Reviews

Sep 28 2009

Review - Habey BIS-6550HD SFF Client PC


  

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Habey BIS-6550HD Review

We've seen what the Atom N270 can do when paired with the 945GM and ICH7M Intel chipset, and we've see what the N330 can do with the 9400M Nvidia chipset.  Today we are taking a look at another implementation of the Atom N270 paired with the Intel 945GM and ICH7M chipset, but this time there is one more trick up the sleeve.  Read on to see if Habey's configuration is enough to make up for where the Intel chipset alone falls short.

 

Sep 14 2009

Review - SIMEREC Universal IR Remote Control PC Power Switch (PCS-2)

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SIMEREC Universal IR Remote Control IR Power Switch (PCS-2)

Simerec has created a new product to fill a niche in the HTPC world.  The IR Remote Control Power Switch allows users to turn on their HTPC with the use of any IR remote control.  Gone are the days of getting up off that comfy coutch just to turn on your HTPC.  Sure you could use S3 sleep state and a motherboard that has USB sleep power, but many HTPC users today desire to have their HTPC in an off state to save on electricity bills. The PCS-2 comes pre-assembled and and ready to enable more arm chair commanders just in time for football season.

Sep 07 2009

Review - Intel DG45ID mATX Motherboard

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Intel DG45ID mATX Motherboard

Intel has always been known for developing some of the most stable motherboards to accompany their processors. With the DG45ID introduction they offered a solution for HTPC enthusiasts who desired a full featured board with stability as a focus yet the special needs an HTPC motherboard needs--including small form factor, HDMI and DVI video and 7.1 LPCM audio over HDMI as well. When initially released the board was hurt by driver issues which have since been resolved, so we thought we would take an in-depth look at a board which still today looks like it could be a solid solution for your HTPC systems--and just around $100.

 

 

Sep 04 2009

Review - Harmony 700 Remote

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Logitech Harmony 700 Remote Control

Logitech has been really on top of its game recently with announcements of the Harmony One and 900 remote controls featuring all sorts of features and touch screens galore for your entertainment. All those features also bring about them a fairly high retail price, so Logitech decided to invest some effort into bringing a more affordable solution to the table with still some of the nice features of the highest end. The Harmony 700 aims to bridge the gap between the basic functional remote controls and all the fancy conveniences of the high end.

 

 

Introduction and First Look

 

I've been using the Harmony 700 remote for several months now and have been impressed. Prior to obtaining this 700, I had been using the Harmony 890 for quite some time and a lot of the software side is the same as that since they share the Harmony Remote Control software. For that reason please see the Harmony 890 Review if you want to learn more about the software and configuring activities.

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 Remote, Sync Cable and Charger
  Compared to the 890

When you look at the photos of the 700 it does not stand out nearly as much as the Harmony One line of products. The One is glossy black, and the 700 is more of a matte finish. The One has a giant touchscreen whereas the 700 has a smaller screen non-touch. When we take a closer look at the remote though, it's clear that the 700 is a solid addition to the Harmony lineup.

As you can see, the Harmony 700 includes something which neither the 8xx or the One/900 have--four pre-standard activity buttons at the very top: Listen to Music, Watch TV, Watch a Movie and More Activities. Each of these buttons are configured to launch the given activity. In case you missed it from our previous review, Harmony Activities are basically the set of commands you execute with the push of a single button on the remote. For example, "Watch TV" will turn on your television set, turn on your receiver and even set the volume if you so choose. There is a definite convenience to having the buttons always there, versus the Harmony 890 or One which utilize their larger screens to display the activities on the screen itself. Initially I was not a fan of them but after a bit of time I found myself enjoying the convenience of always knowing where the buttons are without having to look at the screen/remote.

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Another Angle Comparison Height of the Remotes

Everything else on the screen is pretty straight forward, including the four colored buttons a quite handy page up/down button. The color buttons are there for satellite, cable and teletext users as needed, and the page up/down button is there for whatever your needs--even though Media Center can use the Channel up/down as a page button, it's nice to have a dedicated button there now.

