Reviews

Feb 28 2008

Review - Life With a Plugin, Episode 7: Remote Scheduling

Remote Scheduling allows you to view your TV guide listings & modify your Media Center recordings from anywhere in the world. Currently, there's only two real players in this category. One is Microsoft's Remote Record, and the other (Webguide), well...got bought out by Microsoft. Both are useful in their own way, and I've found a happy medium in using both at the same time.

OVERVIEW

The first & probably the most well-known plugin for scheduling recordings is Webguide4, a do-it-all plugin that lets you schedule your shows, manage your recordings, and even stream them! I've done a complete review of the application, which hasn't changed much since. 

webguide-0012.jpg webguide-0014.jpg
Main screen interface
View & Use the Guide listings

 

On the other spectrum lies MSN's Remote Record, a much more minimalistic approach to TV Scheduling. While Webguide4 was built from the ground to revolve around Media Center, Remote Record is much more of an app designed around the website. The website that controls it all is http://TV.MSN.com . It's a simple URL to remember, and the interface has improved in time.

That being said, it really is a love or hate relationship with that website. It's very busy, and wastes an awful lot of bandwidth with TV show promotion banners streaming all across it. Once you get to the guide things are nice and clean, but it's not nearly as clean & uncluttered as Webguide. Regarding speed, it depends on your connection - Users with fast internet at home will see a very speedy response with Webguide...but if you're on the slower end of the spectrum, you will appreciate leveraging Microsoft's bandwidth and efficiency.

ABOVE & BEYOND

Webguide easily goes above & beyond. The designer behind it spent years developing and improving it, and did not stop with being the most popular TV scheduling app. He added complete control of your Media Center & recordings, and then even threw in some streaming abilities for good measure.

Remote record does little extra. It's a TV scheduling application, and that's all it does. Nothing more, nothing less. This isn't necessarily a knock on the plugin as it does what it does, well.

EDIT 2/28:

Unlike previous versions of Remote Record, the current implementation DOES SUPPORT HD Channels. So if you're used to recording ESPN-HD on channel 724 (as in the Bay Area), then that channel is available to record via Remote Record. Kudos to them for fixing that! 

FALLING SHORT

Webguide, in the current condition, is an amazing plugin. The only fault with it, is that it does try to do a lot, which is intimidating to new users. In addition to that, if you don't have access to your firewall/router, then you will not be able to use it from outside your home, like you CAN with Remote Record (That's actually why I use both...Webguide for when I'm on my LAN, and Remote Record when I'm at work).

MSN Remote Record fails in it's lack of integration with Media Center. I think this is due to the fact that it wasn't designed at all by the Media Center team, and it showed in the years it's taken for the plugin to actually become reliable enough to recommend. Initial users were left with a very bad taste in their mouth as the application was very unreliable and would frequently not be able to connect to the servers. Time has improved both the service & the guide speed...but first impressions are hard to forget...and heck, it's still HIDDEN in the website (Sign in > TV Listings > Small box on the right side)

tvmsn1.JPG tvmsn2-thumb.JPG
Guide TV Listings View Series/Show Information

GRADE: Approved for Everyday Use

Bottom line with both of these applications--If you frequently forget to schedule shows, or people at your work are always telling you of great shows you should be watching...or your significant other forgets that Tom Cruise is on Oprah today--then either of these applications will be required.

As I mentioned earlier, both are Free, so there's really no reason why you can't use both, and I actually recommend it. In case something happens with your internet at home, Remote Record will continue pinging the network until your system comes back online...a valuable tool in the event that you try to connect during a power outage. That way, you don't have to remember to record.

The flexibility of giving you control over your recordings from everywhere makes either MSN Remote Record or Webguide4 easily given the rating of "Approved for Everyday use!"

Product(s) Vitals

Websites: TV.MSN.com & ASCIIExpress.com

Creator: Microsoft & Doug Berrett

Price: Free & Free! 

Feb 25 2008

Review - Life With a Plugin Episode 6: Yougle Vista

The future of Media Center no doubt lies in its ability to present online media from the 10' UI. While the Media Center group has done some work with extras such as Internet TV and the Fox Sports collaboration; there remains a lot of media we want to see. Yougle steps into fill some of this void.

Overview

Yougle allows you to watch video and other media from several sites including You Tube, Google Video, ICanHasCheezburger and Flickr. The product is constantly in development and are always adding new sources for your entertainment needs.

yougle1_thumb.jpg
Yougle - Video Selection
yougle2_thumb.jpg
Yougle - Video Selection

Above & Beyond

The first thing you'll notice is the developer really knows his way around MCML. All the animations are done extremely well and fit right in with the Media Center look and feel.

The biggy for me is including Yahoo Music videos :).  I am a bit of a music video buff and this add-in makes it extremely easy to see any of the Top 100 music videos.  

There is also an SDK available if users wish to try their hand at adding their own sources. 

yougle3_thumb.jpg
Yougle - Inside Yahoo Music

yougle4_thumb.jpg
I can haz Yougle?

Falling Short

The navigation is a bit unusual.  You use the plus signs and arrows to navigate around the program which is quite a bit different that having your sort menu above your media like most other plugins.  Once you realize the navigation scheme, it is no big deal, but having the sort menu up top would eliminate a lot of the confusion.

Keeping in mind this program is in alpha state, I do hope to see more sources in the future. Perhaps even a way to add your own podcast feeds? or daily comics?

Grade: Approved for Everyday Use

Absolutely! Small navigational complaints aside, this is a great plugin that I spend time with everyday. Hey, even I don't mind looking at lolcats every once in a while :). I think this is a no brainer and hope to see more development in the future. 

This is a freeware plugin. If you do download it, I encourage your to donate to the project :).

Product Vitals

Website: http://www.push-a-button.com.au/products/mce/vista/youglevista/index.php

Creator: Push-A-Button

Price: Free 

Feb 10 2008

Review - Antec Fusion Black 430

The search for a great frontend has met its match today in the Antec Fusion Black.  Sporting a black front panel, LCD with integrated IR receiver and a quiet design, what more could you need?  Read on to find out.


tn_fusion_lcd_off.jpg

Intro

 

Antec is a name that most have heard before.  They have a number of great computer cases and power supplies, as well as many other products.  Here is what they have to say about themselves.

Antec, Inc., is the leading global brand of high-performance computer components and accessories for the gaming, PC upgrade and Do-It-Yourself (DIY) markets. Founded in 1986, Antec is recognized as a pioneer in these industries and has maintained its position as a worldwide market leader and international provider of efficient, quiet, and reliable products. Antec has also achieved great success in the distribution channel, meeting the demands of quality-conscious system builders, VARs and integrators.

Antec’s offering of enclosures includes a large range of cases, such as its technically advanced Performance One Series, cost-effective New Solution Series and server grade cases designed for the needs of all workstation and server markets. Antec’s products also include front line power supplies such as its TruePower Trio series, Quattro series, and EarthWatts, the most environmentally friendly power supplies available. PC gamers are an increasingly significant consumer of performance components, and many Antec products are geared toward the gaming demographic, like the Nine Hundred, the premier gamer enclosure. Antec also offers a computing accessories line comprised of many original products, including its patented LED Fans and Notebook Cooling solutions.

Antec is headquartered in Fremont, California, with additional offices in Rotterdam, The Netherlands. The company’s products are sold in more than 30 countries throughout the world.

 So let's go check out one of their newest offerings, the Antec Fusion Black 430.

Specs

Today on the bench, I am going to explore the Antec Fusion 430.  Part of the newly renamed Veris family, it is the newest of the Fusion series.  Here are the specs from Antec:

  • Aluminum plate front bezel with Liquid Crystal Display (LCD) and Volume Control to work with media center applications.
  • Windows MCE & VISTA® compatible IR receiver included for use with remote control
  • Triple chamber structure to separate heat and noise of power supply, hard drives and motherboard for cooler and quieter operation
  • Quiet high-efficiency 430 Watt ATX12V v2.0 power supply with universal input and active PFC
  • Removable HDD brackets with extra soft silicone grommets to reduce vibrational noise
  • Advanced cooling system:
    - 2 x sidemounted 120mm TriCool 3-speed fans
  • Low profile desktop height to fit in any environment
  • 3 Drive Bays
    - Front Accessible: 1 x 5.25"
    - Internal 2 x 3.5"
  • 4 Expansion Slots
  • Motherboard: Micro ATX form factor (9.6" x 9.6")
  • Front-mounted ports for easy multimedia connections
    - 2 x USB 2.0
    - 1 x IEEE 1394 (FireWire® i.Link®
    - Audio In and Out
  • Durable 0.8mm cold rolled steel construction
  • Unit dimensions:
    - 5.5"(H) x 17.5"(W) x 16.3"(D)
    - 13.97cm(H) x 44.5cm(W) x 41.4cm(D)
  • Net weight:
    - 18.7 lb
    - 8.5 kg

So you might be asking how this one is different from the previous offerings such as the original Fusion and NSK2400 cases.  Here's a nice little table for you:

  NSK2400 Fusion Fusion 430 Fusion Black 430
Front Case Color Silver Black/Silver Silver Black
LCD/VFD None VFD VFD LCD
IR None None
Integrated
Integrated
Volume Knob None Integrated Integrated
Integrated

So let's get on to the fun part.

