Saturday, April 04, 2009

GeekTonic Week in Review: April 4, 2009

Still running in work-all-the-time mode so the GeekTonic blog continues it's lighter-than-normal posting a little while longer.  Still, I managed to share a few posts on the GeekTonic blog this week.  In case you missed anything from the past week, here is a summary of the past week's news and stories on GeekTonic.

Week In Review:


Stay tuned for more in-depth content for Media Gadget Fans at  If you’re in to the Twitter thing, be sure and follow me on twitter under the name GeekTonic.  Thanks for Reading GeekTonic!

Friday, April 03, 2009

iPhone Garage Door Opener

Ever wonder what a "weekend project" means to a guy that runs a successful DVR/media search software company? 

 X10 Commander

Rakesh Agrawal of Snapstream Media, Inc. wanted a special sort of garage door opener - something that he had with him all of the time.  So what better than the iPhone that he takes with him everwhere right?  Yep Rakesh used the X10 Commander app, his WiFi home network, a windows XP computer and an RF to X10 interface device to turn his iPhone into a cool little iPhone Door Opener.

Garage Door

                    (both photos are from Rakesh's blog)


I'm pretty happy with my basic iPhone apps, but I have to admit - this is pretty cool.


Check out how he did it and how it works on Rakesh's blog.

Netflix New Watch Now Picks of the Week: Episode 10

Friday has arrived again which means it's time for the GeekTonic "Netflix Watch Now Movies Worth Watching" feature.
If you're looking for some inexpensive entertainment, Netflix's iconmovie streaming service is a great place to start.  All you need is at least a one-out-at-a-time Netflix subscription and a Netflix Watch Nowicon Playback device or compatible browser.  Each Friday, I'll be highlighting a selection of newly added Netflix Watch-Now titles you can check out - I'll try to screen out the worst of the bunch & just leave the better quality ones or at minimum some of the "broader appeal" titles.
(Disclaimer:  Not all of these will appeal to everyone - of course)


In Tim Burton's hands, this comic book character taps into his brooding side, and Gotham's underbelly writhes in its vices. Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton) starts to make a name for himself as a masked enemy to the criminal set just when the flamboyant Joker (Jack Nicholson) takes over as tops in the mafia. Adding the art-house hues to a big-budget formula meant major success at the box office, an Oscar for Art Direction and a line of sequels.



Using a story by John Steinbeck as inspiration, Alfred Hitchcock stages a gripping World War II drama by cramming eight survivors of a German torpedo attack into the hull of a tiny lifeboat -- among them, a magazine writer (Tallulah Bankhead), a radio operator (Hume Cronyn) and a crazy woman (Heather Angel) clutching the corpse of her dead baby. But the real trouble starts when one of the survivors (Walter Slezak) reveals he's a Nazi.



In this drama based on characters in Lorenzo Carcaterra's controversial book, four boys from Hell's Kitchen enter a reformatory where a cruel guard (Kevin Bacon) abuses them. Years later, two of them avenge their tormenter and stand trial, defended by a druggie lawyer (Dustin Hoffman) and aided by their scheming cohort (Brad Pitt) and other friends from the 'hood (Robert DeNiro, Minnie Driver), who face the moral dilemma of justice vs. loyalty.



This epic saga of love, greed and betrayal -- which won four Oscars -- stars Elizabeth Taylor as the passionate and ambitious Egyptian queen. Determined to hold on to the throne, she seduces the Roman emperor Julius Caesar (Rex Harrison). When Caesar is murdered, however, she redirects her attentions to his general, Marc Antony (Richard Burton), who vows to take power. But Caesar's successor (Roddy McDowall) has other plans.


North to Alaska

A tough, hard-drinking gold prospector (John Wayne) agrees to go pick up his partner's fiancée, but winds up with a beautiful substitute (Capucine) instead. When both partners vie for her favor, trouble breaks out -- in spades! It's the Duke like you've never seen him before in an entertaining Alaskan adventure co-starring Ernie Kovacs, Fabian and Stewart Granger. Directed by Henry Hathaway.


The IT Crowd: Series 1

Enter the glamorous offices of Reynholm Industries, then take the elevator to the basement, where you'll find the decidedly unglamorous IT support team: slacker Roy (Chris O'Dowd), social misfit Moss (Richard Ayoade) and technically ignorant supervisor Jen (Katherine Parkinson). Together, they find nerd-tastic adventures in this hilarious British sitcom from the producer of "The Office." The program won a 2008 International Emmy for Best Comedy.

South Park: Season 1

The first season of Comedy Central's groundbreaking, foul-mouthed series -- featuring some of the most original pint-sized characters ever to mouth off in the cartoon world -- is finally all in one place. Prep your funny bone for classic episodes of this witty, edgy, occasionally cringe-inducing but always hilarious tribute to scrappy animation from creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone.

