htpc hooked up to TV

I’ve written before about Media Center in Vista, and it’s pretty similar in 7 so there’s no point rehashing it (look at this video though if you want an idea of how it works), other than to say that it’s pretty damn good. The only problem I’ve had is that the software I wanted to use for remote access, WebGuide, doesn’t work with 7 yet. This isn’t a major problem though, and should be sorted eventually.

There’s some really nice touches in there though. Like in the guide, it fetches information off the internet for each show. So the other night we were browsing though the listings and when we saw whatever film was on Film4, someone said “oh, isn’t so-and-so in that?”. I could find out straight away by selecting the listing and going to the info, where there’s a synopsis and a cast list. It also fetches the info for DVDs, which is pretty cool.

I think I mentioned before that the TV card I bought came with a remote control. I wasn’t that impressed with it to be honest; it didn’t work that well with Media Center and occasionally stopped working all together. After a while I replaced it with this one, which works much better. All the buttons do what they’re meant to do, and it makes it really easy to navigate round everything whilst lying on the sofa.

I’ve got a decent library of videos and stuff on there now, and I’ve also set it up to access the music library on my desktop machine (and the music library in Media Center is really impressive by the way). I’ve installed Spotify on there as well. I wasn’t going to do that initially, but one of my housemates suggested it and I think it’s turned out to be a really good idea.

There’s a load of other stuff on there, other than Media Center. I’ve installed uTorrent and scheduled it to run unthrottled overnight, so it downloads stuff quickly. It’s set up to drop finished torrents in a certain folder, which Media Center monitors so that I can play stuff I’ve downloaded straight away through the Media Center interface, which is pretty handy (although some of my housemates don’t seem to understand this idea and keep turning the pc off at night, even though I’ve asked them not to).  I’ve also got a load of emulators (N64, Megadrive, SNES and NES) as well as some PC games on there. Worms Armageddon has quickly become a house favourite…

Also, streaming video on the TV is excellent. iPlayer, YouTube or whatever, are essentially the same quality as normal TV signals, because the resolution of the screen is comparatively low. The only inconvenience is that you have to swap from the remote control to the keyboard, and leave Media Center to use a web browser to get at it. Relatively minor problem though, to be honest.

Overall, it works really well, and everyone seems to be happy with it, which is good. If I were doing it again, using new components, I think I’d get a mATX motherboard and case, or perhaps even look at MiniITX or something like that. As it is, the next upgrade (when I have a lot more money than I do currently) is to go HD. I think that Formula 1 is going to be broadcast in HD next year and I’d love to be able to get that, but unfortunately it’d require a new TV as well as a new card for the PC. Definitely not on the cards any time soon, then.

So, if anyone else has an old pc lying around, I can definitely recommend it as a worthwhile project. A htpc makes a really good addition to a TV setup, and it’s relatively inexpensive to convert a PC for the purpose.

Posted In: GeekTechnologyTV Tagged: | 1 Comment

Tweeting the Night Away

Thursday 11th February 2010

As you may have noticed from the new addition to the sidebar, I recently joined Twitter. I’d managed to hold off from joining for a while because I didn’t really get the point – my writing is quite verbose at the best of times, so what on earth is the use of 140 characters? What can anyone say in that tiny space that is of any worth to anyone? Well, a few people (well, 3) told me that it’s good and that I should join, and so I did, just to see what it’s like. Besides, when I joined it was exam period and at that time joining Twitter seemed a better use of my time than revising for the geotechnical engineering exam I had a day or so later…

Anyway, I quite like it. Turns out there’s a lot that can be said in 140 characters – generally stuff of the form of  “wow, this just happened!” or “ooh, look at this…”. There was a specific thing which made me realise just how powerful a tool Twitter is, and that was the first F1 test of the season, which took place last week. This was the first time that many of the teams showed their 2010 cars to the world and the first time that any of them had a chance to run their cars properly and see how good they actually are (or aren’t). For lots of reasons, people not intimately involved in the teams can’t really read too much from the times, so whilst this early testing isn’t really good for starting to map out the relative competetiveness of each car, it’s still pretty interesting and exciting – there’s not been any F1 since early November, and us F1 fans need our fix!

To me, Twitter really came into it’s element during that first test. There were a number of people at the test circuit (people from the F1 teams as well as journalists) who were tweeting away; keeping the hive mind informed as to who was on track, what laptimes they were doing, what the weather was like, pointing out different technical aspects of the cars, and all sorts of other interesting things which made it really easy and enjoyable to keep up with what was happening. In the past, the only coverage of pre-season testing would have been a short report at the end of the day, listing the times that each driver did and the number of laps, as well as some photos. Following the event on Twitter was really good because getting information throughout the day meant that it was easier to get an “overall” picture of each day of testing, and to try to work out what the times mean (if anything). It was also much more involving – getting an almost-constant stream of information made it seem like much more of an “event”.