Outside

The box from Antec came in nice sturdy packaging.  The delivery man tried his best to ding it for me but failed miserably.  The shipping box is a very think cardboard that took a little bit of damage, but the box for the case itself wasn't even dented.  The front of the inner box has a nice glossy picture of the front of the Fusion case, while the back of the box tells you about the main features in three different languages.   Inside the box, the case was well packed in foam and even the volume knob had a block around it to ensure that it did not get damaged during shipping.  Antec gets very good marks here.

tn_fusion_shipping_box.jpg tn_fusion_box_front.jpg
Fusion shipping box Fusion case box front
tn_fusion_box_back.jpg tn_fusion_packaging.jpg
Fusion case box back

Fusion packaging

Next is the outside of the case itself.  The Antec Fusion Black 430 is an all black HTPC case as the name indicates.  On the front of the case, from left to right, you will find an LCD screen with an integrated IR receiver (more detail about these later), a Firewire port, two USB ports, headphones in, Mic in, reset and power buttons, and a volume knob.  Mostly this layout is the same as the previous Fusion, the main difference here being that the VFD was replaced with an LCD screen with integrated IR receiver. 

As you can see in the photos below, there are a few changes since the original case in this series, the NSK2400.  First is the addition of the LCD screen/IR receiver and volume knob.  Also added was a firewire port, and the stealthed optical drive bay.  Plus the color was changed from black and silver to all black.

tn_fusion_front_top.jpg tn_fusion_front.jpg
Antec Fusion  Fusion front
tn_fusion_nsk2400_front.jpg tn_fusion_knob.jpg

Fusion and NSK2400 fronts

 Fusion knob

On the back you will find the rear I/O panel, four expansion slots with air vents, and the power supply.  The PSU mount has extra holes so that you can mount the PSU "right-side-up" or "up-side-down".  Note that the power supply included with the Fusion Black 430 has an 80mm fan on the back and no 120mm fan on either side, so it doesn't really matter which way it is mounted.  As you can see from the second shot below, the rear of the Fusion hasn't changed much since the original NSK2400 case.

tn_fusion_back.jpg tn_fusion_nsk2400_back.jpg

 Fusion back

 Fusion and NSK2400 backs

On the right side of the case is where you will find the main cooling, two 120mm fans.  I will go into more detail on the cooling scheme later, but for now I will say that both fan locations came populated with Antec TriCool fans that work well.  The left side of the case has some ventilation holes for the PSU chamber which will be described later.  The top has venting where a video card would sit.  The bottom has venting for the hard drive chamber.  Also of note on the bottom are the two silver feet with black rubber tips in the front of the case that are visible from the front looking very stylish, and the two white rubber feet in the back that help reduce vibration noise.  One more thing that I will point out on the bottom that will be discussed later are the rubber grommets for mounting the hard drives.

tn_fusion_fans.jpg tn_fusion_side.jpg
Fusion right side
Fusion left side
tn_fusion_top.jpg tn_fusion_bottom.jpg
 Fusion top
Fusion bottom 

Inside

The inside of the case is arranged very well using three chambers to optimize cooling performance.  The main chamber is just large enough for the motherboard and the two side fans with openings into the PSU and hard drive chambers for cable routing.  Towards the front of the main chamber are two cable tie wraps that help with cable routing.  As mentioned previously, to one side of the main chamber are two 120mm fans.  If both fans are not needed for system cooling, there is also an included plate that can cover one of the fan openings.  On the rear wall of the main chamber are four expansion slot covers with openings, a mesh opening for the airflow, and a baffle to route air over the CPU area.  The baffle comes in four parts allowing you to use only as many pieces as needed to reach the heatsink on your CPU.  On the wall between the main chamber and the PSU chamber is a panel that opens to allow cable routing and closes to seal the chambers from each other for more efficient airflow.

tn_fusion_chambers.jpg
System chambers
tn_fusion_in_front.jpg tn_fusion_in_back.jpg
Fusion inside looking to the front Fusion inside looking to the back
tn_fusion_psu_cable_open.jpg tn_fusion_psu_cable_close.jpg
 PSU chamber open PSU chamber closed
tn_fusion_front_cables.jpg
Front panel cables 

In the front of the case is the hard drive chamber.  Antec put a lot of energy in designing the hard drive mounting.  The hard drive sits in a well padded holder.  It is padded on every side.  The drive is attached with rubber grommets that isolate vibration noise from the rest of the case.  To fully secure the hard drives in the case, a second piece is attached to the top of the drive with rubber grommeted screw holes, which is then itself fastened to the case with four screws.  In order to add or remove a drive, eight screws need to be removed from the top of the case, and if used, four screws need to be removed from the bottom of the case, assuming both drives are used.  The problem with this setup is that in order to remove the screws from the bottom of the drive attachment, you need to have access to the bottom of the case.  This can be an issue if using the case in an entertainment center.  Fortunately, the drive sits securely without the screws in the bottom.

The optical drive bay is removable.  The top bay can be used for mounting something internally but is not accessible externally due to the LCD screen.  The lower bay is used for mounting an optical drive.  The bay is stealthed on the outside with a door that drops down when the drive is opened.  There is a fixed point for mounting an optical drive in the lower bay that ensures that the drive lines up flush with the front of the case so that the eject button works properly.

tn_fusion_hdd_mount.jpg tn_fusion_dvd_bay.jpg
Fusion HDD mounting area
Fusion optical bay

The PSU used in the Antec Fusion is a 430W model built by Antec.  The power rail specs on the PSU are as follows:

  Max Min
5v 25A 0.3A
12v1 16A 1A
12v2 16A 1A
3.3v 25A 0.5A
-12v 0.8A 0A
5v SB 2A 0A

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The power supply chamber consists of the optical drive bay and the PSU.  Air moves in from the side of the chamber and out the rear via the 80mm fan inside the power supply.  The PSU sits on top of four rubber feet that dampen vibrations.  There are another two rubber feet located on top of the optical bay that also dampen vibrations.

tn_fusion_psu.jpg
tn_fusion_power_cables.jpg
PSU info PSU cables
tn_fusion_psu_chamber.jpg tn_fusion_psu_rubber.jpg
PSU/Optical chamber PSU mounting points
 

Airflow

Antec spent a lot of time designing the cooling aspect of this case and it deserves special mention.  As mentioned earlier, the PSU chamber is fairly simple: in on the sides, out the back of the PSU.  Cooling in the hard drive chamber is also fairly simple.  Air comes up through the holes under the hard drives, over the wall between the chambers and out through the closest fan.  The main chamber is a little bit more involved.  In the CPU area, air comes in from the grid of holes above the rear I/O panel, forced towards the CPU by the plastic bezel and then out the two fans.  If you have a video card installed in the case (represented by the blue block), air comes in via the slotted expansion brackets, around the video card, and then out the fans.  It is all very efficient and all the major components get covered.  The only potential dead zone is up by the LCD/optical drive but that generally doesn't heat up much.

tn_fusion_airflow.jpg
Airflow in Fusion case

 

LCD/IR

Here are a few screenshots of the setup of the software that is included with the Antec Fusion 430.  It's fairly a basic setup.  The main thing to point out here is that one of the screens has a slider bar for contrast that I had to play with on my setup because the default "contrast" set the background of the LCD so bright that I couldn't read the text from more than about three inches away.  I don't think I would call this contrast either.  It appeared to control the backlight brightness, not contrast.  It took me a bit of tweaking to find a comfortable setup of enough brightness to be able to read it from any distance but not too much brightness that the background would overpower the text.  Take your time and find something that suits you.  I will also note that there are newer drivers available on the Antec website that have a few more options.

tn_fusion_lcd-config1.jpg tn_fusion_lcd-config2.jpg
Common info setup
Auto mode setup
tn_fusion_lcd-config3.jpg
tn_fusion_lcd-config4.jpg
 Graphic Equalizer setup
System Information setup
tn_fusion_lcd-config5.jpg tn_fusion_lcd-config6.jpg
 Media Information setup
Email setup 
tn_fusion_lcd-config7.jpg tn_fusion_lcd-config8.jpg
News setup City Information setup
tn_fusion_lcd-config9.jpg tn_fusion_lcd-setup1.jpg
System setup
Equalizer message

I will also note that while not officially supported by Antec or Soundgraph, the Linux community has shown some good talent again in reverse engineering the LCD protocol and created some Linux drivers that, while still in development, work very well. 

