Feb

25

A CableCARD Update for the HTPC

2012 at 9:05 pm | posted by Scott

A few months back I acquired an update for our HTPC. In order to watch digital channels (anything that isn’t available as an over-the-air network), I needed either a cable box, which I didn’t want to rent, or a device capable of taking a CableCARD. When I first started looking, there were two on the market. The first one out was the Ceton InfiniTV, which is a PCI card device that wouldn’t likely fit into my smaller HTPC case. So, that lead me to a device sold by the company who made the other HD tuner I’m using. The tuner I purchased is the SiliconDust HDHomeRun Prime. There are two models of the HDHomeRun Prime, one with three tuners and another with six. I opted for the one with just three tuners since I currently only have two tuners and didn’t figured I needed the extra three, or the extra expense of the larger box.

I preordered the tuner, and it arrived a bit later than the company had claimed, but I was happy to finally have it in my hands. My first task was to acquire a CableCARD from my cable company (Medicacom). For those not familiar with CableCARD, it basically provides the decryption for digital cable in your own box without having to use (pay for) one provided by the cable company. The FCC requires cable companies to provide them to their customers. I went down to the Mediacom office and picked up my card. The FCC recently required cable companies to provide a self-install option for CableCARDS instead of requiring a (paid) house call. Once I got the CableCARD home, plugged it into the HDHomeRun and plugged in the coax. I actually have the box in a different room of the house away from the TV. It isn’t necessary, but the way that the HDHomeRun works is it delivers the TV signal via a network connection, and I’ve got an empty network port in the bedroom. That way it also delivers signal through the entire house. If I wanted, I could fire up VLC and watch cable TV on a laptop anywhere. The device powered up and seemed to do what it was supposed to do. Now, on to Mediacom to try and get the CableCARD activated.

Currently, there are very few pieces of software that can legally be used with CableCARDs. The software has to be able to decrypt the digital signal from the cable companies. I use Windows 7 Media Center, and it’s capable of working with a CableCARD tuner via a special plugin provided by Microsoft. I installed the HDHomeRun software and then installed the plugin for Media Center. It quickly recognized the new tuner and gave me a message to with the unique ID for the CableCARD to provide to Mediacom. I called and had them activate my card. It can take as long as 24 hours for the CableCARD to be activated, so I let it sit overnight and got excited to watch more channels in HD the next day.

I’d read horror stories of cable providers not activating CableCARDs correctly. Fortunately that wasn’t the case for me. The next day, the CableCARD reported it was activated by the HDHomeRun control panel (accessed by a web interface), but I was having issues viewing my brand-spankin’ new HD channels. There were some funny things going on. I could get the new channels to play in the HDHomeRun software intermittently, but only in windowed mode (not full screen). I could also get the new channels to play intermittently in Media Center but with the same widows mode issue as well as there not being audio in some cases. I would also see odd messages about PlayReady, which is Microsoft’s DRM to make the CableCARD work. I kept getting messages that PlayReady wasn’t working, or that it needed to be updated. No matter what I did, I could not get PlayReady to reinstall or remove correctly. After banging my head against the HTPC for a few days, I decided to take the nuclear option and reinstall Windows.

Low and behold, the headache of a reinstall worked. The CableCARD activated successfully, and Windows Media Center detected it and configured all of the new channels. The programming guide picked up everything, and everything came in nice and clear. I’ve beem able to watch and record all HD programming without any problems. There have been very few issues, and what issues I did encounter were fixed quickly with a firmware update. So far I am very happy with the HDHomeRun Prime.

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Feb

19

Upgrading the Entertainment PC

2010 at 2:32 pm | posted by Scott

It’s been about about four years since the original Entertainment PC was put together. There have been quite a few small changes and upgrades made since then, but it finally reached the point where things were starting to go south a bit too often with this box. Looking at the current conversion of human years to computer years, this box was about 40 years old. So I harvested some of the computer organs (drives), and set to work on building a machine that would first of all, function, and secondly, last a bit longer with a bit more upgrade flexibility. The issue with the previous computer was the case it was built with. Don’t get me wrong, I loved that case (Aopen EPC945-m8), but it was just a bit too locked together to be upgraded. It was purchased as a bare-bones machine, so it would be very very difficulty to pull out the motherboard, or swap out any vial components. The main issue with this was support for newer operating systems. Vista support for this box was poor, and Windows 7 was even worse, and from what I can tell Aopen has basically stopped support for this product, so new drivers weren’t going to happen. No new drivers meant no new OS (I tried Windows 7, and it wasn’t pretty), so it’s time to upgrade to a more flexible Home Theater PC (HTPC).

The Case:
OK, enough about the old box, what’s in the new one? The first thing I chose was the case. I wanted something that didn’t look like a computer, since it sits out in the open right under the TV. I looked at a handful of slim HTPC cases, and ultimately landed on the Moneual Black Aluminum MonCaso 312S. It got pretty good reviews, and was simply a case, and not a bare-bones system. That means I got to pick my own motherboard (micro-atx), power supply (atx), and all the rest of the guts for the machine. I did not want to run into any sort of incompatibilities in the future, and not be able swap every piece out for something else, something I wasn’t able to do with the old Aopen case. The case doesn’t have a whole lot of bells and whistles. It’s got a card reader, and several USB/Firewire ports on the front panel, and included a remote and IR receiver built in (so I don’t need to hang some ugly USB receiver off of it). Outside of a little difficulty getting hardware installed (which is inevitable in a case this small), I’m pretty happy with how the MonoCase 312 looks and performs.