Usage Comparison

  

As for the layout of everything I found it to be very comfortable. The buttons have a solid rubbery feel to them which took some getting used to. One of the complaints on the 890's layout had been the non-raised buttons and everything being the same height and close to each other. The 700 answers that problem with separate and raised buttons, making it much easier to find in the dark. I say dark even though the remote does behave the same way as the higher end remotes by illuminating all the buttons when it senses you have picked up the remote. It's super convenient but I'm sure contributes to the speed at which the batteries drain. 

 

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Display Screens Comparisons
USB Cable and Plug

Luckily the remote's batteries are included and they are rechargeable NiMH AA batteries. To charge your 700, the package includes a power adapter with a USB plug, and you use the same USB cable to both sync and charge the remote. This is very handy and should help you not lose things since it's even more important. That being said, it was slightly annoying that you can NOT use the USB cable from your computer to charge the remote. Sorry folks, you have to actually plug the cable into the adapter into the wall. Not a huge deal, but would be nice for the future.

 

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Sub-Activities Screen Devices Screen

The lack of touchscreen however is not the only feature not included in the 700 that you find in the One/900. The 700 only supports a maximum of 6 devices. So, if you own a TV, Receiver, Xbox, PS3, STB and AppleTV then you're fine. Anything more than 6 and you'll need a different remote. I think 6 is a solid number for most modestly established home theaters--my living room has a TV, Media Center PC, A/V Receiver and XBox 360. In addition to that limitation the remote also does NOT include RF Capabilities. This is not really surprising since Logitech usually only includes RF in its highest end remotes such as the 890 or 900, but still something to be aware of if that was a feature you must have.

 

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Remote Illuminated
Bottom end height comparison

The last bit is in regards to the charging methods previously mentioned. Unlike the more expensive 890/One/900 which utilize a docking station/cradle to charge the remote, the 700 relies on a unique USB cable (why they could not use a standard mini-USB is beyond me). Not having a cradle is a minor inconvenience since the batteries do tend to last a very long time. In my testing of over 4 months of using this remote daily, I have had to charge it a whole 2 times. Quite impressive indeed.

 

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Starting an Activity Screen
Help Button in Action

 

Conclusion

 

So that's pretty much it for the review. I wanted to cover everything our readers would consider when picking a remote and I think the biggest issue with remotes is the initial setup and the look and feel since you are using it every single day (most of us anyways). The setup is a breeze as it benefits from the years of improvements the Harmony software suite has applied to itself. It has a ridiculous preconfigured collection of hardware devices as it works online to always use the latest database, so odds are it has your electronic devices in its memory. If not, learning the codes from other remotes remains a breeze.

Overall there is a lot to like here. The MSRP for the remote is $149.99, but like most Harmony remotes these will go on sale rather quickly so you should be able to get it for a bit less. $150 on a remote is nothing to take lightly, but considering the MSRP of the wonderfully reviewed Harmony One is $249.99 you really are not giving up too much functionality for $100 in savings. I will make this part clear however, the 700 is not NEARLY as impressive or showy as the One. Pick up the One and you see its shiny glossy casing and the super size touch screen really jumps out at you. Just starting at the paint color on the 700 you can tell its not nearly as much a showoff piece, everything is much more subtle or smaller. From a functionality standpoint however, you are really just giving up the unlimited number of devices and RF capabilities from its more costly brethren.

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There are a lot of remotes to choose from and the 700 is a very valid competitor. If you had some of the previously mentioned gripes or just can't see yourself spending over $200 on a remote control, then this is a fantastic remote control. You get to enjoy the benefits of the easy to use Harmony activities and software setup, and the remote really is a pleasure in your hands. I did miss the convenience of not having a charging cradle like the higher end. I had become accustomed to just always putting my 890 on the cradle at night so it was always fully charged. That being said, the batteries seem to last plenty of time so in my testing this was a very minimal complaint. 