One of the features that I really like about the Antec Fusion 430 is the ability to turn on the computer via the remote.  In order to make use of this feature, the power button is fed into the LCD panel, which is then connected to the motherboard with red and black cables (individual connections).  In my case, the connection from the power button to the LCD panel was not already made from the factory, but I have been informed that it will be done in the future.  In fact, in my case, the jumper for the power button was too tall to fit into the LCD housing when it is screwed in so I had to use a knife to cut into it so that it would fit.  Again, this should not be an issue for anyone in the future.

The LCD panel itself connects to the system via a USB port.  In order to help keep a clean looking system, Antec has included an adapter cable that allows you to connect the LCD screen to an internal USB header.  I tested the panel both onboard and external USB and it worked fine under both conditions.  Another thing to note is that the LCD panel gets power from a three pin connector that connects to a special split off of the main motherboard power cable.  If you plan to change PSUs in the future, you will be required to purchase a special adapter from Antec in order to use the LCD panel with it.

 

tn_fusion_lcd_off.jpg tn_fusion_lcd_back.jpg
LCD screen off
LCD casing with hole cut for power button
tn_fusion_lcd_in_front.jpg tn_fusion_front_panel_in.jpg
LCD panel internals with IR receiver
Front panel internals
tn_fusion_lcd_scroll1.jpg tn_fusion_lcd_scroll2.jpg
LCD before adjusting scroll speed and contrast
LCD before adjusting scroll speed and contrast
tn_fusion_lcd_scroll4.jpg tn_fusion_lcd_scroll5.jpg
LCD after adjusting scroll speed and contrast LCD after adjusting scroll speed and contrast

The IR receiver is integrated into the LCD panel and runs through the same USB connection (as well as the volume knob) as the LCD.  The IR receiver is setup to recognize RC6 codes which are used with the MCE remotes as well as the IMON PAD remote.  It does not recognize other formats such as the RC5 codes used by my Hauppauge remote.  In order to use my remote with this IR receiver, I needed to reprogram my Harmony 670 to emulate the MCE remote instead. 

Conclusion

If you're looking for an MATX HTPC case that looks good and is extremely quiet, you should look no further.  While slightly large for some entertainment centers, the Fusion 430 does a very good job creating a quiet HTPC for the livingroom.  The three chamber design makes system cooling very effective.  The included 120mm fans work very well and have switches that can adjust airflow/noise to suit your needs.  The included power supply is very nice.  430W is more than enough for almost any HTPC setup and it is very quiet and efficient as well. Even with my noisy old 5GB hard drive (yes you read that right, 5GB, not 50GB, not 500GB), once everything was installed and the lid was in place it was smooth (quiet) sailing for me. 

The LCD screen I didn't find to be that useful from more than a few feet away because it was hard to read most of the time.  The display is nice but it's just too small to read from far away (either that or I need a stronger glasses prescription).  It worked very well from up close though once I adjusted the scroll speed and contrast.  And in my personal opinion, I wish that Antec had used something else as the default font because the default clock is kinda ugly, if you ask me.  Once the drivers were setup though, it wasn't really a problem because the font is one of the things that can be changed.

It would have been nice if the IR receiver supported more than the MCE and IMON PAD remotes.  I got lucky since I could reprogram my Harmony 670 to work with it, but it was still an unnecessary hassle.  However, the ability to be able to turn on your PC with the remote control is a godsend for me.  The volume knob was generally left unused because, although it looks nice, I would much rather adjust the volume with my remote than get up off my couch and turn the dial.

Pros:

  • Cool-/Quietness
  • Looks
  • LCD/IR
  • Volume knob
  • Included quality power supply
  • Remote power on/off
  • Build quality

Cons:

  • Size
  • Some reliability issues with LCD panel
  • LCD viewing
  • Limited IR code recognition
  • Bottom hard drive mounting hole access

While there might be some quirks with the Antec Fusion Black 430, it is definitely a good case overall and one that I would recommend to all of our readers.

I would like to thank Antec for providing the review sample. 

Jan 30 2008

Review - Life With a Plugin, Episode 5: MiraWorldTV

A large buzz has been surrounding Internet TV since you could first hookup your computer with internet into your television. It got so large that even Microsoft couldn't continue to ignore it and actually started shoving it down users throats (don't remember anyone asking you if you wanted that "Internet TV beta" app on your TV+Movies menu, do you?). That being said, there's little to not like about internet TV: It's free, it's free.....and well, with writers strikes, you can never have enough to watch on the tube.

Mira1-thumb.JPG MCEWeather2-thumb.JPG
Easy to find on the start menu View thumbs of popular streams

Overview

MiraWorldTV is a small application I came across which provides a very attractive 10' Media Center interface giving you access to a number of internet TV streams across the World. The plugin provides graphical icons and a brief description of channels available online. You can choose to view the available options based on Country, Category, or just create your own group of favorites to watch. There is a large number of channels available, and accessing them is very simple.

Keep in mind, the resolution on these freebie feeds is average at best, think more along the lines of YouTube quality. But, the interface itself is very attractive, using MCML really makes it feel like a part of the entire Vista Media Center experience. Browsing through the various channels couldn't be easier and the number of channels available is equally impressive.

Above & Beyond

So MiraWorldTV does exactly what it sets out to do and gives you a large number of channels across the world to watch. But what if you have a specific TV feed that you'd like access to from the beautiful interface? The folks at MiraWebWare.com thought of that and added a manual add section where you input all the information you want, and then they'll test & add it to their database.

Additionally, it's nice to see an application actually take advantage of MCML (Media Center Multimedia Layer), and the difference is quite noticeable from apps that use the older API. It's good to see small developers embrace the new layer, as it really makes the plugin feel like a part of the Media Center experience.

MCEWeather1-thumb.JPG MCEWeather2-thumb.JPG
Short but sweet channel info Multiple ways to view channels

Falling Short

So the idea sounds great, and I think the MiraWebWare guys have done as good as they could given the control limitations with what they're working with. They do not control the streams, so they have little to do with the performance, quality, and even availability. That means, that on any given day, the stream can just stop working, or suddenly change.

In addition to that, not all the streams are as current as others. I hopped on a few streams that were from a year ago...but on the bright side, I now know what "Sportscentre" in Canada is like. As for quality, it definitely depends on your internet speed, so dial-up users need not apply.

 

MCEWeather1-thumb.JPG MCEWeather2-thumb.JPG
Sort by Countries Add your stream to their database

Grade: Once a Month is Plenty

I'm giving this application the 2nd best grade available, for the simple reason that, well....it's so simple. It's easy to use, and does exactly what it accomplishes. In my testing, the quality & performance was comparable to that of Microsoft's Internet TV beta, but offered a much larger collection of streams from around the world. Being Cuban, I was very impressed to see a Live TV news stream from Cuba. The global reach of this software means that you can travel anywhere in the world, and still stay connected...at least somewhat. And of course, the MCML interface is gorgeous & integrated seemlessly.

Product Vitals

Website: Mirawebware.com

Creator: Mirawebware

Price: Free! 

Jan 21 2008

Review - OrigenAE S16V Review

It has been over two years since we first saw the oft-hyped S21T demonstrated at CES. The curved chassis caught our eye and we knew big things were ahead with the "S" series of cases from OrigenAE. Our first look at the "S" series will not be the opulent $1000 S21T but instead the more reasonably priced, but still quite classy, S16V. OrigenAE has been in the case game for a while.  Let's see if they have learned a few lessons from past mistakes.

s16v.jpg
Jan 21 2008

Review - Life With a Plugin, Episode 4: MCE Weather

A lot of plugins are developed because it could be a very simple feature which is for some reason omitted from Media Center itself. That's the feeling I get when I think of MCE Weather. It's probably one of the simpler features that can be very useful and yet easily displayed/controlled from the 10' UI. Fortunately for us, developers exist with the desire to fill the gaps of Media Center, and this one happens to save you from having to actually watch the Weather Channel.