I’m really looking forward to using it during the races this year. I can see that it’d be really cool then for much the same reason – taking in multiple sources of information all relating to the same event. That, in conjunction with the live timing app on the F1 website (which – although it sounds really geeky – is surprisingly useful for watching the races. Helps keep track of the strategies, because you see lots of things which aren’t ever picked up in the commentary and helps you to read the race better) should make watching the races even better.

I love technology for things like this. The way I can use different tools to change the way I do certain things, so that I get more out of them (as in this example) or to save time or make it more convenient.  Things like Google Reader and Calendar and the way they interact between all the devices I use to access the internet (phone included – calendar sync on the iPhone is one thing in particular which makes me want to shout “witchcraft!”). The way all my documents are stored in a Dropbox, so that I can work on the same thing on any computer – I love that I can work on a document on my laptop in the library, then come home and work on the same document on my desktop, and the whole transition being pretty much seamless. I don’t have to worry about syncing files between computers or making sure that they’ve all got the most up-to-date version – it’s all just done for me. Clever stuff. All relatively simple stuff too, but it’s amazing how much a difference they make.

Posted In: GeekMotorsportSleepTechnology Tagged: | 5 Comments

The Second Best Thing About Christmas…

Friday 4th December 2009

…is that it’s the only time of the year where I feel it appropriate to listen to this. It seems wrong to listen to it during the summer, so it feels like a treat to listen to it in December (even though it’s not christmas yet and I don’t feel particularly christmassy)

I love winter songs. There are a few things that when I listen to them, it just feels like winter. That song is one example, and another would be Echoes by Pink Floyd (also an absolutely stunning song). When I hear Echoes it just reminds me for some reason of winter. Perhaps it’s just a really good song to listen to on another cold wet dreary day; very good distraction. Another really good example is the whole of “In the Court of the Crimson King” by King Crimson.

On the other hand, “Wincing the Night Away” by the Shins and “The Long Goodbye” by The Essex Green are both summer albums, best enjoyed on a bright warm afternoon. Preferably whilst driving with all the windows open and singing along maniacally…

And no-one picked up on the Shins lyric in the last title btw? It’s because I wrote it in August and it was sat in my drafts since then (where it possibly should have remained…). I’d only just heard of them so I was mostly listening to them at the time.

I can’t wait to get to summer. Get rid of the crappy weather and the boredom of uni. I’m really bored at the moment. I feel stuck in a rut and it’s really, really frustrating. Ho hum.

And no-one showed us to the land
And no-one knows the wheres or why
But something stirs and something tries
And starts to climb towards the light

Theres a suggestion that Echoes was written to go along with the ending of 2001: A Space Odyssey. I don’t know how true it is but I’ve watched them together and even if it’s accidental, it fits the film really well. The film/book is really good too and if you haven’t seen/read it, you should.

Science fiction doesn’t seem to be as popular as I think it should be. Or rather, the term is horrendously misused. Science fiction isn’t a catch-all term for “set in space”; it’s way more imaginitive than that. Sci-fi isn’t mere fantasy, it’s fiction that dares to say “what if?”. Stories that may seem fantastic or far-fetched but which at some level have a grounding in science. They’re way more imaginitive than fiction that just makes everything up because, at the edge of the reader’s mind is the idea of “someday, maybe not in my lifetime but someday, this could happen”. The idea of sending manned spacecraft to Jupiter or establising a permanent colony on the Moon is far-fetched, but why not aim for that?

The science fiction of men like Asimov and Clarke inspired a generation of scientists to go and aim for the impossible, and some of them did it. We landed on the moon in 1969, and then we went back a few times, and now we don’t do that any more. Why is that? Doesn’t it make you mad? (yeah, I’ve been watching Cosmos lately, so this rang very true. I’ve mostly been watching because of this, which is very good)

I wrote a post in September about crossroads (oh and there’s another absolutely awesome song, whichever version you take) and this is what I was kinda getting at. In the 60s, Mankind (well, America, but lets not split hairs) set a challenge to go to the Moon. British and French engineers were tacking an even bigger challenge in making the first supersonic passenger jet. The network that became the Internet was just starting to be created. Massive projects which, at first glance, were nigh on impossible. A generation of kids grew up being inspired by science, partly from science fiction, and went on to do amazing things. Why does this not happen today? Fewer and fewer people are choosing to study science, maths or engineering, and don’t you think that is maddeningly weird? Whatever the reason, I find it staggering that so few people are interested in those fields because, well, what on earth is more interesting than finding out how and why the universe works, or shaping it for the future?

