The Ruffled Crow

Animation, Art, and Other Shiny Things

My Digital Evolution – Killing the Cable – Part 4

[Part 1 – the idea][part 2 – the software][part 3 – the hardware][part 5 – epilogue]

Part 4 – The Build

As builds go it was amazingly easy. I might even say it went swimmingly. Everything slammed in easy (except for the slight confusion when I used the wrong hard drive screws and tore a rubber grommet. fortunately the case came with an extra), powered right up and installed without a hitch. It was kinda creepy, really…

Inescapable Monty Python referenceI’ve built literally thousands of machines; both my own and for a local computer store, and the one thing I’ve never done was take pictures of it. I’d resolved to pictorially document this epic assembly, but when in the throes…. Well… Here is a picture of a Larch:

As noted in my last post (part 3), as HTPCs go it’s pretty standard hardware so if you need a pictorial walk-through on assembly you can find literally hundreds of posts, and even videos, that will help you hobble through the process.

A couple notes might be in order, however. For cooling I used the stock fan that came with the CPU as well as the two case fans on the side of the case. The case fans are powered via molex connectors and have a switch on a pig-tail to switch them between low-medium-high. I was able to push one switch out a back cut-out so I can switch it when the case is assembled, the other I left inside the case switched to medium. When sound on the TV is off, you can hear a tad bit of whoosh within a few feet of the machine, but overall, especially when watching Le Toob, you can’t hear a thing.

HTPC in its native habitat. Yes, thats a cable box on the left there. A temporary condition. And thats Starhunter 2300 (via Hulu) on the TV.

Since I have a bunch of media on my main machine I shared out a ‘media’ folder on the HTPC and on the main machine so I can transfer files no matter which machine I’m using at the moment. For now, I’ve also got the main media folders mapped into the HTPC drive system as well as the main machine’s burner, considering I didn’t bother installing a DVD drive on the HTPC yet. Eventually I’ll move most of the video pre-processing onto the HTPC, but for now this will do.

In general, I backup my DVDs into the native audio/video_ts to preserve the menu systems, but I had begun to look at other ways for backup since if you screw up the name on the main dir you have to browse in and pick out a vob, etc. Playing them in most video players requires the same thing – browse in, pick a vob… ImgBurn helped me out here and I began to convert them into ISO files. VLC and XBMC handles them beautifully and they can be reburned into regular ol’ audio/video_ts DVDs if necessary.

Hulu in 7MCAlthough the Windows 7 interface is a bit different than Vista, it really isn’t that different – or at least different enough to comment on. I got XBMC, Hulu, Zinc, and Media Browser all integrated into W7 Media Center (7MC) with little issue, and got 7MC’s Internet TV running as well. I haven’t signed up for Netflix yet, though I expect to this week.

While XBMC and Hulu show as items on the main menu, Zinc insisted on installing into the Extras menu. Kind of a pain, but workable for now.

To be honest, I like XBMC over Media Browser and, contrary to my initial assessment of software, Hulu is easier and more convenient to use than Zinc. Certainly Zinc appears to have a plethora of content, so we’ll still use it quite alot, but Hulu should take care of day-to-day viewing just fine.

And Internet TV through 7MC? Surely you jest! Sans a horrific brain injury that leaves me incapable of discerning crap television, I think I may just turn that off. Media Center Studio is very handy in this regard, allowing me to turn off any unwanted menu items.

Dr Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine

Dr Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine

A huge plus is the Over-the-Air (OTA) broadcasts. As a kid, we only had the 3 network affiliates and a PBS station. Later we got two more independents for a grand total of 6 local broadcasts. Now I have about a dozen, including an extra PBS! The huge bonus for me here is that I don’t lose my bad movie/retro tv channels as I thought I might.

So far, after a few days of operation, the hardware is performing flawlessly – at least the computer part of it. The remote bits are a tad problematical…

The Antec case came with an iMon remote, I added an Adesso rf keyboard and a Harmony 550 ir remote. From everything I read and re-read on the intertubes everything should integrate just fine with a couple hours of tweakage. Well, bully for them, my experience isn’t quite going that way.

I do like the keyboard, though typing tends to drop alot of characters and you have to keep careful eye. No numlock light is also kinda sucky. The Harmony works most excellent with the TV, but I can’t seem to get it dialed into working with the HTPC software worth a damn. A minor quibble is the buttons themselves. Pressing a button can be rather exacting work with several of them. At least it has a back-light.

Remotes!

Top: Adesso Keyboard, Left to Right: DVD player, TV, iMon, Harmony

And don’t even get me started about the iMon remote and software. I’ll probably go back and try to work with it a bit, but the mouse rocker-type button really (really) sucks and the ring of little tiny buttons around it are amazingly difficult to figure out and use.

One curve-ball to the whole thing is that the keyboard is rf and the Harmony is ir so the Harmony can’t learn from the keyboard. ::sigh:: My best idea for a work-around and I’m dealing with apples and oranges.

It’ll probably end up being solved via a regular old MCE remote for ten bucks on E-Bay, or at the very least, replacing the IR sensor in the case with an MCE receiver to completely bypass the iMon software and have EventGhost handle remote duty.

So far, other than a couple hours the other day, we’ve watched either online or OTA stuff and the transition should be pretty easy in that regard. The downside is that I need to get the remotes better integrated, or at minimum, get decent HTPC control into the Harmony. The WAF (Wife Acceptability Factor) is suffering mightily at the moment without this. Aunt Bee won’t even touch the keyboard…

Stay tuned, kids, and check back in a few weeks and we’ll see if the WAF has improved. Same bat time, same bat channel.

BONUS Digression: I still have to go to TNT’s website directly to get Leverage and Memphis Beat, but it’s not a deal-breaker and I am looking into, uh, alternate ways to keep up-to-date on those shows. Elsewise, I’ve finished watching the complete Dresden Files and am working my way through Fringe and Starhunter 2300. Neatoriffic imho!

[part 5 – epilogue]

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