If you are looking for a remote control for your home theater the 700 will be a fantastic addition. There's nothing I threw at it that it can't handle and I was pleasantly surprised with all the subtle touches which the crew at Logitech included on its appearance, all while maintaining the lower MSRP.

PROS:

  • Color LCD Screen
  • Rechargeable, Long Lasting Batteries
  • Uses same cable to sync/charge
  • Raised & separated buttons
  • 4 Activity Buttons
  • Sensored for backlight illumination

CONS:

  • No Charging Cradle
  • $150 is still a lot of money for a remote
  • Non-standard USB Sync/Charging Cable 
  • Non touchscreen or RF (that's why the more expensive Harmony remotes exist)

 

Thanks to Logitech for providing the Harmony 700 used in this piece. Feel free to add any questions, comments or any other testing you are curious about in our forums link below.

Sep 01 2009

Review - VIA NSD-7800 8-Bay WHS Solution

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VIA NSD-7800 8-Drive NAS Storage Solution

The popularity of Windows Home Server as a viable NAS competitor has spawned a number of solutions from HP and Acer, to name a few. Equally as popular however, has been the desire for enthusiasts to roll out and build their very own WHS Server boxes as well. The main restriction with the majority of these cases and available OEM solutions was the limit of four internal hard drives. VIA is tossing their hat into the ring with an 8-Drive bay chassis that comes as a barebones solution. With little effort this chassis can be come your new WHS box holding just under 16 terabytes in a very small form factor.

 

Specifications

If you have not seen the competition or other options available, take a look at our Battle of the Home Servers and the EX487 review to see the various options that are already out there for Windows Home Server systems, either OEM or ones you can design on your own.

I will preface the entire review by stating that this chassis is not by any means an exclusive Windows Home Server solution. It will work and includes drivers for all flavors of Windows and Linux, if you desire to use it for a different application. However, for the purposes of this review I will be solely approaching the unit as a platform for WHS as I feel it was what most our readers are interested in.

 

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 Product Label
 Delta Power Supply Label

Now let's move onto the specifications of the unit! Unlike the Chenbro chassis from the Battle, which was just an empty chassis with power supply, the VIA NSD-7800 is essentially complete. End users only need to throw in a hard drive and the operating system itself to get started. For comparison, I will use the HP MediaSmart Server EX487 as my baseline unit since, besides being what I own, is also arguably the leading Home Server system on the market.

DIMENSIONS

  HP EX487
VIA NSD-7800
Length
 9.8"  13.3"
Width  5.5"  5.9"
Height  9.2"  13.3"
PSU  200W  300W
Drive Bays
 4  8
Weight  12.7lbs  14.3lbs

TECHNICAL SPECS

   HP EX487  VIA NSD-7800
CPU  Intel Celeron 440 2.0Ghz 64-bit  VIA C7-D 1.5Ghz
Memory  2gb DDR2  1gb DDR2
Ethernet  10/100/1000  10/100/1000
USB
 4 (1 front, 3 rear)
 4 (rear)
eSATA  1 (rear)
 0
Drives Included
 1.5tb (2 x 750gb)
 0
MSRP
 $749  $589
     

Here's how VIA describes it:

The VIA NSD7800 addresses the growing need for a compact, user-friendly home server solution as well as NAS, iSCSI, Media Server and NVR applications to offer system integrators a superbly versatile product.

The VIA NSD7800 supports up to eight 3.5" desktop hard drives and Gigabit networking for fast, efficient file transfer speeds. Powered by a power-efficient VIA C7-D processor it offers a power-efficient, low heat system that can be relied upon in always-on server implementations.

