Blogs

Jan 15 2009

Blog - Windows 7 Media Center - Music Library

 

The music library, a place where an HTPC application can live or die. Microsoft has managed to keep the music library in good health with a few needed tweaks but has failed to take it to the Olympic level.

Let me start by saying I think Microsoft has really shined with their music library. All of the possible sorts you would want are their including auto-generated playlists of what music you listen to the most. Navigation has improved significantly with the Turbo-scroll option, making it a lot easier navigate through a large library.

The visualizations got a nice addition in the form of a music wall and picture wall. This animation will be a love it or hate for most people. If you get motion sick, avert your eyes ;).

The revamped "more information" screen continues to the music library. The improvement isn't huge but it does flow a bit better in my mind and gives easy access to actions you can perform.

I can't say much about albumn art at this time as I have yet to confirm if they are moving to higher resolution cover art or if they are sticking with the lower 200X200 artwork. So far it looks like they are sticking with the lower res artwork but I have seen a few bits of info to indicate they are moving to better covers.

There are a couple of things I would like to see improved on the Music Library.

  • Add support to add your own podcasts and radio stations
  • Integrate the Zune Marketplace, it is coming 
I hope you enjoyed the second Windows 7 video music and all. Stay tuned for future videos.

 

Jan 12 2009

Blog - Windows 7 Media Center TV Strip

 

The TV strip in Windows 7, while similar to Vista, did receive several tweaks that alter the appearance and functionality of viewing and recording TV. The major changes to your TV viewing experience will be the revamped details screen. This concept is applied throughout the program and allows for content specific interaction such as program info, actions and other showings type of information.

The guide has been revamped in a couple of different ways. The obvious one is the inclusion of InternetTV channels that allow for easier access to the InternetTV content. This is a great idea IF they open it up to 3rd party developers. As well, you can edit the channel directly from the guide.

The mini-guide and program information, both accessed from LiveTV has received similar UI changes as seen in the video. One less button press to get to the synopsis is a good thing in my opinion. Of course, the inclusion of a "full" mini-guide is another improvement over the one show mini-guide of vista.

 

 

 

Jan 10 2009

Blog - Hauppauge 1600 & QAM With Windows 7

I was hoping to see QAM enabled by default when using a Hauppauge 1600 and W7MC, however this is not the case. The good news is that a couple of quick fixes will have you on your way.

First up, apply this registry key that is linked here.

After that, install the latest drivers from Hauppauge's website and you are good to go :).

As always, you will have to do the guide data shuffle to get the correct guide data to show up. As you can see from the shot below not all is right with that guide. On a seperate note, the integrated services is a huge win now that I have had a chance to use it.

To add any missing channels, head on over to the setup portion of W7MC and have your way with the data. Add missing channels is a good place to start if you think you are missing QAM channels. You can review all of the channels that the QAM scan picked up. 

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Jan 10 2009

Blog - Plugin Status For WIndows 7

While setting up Windows 7, I am testing a few plugins that I have in my Vista production machine. Some are working out of the box and others are taking tweaks to function correctly and some are just downright refusing to work.

Here is what I have tested so far:

If you have updates to any VIsta Media Center plugins working for W7MC, let me know in the comments and I will update this post :).

 

Jan 06 2009

Blog - The HTPC Software Start Page

There has been lots of talk in the Sage world about UI's and what folks like to see in order to gain mass adoption. While not specifically related to the entire UI, my thoughts driffted to what I would like to see for the intitial screen when I sit down to use my HTPC.

The menu structure has long since been the start screen of choice for all HTPC programs. This somewhat makes sense as it should offer the fewest amount of clicks between the start screen and your desired HTPC function. RecordedTV->show-->Play or Music->Artist->Album->Play All. Something along those lines :). This approach while comforating like an old shoe really does not do much to ease access to the media you want to interact with.

What's New?

In my case, I assume this to be true in most house holds including mine, I want to interact with shows I record the most, shows I recorded recently, videos and music I added recently. I am not sure of the exact ratio but I would guess that I use my HTPC to interact with newly added media 80 percent of the time as compared to the stale rip of Vertical Limit that I watch every few years.

So let's make that feature #1 on our start page and make the newly added media available. This could be a "New Media Menu" item with sub-menus for different types of added media. With all the fancy networking gizmos W7 is to offer, you should have a solid catalog of what media has been added to your network. Just don't dig to deep into the dusty confines of others personal folders. You might not want to find "everything". This would tie into new media from various marketplaces that exist and in general make it easier to discover new content.



Recommendations

I assume since we are adding, recording and editing media, we like to see what is out there in terms of new media. Both Apple and Microsoft have fairly good recommendation engines in their respective marketplace software. It would not be a stretch to include this for all types of media. 

This is feature #2. Right beside the New Media button, lets put a Recommendation menu item with recommendation sub items based on different types of media. This could included recommended shows to watch & record, recommended audio to buy from a marketplace or listen to a Internet radio station, recommended movies to buy or watch. The important aspect in this feature is to have the API open so all plugins can take advantage of this feature. My movies, Netflix or even a Hulu plugin should be able to send the proper metadata to the software to organize what is new based on your viewing habits or some predefined genre preferences.


The Social

The social is coming, at that is what everyone tells me. I am generally writing to busy writing articles to notice if people are social or not. What would be interesting is to see what my friends are watching. If nothing else, it would be interesting to see what the community has a whole is watching. Various Top 10 lists and other social aspects would be a pretty good idea. Alright, let's make menu item #3, The Social. Sub menus could include friends, community and expert recommendations & critics.