The point I wanted to make in that post in September was that we’ve showed in that past that when a bunch of smart people try to solve a problem, they can do amazing things. The human race is facing possibly the biggest problem we’ve ever faced, and what are we doing? As far as I can see, very little. What we are doing makes rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic look like a brave and noble effort.

So anyway, I actually only meant to write about a sentence before going to bed to carry on reading a book. And I really didn’t intend to write about most of what I’ve written about, I just forgot to stop writing and let thoughts splurge into the text box. If only writing dissertations and project reports was so easy!

Oh, by the way, the best thing about christmas is christmas lunch. Best meal of the year. The third best thing (to finish off the podium) is probably Scrooge. I think it’s widely recognised as fact that it’s the only good musical ever written. Marley still scares me a little bit, even if he is Obi-Wan Kenobi. It’s that little wave as he closes the door; I don’t care what you say it’s just spooky.

Posted In: EngineeringGeekMusicPoliticsRantSleepStuff Tagged: | 12 Comments

Waiting for a train…

Thursday 17th September 2009

So the WordPress iPhone app has suddenly decided to work for me. I have no idea how or why it’s happened, but it’s probably best to just accept these things and move on…

I realise that I’ve somewhat gone off the boil with the htpc thing (thankyou Callan :p). I spent a few days tinkering as I was writing the entries, then had to go to Cardiff for a day and since then I’ve sorta been distracted by other stuff. Ironically, as the project started as a way to reuse an old pc, I’ve essentially ended up building a bespoke system for it. Really I need now to finish doing that, rejig Windows, then actually install it in Cardiff. Anyway, I’ll continue this in another post…

So I start back at uni next week. Well, it’s freshers week and lectures actually start a week on Monday, but you get the idea. It’s been a good year and an especially good summer. I’ve been doing a job which I enjoyed, travelled up and down the country for various reasons, spent time with various friends that I don’t generally get to see much and just generally had a good time. I’m really reluctant to go back to student life. Really i’m dreading having to motivate myself somehow. I keep telling myself to treat it like a job; get up, go to uni, spend the days working or in lectures and then go home and forget about it. If I do that I’ll enjoy it. I’m worried that I’ll do my usual trick of leave it all to the last possible minute, do crap in exams, then not be able to get a good job…

There was some point I was gonna blog about which I’ve now forgotten. Frustrating.

I think I’m gonna miss driving this year. I’m still gonna have my car, but I no longer have reason to do a few hundred miles every week. I used to really enjoy my Monday morning 6am drives to work. Driving through the dark with not much else on the roads and some good music on the stereo, it’s a really good way to relax, gather your thoughts.

I generally find driving therapeutic though. I think it’s because driving is partly automatic; you pay attention but part of what youre doing you basically don’t think about, so you take a step away from thinking about Whatever, but can still churn things over in the back of your mind until suddenly something clicks and things seem clearer.

Also, driving is really fun…

Anyway, I ceased to be waiting for a train about 10 minutes ago, and I’m worried that if I keep writing I won’t notice my stop. Also Ive basically been rambling, and I probably shouldn’t embarrass myself further by continuing…

Posted In: CarsGeekRandomStuffTechnology Tagged: | 4 Comments

HTPC – Receiving Loud and Clear (projectlog Part 3)

Tuesday 8th September 2009

So, my TV card and rather snazzy keyboard arrived. I got the card installed, got Vista Home Premium installed, and had a look to see how it all worked.

I was worried that Vista might be a bit clunky on the machine I’m using, but really it’s not too bad. Just about usable, but I think the extra 1gb of RAM (when it arrives) will be welcome. Once I’d got all the drivers sorted (which included some drama with the graphics driver having a strop when I updated the motherboard drivers. One system restore later, all was well), I opened up Media Center (damn Americans, can’t bloody spell…). I’d never used it before so I didn’t really know how well it’d work.

I have to say, I’m impressed. The interface is pretty much spot on, and works really well with the remote control that came with the tuner. I had to fiddle with the positioning of the aerial to get the best amount of channels, but once I’d done that, it picked everything up cleanly, with no stuttering or weird drops in signal. The little freeview box we’ve been using in Cardiff for the last year is absolutely shit in comparison, even before you get to the extra things that the new box can do…

There’s not much more to say about Media Centre. It does everything you’d want htpc software to do, it’s quick, it’s pretty, and it works brilliantly even with my cheapy TV card. It even saw the dual tuners without any fuss, so I can watch one thing and record another. Result!

Initially I was just testing it on a PC monitor, so I was keen to get a TV hooked up, because that’s what it’s ultimately gonna be outputting to when I hook it all up in Cardiff. There was a spare TV in one of the rooms, so I got it and connected it to the TV out on the graphics card.


It works pretty damn well. I couldn’t find the remote for that TV to change the input settings, hence why it’s not colour. I did test it on another TV just to confirm that it is outputting in colour, and it is.