Key Features include:

  • Desktop tower design
  • Supports eight SATA trays
  • Supports one bootable Compact Flash type I slot
  • Supports one VIA VT6130 PCIe Gigabit Ethernet and an optioanl 2nd Gigabit Ethernet port for ODM/OEM project requirements
  • Supports four USB 2.0 ports

The VIA NSD7800 supports a type-1 compact flash slot for embedded OS installations and uses PCI-Express-based Gigabit networking to handle file transfers quickly and efficiently. A mini-PCI port is also available for additional security related add-in cards such as hardware VPN or anti-virus modules.

LEDs include individual S-ATA port activity, overall hard drive activity, network activity and power. There are also custom LED control and push button backup and recovery options.

The VIA NSD7800 supports Microsoft Windows Server 2003/2007, Windows Home Server and Linux. System monitoring and management includes Wake-on-LAN, Wake-on-Alarm and Watch Dog Timer. A complete driver and SDK is available to customers.

You can see some pretty full features included with the system. Something to pay particular note is which version and where you purchase. My unit for review did not include the VGA cable, so make sure if you purchase one you get it with the VGA as it's impossible to install without one. As with most of VIA's products, this product is as much geared for OEMs as consumers, and apparently there are some nice customizations an OEM could make including dual gigabit NICs and of course the VGA port. I am not aware of any OEMs currently selling the NSD-7800 but something to keep in mind in the future.

 

Appearance

When I received the package from VIA the box was pretty large. Fortunately that is because the packaging is impressive as it was double-boxed and had some very sturdy airbags surrounding the unit enclosed in protective plastic. The contents are fairly sparse as the system comes pre-built, so you have the unit itself and then a small box accompanying it with screws for the hard drive and the power cable. 

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 Outer Packaging
 Inside Smaller Box Contents

 

As mentioned above, the unit does require screws to connect the hard drives to their removable trays. This is slightly disappointing given how convenient and simple the HP MediaSmart's screwless design is for their caddies, but assuming you do not plan on changing drives often it was a minor inconvenience.

Immediately out of the box I was very impressed with the small size and stature of the unit. When I first received the HP MediaSmart server I was very pleased at its size, and considering this unit has double the amount of hard drive bays I was anticipating a significantly larger size. As shown in the dimensions before, this unit is just slightly larger than the HP unit, not even an inch wider and only 4 inches taller and deeper. In other words, this unit can fit anywhere the HP MediaSmart can, yet support double the drives.

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 Side Unit  Angled Unit Door Open

 

Always difficult to photograph, the chassis features a glossy black paint finish on its front, sides and bottom. This is a nice touch but makes it very difficult to keep clean. It's a bit unusual but the rear of the unit is not painted at all and comes in the standard metal finish you would find internally. I do not know why the back of the unit was ignored with the paint but it is a bit disappointing in my opinion.

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 Rear of the Unit
 Available Ports

 

The front drive bays are covered by a metal door with a grill faceplate. Unlike the HP unit, the lights from the drives are directly shown via the caddies so the door and grill have no connecting cables or lights coming from it. The power and LAN buttons are present at the bottom front of the unit and include the power button, power indicator, collective hard disk activity and network activity indicator light. There is also a reset button underneath the power indicator light. The lights are an interesting piece and I could see them getting annoying to some but can be easily remedied by simply disconnecting the header cables from the motherboard. The power indicator is literally an amber light that is illuminated if there is power to the unit. The network activity indicator functions both when the unit is powered off and on. The last item on the front panel is a "Powered by VIA" logo badge on the lower left. The standard 1x1" badge seems large here due to the overall size of the chassis so I would have preferred seeing something smaller. Considering most people will have the server tucked away somewhere these are all minor qualms with the appearance.

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 Hard Drive Caddy
 Front Panel Indicators

 

Finally we have the drive caddies themselves. A combination of steel and plastic the design seems rugged enough to handle many ejections. As mentioned earlier, the caddies do require screws to attach the hard drives into them. Installation is simple and each drive can be attached with up to 6 screws, but I normally just use 4 and have never had a problem. The hinge system is different as well, as you slide the front hinge to the right to unlock and remove. It took some practice but I do not see any difficulties with this method.