The Guts:
Several items moved over from the old machine, the LG DVD/Blu-ray drive, the hard drive, and the video capture cards. Everything else needed to be purchased new though to get this new box up and running. I spent the most time determining what motherboard to put into it. I went back and fourth on weather or not I needed to get a dedicated video card like I had in the previous box (ATI Radeon 2400 HD). I ended up going with integrated video on the motherboard. I made that choice for two reasons: 1.) space- I only have one slot, and for heat reasons, I wanted to keep it open if I could. 2.) I didn’t really need much more power than what the integrated video provided. The motherboard I chose actually had more power than the stand-alone card on the old system. All it really needs to do is handle HD video, and the built in video (equivalent to ATI Radeon 4200HD) should be able to do that without breaking a sweat. If I wanted to play high end video games, it might be and issue, but first and foremost, this is a TV computer. Alright, so what motherboard did I end up going with? I went with the Gigabyte MA785GMT-UD2H. It basically had everything I needed, integrated video, good audio chip, lots of ports, along with pretty good reviews and a good price. This is an AMD board, so I ended up with an older AMD processor. Normally I’d go with Intel since I think they make a better chip at this point in time, but I grabbed an AMD Phenom II X2 545 Callisto 3.0GHz chip this time around. It’s a much more powerful chip than what I’ve got in the old box (which handles just fine), and I liked what AMD offered for motherboard packages in the form factor I needed better. Everything went together pretty well with one issue (that I probably should have researched a bit more to begin with). The CPU cooler I bought (Scythe SCSK-1100 Shuriken CPU Cooler (Rev. B)), did not fit with my DVD drive in place. The drive was a bit long, and ran into the fan on top, so I had to scrap the cooler and go with the stock one that came with the chip. It is a tiny bit louder, but not something I’m worrying about at this time.

Video Capture:
Video capture hasn’t changed too much with this new machine, but I still wanted to list what I’m using. I’ve got two Hauppauge Low Profile TV Tuner Cards (WINTV-PVR 150MCE-LP) that have been humming away without any problems for several years. These do the standard def. capture, and have been real work-horses. For HD capture, I’m still using the SiliconDust HDHomerun that I wrote about a couple years back. I did change how that box routes video to the HTPC though. Previously, I had a USB Ethernet adapter specifically for the HDHomerun (it delivers video via the network card). That USB adapter has always been a bit flaky, so I moved the HDHomerun up to one of our guest rooms and split the cable for both tuners in the HDHomerun. I plugged the device into our home network (we’ve got ports in every room), and now have two HD tuners where before there was one, and can access that HD video from any computer on our network, including the new HTPC down in the living room. The reason I didn’t have both tuners hooked up before was I couldn’t split the cable any more in the living room. It was already split four ways (TV, SD capture 1, SD capture 2, HDHomerun), and was already noticeably degraded. So by moving it up to an unused cable port in the bedroom, I’ve got higher quality SD in the living room, and now clean clear cable for HD coming from the bedroom. We can now record/view two HD channels at the same time.

Input:
Logitech diNovo Mini KeyboardThere really isn’t anything new here with the recent build, outside of the new remote, but it’s really nothing special (just a generic windows media center remote). I did want to mention and upgrade I made in April to the keyboard though. I bought a Logitech diNovo Mini keyboard that I’m really happy with. I had issues with the previous MCE keyboard interfering with the TV (apparently they were both using the same IR signals). This new diNovo is bluetooth, and works really great! It also has a better, smaller form factor.

Software:
What on earth will this super-duper-TV-recording-video-watching beast run for software? That’s a good question, and one that probably should have been answers at the top of this article, since it is what prompted the hardware update to begin with. Quick answer: it’s running Windows 7 Media Center (for now). On the previous build, I had a somewhat clunky setup of Meedio, which has long since morphed into something totally different than what it was when I started (it has been sold, purchased by Yahoo, given up on by Yahoo, opened, and rewritten). For TV capture (the Tivo-like function), I was using an application called Stapstream BeyondTV previously, but that has recently been basically abandoned as well. Are you noticing a theme here? I took a look at the HTPC software landscape, and decided at this point in time, Windows 7 Media Center was the best way to go. It’s got a pretty big user community behind it, and works pretty well right out of the box. I also like that Microsoft has just opened up Media Center for CableCard use as well. That means I can hook it to HD cable from a provider without a cable box. Essentially the HTPC becomes the cable box with use of a CableCard from the cable company. Previously this was only available to computer manufacturers. I’m not using this feature now, but like the option for future upgrades. SiliconDust is working on a CableCard box, as well as a nice looking one from a company called Ceton. Some day I’ll be able to record shows in HD from channels other than the big networks. All in all, I’ve been happy with Media Center. It has a nice plug-in for Netflix streaming, as well as Internet TV. I’ve also worked Hulu Desktop into the mix, and connected Media Center to our SlingBox software as well. I still don’t like the proprietary format it records with, but haven’t run into any walls yet converting it to something more portable. They’ve done some nice interface things since the last time I played with it (XP Media Center), and it’s very easy to use without a lot of messing around. You shouldn’t need to read a manual to operate your TV. Generally I’ve been happy with Media Center, but if something better comes along, at least the machine itself is now flexible enough to run it.

Check out my HTPC (#2) Flickr Set for more images and information.

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Jan

07

Asus Announces Eee Keyboard

2009 at 10:35 am | posted by Scott

Asus, the company that started the whole netbook trend announced a cool new product yesterday. It’s called the Eee Keyboard, and is an entire computer (HTPC) built into a keyboard.