Overview

MCE Weather is a Media Center plugin designed to give you weather for a single or multiple cities at your fingertips. The program provides access to a large number of cities and weather data worldwide, and allows you to view the data both via text & graphics. Just as the news provides, so to does MCE Weather allow you to view a 5-day forecast. You can add multiple favorite cities, so if you're a frequent traveler, it's an easy way to prepare how to pack.

 

MCEWeather1-thumb.JPG MCEWeather2-thumb.JPG
Weather Strip is easy to find
5 Day forecast

Above & Beyond

I know what you're thinking, how much really can be done with a weather application? But the developers have done a good job of trying to include anything you could imagine with their application. One of the coolest is their satellite images. You can select from a multitude of satellites (again, worldwide) and view a number of different satellite sources--for example, you can view the temperatures across the United States with a colored map, just like you see it on the news!

In addition to that, you can also make slight modifications to the UI, via changing the color, or even the default view that you're looking at. You can view by your current temperature, 5-day forecast or just look at the satellite images.

Falling Short

As with MCE Browser, the main complaint I have with the software is that it's still based on the older HTML platform for Media Center plugins. While it works perfectly well on both XP Media Center and Vista, as well as Extenders, it's not nearly as seemless an experience as with MCML plugins. 

 

 

MCEWeather3-thumb.JPG MCEWeather4-thumb.JPG
Satellite Images, just like TV!
Current Forecast

 

Grade: Approved for Everyday Use

MCML shortcomings aside, MCE Weather is a fantastic application which covers most weather facts you would ever need or want to find from the Weather Channel itself. This particular app hasn't changed in a while, so while it's not the newest, it is very reliable and has worked well for many for quite some time. If you like to know the weather, it's really a no-brainer.

Product Vitals

Website: Scendix.com

Creator: Christoph Buenger

Price: Free! 

Jan 14 2008

Review - Life With a Plugin, Episode 3: MCE Browser

Episodes 1 & 2 dealt with two of the most well known plugins for MCE, MyMovies and DVRMS-Toolbox . So I decided to venture out a bit to one of the more requested plugins which few people know about: MCE Browser.

Overview

MCE Browser is designed by fellow Media Center MVP, Anthony Park, and is compatible with both Media Center 2005 as well as Vista. The objective is as simple as it sounds--it allows you to browse the internet via the 10' Media Center interface using your remote to control. Using Internet Explorer as its platform, you can click and use your existing links from there (Firefox users, make sure you copy your bookmarks over first!). 

In addition to your standard browsing features, there's also an easy way to zoom in & out, which is helpful depending on the size of the website & your TV screen. As it uses the IE 7.0 browser platform, anything that would work there, should work the same via MCE Browser. 

 

mcebrowser1-thumb.JPG mcebrowser2-thumb.JPG
Your Favorites Manually Entering a URL

Above & Beyond

There is not much extra with the application, which could explain it's small installation size. That being said, MCE Browser makes it pretty easy to browse to new webpages, allowing typing URL's via either the remote or a keyboard if you have one handy. It uses the same lettering that Media Center uses, so if you want to type the letter B, you would press the number "2" two times.

Falling Short

The main limitations for MCE Browser really lie in the fault of websites in general, in that they are just not designed to be used with just a remote. Getting around some sites with a healthy amount of links or forums is not the easiest nor efficient task in the world. Again, no fault of MCE Browser, but just of the way things work in general.

Also, this is based on the former Media Center platform, so it's not exactly the most attractive plugin in the world. Similiar to MyMovies, it has not been ported over into the sexy, sleek MCML (Media Center Multimedia Layer) and to be honest, I'm not sure it's ever going to be. 

 

mcebrowser3-thumb.JPG
Viewing the greatest website ever :-)

Grade: Once A Month

This grade will really vary from person to person, as I feel that web browsing via both the 10' Media Center UI, as well as just using your remote, is a very niche audience. The majority of users, like myself, will either use a keyboard/mouse with any browser outside of MCE, or use a laptop or other system to browse. However, I've seen this request posted on forums many, many...many times, so clearly the demand is there. So, if you are one of those individuals, then I think you will be more than happy with this application...especially given that there are currently NO Alternatives for Media Center.

Product Vitals

Website: http://www.anpark.com

Creator: Anthony Park

Price: Free! 

 

Jan 06 2008

Review - Life With a Plugin, Episode 2: DVR-MS Toolbox

In case you missed the first article of the series explaining, here's a little explanation. In the first episode, we took a look at MyMovies, arguably the most popular plugin for Vista Media Center. This time up, I'm covering a different type of plugin, one that works a lot more behind the scenes, but with an equal wow factor for the crowd.

Overview

DVR-MS Toolbox is designed to be a comprehensive, one-stop solution to a multitude of tasks you could ever dream of doing with your DVR-MS files. For newcomers, DVR-MS is the file format Microsoft uses for it's recorded TV files. It's basically just a special file format for MPEG-2 files with a "wrapper" containing special program data (TV show name, actors, runtime, year, etc)...think of it like metadata for your TV shows. I must add one caveat, and that is that this program WILL NOT WORK if you are a CableCard user. It's sad, tragic, and a fact of life in a copy-protected world. However, if you use NTSC, ATSC, Clear QAM, DVB, or anything else, you should be fine!

There is a lot to cover with this plugin especially, but I'll invest the space in the most popular features: Automatic Commercial Skip & Automatic File conversion. The goal is simple, use the small application to monitor your TV files, and run the desired utility as you need it (or just have it always run its task). Feel like never having to watch a commercial again, use that profile to automatically scan shows as they record & mark where the commercial files. Note, that there's a method of this which actually doesn't touch the recording, so you don't have to worry about missing part of the show if it accidentally mis-marks it (which doesn't happen often). The beauty of this, is you can turn the feature on & off from within Media Center.

The file conversion is a bit more intense but very customizable. There's a number of file formats, from MPEG to WMV, and you can set the plugin to automatically convert your shows after they record. If you're familiar with the feature of "ShowSqueeze" from Snapstream, it's very similar in that it runs in the background & replaces the originals. This is an ideal feature if you're limited on storage space & don't mind taking the time & resources to compress your shows. 

 

 DVRMSTB_1-thumb.JPG  DVRMSTB_2-thumb.JPG
Select one of MANY Profiles
Choose a folder to monitor & process

Above & Beyond

DVR-MS Toolbox has continuously evolved, and with the assistance of other developers, have really gotten the commercial skip down to a low resource science. Previously, users had to pay for the commercial ShowAnalyzer if they wanted to have live commercial detecting (meaning you would only need to wait 15 minutes before the commercials would begin to mark), but recently the free commercial skip analyzer now can do it as well, and it's free!

In addition to continuing development (which trust me, is critical to the success long-term of any plugin), DVR-MS Toolbox has continued to listen to their users. Similar to the request of MyMovies users demanding Multi-Zone solutions, DVR-MS Toolbox now plays much nicer with remote storage locations, which is CRITICAL seeing as Media Center limits your abilities to record locally. Think of it this way, with this application, you can have multiple Media Centers around the house, but be able to have a single massive storage solution with all the converted shows that you can then stream from. Pretty neat huh :-)

Falling Short?

The only shortcoming I've ever seen with DVR-MS Toolbox, is the intimdation factor. The fact remains that this plugin is ridiculously powerful, and even I was once intimidated by its UI. There's no doubt that others have felt similarly, enough to the point where someone actually developed another plugin with just the commercial skip feature to make life easier for newbie users. If the UI could be simplified a bit, or maybe via a wizard, I think it would help the learning curve. I've often thought how great it would be to have an MCML frontend where I could tweak the simple stuff from my sofa & remote.

 DVRMSTB_3-thumb.JPG  DVRMSTB_4-thumb.JPG
Set exactly how you want to avoid commercials.
Select the profile to have run
 

Grade: Approved for Everyday Use

This is such an amazing plugin, that I actually hesitated going back from CableCard just so I could continue using it. Having to use 30 second skip is something I never used to dread, but after life with DVR-MS Toolbox, you will too. In addition to the commercial skipping, there's just so many great things you can do with your DVR-MS files to maximize space/quality, that it makes it a no brainer. And did I mention it's 100% Free?

Product Vitals

Website: Babgvant.com

Creator: Andy VT

Price: Free! 