In the Bedroom

Set in a tranquil town on the Maine coast, In the Bedroom tells the story of a couple (Sissy Spacek and Tom Wilkinson) whose teenage son (Nick Stahl) is involved in a love affair with a single mother (Marisa Tomei). When the relationship comes to a sudden and tragic end, the boy's parents must face their worst nightmare and embark on a dark, dangerous psychological journey. Spacek and Wilkinson turn in stunning performances.


Blue's Clues: Season 1

Lovable dog Blue (voiced by Traci Paige Johnson) leaves clues for her human friend, Steve (Steve Burns), to help him solve problems and learn new things in this popular Nickelodeon series for preschoolers. In this collection, Steve and Blue visit a farm on their first-ever skidoo. The pals also learn about flying, help sea creatures at the beach, play hide-and-seek, and skidoo into a painting of a museum to reorganize the artwork.

Point Break

To nab the culprits behind a string of bank heists, brash young G-man Johnny Utah (Keanu Reeves) poses as a wave rider to infiltrate a group of surfers who may have pulled off the robberies in this high-speed cult favorite. But after gaining the trust of the gang's charismatic leader (Patrick Swayze), Utah gets swept up in their heady lifestyle -- and is soon forced to decide where his loyalties lie. Gary Busey plays Utah's testy partner.

History's Mysteries: Roswell: Secrets Unveiled

In this installment of the History Channel's documentary series, host Arthur Kent and company set out to create the definitive examination of the controversial events that took place in Roswell, N.M., in 1947. Fodder for conspiracy theorists and alien enthusiasts alike, the rumors surrounding the crash landing of a spaceship in the Roswell desert have been a lightning rod for controversy and conjecture.

The Tudors: Season 3

Get a sneak preview of the premiere episode instantly on Netflix!
The sexually insatiable King Henry VIII (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) romances third wife Jane Seymour (Annabelle Wallis) and ruthlessly quashes an uprising of rebels protesting England's break with Rome in the third season of Showtime's Golden Globe-nominated historical drama. But dissension within his own ranks leads Henry to question the loyalty of his closest allies. Grammy winner Joss Stone joins the cast as Anne of Cleves, Henry's fourth wife.
The Tudors: Season 3 premieres Sunday, April 5, at 9 p.m. ET/PT on Showtime.

Buena Vista Social Club

American guitarist Ry Cooder brings together a group of legendary Cuban folk musicians (some in their 90s) to record a Grammy-winning CD in their native Havana. The result is spectacular as subsequent concert footage of gigs in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, and New York City's Carnegie Hall proves. Director Wim Wenders captures not only the music, but also the life stories of these fascinating artists.


That's it for this week.  Let us know in the comments if you loved or hated any of these.
Remember, you can now subscribe to the GeekTonic Netflix Watch Now Movie Recommendations RSS Feed

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Media Gadget Showcase - HTPC Setup by Wayner

The fifth submission for the GeekTonic Media Gadget Showcase Series is a Home Theater PC setup by "wayner", a frequent commenter on GeekTonic.  Read on for his great write-up with photos to share.

NOTE:  This is a guest post by wayner.  To read more about how to submit your photos and/or write-ups for the GeekTonic Media Gadget Showcase Series, read this.  Basic guidelines for writing and submitting a guest post at GeekTonic can be found here.

I am a long-time Technology gadget geek – here is my current HTPC setup and some of my history in this area:



Once I heard about TiVo I realized I wanted one, but there was one problem - I live in Toronto, Canada and TiVo did not support Canadians – it didn’t supply the guide data that is the heart of a TiVo. I would send TiVo an email every six months asking when they were coming to Canada but they kept replying that they had no plans to do so. But I then learned that some smart Canadians had figured out that you could “roll your own” guide data for TiVo. This required using XMLTV to download guide data for your provider, in my case Rogers Cable, and reformat it so that TiVo could read the data. So in early 2002 I bought a used Series 1 TiVo on eBay, plus a special network card for my TiVo, and hacked it so that I could download data to the guide. A TiVo, like many consumer electronics products, runs a version of Linux. This process to load guide data into the TiVo required downloading guide data, reformatting it, uploading to the TiVo and then running a process on the TiVo to load the guide data.

series1 TiVo

This was a pretty good solution and I bought a second Series 1 TiVo, and applied several other TiVo hacks. But the problem was that HD was becoming more prevalent and I wanted a TiVo-type PVR solution that could also record HD as I bought my first HDTV around the time that I got my first TiVo – in March of 2002. I also wanted more functionality than the TiVo could provide so I decided to go with a HTPC.