Asus Eee KeyboardThe keyboard has a built-in touch screen where the number pad normally goes, which can display widgets, RSS feeds, calendars and more.  This thing will supposedly connect via wireless HDMI, making it a perfect little HTPC that can be carried from room to room, or TV to TV. Unfortunately this is only a prototype, and no official release has been announced, so who knows when or even if this thing will make it to the market. If it does, it look to be a pretty sweet little keyboard… err computer.

ASUS Press Release – Eee Keyboard
Being the first multi-media center enabled by ultra wideband HDMI, the Eee Keyboard is not only a fully-functional PC; it also serves as a hub that wirelessly connects all multimedia devices to utilize any monitor or TV as a viewing platform.

More info and photos:

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Jun

30

NetFlix Has Change of Heart- NOT Removing Profiles

2008 at 4:28 pm | posted by Scott

I jut got another email from Netflix, and it looks like they decided not to remove profiles.

You spoke, and we listened. We are keeping Profiles. Thank you for all the calls and emails telling us how important Profiles are.
We are sorry for any inconvenience we may have caused. We hope the next time you hear from us we will delight, and not disappoint, you.
-Your friends at Netflix

Maybe the petitions, complaints and bad press they were getting prompted the change of heart. I also wonder if maybe the 1-2% they quote a the only subscribers using that feature was maybe a little low. Whatever it was, thank you for listening to your customers Netflix.

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Jun

18

Netflix Removes Profiles, Calls it “Improvement”

2008 at 9:07 pm | posted by Scott

I just got an e-mail from Netfix, they will be removing profiles feature. I thought it was spam at first, since why would Netflix do this? I followed the link, and found out this it wasn’t a joke, they are in fact removing profiles effective September 1st. This feature lets you set up multiple movie queues under different names. So I have a profile and my wife has a profile and we both get one DVD out of our two-DVD plan.

We wanted to let you know we will be eliminating Profiles, the feature that allowed you to set up separate DVD Queues under one account, effective September 1, 2008.
Each additional Profile Queue will be unavailable after September 1, 2008. Before then, we recommend you consolidate any of your Profile Queues to your main account Queue or print them out.
While it may be disappointing to see Profiles go away, this change will help us continue to improve the Netflix website for all our customers.
If you have any questions, please go to http://www.netflix.com/Help?p_faqid=3962 or call us anytime at 1 (888) 638-3549. We apologize for any inconvenience.

To me, removing a feature is not an “improvement,” and may prompt me to find another DVD rental service come September 1st. If you use profiles, please let Netflix know that this is a bad idea.

UPDATE: Apparently, there are a lot of (rightly) upset Netflix users out there.

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May

23

Netflix Set-Top Box

2008 at 11:22 am | posted by Scott

Earlier this week Netflix announced a new piece of hardware, the Netflix Player by Roku. This tiny little box allows you to plug in your TV along with an internet connection (wired or wireless) to get access to all of the Watch Now movies on Netflix. Taking a look at the specs of this piece of equipment, it really doesn’t look too bad (outside of the fact that it is yet another set top box cluttering up your entertainment center). The big thing that could help this venture is more streaming content from Netflix, which seems a little lacking at the moment. Right now they claim over 10,000 movies and TV shows are available. Unfortunately most of them seem to be older content. This new player does overcome the barrier of watching movies on your TV vs. your computer screen, which they still only offer on Windows using Internet Explorer and Windows Media Player. All in all, it’s looks like a nice little device.

Given everything above, I don’t think we’ll be buying one of these. My wish came true that I mentioned at the enf of the Entertainment PC Software post. A plugin for Meedio was created to deal with Netflix. As I’ve mentioned before, we have an Entertainment PC that controls all of our media (music/video/tv/etc.). Meedio is the application we use for the main interface on that computer. An incredible plugin author (UFGrayMatter) created one that can handle all aspects of Netflix. The plugin is called MeeFlix, and works really well. We’re able to manage our Netflix Queue, and also view any of the Watch Now streaming movies right within the (remote control friendly) Meedio interface on our TV. So now our Entertainment PC does the same thing as this new Netflix Roku box and doesn’t cost $100.

Video of MeeFlix in action

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May

21

Blu-ray and HD-DVD for the Entertainment PC

2008 at 11:10 am | posted by Scott

Another component of the Entertainment PC has been upgraded to HD. Now that a winner has been chosen in the next-generation HD disc war, I figured it was time to make a purchase (even though it didn’t really matter with the choice I made). I bought the LG Super Multi Blue Blu-ray Disc and HD-DVD-ROM drive. It will play Blu-ray, HD-DVD, and standard DVD discs as well as burn DVD’s.

The setup was pretty straight-forward. It installed like a standard DVD drive, though it was a little bit longer than most. I guess they needed to make room for those extra lasers. Once the drive was functioning, it was just a matter of getting the software to work correctly. This turned out to be more of a headache than I thought. If you don’t know anything about the new HD disc formats, they are loaded down with DRM. If you’re even thinking about playing them, you have to have a a video card AND monitor that can handle HDCP (High-bandwidth Digital Content Protection). According to the documentation on both my video card, (ATI Radeon HD 2400) and TV (Magnavox 37MF337B), they are HDCP compliant. Um… the new drive thought differently.