 

Dec 31 2007

Review - Life With a Plugin, Episode 8: EmuCenter

In case you missed the first article of the series explaining, here's a little explanation. Life With a Plugin is Mike's brain child, however I will be contributing from time to time. Today I will be looking at EMUCenter. This plugin, designed as a front end for ROMS, has potential to add alot of entertainment to your HTPC setup. Especially for classic gaming fans. 

Overview

EMUCenter is designed to be a front-end for ROMS for various emulators. 

DVR-MS Toolbox is designed to be a comprehensive, one-stop solution to a multitude of tasks you could ever dream of doing with your DVR-MS files. For newcomers, DVR-MS is the file format Microsoft uses for it's recorded TV files. It's basically just a special file format for MPEG-2 files with a "wrapper" containing special program data (TV show name, actors, runtime, year, etc)...think of it like metadata for your TV shows. I must add one caveat, and that is that this program WILL NOT WORK if you are a CableCard user. It's sad, tragic, and a fact of life in a copy-protected world. However, if you use NTSC, ATSC, Clear QAM, DVB, or anything else, you should be fine!

There is a lot to cover with this plugin especially, but I'll invest the space in the most popular features: Automatic Commercial Skip & Automatic File conversion. The goal is simple, use the small application to monitor your TV files, and run the desired utility as you need it (or just have it always run its task). Feel like never having to watch a commercial again, use that profile to automatically scan shows as they record & mark where the commercial files. Note, that there's a method of this which actually doesn't touch the recording, so you don't have to worry about missing part of the show if it accidentally mis-marks it (which doesn't happen often). The beauty of this, is you can turn the feature on & off from within Media Center.

The file conversion is a bit more intense but very customizable. There's a number of file formats, from MPEG to WMV, and you can set the plugin to automatically convert your shows after they record. If you're familiar with the feature of "ShowSqueeze" from Snapstream, it's very similar in that it runs in the background & replaces the originals. This is an ideal feature if you're limited on storage space & don't mind taking the time & resources to compress your shows. 

 

 DVRMSTB_1-thumb.JPG  DVRMSTB_2-thumb.JPG
Select one of MANY Profiles
Choose a folder to monitor & process

Above & Beyond

DVR-MS Toolbox has continuously evolved, and with the assistance of other developers, have really gotten the commercial skip down to a low resource science. Previously, users had to pay for the commercial ShowAnalyzer if they wanted to have live commercial detecting (meaning you would only need to wait 15 minutes before the commercials would begin to mark), but recently the free commercial skip analyzer now can do it as well, and it's free!

In addition to continuing development (which trust me, is critical to the success long-term of any plugin), DVR-MS Toolbox has continued to listen to their users. Similar to the request of MyMovies users demanding Multi-Zone solutions, DVR-MS Toolbox now plays much nicer with remote storage locations, which is CRITICAL seeing as Media Center limits your abilities to record locally. Think of it this way, with this application, you can have multiple Media Centers around the house, but be able to have a single massive storage solution with all the converted shows that you can then stream from. Pretty neat huh :-)

Falling Short?

The only shortcoming I've ever seen with DVR-MS Toolbox, is the intimdation factor. The fact remains that this plugin is ridiculously powerful, and even I was once intimidated by its UI. There's no doubt that others have felt similarly, enough to the point where someone actually developed another plugin with just the commercial skip feature to make life easier for newbie users. If the UI could be simplified a bit, or maybe via a wizard, I think it would help the learning curve. I've often thought how great it would be to have an MCML frontend where I could tweak the simple stuff from my sofa & remote.

 DVRMSTB_3-thumb.JPG  DVRMSTB_4-thumb.JPG
Set exactly how you want to avoid commercials.
Select the profile to have run
 

Grade: Approved for Everyday Use

This is such an amazing plugin, that I actually hesitated going back from CableCard just so I could continue using it. Having to use 30 second skip is something I never used to dread, but after life with DVR-MS Toolbox, you will too. In addition to the commercial skipping, there's just so many great things you can do with your DVR-MS files to maximize space/quality, that it makes it a no brainer. And did I mention it's 100% Free?

Product Vitals

Website: Babgvant.com

Creator: Andy VT

Price: Free! 

 

Dec 20 2007

Review - Life With a Plugin, Episode 1: MyMovies

Welcome to the Life With a Plugin series! The purpose of the series will be to give quick reviews of all the numerous Vista Media Center plugins that are out there, and evaluate their usefulness. A lot of plugins are cool but rarely are needed that often, so I've decided to evaluate these for you and help in keeping your systems clean with only the necessary. In the process, you may just discover a plugin you weren't aware of that does JUST what you were looking for.

The format of the reviews will be quick & easy. I'll offer a high level information view of the plugin, explaining what it does & who's behind it. After that will be the "Above & Beyond" section, where I'll evaluate the application's performance, and see how well it does at surpassing the minimum requirements for a task. "Falling Short" will evaluate where is the application lacking. And finally, I'll give the plugin a grade:

  • Approved for Everyday Use - If an application is so fantastic & useful, that one could easily use it everyday, and helps make MCE a better all-around experience for your family
  • Once a Month is Plenty - If an application is cool & well designed, but really not something you would need to use more than once in a while
  • Once a Year - This rating is for apps that are decent, but fall short in a number of steps, but still are decent enough to recommend at least an installation to try it out.
  • Never, Ever, Ever - For applications that are just bad, clunky or all-around useless. Keep these guys off your system!!

Overview 

I'm starting the series with arguably the most used and downloaded plugin in the history of Media Center--MyMovies. In case you have been living in a shell or are new to the HTPC world, MyMovies is a free plugin designed to help you manage and showoff your movie collection, be it a DVD or High Definition disk, stored on your hard drive, or virtually any movie file format.

Movies can be displayed in a number of different ways, via title or the DVD cover-art. The best thing about MyMovies is the amazing forum of supporters behind it. Although there are backup options to download movie information, the default--and usually the most complete--method of obtaining the info is to use the User Managed database. Users actually input new or old DVDs not in the database and update it with both information as well as cover art! It's not an easy job, but the guys that love it see it as a way to give back to the developer as well as the community.

 

 mymovies1-thumb.JPG  mymovies2-thumb.JPG
   MCE Main Menu Strip    View Entire Collection via DVD Cover Art

Above & Beyond

MyMovies has always been a fantastic application which continued to evolve. In their latest version, they've answered the cries of multi-zone users, now offering MyMovies in a Server & Client version, making it even easier to configure your setup for multiple zones (other rooms with MCE PC's or Extenders). This was critical for me, as I used one machine to rip & store my movies, but my main Media Center PC is a completely different PC.

In addition to that, MyMovies includes a feature to automatically add movies to your library. So if you just ripped a movie, you don't have to manually enter that movie's data. Assuming it can find the title, it monitors the folders you specify & adds them for you.

Add to that DVD Changer & High Definition support (via a plugin with Cyberlink's PowerDVD Ultra), and you start to wonder why anyone would use MCE's built-in DVD Library anymore. And that's the key to why MyMovies is such a phenomenal plugin--it does its' job perfectly, and also manages to improve upon Microsoft designed applications as well. 

Falling Short?

If the screenshots look like you're in 2005, you're not dreaming. Although promised in a future version, at least for now, MyMovies is NOT MCML designed, making the interface just a bit clunkier than it could be. Again, the developers are pretty adament that this will be added eventually, and they have continued to innovate, so we'll be a bit lenient. The conversion to MCML should make it faster, cleaner, more attractive and reliable (current version crashes very occasionally).

Grade: Approved for Everyday Use

If you're even somewhat a movie fan...or not, and you just can't remember what that movie "Gladiator" is about, then MyMovies is for you. It's simple to use, doesn't get boring, and is an application which is able to be appriciated by geeks and housewives alike! 

 

 mymovies3-thumb.JPG  mymovies4-thumb.JPG
   Movie information    Movie database management

 

Product Vitals

Website: MyMovies.dk

Creator: Brian Binnerup

Price: Free! 

Dec 18 2007

Review - S16V Unboxing

Today is a good day for HTPC cases! Not only were we lucky enough to bring you a first look at Omaura's new case concept , we also get to bring you a little unboxing love today. OrigenAE sent me a S16V for evaluation and here are a few pictures to get you drooling. The full review including a build will be posted a later this month. Here is a studio pic to keep you drooling.

 

 s16v.jpg

 

 

 

 

This will be your typical blog unboxing; lots of pictures and very few comments. Its hard to say a lot about the case until you stuff a system in there and test it out. I am anxious to test out the VFD, its wiring management capabilities and of course the noise it creates.