 

Setup and Installation

 

Hardware setup for this unit is as easy as you can expect. The only tricky piece was getting the VGA cable inside onto the motherboard header which could be difficult if you have larger hands. Once the monitor was connected, installing each drive was a simple task. I connected an External SATA DVD ROM drive I had available and connected it to one of the SATA ports on the system (I unplugged a SATA drive). Note that Windows Home Server is able to boot off of a USB drive provided you follow some steps online and have a large enough USB key. I went with the more traditional DVD installation since it's what I had available. I have worked with Windows Home Server for a while and know its installer does tend to be pretty picky so I was curious how it would behave here.

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 Inside of Unit
 Closer look at Board and Cables

 

I began with placing the installation drive on the bottom caddy since I thought this would make sense. I quickly learned that there are actually two SATA controllers on the system (this is a good thing, keep reading). The top four hard drive slots are controlled by the VIA VT8251 South Bridge chipset. The bottom four however are controlled by the Marvell 88SE6145 chipset. I knew there were multiple SATA II controllers on-board but it did not occur to me what I soon discovered--Windows Home Server refused to work on the Marvell connector. No matter what driver I used during installation, the OS just would not let me continue to install it to that drive. While I could have just switched cables internally I decided to just switch the OS drive to the top connector. As expected installation from there went smoothly and succeeded quickly, just keep that in mind when you are installing.

Aside from that slight issue, installation itself was a breeze. Upon entering Windows Home Server, I was surprised to see that hot-swapping the drives was not supported. I connected a couple new drives and Windows did nothing. I needed to restart the system for them to be detected. After a bit more research it seems the hard drives were not configured to AHCI and therefore were not hot swappable; an easy remedy, but one that would require a reinstallation of the drives. I take partial responsibility for not checking the BIOS initially, but if this unit is designed for WHS it should really be coming with AHCI enabled by default.

Once up and running I installed the chipset and LAN drivers for the unit and then was able to disconnect the VGA cable and close up the unit, once I verified that remote desktop was properly working. For what it's worth, if I owned the system I would connect the VGA cable to it as a just in case. I would rather have the VGA port on the backpanel than always having to open up the unit and connect the cable when needing to troubleshoot. That being said, this is still much easier than getting VGA out on the HP MediaSmart, so not all terrible.

 

 

Power and Performance

 

Gauging performance on Home Server systems is always difficult since the Windows Home Server operating system itself is not really geared towards blazing speeds. If maximum speed is what you're after you should probably be looking at a Linux RAID setup of some sorts that will not only maximize the system but the drive speeds as well.  

The system specs tell a lot of the story here. 1gb of memory is sufficient for most people and activities, but with the inexpensive prices on a 2gb stick, I would recommend maxing out the memory if you plan on using this unit. Unfortunately the CPU is impossible to change out, a 1.5GHz C7 chip from VIA. This chip has been around a while and is a single core solution. Not a bad choice at all and it makes sense from a cooling solution but will definitely hinder your speed. I found performance to be similar and slightly more responsive than the original HP MediaSmart EX470 server, but not nearly as quick as the EX487 as expected.

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 Internal 120mm Fan
 The NAS-7800 Board Used in the System

 

Cooling is handled by a single 120mm exhaust fan which does run fairly quiet, but then also a 40mm fan over the CPU heatsink. The power supply is made by Delta and is audible nearby but not with an annoying sound or high whir sound.  VIA boards in general are very low powered and generate low heat, so these touches are almost exclusively for the 8 hard drives. The CPU fan although small and could generate some noise over time was surprisingly quiet for its size.

With that said, let's move onto the most impressive part of this review, the power ratings for the system. Again using the EX487 as our baseline, which uses approximately 81 watts when fully populated with 4 drives. This is really where the VIA system shines the most. I'm using the wattage estimates from WeGotServed's review of the EX487 to compare to the unit. I used a Kill-A-Watt connected to the unit to measure the wattage and used Prime95 and HDTune during the "Load" stage to simulate the system under 100% load.

