Friday, May 11, 2007

7 Posts I've Read - Recommended Reading For You

1. Google Maps Now Has GPS Capabilities - I love GPS and want a GPS enabled phone
2. How to Solder Wires - If you like to hack hardware and mess with projects like I do, this is a useful article.
3. Freesound - Davis Freeberg's Site of the Week - Sound effects for free - a link from Davis Freeberg's excellent web site.
4. 17 Web 2.0 sites optimized for your Wii Game Machine
- The Wii is hot. It isn't the highest powered, the best graphics or most flexible, but it is VERY popular and I'm seeing more and more web sites that work well with it including Snapstream's Couchville TV Guide Site.
5. HP's $1,500 Desktop with CableCard Included - It's only a single-tuner Cablecard and not upgradable in that respect, but hey - it's the cheapest CableCard PC advertised yet. Some day I'm going to have to buy one of these and strip out the CableCard to see if I can make it work with a non-VISTA MCE software...
6. iTunes Movie Rentals and Music Subscriptions? - From Dave Zatz excellent weblog.
7. How To Use your TiVo Series3 eSATA port to add an external drive - Grant's ProjectHTPC webblog is full of great content for HTPC users. Like me, he uses Snapstream's Beyond TV, but he also owns a Tivo Series3 and is apt to try the latest and the greatest media devices out there. I check his webblog daily.

As I said earlier this week, I plan to keep this 7 Post Recommendations as a recurring feature. If you have any recommendations for future posts, please feel free to comment on this post and let me know.

7 Uses For an Older Laptop

After converting my wifes old laptop into a wireless, digital picture frame, I was inspired to write up different things you can do with an older laptop that you no longer use.

Here's my top Seven Uses For An Older Laptop:
7. Recycle - Clean your hard drive (there's a good how-to on ZDNet) and then take it to a recyling center. Here's a good resource for finding a recycling center near you.

6. Donate to Charity or to family/friends. This is a no-brainer and if you give it to charity or schools there are sometimes tax benefits to doing so.

5. Games Media and/or Music - You could install Mame and run games on your laptop or you could install a free jukebox software program and make it into a music jukebox. If it's powerful enough, install an HTPC front-end software like MediaPortal or GBPVR and use it as a media player for DVD's, Music and videos. It could be an extender that networks with your "server PC".

4. Roll back the Operating System to a less power-hungry operating system. Linux will do the trick.

3. Upgrade Hardware - it might just be in need of more memory for the applications it is running. If it can handle a memory upgrade, sometimes this is the cheapest and easiest route to go. Another useful hardware upgrade is adding a wireless card for wireless internet access.

2. Strip it for parts. You can extract the DVD player to be used in another
PC if it is worthy. You can also strip the hard drive and buy a hard-drive enclosure. I've done this with an old laptop and use the hard drive as an external, backup hard drive.

1. Digital Picture Frame - this is of course my personal favorite since this
is what I chose to do. It was fun, useful and is an attention-getter when we have guests over. For more on how I converted my wifes old laptop into a digital picture frame Read My Recent Post on How I Did It.

If you have any other ideas for old laptops, let me know in the comments.

My New Extender HTPC

Last month I finally built a new HTPC for our bar/basement room.
I promised an update nearly three weeks ago and I'm finally getting back to doing it. Part of the delay was due to a bad PSU (power supply). It took some troubleshooting to narrow the problem down to the PSU and then I had to RMA the entire HTPC case since the fan came with the case. Newegg took care of me promptly though so I was back in business within the week.

This new HTPC is being used as a "client HTPC" using BeyondTV Link and Beyond Media. It accesses all of its content from my BeyondTV server PC including live and recorded TV, Video, DVD, Music and other content.

Requirements for this "media" computer:

  1. The PC had to fit into a "living room" environment. It didn't need to be tiny in size, but it did need to look like it belongs in the entertainment center.
  2. I needed to handle HD TV watching. I want it to be powerful enough to handle HD with ease. as well as anything else I threw at it
  3. It needed to be fairly quiet.
I was willing to purchase a PC outright, but knew I would probably end up building one since I had some of the components laying around that could be used inside such as a copy of XP, BTVLink, a quiet DVD/CD R/W drive and a quiet hard drive. Already owning these components meant I would save some upfront money in the build.