The other key to this whole setup was software used to play HD content. I had been using Cyberlink PowerDVD as my DVD player in the entertainment computer, so a simple update to the newest version of that software was supposedly all I needed. Again, I was wrong. So, everything was hooked up, the software was upgraded, it’s time to fire up my Blu-ray copy of Planet Earth (thanks Netflix!), and see what happens. Once the disc is inserted, PowerDVD comes up and shows the FBI warning in beautiful HD quality, then gives me an HDCP error and says it cannot play… lovely! There is really no reason why this shouldn’t work. The (HDCP compliant) hardware and software a totally capable of playing a Blu-ray disc. Once again DRM ruins the day. I started digging around the web for fixes, and didn’t really come up with anything. What I did run across was a lovely little application called SlySoft AnyDVD that totally removed the evil DRM bit when playing HD content. I downloaded their demo and gave it a try. Sure enough, the disc played just fine. I didn’t want to have to hack this for it to work. After a little more digging, I found another update/patch for PowerDVD, that wasn’t mentioned anywhere other than a small area of their site and figured, what have I got to lose. After installing that, and disabling AnyDVD, it finally worked. It shouldn’t be this hard!

I guess the morale of the story is DRM SUCKS! It really just puts up barriers for people who want to use the technology legitimately. I’m not trying to rip HD content, I’m not trying to play illegal content from the Internet. All I wanted to do is play a Blu-ray disc on a computer and player that should be able to play it. I was finally able to get to that point (after quite a headache). And at least it’s good to know that AnyDVD is there if you need it.

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Mar

25

Hulu Review: Not Too Shabby

2008 at 8:38 pm | posted by Scott

hulu.jpgThis post has been sitting in my drafts for about a month now. I was lucky enough to get in on the private beta of Hulu.com not too long after they started testing. Waiting so long to write this has actually been somewhat helpful. I’ve talked with a few people about their use of Hulu (now that it is open to the public) and got some interesting insights. What exactly is Hulu.com? It is a site created by News Corp. and NBC as an answer to internet video. This past winter, NBC left iTunes as a digital distributor of its TV content, and their alternative was Hulu. At the time, Hulu hadn’t launched yet and there was a lot of skepticism on whether this non-existent internet video site put together by companies that really don’t seem to know technology was going to work out, or just fail miserably. From what I read, signs were pointing to the latter. I had my doubts as well. How were broadcast companies going surpass the likes of Apple’s iTunes or YouTube when every time you look at them, they’re flailing blindly when it comes to technology. Well, now that Hulu is open to the world, it looks like what they put together isn’t that shabby.

The first thing you notice when you pull up Hulu.com is the slick clean interface. It is easy to navigate and easy to find shows to watch. Content is the next thing you notice. They’ve got a lot of stuff up there. Not only do you have content from NBC and News Corp. (Fox), also included is Sony, MGM, and many of their sub-brands like Sci-Fi, Bravo, USA, etc. There is definitely not a lack of things to watch. I do have some questions on why they chop up seasons or chose what shows and seasons get posted. Like for the show 24 (which I don’t watch), they start with Season 1 Episodes 1-5, then they jump to season 6. From what I know about that show, you need to follow it pretty closely from episode to episode, so jumping over 5 seasons doesn’t really make sense to me. Another example of this is the show Chuck, why are you starting with episode 5? How tough would it be to start at the beginning? That show hasn’t even been on that long! Maybe this is something they’re working on. I don’t know how things work inside the TV biz, but if I get hooked on 24 and don’t have the shows in between, where do you think I might get them (*cough* P2P *cough*)? Another thing that is somewhat random about the content selection in Hulu is when exactly a new show comes to the site. From what I have seen it is kind of random when a show that aired last night on NBC can be watched on Hulu. That, along with having irregular partial seasons makes it kind of tough to get into a TV series. Maybe that’s what they’re going for with Hulu. Doing that doesn’t make it that much different from standard TV, but maybe that’s what they’re going for. “We’ll hook ‘em with Hulu and then they’ll have to come back to NBC to watch the next show in the series… mwah ha ha ha ha!”

hulu_screen.jpgSo, content selection aside, the player interface is pretty nice. It is a flash video player so it should be cross platform. I haven’t tried it myself, but I’ve read it even works on Linux. The interface is intuitive and has some nice features. It does full-screen, pop-up, or in-browser viewing modes and has a little “lower lights” button that dims the rest of the page if you decided to watch it in the standard window. They even allow embedding of the video into your own website ala YouTube. In fact before the private beta was over, you could access pretty much ever video on the site from openhulu.com which was a collection of every video embedded. The video quality is pretty good. It’s better than your typical YouTube video. There is a little fuzziness or graininess at full-screen, but all in all, the quality is pretty high.

There are commercials in Hulu videos (you knew there would be). There is typically an intro “brought to you by” commercial for a few seconds when you start a video, and depending on the show, there are a couple commercials dropped throughout the video. You can skip around the show, but cannot skip a commercial break. They tell you how long a break will be with a counter at the top of the video window (letting you know how long you have to visit the kitchen). I think it definitely less obtrusive than a regular TV commercial. It sure takes up less time in a typical TV episode vs. watching it on broadcast TV.