 
IMG_2841_thumb.JPG

IMG_2832_thumb.JPG

Top Down shot of box

Front Of Box

The box is simple and attractive. The case came packed very well and I would not expect shipping damage to occur. Spec wise, the S16V is a full-ATX case with support for one optical drive, 4 hard drives, a VFD display and a full-ATX PSU.

 
IMG_2773_thumb.JPG
IMG_2759_thumb.JPG

Front of S16V

Front of S16V with lid off

The whole body of the chassis is one piece aluminum construction. I am amazed at how light this case is. The case itself is very solid and does not give the impression of being being flimsy and something prone to vibration. The lid is placed on noise dampening material

 
IMG_2783_thumb.JPG

IMG_2792_thumb.JPG

Card Reader and optical drive

Slightly tilted back shot.. Too much to drink? 

The card reader and front ports are standard fare. As has been tossed around in the forums, perhaps expansion ports would be better suited on the side so cords do not have to hang out the front. The 80 mm fans provide the exhaust for this unit. If chosen wisely, two 80mm fans will move alot of air while being quiet.

 
IMG_2809_thumb.JPG

IMG_2818_thumb.JPG

Interior shot

Angle shot

Hard drive is relatively easy. Simply remove the two thumb screws and install the hard drives. Having to take out hard drive cages is never a fun prospect. The last picture is an angle shot of the case showing the 92 mm intake fan that blows across the hard drives.

The tool-less approach, cable management, and aesthetics really come together on this case. This next weekend I plan on putting a few very hot parts in there to see how this case holds up. I have a hot S754 3700+ and 6800GT to test 'er out.

 

 

Nov 23 2007

Review - Omaura TF8

Omaura Logo

Omaura is a newcomer to the HTPC case market, but they have certainly started with a bang.  Today, we will be taking a look at the low-profile microATX TF8.  Curious as to how it looks on the inside?  Then read on.

Remember, you have until 12:01 PM ESTon Monday to enter our kick ass giveaway with Omaura.

Specs

Specs

  • Can accept either Micro ATX or ITX Motherboards
  • Standard 5.25" ODD compatible
  • Space for 4x 3.5" Standard Hard Disk Drive
  • Highly Expandable 4x Low Profile Expansion Cards
  • Compatible with full ATX power supplies
  • Optional Omaura OLED display kit, 100% Windows MCE compatible
  • Card reader, 2x USB, 1x Firewire/1394, Audio 3.5mm Input and Output
  • Optional Omaura IR and remote kit, 100% Windows MCE compatible
  • All aluminium outer panels
  • Premium sandblast and anodized finish
  • Slide and screw-less locking 3mm aluminum top panel
  • Included drive cage rubber vibration grommets
  • Magnetically locking ports and card reader door
  • 10mm thick extruded aluminium face plate
  • Steel base panel and drive cages with scratch resistant finish
  • Designed to look great with or without an OLED display installed
  • Included Gloves, Screwdriver and Spare screws
  • 435x401x100mm (WxDxH)

First Impressions

First Impressions

After removing the case from its well protected shipping container, the first thing that strikes you is its minimalistic front panel.  There are no gaudy manufacturer names or port labels to disfigure its otherwise clean looks.  On the left is a simple power button surrounded by a ring of acrylic that glows blue when powered on.  On the right is the spring loaded optical drive door with its eject button.

Front of the TF8
Front of the TF8

On the lower left there is a door which hides two USB ports, a firewire port, headphone and line in jacks, and a multi-card reader.  This door is held closed by an extremely strong magnet.  In fact, one gets a feeling they may damage the door hinges in the process of trying to open the door.  After a few tries, the process gets easier.  A latching door with a push-to-open mechanism would have been more user friendly.  There also is no gliding or soft-open feature on the hinges, so the door tends to drop open once it has cleared the magnets.

Hidden I/O ports
Hidden I/O ports

There are vent regions on the left and right sides of the case to promote air flow.  The right opening has two 80x15mm exhaust fans and the left has two 60x10mm incoming fans to help push the air from left to right through the case.  The openings are covered with an inserted round mesh grill rather than the efficient stamped hex pattern.  However, since the vents are on the sides, the mesh pattern is probably more in line with what other high end A/V components would use.

Side mesh grill
Side mesh grill

The back of the case is the standard fare with an opening for the motherboard I/O panel, four low-profile cards, and a standard ATX power supply.  The power supply mounting hole pattern only allows for it to be mounted in one direction.  Just above the motherboard I/O panel is a mini-jack meant for IR blasters.

Rear I/O panel and IR blaster port Rear power supply mount
Rear I/O panel and IR blaster port
Rear power supply mount

The bottom of the case has some slots routed in the steel chassis to provide cooling via convection.  The holes in the area under the power supply would probably not be enough to allow a 120mm fan to breathe properly.  One option would be to break out a dremmel and improve the situation, but not everyone is comfortable with hacking away at a new case.  Option two is to pick up a power supply that is quiet, but also does not rely on a 120mm fan for cooling.  The case is held up by four square feet of aluminum with a non-skid rubber pad on each to prevent marring the surface below.

Bottom view Bottom vent holes under power supply
Bottom view
Bottom vent holes under power supply

 

Square foot with pad
Square foot with pad

The top of the case is made of steel with two regions of vent holes.  One group is in the vicinity of the CPU heat sink and the second group is directly over the power supply.  The area over the card slots is not vented.  It is hard to know the purpose of this second set of holes as the PSU will block most of their air flow.  The holes are again round rather than hex, but in this case it is most likely due to strength issues.  Because it is difficult to know what all might be stacked on top of this case, rigidity won out over air flow.  As in other case designs, compromises have to be made.  Near the back of the top, there are two indented areas pressed into the surface.  Wonder what those are for?  Read on to find out.

Top view
Top view

Peek Inside

Peek Inside

So, how does one get inside this bad boy?  On the back there are two sliding latches on either end, and pressing in the button and sliding both down releases the top cover.  Using the two indented areas on the top for grip, the top can now slide out of the way.  Pretty slick and toolless.  Unfortunately, everything else requires that you own a screwdriver.  Fortunately, the case comes with just such a device.

Latched locked Latch open
Latch locked
Latch open

Once the top is off, the TF8 gives up its secrets on how it can cram all of these features into this small package.  First thing that is noticed are all the wires running every which way.  Usually this is an issue once all the components are installed, but it is a bad sign to see such a sight before anything has been mounted.  There are four fan cables, five cables for the various front I/O ports and multi-card reader, two cables from the IR board, and two cables linking the power button to the motherboard.  That's thirteen cables to contend with and nothing has been mounted in the case yet.  To compound the problem, most of the cables are almost twice as long as required.  Fortunately, the drive cages have been mounted on 3/4" stand-offs to give room for the various circuit boards.  This should give some room to stow any extra lengths of cable which would otherwise clutter up the case's interior.

Inside from various angles 1 Inside from various angles 2
Inside from various angles 3 Inside from various angles 4
Inside from various angles

 

IR board Multi-card reader board
IR board
Multi-card reader board

 

Front I/O board and power switch
Front I/O board and power switch

There are two hard drive cages which hold two 3.5" hard drives each.  The cages need to be removed before the drives can be mounted.  Each drive location has four rubber grommets to help dampen any noise due to vibration.  The down side of this design is the drive cannot effectively transfer its heat to the chassis.  Omaura has placed two 60x10mm fans next to the drive cages to assist in the cooling, but unfortunately the cage structure looks to block most of their air flow.

Hard drive cages Hard drive cage fans
Hard drive cages Hard drive cage fans

The optical drive cage also needs to be removed before a drive can be mounted.  It however does not benefit from noise dampening grommets.  The eject button mechanism is large enough it should work properly with most optical drives.  The drive door is also designed to help prevent mechanical hangups.

Optical drive cage
Optical drive cage

The 80x15mm fans mounted on the right side panel are positioned properly to help exhaust warm air around the CPU.  As it stands now, this case requires a motherboard with five fan headers assuming the CPU requires a fan as well.  This may be possible on some full ATX motherboards, but this certainly is not common on the microATX format.  It would be more practical to have each group of two fans combined into one common header.  True, only one fan would be reporting its RPM, but that would seem to be an acceptable compromise.

Exhaust fans
Exhaust fans

As mentioned previously, this case came with the MCE remote kit and as such includes an IR receiver and blaster.  The receiver is mounted just to the right of the I/O panel door.  It connects via a cable to the USB internal header on the motherboard.  Since it is based on a standard Philips IR chipset, driver support should be solid in MCE and Vista.

