John's blog

Jan 18 2009

Blog - Transition Time

Those of us who have the privilege of having a significant other also have the distinct joy of ensuring our media system design meets their specific requirements.  This has been referred to in the past as the "Wife Acceptance Factor" or WAF.  I'm not talking about whether it's a 720p or 1080p display or what RAID level the drives are running, but rather something much more important.  Let me give you an example; "Why does it go to that screen when I click this doohickey?"

After time has passed and they have been sufficiently trained in the system's operation, the questions become less frequent and the impatient sighs diminish.  So, why would you ever think about rocking the boat?  There are a million reasons and eventually the time comes to bite the bullet and make the leap of faith.  Days of planning, testing, and tweaking culminate in the evening of the great unveiling.  You sit her down, explain the vast improvements that the new system will provide (her eyes roll into the back of her head half way through), and you hand her the shiny new remote.  What happens next can be best described as "shock and awe".  Nothing is as it was before.  "Where's my recordings?",  "How do I watch a DVD?",  "This remote feels funny", and my personal favorite, "Can you put it back the way it was?"

Yes, the WAF just took a plunge deeper than the crashing stock market.  With some careful planning, your next HTPC software platform transition can be a little less harrowing.  Read on for some tips.

Jul 11 2008

Blog - From Myth to Sage

Anyone who has been around this site for a while probably knows that I openly support Linux.  The fact that I learn best by tinkering makes this OS a natural fit for me.  Program doesn't work as advertised?  Bust out the code and see what damage can be done.  What's the worst that could happen??  Fortunately, this wild abandon is tempered by a wife that would just like to watch this weeks episode of Grey's Anatomy without any unscripted drama occurring in the process.  Yes, WAF ultimately wins out over cavalier "fix fests" in my home.

So, you can imagine the look of horror I received when I mentioned that I was thinking of disrupting this HTPC paradise.  Why you ask?  For one, MythTV is great and all, but there are some things which need fixed that I don't see happening any time soon.  Heresy from a Linux proponent?  No.  I'm a realist.  For all it's strengths, Linux does have one fatal flaw - video drivers.  It's quite silly that it is not possible to have video decoding acceleration in Linux without jumping through hoops and experiencing stability issues.  The end result is a HTPC client that requires an overpowered CPU.  In my book, that is an inefficient brute force means to solve a problem.  I love the client/server HTPC topology, so I'm not about to give that up, so what is a Linux lover to do?  Switch to SageTV of course.

My plan is to continue to use Linux to do what it does best.  It will function as the media server for the home complete with various drives and storage partitions all mixed together.  The clients, however, will change.  The hope is to outfit the main TV with a SageTV HD extender while the family room TV is driven by a PC running Windows.  This configuration provides the stability of an extender on the main TV with the flexibility of a PC in the family room for the occasional big screen gaming session.  Of course, all of this is supported by a rock solid Linux server hosting the content.

Over the course of the next few weeks, I plan to follow up on the progress of the SageTV conversion along with any stumbling blocks or tips if others follow my tracks in the future.  Gone down this path before?  Give me a shout in the forums.

Feb 14 2007

Blog - MythTV vs TiVo3 Redux

OK OK....   I got the not so subtle hint to crank up the MythTV bandwagon. Wink The comparison isn't exactly fair as MythTV is a complete media convergence device and a TiVo3 only handles PVR duties.  Here's my non-complete list of features MythTV has that I doubt the TiVo3 has.  Of course, since I don't have a TiVo3 in the house, this is somewhat of a guess on my part.

1. Web based interface that can be used over the internet or cell phone to review or schedule new programs, stream all content (recorded programs, music, or ripped DVDs), view local weather, and check the overall status of the server.  It is also possible via phpMyAdmin to modify anything in the database.  I would only recommend making this functionality available via an encrypted SSH tunnel.

2. Literally every gaming system is supported via an emulator plugin.

3. Ability to move the recorded content to any other device.  DRM is non-existent.

4. Local weather radar and forecast.

5. Built in web browser.

6. Up converted and de-interlaced DVD player/ripper.

7. Photo gallery with various transition effects.

8. Music player with playlist and multiple visualization effects.

9. RSS news feed reader.

10. Interface to manage your NetFlix account.

11. Interface for audio and video phone calls using standard VOIP protocols.

12. Caller ID on screen pop up.

13. A large selection of themes to choose from.  If you don't like what you see, creating your own or modifying an existing theme is fairly easy.