I did some research and posted my plans on the snapstream forums. I highly recommend anyone planning to buy or build an HTPC to post their plans on a forum like snapstream, sagetv, avsforums or others to get input from others who have done it before. There are many who have expertise on this subject. These people can many times give you ideas you hadn't thought of, give you advice and save you a bunch of money.

Extender HTPC Components:
HTPC Case: Antec NSK2400

Motherboard: Asus M2NPV-VM

CPU: AMD Athlon 64 3500+ Lima 2.2GHz 512KB L2 Cache Socket AM2 Processor

Memory: Kingston 512MBx2 (1G total) DDR2

Optical Drive: Asus DVD+-R DVD Burner

Hard Drive: WD Caviar SE 160GB SATA 3.0

Build Pictures

Audio Receiver, USBUIRT and Keyboard RF receiver

Motherboard inside the HTPC Case

The finished HTPC case

The HTPC running Beyond Media and JRMC Plugin for music

After using this HTPC for several weeks now I can say I'm very happy with the results. You will notice that I don't have a videocard in this machine. Because the motherboard has an Nvidia 6150 integrated video built-in, there was no need for a separate videocard. The integrated video handles HD with ease. I'm using overlay (not 3d for you BTV users) and have extremely smooth video playback. Using the integrated video save a slot on the board, keeps it quiet and doesn't generate the extra heat that comes with many video cards. I should note that I have this PC networked on a gigabit ethernet (integrated into the motherboard) as I think that is always a wise choice when you are streaming HD from one PC to another.

I mostly use my MX-500 remote control to control everything including powering everthing on and off, as well as navigating the various HTPC stuff. The MX-500 has some great macro functions that make things easy - for instance, I can click the on button and it "wakes" the PC, turns on the TV & Receiver, focuses to BeyondMedia and adjusts the sound on the receiver to a preset volume. I use girder and the usbuirt to interface the MX-500 remote with the HTPC and its software. I also have a nice keyboard that I use occassionally to do PC maintenance and even web browsing once in a while.

I chose 1GB of memory as that seems to be plenty for the HTPC tasks I'm throwing at it. The processor is also keeping up with its HTPC tasks just fine. For a nice summary of the software I have on this machine, see this post. Thanks to everyone on the snapstream forums for the help on this project and especially cmcquistion as he was the one that recommended the excellent motherboard with integrated video.

Future Plans:
1. Buy a larger flat-screen TV for the room.
2. Move the HTPC and receiver to a nice-looking cabinet (it's currently in a junk cabinet from my college days)
3. Add in-ceiling speakers for surround.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Underbed Plasma TV Stand

This TV Stand isn't something I would buy, but it is very cool. Check out the video
[via Digg]

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

7 Recent Posts To Check Out

Beginning today, I will be writing about 7 posts I've read that I think would be useful to my readers. I'll try to do this several times a week. If you have any recommendations for future posts, please feel free to comment on this post and let me know:

1. Hewlett-Packard Adding HD-DVD/Blu-ray Hybrid Drives to PCs - For those of you wanting to make your HTPC able to play the best HD DVD's, this looks to be an excellent choice for your rig.
2. Google launches Google Reader for the Wii - I don't have a Wii yet, but I'll be getting one so I'm watching news about the console closely. It seems like everyone else is getting one - even my parents have one!
3. Millions of television sets could become inoperable two years from now - While the article title is a bit of a scare tactic, I am comforted to know that my HTPC will allow my TV sets to be used for a very long time. This is because my HTPC converts whatever signal coming in, to the format needed for my TV's be it the latest and greatest HDTV or my old Standard Definition sets.
4. 160Mbps downloads move closer for US cable customers - faster downloads mean better video streaming services. I think streaming will become a major alternative to cable and Over-The-Air TV in the near future.
5. Microsoft releases final fix for iTunes on Vista - for those of you who use ITunes and Vista, good news finally. I have an Ipod, but still use XP and will continue to do so unless I have a really compelling reason to switch.
6. Night Vision Toilet - I saw this post and couldn't resist. Funny, yet somehow really usefull :) Description and video after the link.
7.'s group writing contest - Darren Rowse of Problogger is running a blog contest where you can win $1,001 in cash. If you're a blogger, entering this contest is a no-brainer as you can add readership to your blog, learn about other blogs and well - you can win $1,001. Check it out.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Top 5 Reasons to Use a Home Theater PC Instead of a Cable DVR