But first let me digress - my first effort at trying to get digital content to my Home Theatre setup (I am a Canadian so excuse the spelling of Theatre) was to buy a Gateway ADC-220 Connected DVD player. This was a DVD player that could also connect to your LAN to play music, videos or photos. While this was a decent first effort it left a lot to be desired and the UI was not the most user friendly. I used it occasionally but I found it hard to get my wife to use it. Others must have agreed as this product was discontinued within a few months.

gateway connected DVD


I bought a TV tuner card for my PC and decided to try out BeyondTV (BTV). A trial version came with my TV tuner and I kind of liked the software. The other solutions available at the time were SageTV and MCE. I had heard that SageTV was not as good as BTV and that it had an ugly UI.  From what I was lead to understand, MCE was marketed as a way to use your PC to also play music and watch TV – a single solution for a dorm room. But that was not really what I wanted – I wanted a PC that you attached to a big screen TV and audio receiver.

I used BTV a little bit but it never seemed as good as the TiVo. I was able to get content from my PC to my HT using the Gateway Connected DVD player but it just wasn’t that friendly. This wasn’t the solution either.



So I decided to jump in to build a full-scale HTPC. I decided to start with Windows Media Center and then perhaps switch to BeyondTV if I wasn’t crazy about MCE. This was in December of 2006 – I decided to build my HTPC at this time because I had some time over the Christmas holiday and I figured this was a risk free time to do so. Vista was going to be released in just over a month so if I bought XP MCE at that time I would be eligible to a free upgrade to Vista Home Premium. I built an HTPC with an analog tuner connected to my SD cable box and an OTA ATSC tuner (I live in Toronto so I was able to get some Toronto channels as well as Buffalo channels).

XP MCE home page

It was a bit of work to get the HTPC configured and working properly – issues like video drivers, codecs and getting 5.1 audio working properly took a lot of time.  This was a very good solution - my wife quite liked it as did my daughter who soon had every episode of Dora The Explorer and all of her other shows recorded.  There were only two problems with this: (1) no HD other than OTA channels and (2) occasional failed recordings due to CGMS-A issues. Canada has the same cable hardware as the US but there are different regulations. While there is no reason why CableCards will not work in Canada, the Canadian cable companies will not give CableCards to their customers. And the Canadian version of the FCC, the CRTC, does not have any regulations forcing them to do so. So I decided to try to solve the first problem by buying a SA8300HD PVR from my cable company, Rogers Cable (in Canada you have the option of buying your cable boxes or renting them). This is a PVR cable box that can record two shows at once. I added a 400GB hard drive which was quite easy to do as the box has an external eSATA port.


In the meantime I found out that Linksys had discontinued the Extender that they had built for Windows XP MCE. This device allowed you to have all of the functionality of MCE, with the exception of digital TV and video other than MPEG-2, at TVs without requiring an HTPC at your TV. There were also tons of these available on eBay for a good price. I started buying these for about $75 each. The only downside to this was that these devices would not work if/when I upgraded to Vista. But there were no compelling reasons to upgrade to Vista and I didn’t want to have to deal with all of the initial configuration problems again so I decided to stay with XP for the time being. I figured I can always keep one PC with XP MCE to act as a server for these extenders.


I started using my SA8300HD to record HD content but after being used to a TiVo and MCE this device was HORRIBLE. The search capabilities were brutal, there were lots of bugs and recordings were often missed because of inconsistent titles (“Sopranos”,”Sopranos [5.1]”,”Sopranos[HD]”) that caused recordings to be missed. The UI for this device reminded me of my first PC – a Commodore Vic-20 that I bought in 1981.

sa8300hd ui

So I have a solution that is okay but still has some limitations. I can record HD but only HD that is available on OTA channels. And the cable DVR is just not going to be a long term solution since it can’t be sent to other TVs in the house. I still hadn’t found the perfect solution.

At the 2008 CES show Hauppauge announced the HD-PVR. This seemed like the device that would solve all of my troubles – finally a way to get HD cable channels into my HTPC! The device was somewhat delayed but finally shipped around May-June of 2008. The problem for me was that Microsoft seemed to have no intention of getting this device working in MCE, especially not in the XP version of MCE. They released the TV Pack in 2008 but this didn’t support H.264 codecs, as was widely rumored, and with this release they also broke the hack that allowed Canadians to use ATSC tuners. This was the last straw for me – the CGMS-A flag was causing me to miss recordings, no PC client (softsled), the requirement for OEM PCs for CableCard, breaking Peter Near’s OTA ATSC hack for Canadians and all of the DRM around MCE caused me to conclude that I would never be happy with a solution from Microsoft. I have never been a Microsoft basher, I generally really like their products and I admire Bill Gates and the company, but the way they treated MCE customers left me with a really bad taste in my mouth as they seemed to value their relationship with content providers more than their relationship to customers.