This strategy heavily relies on having the proper data from your added media and having thirdy party plugins provide proper data to the HTPC software. Since this is no longer a controlled environment it maybe difficult to implement with third parties.

Ultimately, I would like to see a move away from the start page and move towards interacting with the media AND making it easier to discover soemthing a little different. It is getting a little hectic to browse Hulu, the EPG, Netflix, Movie Collectorz to find stuff to entertain :).

 

What do you guys think? Stick with the menu system? My vote is for this type of start page just because most remotes in use offer one click access as opposed to navigating a menu system. If you need to navigate the menu system, the start button is just a click away.
Jan 01 2009

Blog - Hulu and XBMC

Hulu has been a very elusive creature on our beloved HTPCs. Sure we can hop on PCs to get slightly outdated shows but we are a picky bunch on want to do everything with a remote :). Sure there is Boxee, the social crotch fruit of XBMC, but that isn't available to everyone and has a ways to go. XBMC, the open source whore that has spawned a few projects itslef, has come through with in spades thanks to contributions from a couple of kick ass users in the community.

Enabling Hulu on XBMC requires a special build that can be found here.

The feature required for Hulu to work can also be found in the latest SVN's. This option would probably get you improved stability, though I can't say for sure until I test it.

There are multiple scripts in the above thread. The one I used with success on the above build can be found here.

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 Various ways to browse Hulu
 Top movies by the week

You will want to copy the script to the  plugins->video directory to install the script :). Yes, its that simple.

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 Phsych by season  Popular shows, view by icons

In order to access Hulu from the XBMC menu click on videos->video plugins and then Hulu :). As you can see from the screen cap above, browsing with your remote is actually very similar to using the webpage. You are typically 3 to 5 clicks away from selecting the media you want to view. Endless drill-downs are a no-no in plugin navigation land, and this plugin avoids it for the most part.

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 Select quality based on your bandwidth

Good luck with Hulu on your big screen :). Here is to hoping 2009 brings Hulu to all of the major HTPC platforms. 

Dec 30 2008

Blog - ABC.com

First off, why didn't I get the memo that scrubs was moving to ABC? Seriously? I guess I should have been more loyal over the past couple of years. Yah, you guessed right, I am typing this while watching an episode of Scrubs with ABC.com's built in web player.

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The selection seems pretty resonable but like most websites. ABC.com is acting as a limited archive for their current shows. It is a mixed bag on what episodes are out there. As an example, LOST has the entire current season on it while Grey's only has episodes 2,3 and 9 from this season.

Hit the read more button for the full rundown.

Dec 05 2008

Blog - Lothar's transition to digital tv

By now you have more than likely heard that February 17, 2009 all analog OTA tv transmissions in the US will cease and become digital transmissions.  In order to use them with your older analog TVs (or analog TV tuners as the case may be) a new converter box is needed.  In order to help out, the US government is subsidising purchase of these units by $40.  Today I am blogging about my experience in acquiring the rebate card, soon to be followed by acquiring, setting up and using the DTV converter bot itself.

As I mentioned already, the government is subsidizing the purchase of up to two digital converter boxes.  Here is an excerpt from www.dtv.gov:

Between Jan. 1, 2008, and March 31, 2009, all U.S. households will be eligible to request up to two coupons, worth $40 each, to be used toward the purchase of up to two, digital-to-analog converter boxes. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) has responsibility for administering the coupon program. (Please note that these coupons will expire 90 days after mailing). More information can be found at www.DTV2009.gov.

So, I decided that since the changeover is only a little over two months away it was time that I get up off my rear end and order a couple of rebate cards.  In order to do that, you need to head over to www.DTV2009.gov and fill out the application.  The application is very simple to complete; on the right side of the main page, click on the section that says (1) Apply for a coupon then fill out the four sections.  You need to give them a name and address, whether or not you get all of your tv OTA (this does not affect your eligibility as far as I can tell), how many coupons you are requesting (one or two), and check the box verifying that everything is correct.  Then just enter in the anti-spam text and click submit.  A few weeks later you will receive a card in the mail.  I applied for mine on 11/12/08 which fell into the batch mailed on 11/28/08 and received it on 12/05/08.  It was all very easy to do.  There is no reason why you can't order your own as well.

The next step is to choose a converter box and order that.  If you have any input or recommendations of what works and what doesn't please leave word in the comments section.  There are a number of options to choose from spread over a wide price range so I could use your help in narrowing it down.  The coupon is good for 90 days but I'd like to already have a couple months use of it by then.

Thanks for reading this and please share your experiences with this as well!

Nov 12 2008

Blog - My Favorite Bond Films

007_gun_barrel.jpgWith the release of the next chapter in the Daniel Craig reboot of James Bond coming to theatres this Friday (Nov. 14th), I thought I'd put up a list of my favorite Bond movies. It gets pretty hard to pick, and I've actually made two lists one of my top picks as an adult, and one with an eye to nostalgia, as I've been watching James Bond since I was about 8 years old. My my second list is made with an eye to my love of action and adventure. Lastly, I'll mention a few total turkeys in the franchise as a "bonus" third list.

 

The Serious List

Goldfinger -- Goldfinger is widely regarded as the most popular Bond film. 'nuff said.

Thunderball -- Thunderball is a close second ;-) The underwater battle was a huge undertaking that is still considered a benchmark in underwater stunt planning and execution.