I've used a Home Theater PC to run my TV for several years now and I often get the question "why don't you just use the cable box PVR?" It's a valid question and one I don't mind answering. Admittedly there are some things you should understand about going the HTPC route. Always remember that even though there are no rental or subscription fees, an HTPC will typically cost you more money up front. Another thing to keep in mind is that building and/or purchasing an HPTC requires some technical knowledge. There are typically things that need to be tweaked, worked on or settings to get just right to make it work the way you want it to. It isn't as easy as plugging it in and your done. With that being said, I still think using an HTPC is a huge improvement over a cable or satellite box DVR.
Here are my top 5 reasons for using an HTPC:

1. You control your content - A big reason many turn to HTPC's instead of a cable box is the ability to use the content recorded on your HTPC the way you want to use it. With a cable box, you record shows and they remain on your cable box. No archiving it to a disc so you can play that show on vacation, no uploading the show to your Ipod, Zune or any other portable device. No watching the show you record on your living room cable box on your bedroom TV. Remember, you have zero subscription costs with an HTPC so once you fork over the money to purchase or build one, you have the guide, the content and the features you already paid for. There is no more "renting" involved.
With HTPC software like Beyond TV, Sage and MCE you have the ability to edit a recording, compress a recording to save disc space,

2. Skipping commercials is easier - Beyond TV (the HTPC front-end software I currently use) automatically detects commercials on a recording so when I watch a recorded show and it comes to a commercial break, I can simply hit the channel up button on the remote to skip to the end of the commercial. You can't do that with your cable box.

3. HTPC's can expand with your needs - With an HTPC, you can add tuners, the latest sound card, the best video card and add space with a larger or additional hard drive. One of the most important expandability features is that you can add as many TV tuners as your PC can handle. This means you can record multiple shows and watch a show at the same time. An extreme example of this is the Medusa PVR highlighted on the Snapstream Blog

4. Your Content Follows You - With HTPC software like Beyond TV and Sage TV, you can add a second, third (or however many you need) HTPC as a "client PC" for another room. Lets say you are watching a show in your living room and stop the show to clean up the dishes in the kitchen. You then go to the bedroom and turn on the TV (with client HTPC attached) and select that same show. The HTPC will ask you if you want to start back where you left off in essence giving you a "follow-me" type of behavior. You can store all shows, movies music etc. on one server PC and access that content from any attached HTPC on your home network. You can't do that with your cable box.

5. HTPC's go beyond TV viewing - with an HTPC, you can essentially replace your CD Player, DVD Player and do much more right from your couch using a remote control. I use mine to view live TV, record & time-shift TV, play music from a large selection of playlists set for a certain mood or genre, watch "archived" movies right from the hard drive (or from a DVD of course), watch streamed multimedia content from online video providers like netflix or joost, I use a single remote control to perform all of these operations. An HTPC is capable of image processing as well. You can dramatically improve picture quality on any form of video playback.

There you have it. If you are willing to invest some time and some up-front money to build or purchase an HTPC box, you have your five reasons to do it. This post was inspired by Darren Rowse's Problogger blog. He's asking bloggers to write their "Top 5" posts as part of a group writing project.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Converting an old Laptop into a Digital Picture Frame

After successfully repairing my wife’s old Sony Vaio Laptop, I was able to continue my plan to convert the laptop into a digital picture frame.