IR blaster IR board
IR blaster
IR board

 

MCE remote Lower buttons Upper buttons
MCE remote
Lower buttons
Upper buttons

Parting Words

Parting Words

Before this review is wrapped up, one last feature needs to be addressed.  Or rather, it would be addressed if the sample had arrived.  As it is, someone in customs has apparently been enjoying it a bit too much.  The topic of this discussion is Omaura's crown jewel, the OLED (organic light emitting diode) display.  Not only is the display clearer to read, but it is no longer confined to characters only.  It is essentially a 256x64 grid of pixels which can display anything from pictures to various font sizes.  Please see Omaura's website for more details.  If we ever do receive the display, we will be sure to provide a review.

Empty location for OLED display
Empty location for OLED display

Conclusion

The TF8 has a lot going for it.  A compact and clean exterior while providing for a plethora of options internally is hard to find in the HTPC case market.  Sure, there are some deficiencies such as excess cable length, an over abundance of fan connectors, and questionable air flow around the PSU, but in the end this can be remedied by careful component planning and some light mods.  Overall, this case has been a strong first showing for Omaura.  It will be exciting to see what other surprises they have planned.

Nov 06 2007

Review - Snapstream BeyondTV 4.7 Update

 

BeyondTV 4.7

Snapstream Beyond TV 4.7

On September 27, 2007 Snapstream released their latest version of Beyond TV and added a bunch of new fucntionality. Let's take a quick look at some of the fun new toys they've bundled in.

Snapstream has added some great new functionality in their latest release. Here's the official line on what's available:

Automatically Sync Recordings to iPod and iPhone (Optional Plug-In) - This is an innovative feature that uses the H.264 format to re-compress your Beyond TV recordings and sync them to your iPod, iPhone, or Apple TV. Using an iTunes podcast rss feed you can now automatically sync your television recordings to your iPod or iPhone.

Drive Pooling - If you are worried about running out of space for your recordings this feature will calm your fears. Beyond TV 4.7 lets you treat a group of hard drives as one recording folder. It will automatically manage and distribute the content you have recorded.

Firefly Mobile - Now you can use your Smartphone, iPhone, or other web device as a remote control for your Beyond TV.

Community Recordings - When enabled, this feature will automatically record the top shows each day as reported by Beyond TV Buzz.

Beyond TV Link DVD Burning (Optional Plug-In) - Just like you can burn DVDs on your Beyond TV Server you can now do the same using Beyond TV Link.

We’ve also improved some of the existing features in Beyond TV 4.7:

  • H.264 playback is included in all copies of Beyond TV 4.7
  • Extend the recording time while a job is currently being recorded by simply hitting the record button and adding the amount of time needed (up to 3 hours). So, if the football game goes into overtime, you can just lengthen the recording time and you won’t miss a thing.
  • We’ve improved the Record This Timeslot Recording option by adding Record Only on This Day as an option
  • Recover recordings that might have been interrupted due to a power outage, machine reboot, etc.
  • An Internet Explorer user? Now you can download files greater than 2GB in size without breaks.
  • We now have support for multiple USB-UIRT devices.
  • Beyond TV Link can now stream live TV for multiple days on end without stopping.

So let's take a closer look at some of these. I'll do an in depth look at the Auto-Sync, Firefly Mobile and Community Recordings on the next few pages. 

Oct 22 2007

Review - Hava Platinum HD Review: Part 1

Placeshifting is a term that has been around the Media Center enthusiast world for a while now. Although not perfected, it has certainly come along way in the past couple of years. Programs like SageTV and Orb, and hardware like Slingbox and Hava have allowed you to take your TV whereever you may roam. I am fortunate enough to take a look at the latter and will be presenting a multi-part look at the Hava HD Platinum. Roughly, the review parts will look like this: (subject to change of course)

  • First look, setup, and initial impressions with placeshifting
  • Detailed look at home network placeshifting (component input quality) and internet placeshifting
  • How the Hava integrates into MCE via two different methods
  • Small Q&A session with HAVA! Get your questions in!
    hava_player2 [320x200].jpg

Oct 10 2007

Review - Antec A/V Cooler

 

verisbox.jpg
Antec has been known for years as being a great company to provide quality cases and power supplies, which are as great for gamers as they are quiet for Media Center users. They have come to embrace the Home Theater PC audience slowly, but have developed a product line dubbed "Veris ," which they've tied together their current HTPC offerings such as their Fusion and quiet hard drive enclosure, and now, the A/V Cooler. An odd addition, honestly, as it is the only Antec product I'm aware of which was not designed specifically for a computer. But I'm a computer guy, so you know I'm going to find some way to review this for you anyways. And at an MSRP over $100, it sure better perform as advertised!

 

Oct 05 2007

Review - Auzentech X-Meridian 7.1 Soundcard

 

Front View of X-Meridian Box

Auzentech X-Meridian 7.1 Soundcard

The X-Meridian has been on the market since last fall and has developed a strong following among the HTPC audiophile market. With high quality DACs and replacable Op-Amps this sound card shows a lot of potential. Let's take a look at how it performs in an average home setup and on our audiophile test bench.

Just two and a half years ago, Auzentech released their first sound card the X-Mystique to much fanfare. It was the first sound card to offer support for encoding multi-channel audio to Dolby Digital. Prior to that the only options were the old nForce 2 MCP-T motherboards. Shortly thereafter Auzentech debuted the X-Plosion, the first sound card to offer DTS Connect technology bringing yet another option to the consumer. With the X-Meridian, Auzentech hasn't taken just another baby step forward. They've taken a giant leap. Offering all of the prior DTS and Dolby tecnologies is just the start. The X-Meridian also uses some of the highest quality DACs on the market and allows for user replacement of the Operational Amplifiers offering a whole new level of user customization of the sound card previously unavailable to consumers in this price range. I'm really excited about taking a closer look at this sound card.

  

Update from Auzentech:
Limited Edition - No Longer Available

Thank you to all the audiophiles who made the X-Meridian a success. As of June 2007, this soundcard is no longer in production due to limited chipset availability. Some retailers may have inventory on hand for a limited time.

Auzentech will continue to provide driver updates, technical support, and add-on boards for owners of the X-Meridian.

Alan: This review is loooong overdue. It was a carry over from HTPCNews that did not get the proper attention for that very reason. Thank you to Auzentech for being so patient. We highly recommend you look at their sound cards as they have been innovating since the came into the market a short time ago. Though the card is discontinued, the review is stil a good read :).

Aug 24 2007

Review - Hauppauge HVR950

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Hauppauge HVR950 ATSC/NTSC Hybrid Review

You've probably heard by now that in 2009, broadcast tv will all be changing over to digital TV transition.  Because of this, any TVs, DVRs, etc. made from this point forward must also include an ATSC tuner. For the HTPC world this means that any PC TV tuner made from this point forward must have an ATSC tuner.  Today I have the HVR950 ATSC/NTSC hybrid tuner from Hauppauge for review.  Let's find out how it compares to the competition.

Jul 12 2007

Review - Vista View Saber DA-1N1-I

vv_logo1.jpgAs you may recall the FCC has mandated that in 2009 all analog TV will cease in the USA; any TVs, DVRs, etc. made from this point forward must also include an ATSC tuner. Vista View is the latest vendor to update their product line with a modern combination ATSC/NTSC tuner card. How will it stack up against the competition? Read on to find out.
Jul 10 2007

Review - Logitech Harmony 880 & 890

Harmony 890 Remote

Logitech Harmony 880 & 890 Universal Remote Review

Today I am taking a look at the Harmony 880 & 890, two of the higher end remotes from Logitech for their Universal Remote line. With a cost of $200 & $275, let's see if it's worth the additional cost when compared to other models...

Harmony remotes by Logitech. What more can I say that hasn't already been said. They have so many different choices for universal remotes, and the 880 & 890 stands above as a couple of their most expensive. So how does it stack up? Is it worth the extra money compared to other similar Harmony's? Enjoy the review and hopefully it will help make your decision easier. At around $200 for the 880 and $275 for the 890, these babies are definitely not for the casual home theater user but someone that takes their devices quite seriously.

Jun 12 2007

Review - First Look: Cyberlink Live Beta

Those of you familiar with MissingRemote.com might remember my Guide to Streaming Media article I wrote a while back, comparing Orb, Webguide and SageTV Placeshifter. Well, apparantly the folks over at Cyberlink saw it as well and decided that they could have something to offer and have named it CyberlinkLive. So let's see how their early betas can compare with the more veteran software packages from the other competitors.

