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Posts Tagged: Projectlog

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

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.

Desk

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

Posted In: GeekTechnologyTV Tagged: | No Comments

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.

Whiteboard

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 :)

Posted In: GeekProcrastinationTechnologyTV Tagged: | 8 Comments