14. Did I mention that the system is DRM free?

15. A huge community available to help if something goes *boink* in the night.

16. Short of the hardware investment, it is free and open source.  If you don't like certain functionality and you happen to know C++ you can twiddle to your heart's content.  If not, check the feature request list and see if it is already in the works.

Of course, the biggest hurdle to overcome in the MythTV arena is the "fear" of Linux.  I can say up front that although some of the traditional users of Linux can be downright scary looking, in the past few years the OS itself has blossomed nicely.  If anyone is hesitant to take the leap, find a spare hard drive on which to install Linux, or try one of the many "Live" distributions which don't install anything to the hard drive.

Jan 02 2007

Blog - 939 HSF To AM2 Socket Adapter

    While purchasing parts for my latest MythTV frontend client, I ran into a dilemma.  I wanted to take advantage of the upgrade path that an AMD socket AM2 system would provide, but I also really liked the performance of my tried and true Zalman CNPS7000B-AlCu heat sink fan.  Unfortunately, this fan is not directly compatible with the AM2 socket.  My search for a clean solution brought me to this page advertising a socket 939 HSF to AM2 motherboard adapter.  I was intrigued and figured $13 wasn't an over the top price if it worked as advertised.





Oct 28 2006

Blog - Home Theater Power Protection

Recently, we had a user ask about the effectiveness of AC power conditioners in regards to their HT experience.  Are they "all that" or are they just the latest mumbo-jumbo fad to try and extract cash from your wallet?  Here's where I put on my day job hat (Electrical Engineer/Hardware Designer) and comment.  The opportunity for smoke and mirror marketing in this area is tremendous.  In fact, it is matched only by the wire and cable interconnect industry.  Due to the stringent regulations by which the power companies have to adhere, you can depend on the AC entering your home to be 120VAC @ 60Hz in the US.  The only conditions where this won't be true are:

1.  If you are experiencing a power outage
2.  If you have a heavily loaded circuit in your home and the voltage sags.
3.  If there is an electrical storm in the area and you get a spike.

Item 1 can be temporarily avoided with a battery backed UPS, but who has enough capacity to last through a movie?  Item 2 can be solved by taking an inventory of what is on the circuit and either upgrading the wiring or moving some of the load to another circuit.  An on-line UPS can also help with this, but more on that below.  Item 3 is always a gotcha.  The best surge strip in the world can still be foiled by a bolt of lightning.  You don't honestly think that a lightning bolt which arcs across the sky can be stopped by a 10 cent MOV?  That's right.  Surge suppression is primarily accomplished with a 10 cent part.  Kind of makes you wonder what the rest of the money is going toward doesn't it.

The power conditioning company's marketing department would have you believe that it is important to highly regulate the AC to ensure that it is a pure 120VAC sine wave.  Any sags or distortions will cause imperfections in the performance of your high tech A/V gear.  It is my opinion that all this filtering and correction are not necessary.

Lets start by talking about how a typical A/V component converts the incoming AC power.  Most media players and PCs require 12VDC or less to operate.  This is typically accomplished by a switching power supply.  The power conversion steps involve rectifying, filtering, chopping and regulating to a lower voltage, followed by more filtering.  In the end, variations on the original 120VAC line are easily adsorbed and dealt with leaving no traces of these variations on the output side of the power supply.  Some of these switching power supplies are designed to be "universal" or able to use anything from 90 - 265 VAC without issue.  Some high quality A/V devices use a linear power supply.  These can be identified by the large & heavy transformers that they require.  Even these have filtering and regulation stages that easily compensate for input voltage variations.
In short, unless you have a large sum of cash that you don't know what to do with (I accept donations Smiley ), I would recommend that you purchase a surge strip that you feel comfortable with and use the money elsewhere in your system.  Yes, these devices may do a really good job of regulating everything to 120 VAC, but I submit that it is not necessary with today's electronics.

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