So I’m fairly satisfied with Vista, so it’s going to stay. My HTPC now does the important stuff – i.e. the bult of the TV functionality – so next on the hitlist is the little addons I initally specced when I started looking at this project…

Part 4 tomorrow.

Posted In: GeekTechnologyTV Tagged: | 1 Comment

HTPC – Prep (projectlog Part 2)

Monday 7th September 2009

While I was waiting for the TV card and stuff to arrive, I started to consider what software to use. Just to help give the whole picture, here’s the specs of the PC I’m using:

  • Athlon 2500+ (333mhz FSB)
  • Abit NF7 Motherboard (it’s a shame Abit went bust. This is the best motherboard I’ve ever used and I would’ve definitely got another one for my next build, if they were around)
  • 768mb pc2700 DDR RAM (I’ve bought a 1gb stick to add to this, but it’s not arrived yet)
  • Radeon 9800 pro graphics card (overkill much?)
  • 80gb IDE hard disk. This will probably get added to at some point.
  • Some generic DVD-ROM drive.

By no means rubbish, but not the sort of system that you can expect to run everything uber-smoothly. So in picking software, that was my main consideration (as well as how well it’d work, and how easy it is to set up).

There are loads of alternatives out there, using either Linux or Windows. The ones I looked at were Mediaportal running on XP, Freevo, MythTV, or Media Centre built into Vista. Freevo and MythTV both run on linux and both look really good. The only thing with Linux though is that it’s never a simple task to make it do what you want to do. Even if it’s painless to install Freevo or MythTV, I’m sure it’d be hell getting all the drivers working, then getting stuff like emulators and web interfaces and shared folders working is just gonna be a hassle. I know Windows, so that was my preference (although I may look at the Linux alternatives at another point). The other good thing about Windows is that I know that there are a bunch of good emulators out there, and a good bittorrent client (with the web interface) in uTorrent, which saves me time looking for other things which work as well…

I decided to try first with Mediaportal running on XP. I thought I’d install it and have a play before my TV card came, just to see what it’s like. And I’d love to report back on it, but as soon as I’d installed it, the computer started rebooting itself as soon as it started to load the windows desktop. I spent a bit of time trying to fix it, but could never get my head round it. So, I decided to try plan B: Vista Home Premium, and the inbuilt Media Centre software.

Before I installed that though, some new toys arrived…

Tuner and Keyboard

Part 3 coming tomorrow

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HTPC – Plan of Attack (projectlog Part 1)

Sunday 6th September 2009

We have a lot of spare computers lying around at home. Nothing special, just old computers that we don’t need any more because we’ve upgraded. I’ve always thought that it’s a slight waste for them to just be lying around unused because really there’s nothing wrong with them, as long as you don’t need to run cutting-edge software or stuff that needs a quick pc. For example, when I got a new PC (3 years ago!), carried on using it because it was fine for him at the time. Recently though he needed something newer so he upgraded, so my old pc was just sat around, basically doing nothing. It’s not slow – it runs Half-Life 2 pretty damn well, for instance. So I thought I’d put it to use.

I’ve toyed with the idea of building a htpc for a while. Initially I thought of using something based around a dual-core Atom processor, because that would be quiet (silent iirc) and still more than quick enough for what I need it for. Sadly the parts for that is more than I’d be willing to spend, which is why I came around to using my old pc. I decided that all I need to do on the hardware side is make it quieter, because at the moment it’s got lots of fans and is too loud to use as a htpc. Obviously for something that’s gonna be on pretty much all the time and is going to sit next to the tv, you want it to be as quiet as possible.

So, I started thinking about what I wanted it to do and what I’d need to buy to do it.


The basic requirements I drafted up were:

  • Ability to record one programme whilst watching another.
  • Easily able to see shares from my desktop pc, so I can play music or videos I’ve got stored on that over the TV.
  • Some sort of online interface, so I can login over the internet and set programmes to record whilst I’m away. Preferably, I’d like this interface to work well on my iPhone as well :)
  • Able to play DivX etc
  • Work well enough on the hardware I wanted to use. It’s no use having it if it takes half an hour to open the TV listings…
  • Pretty frontend
  • Good bittorrent software with a web interface.
  • Would be good if iPlayer etc could be integrated into the interface, so we don’t have to leave the media software to use it.
  • Also want to install some emulators on the pc (MAME etc), and it’d be good if that could be integrated into the media software as well.

I had a look at TV cards and really couldn’t differentiate between the different types, so plumped for the cheapest dual-tuner card I could find. I also got a wireless keyboard, which has a touchpad built in, which I thought was pretty cool and ideal for this sort of system. Also I jumped on eBay and got a quiet CPU cooler for a fiver and 1GB of RAM.

All that remained then was to wait for the parts to arrive, so I could put my new toy very useful system together :)

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