GoldenEye -- GoldenEye took Bond into to the 1990's: the mess that Russia had become just after the fall of Communism, the pathos of the Bond character as his macho attitudes no longer "just worked". 
Also while watching it in the movie theater in middle school my friend and I, being huge computer dorks, caught an OS/2 boot screen logo during flash on one of the workstations in the end sequence when the pen grenade goes off.

From Russia With Love -- Early Connery, but fairly true to the literary Bond, and pretty darn good suspense moments on the famous Orient Express. The gagdets aren't really gadgets, rather they are fairly realistic and practical spy gear that would have been used in the era.

Doctor No -- Connery is a bit rough around the edges in his first outing but is a pretty hardcore realistic secret agent, no fancy gadgets yet.

Casino Royale -- A much needed reboot of the series made Bond relevent to the 21st century and gave him the chance to let audiences see him in a raw, less worldly, state. The only gripe is that the gambling game was changed to poker to pander to the craze that was sweeping the USA circa 2005/2006.

On Her Majesty's Secret Service -- A pretty darn good film, which follows the novel fairly closely. It looks at a different side of Bond, he gets married! Also kudos to Australian model George Lazenby who was given a crash course in Bond style and then told to fill Sean Connery's shoes.

Nov 07 2008

Blog - Lothar's Build Log R0.2.5

Welcome to another addition of "Let's see how long it takes Lothar to put together a working Mythtv box".  In today's episode we will be focusing on a few of the leftover cleanup tasks.

Since I finally got the video drivers working pretty smoothly under Linux a few weeks ago, I decided that it was finally time to move my development computer out of the livingroom and back onto my desk.  I had left it out there, ready to use at a moments notice, in case we ran into any show-stopping challenges while trying to watch a show.  Word of advice, WAF falls off quickly if the system stops working in the middle of a TV show...  Cry  But after a few weeks of using the system, it feels very stable overall.  I haven't had Mythtv crash on me at all yet.  The only video related issue I see is a little tearing every now and then while watching HD shows.  I think that there are still a few more configuration options that can be tweaked to fix this.

So, now that this new system has gone mainstream, I found a couple minor things that still needed to be worked out.  All of them were related to my remote.  When I did the initial LIRC configuration I did it as my everyday user, not the mythtv user that automatically logs in.  What that means is that my everyday user had all of the necessary configuration files to use the remote but my mythtv user did not.  The result was that the remote didn't work when the mythtv user automatically logged in and started Mythtv when I turn on the system.  This ended up being fairly simple to fix.  First, I had to copy over the config files that were generated when LIRC was installed:

sudo -u mythtv mkdir /home/mythtv/.lirc
sudo -u mythtv cp /home/<everyday user>/.lirc/* /home/mythtv/.lirc/*
sudo -u mythtv cp /home/<everyday user>/.lircrc /home/mythtv/.lircrc
sudo -u mythtv ln -s /home/mythtv/.lircrc /home/mythtv/.mythtv/lircrc 

So here's what those commands do.  The first line creates a new directory for my mythtv user to store the LIRC configuration files in.  The second line copies those configuration files from the everyday user to the mythtv user.  These configuration files map remote button presses with Mythtv actions.  The third line copies the overall LIRC configuration file from the everyday user to the mythtv user directory.  The last line creates a link between the configuration file and the .mythtv directory so that Mythtv can use the files.  Depending on how you have LIRC set up, you may only need to issue the last two commands if you were in need of doing something similar yourself.

The next thing I had to do was make irexec automatically start so that I could use the remote control to launch mythtv when logged in as my everyday user.  irexec is an application that allows you to run scripts from the remote.  In order to make it auto-launch I did the following:   Under Gnome I selected the System menu -> Administration -> Session.  Then I added irexec to the list of applications that are automatically started.  The command line that I used was /usr/bin/irexec.  It was that easy.  Now when I login as my everyday user irexec is already running and I no longer need a keyboard to launch Mythtv.  It's all very nice.

The final thing I did today was completely unrelated to my new frontend configuration.  I had to reconfigure my remote a bit.  Somewhere along the line my configuration got messed up so that when I select a device, the LCD screen lists all of the buttons in alphabetical order.  I had had it setup so that, for example when I selected the TV device, the screen displayed useful buttons like Power Toggle and Next Input.  I also tried to setup the Watch Mythtv activity to one of the discrete activity buttons at the top of the remote but for whatever reason it won't stick.  I can only find that activity under More Activities and select it via the LCD screen.  I had this setup as a discrete button at one point.  I'm not sure what happened.  Oh well.  I guess I can live with it.

So I think that at this point the only feature that my frontend is really missing that I would like to get working sooner rather than later is the suspend feature.  Right now I have the system set up to shutdown completely.   It's a nicety more than anything I guess but I had the feature working on the old system and I'd like to get it working again.

That's it for now.  Feel free to drop me a line.

Oct 28 2008

Blog - Myths and legends of the OCUR and SDV

ati_dct.jpgI got inspired the other day to delve into one of the pervasive questions in Windows Media Center lore: the question of switched digital video (SDV) for CableCARD equipped Media Center PCs.
The solution that is being put forth is the Tuning Adapter. The Tuning Adapter mediates between a unidirectional CableCARD device and an SDV enabled cable system. I'll describe how the Tuning Adapter works with the TiVo HD -- the T.A. was designed with it in mind. But then I'll describe how the Tuning Adapter should work with a PC solution. This is mostly an academic discussion, but one that hopefully sheds some more light on this rather confusing subject.