Overall, Hulu is much better than I expected. There are still some things that get me though. The content isn’t portable. It is essentially streaming to me over the internet as I watch it. With iTunes, I could take the shows with me on an iPod or on a laptop if I didn’t have an internet connection. Hulu ties me to my internet connected computer screen. I think that is probably the biggest thing that prevents this from really taking off right now. It’s a paradigm switch to go from comfy living room setup to sitting at a computer desk, or even huddling around a laptop. I’m one of the rare people who have a computer controlling my TV, and I still haven’t pulled up Hulu on the big screen yet. I think that the reason I haven’t done that yet is there isn’t a slick remote-controllable interface for it yet. Navigating the web on a TV is tough. For this to become really on-demand TV it needs to be easy. We need some sort of Hulu set-top-box or something. So, Hulu is good… but there is definitely room for improvement. At the very least, the networks are finally seeing that people want their shows on their schedule, online, and in a convenient way. Hulu does fit that need. But how far does it go? I think most people download content illegally because it is available and easier to do it that way. Once getting legitimate content becomes easier, the need to download it illegally disappears. I think people would even be willing to pay for that content (the way iTunes does it). So I think Hulu does some of these things, but also fails at some of them, and convenience is a fine line. This effort by NBC and News Corp. is definitely a step in the right direction, and is way better than what I (and many) were expecting, but they still have a little further to go.

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Feb

02

Entertaiment PC: Software

2008 at 5:39 pm | posted by Scott

meedio_logo.jpgThis is a continuation of a few older posts on the entertaiment PC.

Much of what I’ve done with software on this computer is based loosely on Jon’s system. The core to both of our systems is a little piece of software called Meedio Essentials… that unfortunately is no longer supported. They sold out to Yahoo back in 2006. Yahoo took the software and created Yahoo TV, which at this point in its development is an interior product. The community left over at Meedio have since spun off a new product/community called MeediOS. MeedioOS now houses many of the plugins and forums from the now defunct Meedio Essentials. So given that little history lesson on Meedio, I still use the final version of the software that was released before Yahoo got hold of it. If you really wanted to, you could still probably get your hands on a copy of it (cough p2p cough). The collection of entertainment PC software available now is actually much better than it used to be. There are quite a few options out there to chose from. There might even be something better than Meedio Essentials available now, but what I’ve got just works, and if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

meedio_screen.jpgOK, so what exactly does Meedio Essentials do? It is essentially the control to the entire entertainment pc. It hold the menus that you navigate using your remote and launches you into everything you want to do with the computer. There are serveral built in modules that I use on this system, and a lot of external programs that get launched via a command from Meedio. That’s the beauty of Meedio, it can call up just about anything on the computer and is endlessly customizable (with a little tweaking).

Photos
For photos, we use the built-in photo module in Meedio. It works like just about any photo viewer out there. You can browse photo by photo, or by collections. It includes a slideshow option and works with the remote to pull up your entire photo collection on the TV. I have Meedio pointing to a shared drive on our media server with all of our photos on it, but Meedio could just as easily point to a directory on the hard drive full of photos.

Music
As with the photo viewer, we use the built-in music player in Meedio. It is a pretty standard software music player. Also similar to the photos module, it is hooked to the media server where all of the MP3’s are hosted. It reads ID3 tags for file information, and will even take advantage of album art pulled from iTunes. You can sort by just about everything (artist, title, genre). There is also a nice full-screen visualization to throw up on the screen when you want to play a bunch of music and see something a little nicer than a list of songs running by.

DVD Playback
This is one of the areas where I have Meedio pointing to an external program. I’m currently using Zoom Player as the DVD player for the system. Meedio does have its own DVD module, but it isn’t that great. When a DVD is loaded or DVD is selected in the interface, Meedio just launches Zoom Player, and off it goes. The reason I use Zoom Player over the standard DVD module is that it has a lot more control over video settings and video acceleration. I have a video card that can handle much of the processing of playing a DVD, and handing that over to the card saves the CPU for other tasks. Plus when/if I end up getting a drive that can play HD-DVD or Blu-Ray discs, it will most likely need to be tweaked even more to handle the load that those formats put on the computer. It will also most likely take another software player. I believe PowerDVD Ultra is the only software HD/Blu-Ray player out there at the moment, but we’ll cross that bridge when/if we come to it.

TV/DVR
btvscreen_home.jpgThe Digital Video Recorder functionality for the entertainment PC isn’t handled by Meedio (even though Meedio does include a DVR module). I used to use SageTV for this function, but have recently switched over to BeyondTV. They both work really well in their core features (recording/playing back tv), but BeyondTV is just a cleaner interface, and has a few more bells and whistles built in where you would have to install a plugin for Sage. You can check out the features of BeyondTV at their site, or see what Jon had to say about it in his description. The things I like about BeyondTV is that it can handle HD (after the recent hardware upgrade). It also automatically creates chapter marks to skip commercials (Sage didn’t do this out of the box). I really like a new feature that was added with the most recent upgrade to version 4.7. You can set it to create an iPod compatible version of a show and it will set up an RSS feed to go with it. This allows you to point iTunes at the entertainment pc and automatically pull down video files for whatever tv series you’re currently watching (it can be all of them or just individual shows). We also have a handy plugin called BTV Podcatcher that pulls down video podcasts we subscribe to and drops them right in with our recorded TV shows. Again, the DVR area is a space where there are a lot of contenders making products, but so far BeyondTV has topped the list of products I’ve tried.

Others
There are a bunch of little odds and ends that Meedio also does well (and some things we do that aren’t part of Meedio). One of them is a weather module that gives quick access to forecasts and weather maps. Another piece of software that we’ve tied to Meedio is the Sling Box software. We use this to get our Iowa Hawkeyes football fix from AZ. Meedio just fires up the SlingPlayer software which launches full-screen and is controllable via remote control. The last “other” thing we do with the entertainment PC isn’t really worked into Meedio at this time. This could be a future project, but I’d like to be able to connect it to the Netflix “Watch Now” movies allowing us to watch streaming movies from Netflix. We do this now by firing up IE (only works with WMP and IE unfortunately) and navigating the Netflix site with our wireless mouse. It would be idea if there were some sort of remote controllable site to get to the watch now movies. I know there is a Meedio browser plugin that uses IE, but haven’t really had a chance to play with it on the Netflix site. We’ll see what happens on that front. Otherwise, that just about covers everything we use Meedio and the entertainment PC for. So far things have been working pretty well.