  HP EX487
 VIA NSD-7800
 0 Drives
 n/a  37 Watts
 1 Drive, Idle
 44 Watts
 40
 1 Drive, Load
 50  47
 2 Drives, Idle
 55  50
 2 Drives, Load
 60  60
 3 Drives, Idle
 65  60
 3 Drives, Load
 70  71
 4 Drives, Idle
 76  63
 4 Drives, Load
 81  74
 5 Drives, Idle
 n/a  66
 5 Drives, Load n/a
 76
 6 Drives, Idle
 n/a  74
 6 Drives, Load
 n/a  85
 7 Drives, Idle  n/a  78
 7 Drives, Load
 n/a  88
 8 Drives, Idle
 n/a  81
 8 Drives, Load  n/a  92

As you can see, the numbers do not lie and this is one SUPER low powered unit. Powering 8 drives in a Windows Home Server solution at under 95 watts is just incredible. Considering the HP system with half the drives comes in at 81, this is incredible. For the record, I was using Seagate Pipeline hard drives, which are designed to be more power efficient than Barracuda drives, but still impressive numbers. One could easily throw in the most popular drives, the WD Green 1tb and have 8 terabytes of data with similar numbers. The system definitely benefits from the super efficient VIA motherboard and CPU, which although it is slightly lower performance does have impressive power draws. My only remaining question was why VIA is using a 300 watt power supply when an efficient 200 watt could easily have done the job. That extra headroom could result in some wasted power in the long run.

 

Software and Extras

 

As with any chassis or barebones manufacturer (such as the Chenbro) the system comes with no special Windows Home Server software like the HP solution. That being said, there are so many comparable add-ins available from the community that this isn't as important as it used to be. Want to see your hard drive temperatures? There's a plugin for that. Want to schedule your server to go to sleep at a certain time? There's a plugin for that. The list is virtually endless.

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 Fully Populated with 8 Drives!
 System Resources and Specs

 

Home Server Software aside, this system does include some extras that are pretty unique. For starters, the board includes support for a Compact Flash card, meaning you could install your OS solely on the flash card with no moving parts for added reliability. You would need a fairly large one to do this with Home Server, so this is probably more preferable for you Linux fans to throw a small distro on it (maybe UN-RAID?). 

Windows Home Server aside, the board (as most VIA boards) is designed for embedded application with some cool features like wake on alarm. Additionally the board includes Watch Dog Timer, which is designed to automatically reboot the system if it is caught in a hung state. This is something Windows users take for granted, but if you have a NAS solution that is frozen, you really want it rebooting sooner than later.

 

Conclusion

 

I found the VIA NSD-7800 online for under $500 ($489 to be exact) which is quite a tremendous price for what you are getting. While not the fastest system on the planet, the VIA setup is very efficient and normal users will have trouble noticing the difference between this and a similar system with faster specifications. I used the HP MediaSmart EX487 as my baseline since it's arguably the leading Windows Home Server system and expected it to blow away the lower priced VIA NSD-7800. Instead I came away pleasantly surprised as the VIA unit was capable of handling double the amount of drives and hardly using more power.

That being said, this product has a market very different to that of HP's for now. No doubt VIA's goal with this item is for OEM usage and that would be ideal since installation did take some expertise compared to the Acer or HP solutions which are good to go out of the box.

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However, for enthusiasts it would be hard to ask for more. The system is compact yet one of the largest storage chassis I have seen that does NOT require a rack. Most of us geeks have hard drives lying around anyways so the lack of any storage simply means you can configure the system with the drives you want right from the get-go.

The only blatant qualm I have is with the lack of a VGA port built-in. I understand the market with HP and Acer and others not including them, but in a market with so many DIY-ers who will rely on them, it is slightly bothersome. There is a port on the backpanel to add it, but I would like to see VIA be considerate of the geeks and just include the part built-in.