Oct 25 2008

Blog - Lothar's Build Log R0.2.4

Ok, I finally did it.  I found out where my video issue was while running Mythtv under Linux.  The symptom that I saw was that when using xv-blit as the rendering setting under the Playback setup menu, Mythtv would show the first three or so seconds of the video and then appear to hang.  When I look at the terminal that launched the frontend, I saw a lot of audio buffer underrun messages.  Once I saw this I changed the audio playback device to NULL. When I did this the video played back properly, leading me to believe that it was an audio driver issue.  After a couple weeks of web searching I realized that the problem was not with the audio subsystem at all.  In fact, that problem was usually seen on systems that couldn't keep up with the video demands.  After reading this, I quickly ran top and found that Mythtv was using nearly all of my CPU resources.  In my case, it turned out to be caused by the video driver not running correctly.  As it turns out, I ran across this page , and at the very bottom someone mentioned the same problem.  What ended up fixing it? Well, it was actually very simple.  All I needed to do was open up my /etc/X11/xorg.conf file, which enables and disables various features of the video driver and X server, and add the line

Option "TexturedVideo" "true"

to my device section (where fglrx is called out as the driver).  After a quick reboot (actually I used Ctrl+Alt+Backspace to restart the X server) I was up and running using the proper video renderer.  Once that was done everything was working as well as I had expected from the start of the build.

So now I'm finally becoming happy with my frontend rebuild.  All that I need to do still is finish getting my remote to work again.  I've already got it programmed and configured I just need to make it start correctly at powerup.  After that I am pretty much sitting where I was before my last frontend died a horrible and painful death.  Then I will finally be able to move on to bigger and better things!  So let's see...  I started this in June and it's now almost Halloween...  4 months to build a system.  Not exactly what I would call a performance record.  Oh well.  Persistence has paid off.  Hopefully now I'll have more time to go back and explore virtualization and DVD ripping a little more closely.

Now if only my server wasn't about to reach capacity...  Might be time for expansion...  Will it ever end?!? 

Oct 24 2008

Blog - I'm Annoyed - FUD in Review Articles - Companies That Can't Do HW and SW

I'm annoyed right now. Intel apparently can't deliver a motherboard that has working hardware acceleration of their new X4500HD graphics chip. It works on all the third party motherboards just fine. They updated the bios and broke hardware acceleration of all the blu-ray formats. Classic case of hardware company that can't write software. They need to fix whatever it is that is wrong with the bios and let people know that it is fixed. Articles are popping around the internet now comparing HW acceleration of the X4500HD to discrete graphics cards. Conclusion, while integrated graphics isn't bad, the CPU usage is absolutely horrible and discrete 4830 is a much better investment for Blu-ray playback. The article notes that HW acceleration could not be enabled, and they link to a video that discusses the issue if you watch a lengthy movie about the issue, but they don't state the problem up front in the article. HW acceleration is broken in BIOS's numbered higher than 0075 on the Intel DG45ID. Intel is aware of this and trying to fix it. So let's take this time to rake an integrated chip over the coals and laud the value of high end discrete cards.

Two things about this piss me off:

1) Reviewers not putting all the information in their article (even though they are aware of it as shown by their link to the video Kyle at HardOCP made.) Summarize the information from the video in the article, that gives readers all the information in an easy to digest manner. 

2) Hardware companies that write such buggy driver/bios/software code that their hardware with all of it's careful thought and design fails to work.

Out of this:

Thumbs Up: Kyle at HardOCP for running this issue to ground with Intel. If you have the DG45ID, use BIOS 0075 (not 0079 or 0081).

Thumbs Down: Legit Reviews - Despite the website name, the review is less than legit. Apples to Oranges comparison -> Conclusion go buy this other hardware we just reviewed.

/End Rant

PS - I'll go back to writing my build log now.

Oct 21 2008

Blog - Build Log - A journey towards all HD all the time (Part I - Tear Down)

Hooray! The last of the parts for my new build arrived last week. I have spent the last several months planning this build. The goal was to upgrade to a machine that ran Blu-ray and recorded in HD with ease, while also building an HTPC that was even quieter than my prior build. Music playback is also imporatant, but that is something that I was already satisfied with in my older HTPC and wouldn't be much of a change in the new build. I had been waiting on the arrival of my Intel E8500 and it showed up on the doorstep on Thursday night courtesy of UPS. Looked like I wouldn't be going to work on Friday. My fiancee flew in Friday night, and the goal was to have everything up and running (and the apartment cleaned) prior to her flight arriving. Theoretically we would be enjoying plenty of HD all weekend long.

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Yeah! Toys!

I took advantage of my planned day off to get a little extra sleep and rolled out of bed around 9:30. I was meeting a buddy who is a stay-at-home dad at 10 for some breakfast before we both got rolling on projects for the day. My buddy was going to attempt to repair his broken XBox 360, while I stripped down and rebuilt my Home Theater PC. Breakfast was excellent. I really have become quite the fan of avocado in my omelettes. Mmm.....tasty green fatty berry. Bet you didn't know that avocado is technically a large berry. At least you learned something from my blog today. Then it was time to get rolling on the build. I'd start by stripping out all of the old components, cleaning the inside of the case, and installing Acoustipak insulation.   

 

Oct 19 2008

Blog - Introducing Andres

Hello MissingRemote readers.  I just recently answered the call to help out the team here and as a new contributor to the site I wanted to introduce myself before I started posting.