Researching and Planning the Project
I spent some time researching various ideas of this type of project. I ran across several good resources and how-to’s on converting your laptop into a digital picture frame. Two of my favorite examples I found on the internet included the fotobox and the Popular Science digital frame. I got ideas from many different examples on the net and began outlining my requirements for the project:
• I wanted the frame to look as much like a real picture frame as possible. It couldn’t have any of the computer exposed so it would require a shadowbox to enclose the laptop.
• I wanted the pictures to automatically update from the web. I wanted to be able to change the photos displayed on the picture frame without needing to log into the PC with VLC or something else. It needed to be easy enough that my wife or daughter could update the photos.
• While I wanted the picture frame to access the internet, I didn’t want to have any cords coming out of it other than the power cord so it would require wifi.
• I wanted it to power up, log in to the default user (using XP) and start showing pictures as soon as it was powered up. It should be as simple as plugging it in and it just works.

Setting up the Software
Next up was to set up the PC software. As the laptop lay on the workbench half opened, I did the following:
• Installed Microsoft TweakUI and set it so that the laptop would start up without the login screen. I wanted to be able to plug it in, and start up the photo album software automatically.
• Installed Slickr software. Slickr is free software that will run a slideshow using shows images organized in any flickr account by: User, tags sets etc. I set up a set in my flickr account with all of the photos I wanted to show on the photo album. Once I run Slickr, it will access the internet via the laptops wireless internet card, download the specified photos from flickr as it runs, and show the photos. As I change the photos in that set over time, the photo album will use those photos in that set. This makes it easy to keep the photo album up-to-date without having to mess with keyboards or usbdrives.
• Removed all desktop icons and used tweakui to remove the recycle icon from the desktop. I then changed the background to a photo I like. This way it will show a photo even if the album stops working for some reason.
• Installed Tightvnc so I could control the laptop from another PC if I needed to do maintenance etc without a keyboard or mouse attached to the picture frame.
• Set up the laptop to hibernate and restart based on a specific schedule. This was done to save energy and hopefully lengthen the life of the laptop. It only runs when people will be around to see it. It comes on automatically though so I don’t have to remember to turn it on or off. If for any reason I want to turn it on (wake it) outside of the normal schedule I can just hit the power button which will be exposed on the back of the frame.

Reassembling the Laptop
Now that all of the software was set up and working just like I wanted, it was time to reassemble the laptop in a way to make everything fit just right inside the frame. I had already detached the LCD from the computer by detaching the hinges holding the lcd in place and then removing the cover just above the keyboard to expose the lcd connector ribbon. This ribbon needs to be detached from the motherboard. I then removed all of the plastic housing from the around the LCD. The naked LCD will be flush with the shadowbox’s display glass. I layed the LCD down on the back of the laptop (opposite side from the keyboard) and reattached the connector ribbon. I then attached the LCD to the back of the laptop with glue. I now had a “Franken-laptop” ready to go into the frame.

Making the Frame
Next up was the shadowbox to hold the laptop. I bought a basic, black shadowbox at Hobby Lobby along with a sheet of foam core to hold everything in place and a matte border cut to fit just around the LCD screen so nothing would show except for the LCD and the pictures themselves. I cut holes in the shadowbox for the power button and power cord as well as some extra ventilation holes near the laptop fan vent. I shaped the foam core sheet by setting the LCD screen over the foam and drawing an outline. I then cut the foam so that the LCD screen would sit just inside the foam and hold the screen snug inside the frame. With all the parts ready, I placed the foamcore then the laptop inside the shadowbox. Then I put in some filler foam to hold the laptop in place leaving plenty of room for ventilation inside the box. With everything inside I sealed up the shadowbox and plugged it in. After about 30 seconds, it begins the Slickr slide show and automatically gets whatever photos I have stored in my albums set on flickr. It’s totally user friendly and requires zero administration other than the occasional update to flickr when I want to change the photos it shows.

Final Results – Digital Picture Frame
Everything has worked nicely and the frame is prominently displayed on our home bar in the finished basement. The frame is actually a great conversation piece for two reasons. First, people always ask where we got it and then how I made it once they realize it was a diy project. Second, the constantly changing pictures always are a topic of conversation. This has been one of my most satisfying tech diy projects. It was fun, very cheap to do and I learned a great deal and it turned out to be a hit with all guests. If you have an old laptop sitting around I wholly recommend you give it a try.

If your interested, the full photoset of pictures from this project can be found HERE on flickr.

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For a complete listing of flickr hacks and tools CLICK HERE