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Start page of CyberlinkLive

 

Review

I'll start quite honestly...there's really not a single feature new to Cyberlink Live that you can't find in Orb or the other media streaming options, so the purpose of this first look is more to show what it has to offer. It is free after all, so assuming it doesn't break your system, it just might be worth a try if you dislike the others for some reason.

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View your music library View songs within a folder

I've attached a few screenshots of the interfaceinterface so you can get an idea of what it looks like (and also to give some constructive criticism, of course). Please take this all with a grain of salt, of course, since the software is currently in BETA form, meaning this is not the final version.

First, let's talk about the main menu screen and its utter waste of space. You have 4 large images with titles, and the images are completely irrelevant to the titles. Why? Who knows, but Cyberlink might not want to confuse their users for no reason. Why not include some tiled images of some thumbnails within a users library for each item instead? At least then its got a personal touch to it.

The features according to Cyberlink are as follows:

CyberLink Live lets users remotely access their personal media-including live TV, video, audio, and photos-by simply logging into the CyberLink Live website. If a TV tuner is installed on the home PC, users can stream live TV programs with time-shift playback directly from the CyberLink Live website.

So not that complicated, and essentially the identical features of Orb. And to be fair, it technically does everything it claims, but it just doesn't do it as well as Orb. Use the Audio/Music screenshots above as an example. There is no settings option to change the display so you're stuck with alphabetical and just having to jump page by page. I have a decent collection which amounted as 448 Pages. Yes, you read that correctly, four-hundred-forty-eight. Not exactly the quickest way to peruse through your library.

When you find an album you want to play, you are shown a player which is fine-looking. An obvious lacking is a variety play method. There's no random or shuffle option, so you're stuck with the default playback method. Again, like with most of the complaints I have with this software--it works fine, but missing some features we've now come to consider standard.

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Search is....completely worthless Streaming recorded TV show

The horrible library management organization (the alphabetical prison is the same for photos & videos) wouldn't be horrible if there was a Search feature. Unfortunately, the Search is so completely useless, that I'm literally at a loss for words. I tried searching for a music artist at home, while connected to my LAN, and then from work. Neither search gave me any results (well, I closed it after 30 minutes with 0 results). Hopefully this is just a feature that hasn't been looked at, but seriously dissapointing.

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Manage all those photos. And by photos, I mean album covers. *Sigh*

I would comment on the Photo Library, but I couldn't find any. When you setup your media, you don't specify your Audio/Video/Photo directories separately. As a result, my Photo Library was generated full of the album cover art files. While I understand the desire to keep setup simple for newbies, this type of occurrence was extremely frustrating.

You'll notice the omission from any actual TV-Streaming. I own 2 x Hauppauge PVR-500 tuners, which are not on the list of supported tuners. If you want to stream TV with this, you better have one of these cards:

  • ASUS Tiger-S
  • Asus TV-7133
  • ATI Theater 550
  • ATI Theater 650
  • ATI TV Wonder MK 3
  • AverMedia M103
  • AverMedia M104
  • AverMedia M115
  • Creatix CTX-918
  • Creatix CTX-949
  • Creatix CTX-953
  • Compro VideoMate X800 New
  • Conpro VideoMate TV Gold Plus II (M505) New
  • Hauppauge PVR-110
  • Hauppauge PVR-150 (Amity 2)
  • KWorld LiveQ (IPTV UB110)
  • LifeView 502N card bus
  • LifeView LR306
  • Pinnacle 7010i
  • YUAN Fun TV 7135 (TUN900)

I'm sure this list will grow by the time it goes live, but it's rather surprising to not see the most popular dual tuner supported (especially since it's chipset is virtually identical to the PVR-150).

Conclusion

Probably one of the easiest conclusions I've ever had to write (and most predictable): This software is just not ready for primetime. While normally I'd allow the "BETA" label to allow a certain amount of leniency since it is a work in progress, but CyberlinkLive has so many problems with it that I can't imagine it all being remedied in time for an official release.

The biggest shortcoming of Cyberlink Live is that it just doesn't offer anything unique. And that's what confounds me more than anything. With Orb basically dominating this market, Cyberlink had the opportunity to do something unique. Of course offer the standard features that the other packages do, but give people a reason to switch to your software. Maybe this is coming eventually? Maybe not. From the looks of their first few beta releases, they've got some work to do.

Cyberlink is a great software company and always release quality products, at a price. They've chosen a tight market to compete in. The FREE Media streaming/placeshifting software is really dominated by Orb. And it's going to take more than this to take a share of their market.

I love competition since I believe it's the only way to continue innovation, so I honestly do hope the folks at Cyberlink see my criticism as constructive and don't give up on this. How great would it be if Orb & Cyberlink just started being more & more innovative as to the way you view your media? The possibilities would be endless.

No rating since it's beta software, but hopefully there'll be more to come by launch.

 

May 14 2007

Review - ATSC/NTSC Combo Tuner Round Up

dtv_tuner.jpgAs part of the upcoming 2009 digital TV transition the final phase of consumer electronics compliance was put into effect last month: any TVs, DVRs, etc. made from this point forward must also include an ATSC tuner. For the HTPC world this means that any PC TV tuner made from this point forward must have an ATSC tuner in addition to the NTSC one. Today I look at two ATSC/NTSC combination TV cards from two well known names in PC TV tuners: Hauppauge and AVerMedia.

Digg IT! 

May 09 2007

Review - Logitech Harmony 670

 

 

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Logitech Harmony 670 Universal Remote Review

On the table today is the Harmony 670 Universal Remote from Logitech. Let's find out what it's capable of for an MSRP of $149.99.

 

 

So, you find yourself armed with a fancy new tv, a top notch receiver, fancy floor shaking speakers, a new HTPC to drive it all and about 1,723 different remotes. What do you do next? You buy one remote to rule them all. Enter the Harmony 670 from Logitech.

Digg It! 

Apr 30 2007

Review - Mini-Review: Monoprice High Quality Speaker Banana Plugs - Solder Type

Banana Plugs

Monoprice High Quality Speaker Banana Plugs - Solder Type

Haven't you always thought banana plugs were the coolest thing ever? I know I have....they just weren't $10/pair cool. That's where Monoprice comes in. They have some very solid banana plugs for less than $2/pair, with prices getting even cheaper if you order multiple pairs at once. Despite being solder type plugs they work just fine as rear entry screw on.

So let's take a quick look at these banana plugs. They may just be the perfect thing to tidy up that mess behind your reciever and they'll definitely make all the futzing around with wiring you do a lot easier. One of my least favorite things is being contorted into some odd sort of fetal postition wrapped around my AV rack and trying to screw down speaker wire. These little guys should make that a thing of the past.

Apr 17 2007

Review - Radioshack 15-1892: Indoor Antenna w/ RF Remote

 

Radioshack 15-1892

Radioshack 15-1892: Indoor Antenna w/ RF Remote

Today I am taking a look at the Radioshack 15-1892 Indoor Antenna. This is one of the many antennas available at Radioshack. I'm hoping it can improve my reception quality in my first floor apartment. In an urban/suburban area distance to the towers isn't always the only issue, multipath rejection can play a large role in final picture quality.

Welcome to the wonderful, ever exciting world of antennas. This is the first of potentially many articles about antennas and my experiences with them. My home is a first floor apartment in the Boston suburbs. One of the difficulties in the New England area is the prevalance of multi-path signals. Multipath is when a signal reaches an antenna by more than one route/path, so that the reciever is recieveing multiple instances of the same data. This can cause a significant amount of interference if the antenna accepts the signals and the reciever doesn't reject the additional ones. One way to deal with this is find an antenna that does a good job of multipath rejection. Directional antennas can be very good at this, since they do a poor job of reciving signals from multiple angles.

I'll start with the Radioshack 15-1892 and I'll be working my way through indoor antennas until I find one that's perfect.

Mar 29 2007

Review - Showtime Interactive in Vista MCE

 

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Showtime Interactive

Today we will take a quick peak at the latest online spotlight application in Vista Media Center, Showtime Interactive. Let's see if it's worthy of becoming a player in the online content world.

 

Showtime Interactive is yet another online content distributor made possible by the generous folks at Showtime, where you can find and download programs or other Showtime events that you either missed or want a copy of.

I'll be honest, I've never used or reviewed any other type of this application, so I'm a pretty fresh perspective on it, but won't be able to provide a great comparison between say Netflix or Vongo.

I will however, be able to show you--in strong ShadyMG fashion--lots of pictures of basically everything you'd want, and judge how Showtime Interactive stands on its own.

 

digg it here!

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