My name is Andres and I am an HTPC addict.  I have been playing with HTPC's for a few years and finally took the plunge at the beginning of this year.  I now have a Dell XPS 420 running as my Vista Media Center with three extenders around my house.

The past seven months have been an adventure and real life classroom in networking, codecs, plugins, utilities, registries, drm, cable card and of course WAF.  I have been posting about everything that I have been through over on my blog at My Network Project and now I hope to bring some of that information and experience to  MissingRemote.

I am a huge fan of Media Center and I like to evangalize what I see as the benefits of this setup.  But I am also a realist and I know that this is not for everyone.  In all my posts I try to get down and present the real world of having media center in your life so that those that are thinking about making the switch know what they are getting into.

I look forward to contributing to the MissingRemote and starting a great dialog with all readers of all experience levels so that we can all learn from each other.

Oct 14 2008

Blog - After all these years, how do we still not have PIP?!?

As I sit and am battling with my remote control switching between the Dodger baseball game and the Monday Night Football game, I can't help but be frustrated that my thousand dollar Windows Vista Media Center cannot do what my father's television set from 1990 could do--PIP, Picture-in-Picture . You know that feature, where you can watch something on the big screen and then another different channel on a small picture in the lower left?

In this day with widescreen TV's being so prevalent, there is so much real estate on-screen that you could easily have two channels on screen both of an acceptable and viewable size. Technology should not be an issue either since the majority of MCE systems today have at least two tuners. So I ask myself--as I do every year around this time where I am forced to choose between my sports--how is this still not in Media Center 6 years later?

For those of you saying this feature is only for sports fans, I beg to differ. I can't imagine I'm the only one that would not mind watching the Presidential Debate on a small screen with audio, but then watch something else. Think of how much faster you could just switch the audio between the shows during commercials, and then go back to it as soon as the show is back from commercials.

 

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I think what's more suprising to me, is that more PVR software companies have not taken advantage of Microsoft's efforts here--to date, the only software I've heard of that offers PIP is CtPVR . So what's your take everyone, am I alone on this need? What do you think? Either way, fear not sports fans, I'll continue bringing this up at every MCE MVP meeting until they kick me out, or implement it Cool

 

Oct 13 2008

Blog - Tips of the Day

Did you know Samsung 2008 model TVs have a special “blue only” mode? This lets you use the THX Optimizer or color test patterns from discs like DVE without the need for special color filter glasses.

When shopping for an HDMI receiver watch for the key words like: "HDMI repeater", "HD Audio LPCM 7.1-channel reception","HDMI processing". Also if the specs mention Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master audio decoding, then you know my definition the receiver supports HDMI audio.
You do not want on that only specifies "HDMI Pass Through" or "HDMI switching". The most basic of receivers simply pass video along and do not process the audio, which sort of defeats the purpose.

Nearly all Blu-ray players now decode TrueHD, and the few that don’t can bit stream them over HDMI 1.3 to a receiver.

Considering a new HDTV? Think about a big brand name (Samsung, Sony, Panasonic, Pioneer, Toshiba, etc.) and not a budget one. The big brands tend to have better features even in their budget lines, and come with better warranty service then the "value" brands.

Costco extends the manufacturer's warranty automatically to 2 years, while Sam's Club offers very inexpensive extended warranties to its customers. Both Costco and Sam's Club have more liberal return policies then normal electronics stores. Both also offer complementary help lines for HDTV installation questions. So if you already have a membership to either warehouse store you might want to check out their HDTV selection before buying from a big box electronics chain.

Oct 06 2008

Blog - 3DTV, the next technology

3dglasses.jpg There's been a lot of buzz around the entertainment industry lately about the next new thing now that the standard for the next generation DVD format has been put to rest.  So what is the next new technology that will be coming down the pipe?  It's one that I'm very excited about.  3DTV.

3D movies have been in theaters for a number of years now and some companies have been trying to develop a way to bring it into your living room for 15 or more years.  So what's different now?  The idea is the same but now it has the backing (and drive) from Hollywood's major studios.

So here's a little background for you.  In August of this year,  there was a task-force meeting in Los Angeles, consisting of over 160 people from 80 different companies, that was chartered by the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE) to discuss the feasibility of bringing 3D entertainment home.  They are expected to publish a report sometime in the next 6 months with guidelines for a content mastering standard.

The Entertainment Technology Center at the University of Southern California is attempting to put together a lab containing all of the various 3DTV implementations to be used as a staging area for studios to preview how their content will look prior to distribution.  This lab was founded by George Lucas (yes the man behind Star Wars) in 1993 and is sponsored by many big names withing the entertainment industry as well as a number of technology companies.  This group wants to define the core issues that arise bringing 3D into your living room.

Other groups doing work on 3DTV standards are 3D4You in Europe, which is government-funded, which aims to work on capture, coding and format specifications for 3DTV.  The Original System for Image Rendition via Innovative Screens (OSIRIS) was launched in February and is taking a crack at 2D and 3D projection technologies.  The Blu-Ray Disc Association is working on their own 3D implementation but has not yet made a public statement about it.

One group, Insight Media,  is projecting that by 2012 3DTV sales of various types could be as high as 28 million units, up from less than 300k in 2007.  They have also indicated that in the next 5 years various Hollywood studios are tentatively planning on doing close to 80 movies in 3D.  Word is, they're working on converting Star Wars and Lord of the Rings from 2D to 3D!  I can't wait for that!