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Jan

11

Adding HD to the Entertainment PC

2008 at 3:50 pm | posted by Scott

We got ourselves a brand new HDTV for a Christmas present this year. We’d been look at them for quite a while, and finally pulled the trigger the week before Christmas. With that purchase came some other upgrades to keep things working on our Entertainment PC (DVR, Photo Viewer, DVD Player, Sling Viewer, Super Computer). Everything worked fine without upgrades, but if we wanted to take advantage of high definition (the reason we bought the TV), we had to make a few changes.

The first issue I ran into was getting the PC to output to the new HD LCD display. That can be very interesting given that computer resolutions are different than TV resolutions. The LCD is connected to the computer with a DVI to HDMI cable. Standard resolutions from the video card weren’t cutting it so I started diving into “the google” to try and find another method of getting a custom resolution out of my video card. I ran across a great utility called PowerStrip that does this exact type of thing, only to realize that it doesn’t work with the integrated Intel graphics card I have in the computer (it came with the slim entertainment case). I then moved on to another great piece of software made specifically for the integrated Intel Graphics chipset called DTD Calculator. I got a bit further with this utility, but it still didn’t quite cut it. I was able to get the custom resolutions into the video options, but kept getting weird results whenever I tried one. The screen would get knocked to the corner and turn either green or purple. So after banging my head against a wall for a few days with that, I decided to just get a new (more powerful) video card that would help out decoding HDTV as well. I should have a new Radeon HD 2400PRO showing up in a few days. I chose this card because it was available in a low-profile card (needed to fit the case), and for the reviews it got handling HD video. It also has a straight HDMI port on it so I may be able to route audio through it as well. Hopefully this will take care of my not-quite-right resolution issues.

hdhr_top.jpgThe other issue I ran into (and maybe more important issue) was running an HDTV signal through this thing. Now, we don’t have a ton of HD channels to chose from at the moment, but there are several (mainly local) unencrypted QAM digital signals coming through the cable line. Several of those are in HD. The capture cards that are currently in the computer are just standard definition Hauppauge Win-TV150 low profile cards. hdhr_front.jpgThey still work and I still have cable going to them, but let’s get realistic… SD signal doesn’t look that great on an HD set. So we were still able to capture our shows and watch our captured shows, but since we were able to view HDTV we wanted to be able to capture/pause/rewind HDTV. In comes the HDHomeRun. There are a lot of digital HD Tuners to pick from, but I chose this one for several reasons. First, it allowed me to integrate the unencrypted QAM channels into the DVR software we’ve been using (BeyondTV). Second, it comes with two HD tuners built in, so it seemed a bit more future-proof than some of the single tuners I looked at. It also works a bit differently than many of the other HDTV tuners on the market. The only output it provides is an ethernet port, making it a networked HDTV solution if I should ever want to pipe tv through the house. It arrived earlier this week, and I couldn’t be happier with its performance.

hdhr_back.jpgThe box arrived, and let me tell you, there isn’t much to this thing. The device itself is a nondescript box about the size of a small router. It has a power light and a panel with several non-labeled LED lights on the front, and a power port, ethernet port, and two coax connectors on the back. The box contains an ethernet cable, two short coax cables, a power cable, and a card that points you to their site to download software. That’s right, it doesn’t even come with a manual. I guess that makes sense since they want you to have the most up to date version of software and firmware available. I believe that the software used to run this thing is open source as well. I got everything hooked up (I just used one of the tuners) and I was off. It took a little while for the computer to recognize the box via the ethernet port (I have an open port since the computer is using wireless to connect). I ran the install app, and once it saw the HDHomeRun, the software connected to the net and automatically updated the firmware. Then it does a scan of available digital channels. It picked up the same ones that we were getting with the TV’s built-in tuner so that was good. Then you can test them by using VLC, an open source media player. The picture looked great! I believe this is how you can send HDTV over the network as well. If this thing were plugged into my router, Ihdhr_box.jpg could fire up VLC and pull TV over a wired or wireless connection. I’ve read that even over wireless HDTV looks good. It was then on to configuring BeyondTV to pick up the HD signal. That process was a little tougher. It involved comparing the directory information available in BTV to what I was getting from the HDHomeRun and make sure everything matched up. There are even a few channels that we get, but aren’t part of the guide. That just means when we tune to those we don’t know what’s playing… which is fine. Once all that was configured the BeyondTV guide now has a new section (above all the SD channels) listing everything the all the digital signals it is pulling in. And it now does everything we were doing with standard deff signals on the HD signals. We can puase, rewind capture in HD now. I will say HD capture takes about 3 times the space that SD takes. We probably won’t be capturing a whole lot of HD shows right away. I might need to add a hard drive here pretty soon as well.

So far everything seems to be working well, minus the resolution issue on the LCD, but hopefully the new video card should take care of that. I’m pretty happy with the setup. Down the road I could see adding a Blu-Ray or HD-DVD player in place of the DVD-burner I have in there now. We’ll see where the format war goes, and how the prices on drives look. Until then we’ll be seeing the world (at least the channels we get) in HD!

