Archive for March, 2012

HTPC: The Software

Just a few days ago, I published a post about my family’s new Home Theater PC. That post focussed on the hardware I used to put together the machine. Today I’ll discuss the software.

First and foremost is Windows 7. I use Windows Media Center (WMC) as my DVR software, and WMC is built into most versions of Windows 7, and has been in Windows since the latter days of XP. WMC is a great DVR package that works very well. I’ve read articles that put it on par with Tivo for the best DVR interfaces. I think that’s not an exaggeration, it is a good interface. This isn’t meant to be a detailed “how-to”, but rather will describe how I went about setting up my system. I tend to learn best by doing, and don’t read through manuals before I start, so this is meant to help give pointers on things that aren’t obvious to a first-time user. It’s also meant to give an idea how easy (or hard, depending on your perspective) WMC is to configure and use.
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Raspberry Pi

I’m very excited about the Raspberry Pi, a small computer, about the size of a credit card, that sells for just $35 and has a lot of power. It has an ARM processor running at 700MHz, 256MB RAM, runs off of an SD Card, has a pair of USB ports, an Ethernet (network) port, an HDMI port for video, an RCA port (also for video), an audio jack, and is powered from a micro-USB port. In other words, you power this thing off the same cable you probably use to charge your cell phone. The hardware is comparable to a mid-range Android phone, it’s only drawback is it doesn’t have enough RAM to actually run the Android OS.

Raspberry Pi was developed by a UK based non-profit and is intended to provide a very cheap, but powerful platform, not only for enthusiasts, but for educational uses as well. The $35 model is their ‘B’ model. The ‘A’ model will be $25, and will come with similar specs, but lack the Ethernet port and have only one USB port.

The Raspberry Pi was first released last week, and sold out their first lot of 10,000 units rather quickly. I just placed a pre-order for a unit from their next lot, and look forward to getting mine in the coming weeks.

What Does it Do?

The possible uses for this capable little machine are endless. I have plans for several already, and haven’t even gotten my first one yet, so I expect more ideas to come to me. The first one will probably get an installation of Debian, which is already available for download (and installing to an SD card on another machine as I type this). My plan is to connect a rather large hard drive to it, probably either 1.5TB or 2TB, and leave it at my parents’ house so that I can back up files to it that I want preserved should disaster strike at home and everything in the house be destroyed. The idea is to connect via the internet and back up automatically. I already do this with my brother-in-law in North Dakota, but need something a little closer to home so I can access it more easily when things go wrong and need my attention.

Another use I have plans for is to load up OpenELEC, which is XBMC (which originally was an acronym for ‘XBox Media Center’, but now is just XBMC since the XBox was replaced with the XBox 360 and became obsolete). OpenELEC is a minimal operating system designed just to get XBMC running and nothing else. The idea with this machine is to hook it up to an older TV via the RCA port for a cheap & easy media center.

Some day I also hope to find time to start learning some serious programming skills as well. I can foresee using a Raspberry Pi as a platform for programming some home automation projects. One idea I would love to pursue, but have no concrete plans to work on yet, is a controller for my home irrigation system. The one I have now, made by Rain Bird, turns my sprinklers on and off at set times, and has a rain sensor to prevent it from coming on if it has rained recently. It would be nice to have a predictive system that could watch the weather forecast and not turn on if, say, there is a 60% or more chance of rain later in the day. My system costs about $5 to run every time it’s turned on, and runs every-other day, for a cost of about $75/month on my water bill from May to mid-October. In addition, it would be nice to be able to control it remotely with a smart-phone app, or maybe even email or SMS message.

I’m excited about the possibilities. I can foresee having these little wonders scattered all over my house, running various tasks, automating things, and just making life fun.

HTPC: The Build

I’m currently in the latter stages of transitioning my family away from cable/satellite for our TV service toward just using over-the-air, along with the internet. I’ve been a DirecTV customer since the summer of 2001, and the service, along with the bill, has been a part of life for over a decade for me. Our family income has remained steady through the economic downturn, and we are fairing well. However, we don’t take that for granted, and still take a look at our expenses from time to time and look for ways of cutting unnecessary expenses. It has come time that we are not only comfortable with losing our satellite service, we look forward to it. Our service costs about $100/month, which gets us: the “Choice Xtra” package, HD service, an HD-DVR, equipment protection, and a second receiver (a first-generation Tivo I bought shortly after getting DirecTV service back in 2001). That $100/month does NOT get us any movie channels, sports packages, or receivers beyond the two mentioned. We have two HDTVs, and I hooked them both up to the same receiver about two years ago. The one where the receiver is located is hooked up via HDMI, and the one upstairs in the family room is hooked up via Component cables that I ran through the ceiling and walls (five coax cables with RCA connections on each end). We control it through RF remote controls.

No more, we’re moving away from that and towards an extra $100 in our pockets every month.

This first post on our setup is dedicated to sharing the hardware that I used to build our system. We currently have a brand-new HTPC that I build in recent weeks hooked up in our entertainment room to the same TV that has the DirecTV receiver. We also have an older laptop hooked up to the other HDTV. The laptop is a Dual-Core Pentium machine running Windows 7 Pro – 32-bit. This machine acts only as a viewer, the new HTPC is doing the work of recording. We also have an X-Box 360 that can work as an extender, but it is hooked up to the same TV as the laptop, so it doesn’t get used much for watching TV (for reasons I may get into later).

Here is the hardware that makes up my HTPC:

The case

Some time ago, when the idea of an HTPC was first born, I found the nMEDIAPC Red Wood case at Newegg. It is simply a beautiful case. It looks like an old radio, and looks great on the shelf nest to the TV. I could have gone with a simple black box meant to go in an entertainment center with the audio receiver, DVD/Blu-Ray player, and other equipment, but the price on this one was similar to those simpler cases and was too cool to pass up. It’s slightly more complicated than your average case, since it’s made mostly from wood, but nothing too complicated.

I also sprang for the LCD display, a $40 add-on. The cool-factor is really there, though I can’t say it’s perfect. The driver on it often locks up, causing it to display a blue bar across the top row of the display, and the blue color of the display makes it difficult to read from more than 4-5 feet away. I have 20/20 vision and have a hard time reading it from the couch, about 8-10 feet away. That said, it is cool enough that I would spring for it again if I were to start over knowing what I know now.

The case was $90, and the LCD panel added an additional $40 for a total of $130.
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