Sep 29 2008

Blog - Lothar's Build Log R0.2.3

Well, it's time for another update.  I have to be honest with you.  I started this build at the beginning of July (right after my trip to Atlanta) and at that time I really didn't think I would still be working on it today.  As you may have intuited from my recent guide on Installing Ubuntu and Mythtv , I now have Ubuntu loaded on my frontend with Mythtv loaded on top of that.  The reason that I ended up with Ubuntu, as I mentioned previously, is that it will properly load the AMD video drivers for the integrated 3200HD graphics chipset used on the 780G motherboard that I'm using.  My frontend is now in a usable state and is sitting back in my entertainment center.

Well that's about the best that I can say though at this point.  For some reason, the only video rendering I can get to function properly right now is copying the pixels directly to video memory.  All other modes (such as the standard xv) have a common issue: the video will play properly, with sound, for about 1.5 seconds and then all will go black.  If I disable the sound device (ie set the output device to null in Mythtv) then video plays properly.  If I leave the audio on then the only output that worked was the one I described earlier.  At this point I'm not entirely sure what the issue is.  If you have any ideas, I'm open to suggestions.  I have no doubt that I will be able to resolve this.  I also believe that the video drivers will have good video acceleration in one of the next releases.  I look forward to that.

So let's take a trip down memory lane...   Here were my original goals:

  1. Replace the previous frontend functionally. 
  2. Rip all of my DVDs into Mythtv.
  3. Get virtualization working.

Here's where things sit today:

  1. Undecided Still not quite there but getting closer
  2. I haven't had time to get to this yet but after checking storage recently I found that I have only 300GB left on my 1.5TB server...
  3. For the moment I have stopped playing with virtualization and have decided to stay with a dual-boot system for the time being.

There are still a few minor things that need to be configured besides the video before I am fully back to where I was with the old setup.  The first is the ability to suspend the system.  The second is the ability to launch and kill Mythtv.  Launching Mythtv isn't a problem but for some reason the script that I used earlier won't kill it, just launch a new frontend.  I haven't looked at suspend that closely.  Hopefully it won't take that much to fix.

I'm a little concerned over the video issue.  I intend to look into why it stops on me after a couple of seconds but if I can't figure it out relatively soon I may very well buy a cheap Nvidia card until the drivers mature more and then throw it into my server.  We'll have to wait and see.

That's all for today.  Feel free to drop a line in our forums if you have any ideas about my video issue or even to say "ha ha, you should use Windows."  Tongue out

Sep 29 2008

Blog - Dear Microsoft -- What the heck is going on with Media Center?

Chris Lanier recently summed up the poor misguided path of Media Center since becoming a part of Windows Vista:
{joomsay}Media Center’s number one problem has been failing to define itself in the market. Enthusiasts and power users want features not currently provided by Media Center, most of which Microsoft has shown little interest in actually implementing, and they want it at the smallest price possible. The high-end custom install channel wants the same things, but are willing to pay as much as they need to in order to get the features. Then the rest of the world doesn’t know that Media Center exists, and even if they did they want it at a price lower than what enthusiasts and power users are willing to spend.{/joomsay}

While custom installers keep busting tuner limits (which makes any kind of tuner limit a big fat joke now), so the number of CableCARD tuners is up to something like 8. This doesn't solve the looming issue of SDV. Why aren't the custom installers pushing the industry, namely Microsoft and ATI (providers of the OCUR hardware), to get the bi-directional CableCARD specification into real shipping PC hardware?  Media Center will never be viable without the ability to properly support the digital cable TV infrastructure.

Likewise, where's the DirecTV tuner? And why isn't Dish Network being courted too?

All of this lack of focus and total deflation of the push for Media Center as a premiere digital media platform has left me a bit cynical and close to trading in my Media Center PC for a stand alone DVR and a PlayStation 3 for its Blu-ray playing & media streaming abilties and calling it quits with Media Center.

The strength in PC solutions lies in the inherent flexibility. The PC is a jack of all trades, which is why Media Center was such an ambitious concept... circa 2005. Microsoft's clout in the PC industry and reputation in the business world should have been a fairly easy sell for these service providers. Vista's new protected paths and DRM foundations should have made for a no brainer. Yes we hate DRM, but let's face it premium content isn't getting to the PC without it.

Vista Media Center had (realistically Windows 7 is where all the resources are currently in Microsoft) the potential to allow a world where in theory a DirecTV, a Dish Network, and a CableCARD tuner could all be used at once in one device. Heterogeneous support (something other PC DVR software vendors have had forever) is only available to OEMs with the elusive and feature underwhelming "TV Pack" update.

So let's talk about where Microsoft really could, and should, work on Media Center. Some of these are directly in their control (MS owns the IP elsewhere in the company), some are a good opportunity to work with the 3rd party vendors they love so dearly to provide their system vendors with product differentiation, and some admittedly are harder to implement, either due to industry politics or some other factor.

Sep 01 2008

Blog - Lothar's Build Log R0.2.2

Ok lads and lasses.  Time for another update.  In todays edition: choosing a linux distribution.

linuxpenguin.jpg

First let me start out by saying that the Windows Vista portion of my dual boot system is still in tact.  However, due to a few stability issues that I'm having running Mythtv in Windows I thought I would take another stab at my linux installation.  Initially I had installed Fedora 9 64bit but ran into a few problems.  1) There is no 64bit version of Adobe Flash, and 2) I could not get the closed source ATI drivers running.  So then I ran under Fedora 9 32bit for a while.  Here I was able to do everything I wanted to except for the graphics drivers.  After doing a bit of research, I found a page on FedoraForum that explained that the X server used in Fedora 9 is too new?!  They detail instructions on downgrading it to what was used in Fedora 8.  I followed their directions but somewhere along the road something got messed up because after I rebooted and logged in again, I never actually got to the desktop.  It just hung there.