Overall, this is a terrific product which does everything it says it does and best of all does so while keeping your electricity draw nice and low. With the recent offerings of 2 terabyte drives from Seagate and Western Digital, you could potentially build yourself a solid Windows Home Server with this tiny chassis yet have 16 TERABYTES of Storage! That's a lot of Blu-ray...err....home movies.

Pros:

  • Low cost
  • Super low powered
  • 8 Drive bays
  • Barely larger than the HP MediaSmart
  • Compact Flash slot
  • 120mm Exhaust fan is cool and quiet
  • Solidly built chassis and caddies

Cons:

  • No VGA Port
  • No Dual Gigabit
  • Slower 1.5 GHz CPU
  • 1gb of RAM
  • 40mm CPU Fan could get loud over time

 

 

 

Jul 27 2009

Review - ASRock ION-330 Nettop SFF System

Updated on 8/8: Added section on Flash Video and Windows7 Testing

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ASRock ION-330 Nettop

Today we take a closer look at the ASRock ION-330 Nettop device--a small form factor system that comes almost complete out of the box and appears to be a great match on paper to other HTPC clients. Being low powered, low cost and seemingly capable, can the ASRock ION match up to higher powered (and higher cost) systems?

Jul 13 2009

Review - Battle of the Media Center Movie Managers

Movies are the pride of many a home theater PC user. While your friends may have a wall of movies, nobody can argue with the convenience of locally (or network) stored movies, being able to view information, filter and display them all within Media Center, and play them from a single remote without ever having to leave the sofa.

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It's a good time for movie fans who utilize Media Center, as we have a number of competing developers who are vying for your usage of their applications. But which application is right for you? If you have been using a particular application for a while, is it worth jumping ship to the newest/latest fad program? Will this app be around for a long time or will it disappear?

For this article, I'm going to pit every Movie Manager for Media Center I can find against each other and see who (if any) wins it all. My guess before beginning was that there would not be a sole winner--instead I anticipate each application doing a few things better than competitors, and that for users the answer would be based on the particular feature they see the greatest.

Jul 07 2009

Review - Itox NP101-D16C


  

tn7itoxboardangle.jpg With the release of the Atom processor, Intel revolutionized the low-power computing industry.  These days more and more netbooks are being sold with these inexpensive, low-power chips due to their ability to handle most day to day activities well while providing a long lasting battery life.  Today I bring to you a Mini-ITX motherboard based on the Atom N270.  With a footprint this small and such a low power draw, will it be enough to handle all of your multimedia needs for your next HTPC?  Read on to find out.

 

Jul 07 2009

Review - Life With a Plugin Episode 23: mcShoutCast

Music is a natural player in a home theater PC environment, yet the idea of streaming has stayed in the shadows for quite some time. It could be that home theater users crave higher fidelity from their music, or that they already have the music they enjoy in their digital collections. That being said, I have often enjoyed the ability of streaming the latest hits from Pandora, Last.FM or a variety of sites when I have guests over with different listening tastes than mine.

mcShoutCast aims to continue what it's been developing for a while now, by bringing the vast collection of radio stations from the Shoutcast.com directory to the convenience of your remote and Media Center experience. While other players have been content with merely being players, mcShoutCast attempts to go above that and offer some unique things to make it appealing on the big screen.

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 mcShoutCast tile on the Music Strip
 Graphical list of stations available

 

Above & Beyond

It's always refreshing reviewing an application which throws you for a loop as to what to expect with it--in this case, I expected some basic playback and playlist functionality, and found a lot more than meets the eye. Sure, we have the normal application of a streaming radio application, being able to browse and play from a number of sources. Filtering by set categories, letters, genres, etc.