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Sep

19

Leave Amazon Unbox in the Box

2006 at 10:29 am | posted by Scott

Amazon UnboxTo get the jump on Apple, Amazon released their movie download offereing (called Unbox) just days before Apple’s announcement last week. To kick off their launch they’re offering a free download ($1.99 instant rebate) for a TV show. I decided to give the new service a try (since the first one is free). I downloaded the software and then purchased (free after rebate) my favorite episode of Firefly to try out the system. So far so good, until I decide to fire up the Unbox downloader/player and actually try to watch the video. My newly purchased show would not download. I kept getting an undescript red-colored “Unable to Download” message no matter what I tried to do. After being frustrated with the system for half a day, I decided to dump the whole thing and uninstall it from my computer. I tried using the uninstaller for the app, but it wouldn’t go away. It would just hang on a pulsing bar telling me it needed to check my account. Well, I couldn’t watch my video, and I couldn’t get rid of the software so I lowered myself to contacting Amazon support. They do have a nice system where you put in your phone neumber and they contact you – I’ll give them that. After being on the phone for 30-45 minutes with a tech suport person, they were still unable to get my video to download or remove the software from my machine. They told me they’d contact me with an update, which they did a day later. They had me remove some application settings files and then the Unbox program would uninstall correctly.

I wanted to give the Unbox service the benefit of the doubt, so I tried it again on a totally different computer on a totally different network. Guess what… the same thing happened. I couldn’t download the video, and I couldn’t remove the software. Luckily I had the secret removal instructions that Amazon gave me from the previous faulty install. I’ve since removed it from computer number 2 and thrown in the towel. I really don’t think I would have used the service (even if it had worked) because of how incredibly inflexible and locked down the whole system is, but unfortunately I didn’t even get to a point where I could evaluate it.

After doing some digging, I ran across a few articles where other folks ran into similar issues.
Amazon Unbox better left off your box – Ars Technica
BoingBoing also has a pretty scathing review that makes me glad I didn’t ever get it working.

Nice try Amazon… better luck next time.

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Aug

01

Building an Entertainment PC: The Guts

2006 at 1:30 pm | posted by Scott

The HTPC GutsFor Jess’ graduation, I told her I’d put together an entertainment PC for her so she could Tivo (that’s a verb now) shows, organize music, watch DVD’s etc. She graduated back in May and I’ve been putting off buying the pieces until just last week when Intel dropped their processor prices. Everything showed up via UPS last Friday so I starting putting the pieces together. At this point, the computer itself is functional, but the entertainment portion still needs a good deal of tweaking. I plan on updating my progress on the software side of things as they progress. I thought I’d start with laying out the hardware that went into this baby.

The Guts:
The guts are your pretty standard PC parts. I went with an Intel Pentium D 940 dual core processor. That processor was pretty much determined for me by the case that I chose (more about that later). Ram is 1Gb (512Mb x 2) DDR2 SDRAM (nothing special there). I grabbed a Maxtor 200Gb hard drive and an IO Magic DVD+-R DL burner at Staples earlier in the summer for a pretty good deal with rebates. Nothing too out of the ordinary there… just your everyday computer components.

Capture Card:
For the capture card, I went with the Hauppauge WinTV-PVR-150 l.p. card since the Hauppauge cards are usually the most recommended TV tuner/capture cards out there. I needed the low profile (l.p.) version of the card specifically for the case (again more about that later) that I chose.

Input:
For this computer to be functional in a living room setting, I needed to find a keyboard/mouse that was wireless and wasn’t too intrusive sitting on a coffee table. I did a lot of digging and found there aren’t a whole lot of options out there for HTPC keyboard/mouse combos. I ended up going with the Microsoft Remote Keyboard/Mouse for Windows Media Center Edition. I’m not planning on running Windows MCE, but really liked the layout of this keyboard. My favorite part (and the hardest thing to find in a keyboard) is the built in mouse button in the upper right. So, this is the only thing you need sitting in front of the TV. There is no need for a wireless keyboard and a mouse. I read some reviews about the mouse button being difficult to use, but wasn’t too worried since if things worked the way they were supposed to work there wouldn’t be too much need for mouse control. I’ll admit once I got it up and running it was a little awkward at first, but after a few days I’ve got it down. I did need to download the MCE Rollup 2 to get this working in XP Pro.

The Case:
rear leftThe case is the thing that makes this computer. I’ve been scouring reviews and HTPC sites all summer trying to find a nice case for this computer. There are a lot of companies out there that make HTPC cases. Some are nice, and some are just huge (definitely not something I’d want in my entertainment center)! I knew going into this that wanting a small case, might lead to sacrifices in other areas of the computer. The case I ended up going with wasn’t just a case, but a full bare bones system with a lot of bells and whistles. I chose the Aopen EPC945-m8 which turned out to be a really nice rig, though a bit of a bear to set up. The thing about the EPC945-m8 that sold me was the size and look. It really looks like it belongs in your entertainment center. It has a lot of nice features built in as well. Front of the epc caseIt comes with the IR port built in (no ugly USB ports to deal with) and includes an MCE remote control. It’s got on-case controls, along with an up-front display. There is a built-in flash card reader. Also the motherboard has a good number of built-in extras as well. It’s got surround sound audio with several optical out ports (in addition to your typical mini-plug ports). It includes several options for video as well with Intel cards. These aren’t your high end gaming cards, but I have a desktop for gaming and really wasn’t planning on playing games on this machine. The included cards provide standard vga out along with a DVI port, composite RGB ports, and an s-video port. That pretty much covered everything I needed for now.