Then I tried Fedora 8 but it didn't see my hard drive.  I don't know if the issue was with the drive (640GB Western Digital) or with the motherboard (lack of support?).  But for whatever reason, it said that I had no media to install on.

The next OS that I tried was Cent OS 5.1.  CentOS stands for Community Enterprise Linux and is the open source version of Redhat.  You can read John's CentOS installation guides here, here and here.  It basically installs the same way that Fedora does since both are done by Redhat.  Installation went smoothly but it was immediately apparent to me that CentOS did not have drivers built in for my ethernet port.  Not wanting to spend lots of time downloading them on another system and moving them over manually, I decided to move onto something else.  Even if ethernet was fixed, who knew what issues I'd run into with video.

The next OS I thought I would try is Ubuntu.  Specifically version 8.04.1 AMD64, which is the most recent version available at the time of this writing.  It is worth noting that version 8.10 is scheduled to be released in the next month or two I believe.  I decided to go with this distribution because it is getting more and more popular with beginners and advanced users alike all the time.  Installation was actually quite simple (to the extent that I didn't see a spot where you could customize which software packages were installed).  Pretty much everything worked for me right away with the exception of flash.  As noted above, flash isn't available for 64bit Linux.  As soon as installation finished and I was at the desktop I got a message bubble saying that there were proprietary drivers available for my hardware.  When I clicked on it, it asked if I wanted to use the ATI closed source drivers, which is why I went through this all in the first place, and after checking the box it downloaded the drivers and I was off.  However, there was still that issue of Adobe Flash.

So as I write this I am downloading Ubuntu 8.04.1 Desktop 386, which is the 32bit version of Ubuntu.  I fully expect that I will have the same simple installation experience with it and that all of my hardware will just work.  Because of this, and because this is my first time working with Ubuntu, I intend to write up a beginning guide for the rest of you on installing Ubuntu and the steps that I had to take to get everything working with Mythtv (OS installation, driver setup, mythtv installation, etc).  Look for it in the coming month.  And if I don't publish something soon, please keep bugging me about it until I do.

As always, feel free to drop a line in the forums about this or anything else.

Aug 27 2008

Blog - Be Careful with CableCard...it can Cost you MORE than you Expect!

One of the greatest selling points you will hear in regard to Vista CableCard OEM PCs is that "It will save you money", because you will not have to rent whatever set-top-box your cable provider deems a requirement to view digital and HD channels. And originally, it was a valid point and one which really helped validate the necessity of the FCC's support of something which would reduce the ridiculous monopoly which cable companies had on how you can watch television.

I wonder if what's become of the situation is what the FCC and the other Consumer Fair Rights groups had in mind when they came up with the idea. Apparently, the Cable Companies (for this case, I will use Comcast, but have also been told that Time Warner shares this 'fun' habit) have taken it upon themselves to deem that the charge for the cable cards alone are not substantial enough--most likely as they are simply not making enough money out of the deal. Having to provide a service without forcing a consumer to rent their box?! ABSURD!

I will be the first to admit, the idea of being able to use my Media Center with high definition cable was the number one reason I chose to go with Cable Card. But a very close second was the cost savings--yes, I know I had to purchase an OEM system, but I was going to anyway, so it was a wash for me. Imagine my shock when I looked at my cable bill, which had then jumped from $70 or so to the near $90 range, and found out that the cable cards were the culprit! I am in the San Jose - Bay Area and am forced into Comcast San Jose. When I initially setup Cablecard, my understanding was that I would be charged $1.79 per card. Not free, but hey, not nearly as bad as paying $8-10 for a set-top box with a hideous user interface and response time. After looking at my bill however, it appears that is simply not true...

Comcast, in their shrewd way, have apparently seen fit to start charging me an ADDITIONAL $6.99 fee PER CABLECARD! And yes, that is separate than the already charged $1.79 each. After speaking to 3 customer service reps and 2 managers, I got a variety of excuses and responses as to why they HAVE to charge me the outrageous $6.99, stating on the bill it is for a "Digital Addon Outlet." Even when I explained this is for a single Media Center PC and that they have not installed any other outlet, they refused to budge. Here's the kicker--when I posed the question to them of how much a Set-top-box rental costs, they replied, "$6.99," and even admitted that yes, it would be cheaper to go with one of THEIR set-top-boxes instead of Cablecards, stating, that the only reason he knows why anyone would go Cablecard would be to "hang their TV on the wall."

I feel terrible writing this, as I really love the technology but there is already significant negative publicity surrounding cable card--with the lack of inexpensive boxes, to the terrifying thought of Switched Digital Video--but I had to bring this out into the open as I think it's an absolute atrocity of the idea the FCC started which was wonderful for the consumer. In the end, at least for now, it seems Comcast and other cable companies will continue to gouge you in every way, shape or form, until you resign to the fees and services they want you to use.

If this outrages you half as much as much it did me, I IMPLORE YOU to GET INVOLVED!! Write your cable company, write to the Consumerist and other Consumer Advocacy Groups. Digg this and any similar articles...and most importantly, let your WALLET do the talking! I know I will be, and there is power in numbers, and if enough Consumers speak up about this atrocity then that is how things can change.