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 List of Genres
 Genre options

 

What impressed me most was with everything else. Click on a radio station, and you have the option of viewing station details, showing similar artists/albums, viewing your photos, viewing slideshow of artists playing, biography, lyrics and the list goes on! If that sounds a lot, it's because it is! Some of them are more useful than others. 

You can browse various albums of the artist, and view the track titles (the service uses Amazon for this), but there's no preview of songs or any option to download/purchase, so that's a curious inclusion. Maybe I'm just not the target. Other features though are surprisingly entertaining. I found myself testing the lyrics portion just to see how it worked, and found myself singing along with the songs!

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 Record a station  View Station Details

 

If you have company over and are ashamed of your own pictures, throwing up the artists slideshow is entertaining as well. The program will play the radio station and then show images it finds in relation to the artist being played. Even cooler when you are listening to an older band and get to see their hairstyles change for every decade.

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 View lyrics to the currently playing song (with autoscroll!)  View artist biography automatically

The last thing I'll mention is a hidden feature snuck into the configuration section--recording! Yes, you read correctly. You can schedule the application to record a specific stream at a set time. Folks new to MCE might think "of course" with this, but back when Media Center launched with FM Radio support, one of the most requested features that never came was the ability to record a station. Good to see it finally came to fruition, albeit unofficially. 

 

Falling Short

Where mcShoutcast hurts itself is exactly in their vast collection of stations available. It makes browsing through 1,000 stations quite difficult, and I did have some difficulty with search hanging up on me. The nature of the beast with streaming radio stations, is they can be taken offline at any moment--while mcShoutCast does continuously try to update itself, I still found a few stations that were unable to stream at all.

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 LauraFM - User Contributed stations, but not always reliable
 Look at tracks from albums...just the names, no playback.

The other issue I have comes with any application which does so much, and that is the time it takes to get accustomed to it. Initially the time involved is high, as there are so many stations and so many different options to play with. Once I had my set group of favorites and knew the features I would use, the app became much more efficient.

 

Grade: Approved for Everyday Use

No surprise here on the grade mcShoutCast received. Besides being free of charge, it brings a large collection of streaming music to your fingertips and also throws in some very clever features you never thought would be needed--or that would be possible.

This app throws in extras everywhere it could, with lyrics, slideshows and biographies bringing the Shoutcast music library on par with what Boxee users have been enjoying for a while now. My only wish is that mcShoutCast could tie into my own digital movie collection to leverage the online resources it has to link up artist-album information with a particular song.

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 Photo list of artist
 Slideshow during playback

If I had one request it would be to bring on a bit more of social interaction--something to help rank stations, or help you find more popular stations easier. If my friend listens to 5 stations, and I happen to listen to 1 of them, then it could recommend me the other 4. Something like that would really help educate users on some other stations that they may not have come across otherwise.

That being said, I can't say enough great things about this app, so if you like music at all go download it and give it a go! 

 

Product Vitals

Website: http://en.mcetools.de/mcShoutCast/tabid/83/Default.aspx

Creator: MCETools

Price: Free

May 28 2009

Review - Hulu on the Desktop, Remote Friendly...Officially

When Hulu started shutting down Boxee and other addins that utilized its service for a 10' experience interface, people assumed one of the following--either the big content providers were uncomfortable blurring the line for television shows on their computers via a remote interface, or that they were working on something themselves and wanted the market to themselves. For better or worse, it appears that it was the latter.

Hulu just announced a Hulu Labs section of their site, and to kick things off have launched the Hulu Desktop application. The idea is exactly what you would imagine: to bring the Hulu content to a 10' friendly interface. If that sounds eerily familiar, it's because it is the same idea that Boxee, Secondrun, and a wealth of others had been trying to achieve...it just took them longer. 

Either way, the good news is that we now have an application that will bring Hulu to the 10', without fear of it getting shut down (we think, right?). So witout further adeu, let's take a closer look and see how Hulu does. As I have started on a few other reviews, here is a video showing the experience in whole, and the speed you can expect:

 

 

 

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