As I put this together, I took a lot of photos that are available in a Flickr set with notes associated for more information. The problems I ran into were mainly due to the small size of this case. It’s not easy to stuff so much hardware into such a little space. It all fit, but there were some pretty tight areas. The drive cage that holds the optical drive on top and the hard drive on the bottom all the gutswas a bit difficult to get together. The cables (power and data) have to be stretched just right to make them reach the ports on the drives. It didn’t help matters that I had a bad hard drive to start things out and had to do an exchange to get one that worked. The included processor fan is another added bonus. It’s a heatpipe quiet fan system that is actually very quiet. You really don’t hear the thing at all. The only time I notice any real noise coming out of it is when the DVD drive is spinning and a little bit when the hd clicks. One other little issue has popped up has to do with how the machine handles video out. I started with it plugged into a standard computer monitor with the VGA port to get everything installed. Once the OS was on there, I moved it to the living room to hook it to a TV to make sure I could view it on the TV. It didn’t work at first, but all of a sudden I started getting a signal using the S-video out. Seeing that everything worked, I wanted to move it back to the monitor (since it’s a lot easier to see) to finish tweaking software etc. I couldn’t get it to move back to the VGA out. I found a little hidden entry in the FAQ that said you have to hit Ctrl+Alt+F1 to swap between the video ports (which wasn’t mentioned anywhere in the somewhat lacking documentation included with the case). Outside of a few difficulties due to the case size and routing stuff around the inside, and the video out thing (which works fine now) I’m very happy with this thing.

Check out my HTPC Flickr Set for more images and information.

Software:
For the software that runs on this baby I’m still playing around with a lot of stuff. I’m planning on going with Meedio which was recently purchased by Yahoo to control the HTPC portion. I’ve got Sage TV for the Tivo-like functionality, and probably some other odds and ends to be figured out later. There is still a lot of fine tuning to do with the software before this thing is ready to roll. I’ll post again down the road a bit when I’m able to get all that worked out.

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Apr

26

Yahoo! TV Launched

2006 at 11:42 am | posted by Scott

Yahoo TVIt didn’t take long for Yahoo to get their branded version of Meedio out there. They’ve called it Yahoo Go TV which adds to their Go Mobile and Go PC. I downloaded and installed Go TV and everything seemed to work pretty well. Out of the box, it doesn’t really have the Meedio feel to it though. Meedio had a lot more customization options. I haven’t had a whole lot of time to really dig into it, but from what I can tell by looking through the program files someone might be able to customize it like Meedio. In fact, some of the icons in the application directory are still the old red and yellow Meedio icons. I quickly tried dropping in a new theme and couldn’t get it to pick it up. I’m sure someone with a little more knowledge of the inner workings of Meedio shouldn’t have any problems hacking that (or any other plugins for that matter) to work.

As it stands now, it looks like Yahoo is keeping a pretty closed system. The great thing about Meedio is its incredible customization options. I’m hoping (since this is still beta) that they’ll open it up a little more and you won’t need to hack your way around to get plugins and themes to work. If not, the value of this app drops significantly.

UPDATE: It looks like folks on the old Meedio forums already have.

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Apr

22

Yahoo! Buys Meedio

2006 at 5:11 pm | posted by Scott

yahootv.jpgThis past Tuesday, Yahoo! announced their purchase of technology from Meedio who make software for Entertainment Center PC’s. I’ve been eyeing Meedio for a while now and was planning on using their flagship “Meedio Essentials” application for an HTPC that I’m planning on building this summer. You may also remember some older posts about Jon’s HTPC. This is the software he uses to power his beast of a entertainment center pc (I’m hoping he’ll speak up in the comments).

This purchase could go a few different ways depending on what Yahoo! does with it. They didn’t flat out buy the company, they only bought the technology. Does this mean they’re going to integrate it into something they’re already working on? Yahoo Go has had a “Personalize Your TV” demo site up for a little while now. I can only assume that this is built with the technology they acquired from Meedio. There are still quite a few unanswered questions though. The great thing about Meedio is that is was very customizable. Hopefully Yahoo, trying to keep users inside the Yahoo network, doesn’t cripple that customization which has made Meedio a great piece of software. When Yahoo purchased Konfabulator several months ago they pretty much left it as it was and just made it available for free. With Konfabulator though, it’s more along the lines of Yahoo’s primary business – the web. Meedio doesn’t really fit into that category.

Yahoo has been moving more towards TV in the past year though. They announced a partnership with Tivo back in November allowing you to record shows on your Tivo from Yahoo TV. I wonder how this new Meedio relationship will fit into that. I think Yahoo definitely wants to get into the TV video market, I just wonder how they’re going to mesh all this stuff together, or if they’ve even thought that far ahead.

I think the best case scenario with this is Yahoo not changing much with Meedio as it stands now (maybe just throw the little “Y!” icon on there somewhere) and giving it away for free a la Konfabulator, or Google’s Picasa purchase. That way when I get to building an entertainment PC this summer there’s one piece that I won’t be paying for.

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Mar

19

ONTV & Democracy Video Players

2006 at 8:00 pm | posted by Scott

Over the past few months I’ve run across a few of these video player/aggregator applications. A couple of the better ones I’ve found have been ONTV and Democracy. Both these players are more than just video players. They both present themselves as internet television and provide a nice directory of videos all viewable right inside the application.

My favorite of the two is the Democracy player. It has the best integration of directory downlo and video. It provides 300 channels of internet video to chose from. You can set it to download the top videos in several different categories to watch whenever you get to them. It also will subscribe to RSS feeds to download your favorite video podcasts. And to save bandwidth, it integrates with BitTorrent. I like to usually have it set to download a collection of videos so I’ve got several things to watch whenever I’ve got some down time with the laptop.

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