EDIT 8/27

I wanted to update as a lot of people have replied with some great information. The main item of point, was pointing me to the Comcast FAQ which states some interesting facts, which basically lead me to believe I shouldn't be charged more than $2.05 per card. I took their advice and spoke to yet another CSR & their Supervisor, and pointed out the above FAQ, and to remind them that all my cards were on a single MCE computer.

Here's the kicker--she had no problem removing the $6.99 charge off my account, but then the Comcast system AUTOMATICALLY DISABLED the Cablecard it was associated with!! So even if a CSR wanted to uphold what Comcast should be doing, the system has now been designed to prevent them from doing so!

digg this article!

Aug 15 2008

Blog - Good Times with Blu-ray on AGP and an Athlon 64

The past week I've been playing around with a an Asus AH3650 512MB AGP Card. I have to say, it's been fun. It continually surprises me by how low spec a system I can use to play back Blu-ray. So let's take a direct approach to this little write-up. Right now I'm watching Super Bad (AVC ~30 Mbps, Dolby TrueHD 5.1 ~1.3 Mbps) on an Athlon XP-Mobile 2400+. Freaking ridiculous. That really pretty much sums it up. Below I'll go through the graphs and measurements of different software on different hardware configurations. I've selected a few films that push the bit-rate boundaries to see how things perform. 

 

Software Titles Used

  • 27 Dresses - 20th Century Fox - AVC @ 34 Mbps
  • The Orphanage - New Line Home Entertainment - VC-1 @ 27.9 Mbps
  • Dream Girls - DreamWorks Home Entertainment - MPEG-2 @ 30.8 Mbps

Bitrates above are average bitrates. Bitrate average for 27 Dresses is per back of disc case. Seems pretty accurate, based on where the actual overhead while watching it. I would have guessed 32 or 33 Mbps instead. Dream Girls and The Orphanage average bitrates are per this resource at Blu-ray.com. The interesting thing about The Orphanage is that while the average bitrate is 27.9 it has peaks in the low 50's at times, if only for a couple frames. These titles all represented some of the highest video bitrate material available for each of the three encoding formats per the prior mentioned list of flims and bitrates.

Now let's move on to the different hardware configurations tested and see how they fared.

 

Aug 14 2008

Blog - MSN Remote Record Being CLOSED!

Long time MissingRemote readers will remember the 7th Life With a Plugin episode covering Remote Recordings in Media Center, which covered the only two options for remote scheduling shows: Webguide4 and MSN's Remote Record.

Remote Record has always seemed to play second fiddle to Webguide, simply due to it's lack of features. But if there is one thing it dominated, was simplicity. No port forwarding, no configuring...and FAST since it relied on MSN's web server instead of using your PC as a server. If you needed quick scheduling of a show or series, Remote Record was the answer. And best of all, it was free.

So imagine my dissapointment today when I saw the following announcement:

 

remoterecordtv.jpg

 

This is dissapointing on SO many levels. First, this is a terrible time to lose ANY Microsoft offered plugins--with all the negative publicity surrounding the various Online Spotlight applications which have mysteriously and without warning dissapeared--the last thing Media Center needs is a useful tool like Remote Record biting the dust (especially as it was offered by Microsoft itself). Secondly, the only comparable replacement is Webguide, but since Webguide is now controlled by Microsoft, its future is just as clouded (I'm praying it does not follow the Yahoo! Meedio fiasco). Add to all this the fact that the upcoming TV Pack Update will most likely break Webguide anyways, and Microsoft has now singlehandedly taken away all abilities to remotely schedule shows for your Media Center; a feature which has been around since the beginning.

I have no idea what's the plan, but I must believe there was a better way to go about this. Especially for a division as large as MSN TV, the bandwidth for this app must have been minimal. Even if they are developing a replacement, why not keep Remote Record alive on a backup server somewhere until it's ready. It's the type of feature which everyone takes for granted, until you are at work all day and realize that the season premiere of LOST is on tonight!

 

Aug 12 2008

Blog - Tour: Disney's Innovations Home of the Future

Disneyland--the happiest place on earth--and the home of some of the most cutting edge in technology for the home? Apparantly so! I recently was invited to tour the brand new attraction located in the Tomorrowland of California's Disneyland Theme Park.

disneyfoyer.jpg

According to the Disneyland.com webpage :

Experience how incredible your family's life can be with the latest technologies in Disneyland's unique Tomorrowland interactive exhibits. Don't miss:

  • The Innoventions Dream Home, where the Elias family invites you to enjoy their digital lifestyle, with exciting innovations from Microsoft, HP, Lifeware and Taylor Morrison Homes
  • Project Tomorrow, a hands-on experience featuring the digital wizardry of Body Builder, Power City and more presented by Siemens
  • An ASIMO running robot, the world's most advanced humanoid robot, showing off its remarkable abilities in a 20-minute show
  • Five interactive areas, including the Xbox Experience and other multimedia games as well as St. Joseph's Healthy University
  • Tom Morrow, one of the wittiest Audio-Animatronic® hosts ever imagineered
Not exactly an awful lot of content devoted to the wealth of technology being shown, right? Well, that's why we blog. To give you the full disclosure with the good and the bad. If you want some more facts about the home, there was a lot more detailed information at DisneylandEvent.com , so check it out to find out what inspired the design, how many cast members, etc.

Take this as more of an opinionated tour guide, hopefully with some pictures that give you an idea of the attraction. So let's see what this home really had to offer.
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