I had been looking for a reason to buy a HD-PVR when one day last July Dell had it on sale for a good price. I purchased it and then downloaded a trial version of Sage. Sage seemed to be the PVR software that was the best solution for the HD-PVR. I installed Sage on my office PC which was very new hardware as I didn’t want to muck up my existing HTPC and I knew that trying to run Sage and MCE at the same time on the same PC was asking for trouble. After a few initial setup issues I got Sage working quite well. The only minor issue was that HD playback sometimes suffered from slight stutters. I didn’t really notice this when watching TV shows or movies but watching hockey games it was quite evident. The conventional Sage wisdom was that the best playback was actually on the Sage HD extenders, not on a PC. The only problem was that Sage was chronically out of stock of the extenders. One day in early December, while I was on a business trip to Shanghai, I noticed that Sage had released a new version of the extender and it was available for sale. I immediately order three of them from my hotel room in China – thank god for online stores as Sage sold out within a week (but they soon had more in stock).

Another digression – I used to think that the best solution for playing back content was an HTPC – it would let you playback all of the file formats that were available, plus you could use it for other stuff like playing games or browsing the internet. But I came to realize that the configuration issues on a PC were an issue. There is a lot of tweaking required for video drivers, audio drivers, codecs, security updates, etc. PCs are also noisy, prone to crash and are very complex. The server-extender model makes more sense particularly since you can centralize all of your content on one server and then extend it throughout your house. This became evident to me using XP MCE with my five Linksys V1 MCE extenders.

Sage actually has a better client-server model than MCE does and it is quite ironic that you can install Sage on Windows Homer Server (WHS) whereas you cannot install Windows Media Center on Microsoft WHS. I had actually been running WHS as a file server and backup PC since its beta program in February of 2007. I had reused an old PC as my WHS box temporarily and I always planned to upgrade this box to new hardware. In December of 2008 I decided to put together a new WHS/SageTV server. During the Boxing Day sales I was also able to make other purchases to complete my server – HD cable boxes were on sale for $99 and the HD-PVR was also on sale. I bought three cable boxes (one for the new HD-PVR plus two to replace rentals) and an HD-PVR.

During the Christmas vacation I configured my new Sage WHS box and copied over all of my content from my old WHS PC. I actually had very few issues getting it to work and it is now very stable.



Here are some shots of my Sage WHS PC:

Server Guts

My server consists of a Antec Three Hundred Case, Asus P5Q-Pro motherboard, 2 GB of RAM, an Intel E8400 CPU and six hard drives with a total of 5.2 Terabytes of storage.

Tuner devices

This server is located in my “server room” in my basement with all of its related peripherals. The server is connected to a UPS. Right beside my server are the three cable boxes – two SA3250HDs connected to HD-PVRs plus a SA3200 connected to a PVR-150 tuner card. I also have a Kworld ATSC-110 tuner connected to an antenna that is located in my attic. Channel changing for the HD cable boxes is done via firewire. Channel changing for the SD box is done via a USB-UIRT using a blaster and one of the zones that are connected to the external port. I could use the main emitter of the USB-UIRT to blast all three boxes if I needed to for a command like Power Toggle.

Server et al

My server is connected to a KVM switch as I have some other PCs in this room as well. On one of these other PCs I have installed the Win7 beta although the PC is not powerful enough to really use that OS to its full extent. You’ll notice that I also have an old portable DVD player (if you have kids you likely have some semi-dead portable DVD players). I use this as a monitor for my cable boxes – WHS cannot display the output of Sage so this makes it handy to do stuff like configure the cable boxes and to check to make sure that they are working. I connect the composite output of the cable box to the video input of the portable DVD player.

SageMC Recorded TV screen

In my main HT setup you can see a legacy of many of my Home Theatre trials over the last several years. My HTPC still runs XP MCE and I still use the Media Center extenders in some rooms of my house. I have a SD cable box that is connected to this HTPC and it is still setup to record shows. But for most of my TV watching I use my Sage HD extender connected to my server – I never use the extender in standalone mode. My wife still likes to channel flip so she often watches live TV from the PVR cable box. It has lots of recorded shows on its hard drive but the PVR functionality is almost never used these days. We occasionally watch some DVDs off of my old Connected DVD player although I generally rip DVDs to the server. (I don’t have a BluRay player yet but I may just buy a drive and rip to the server and then use the Sage HD extender). My receiver is a Yamaha HTR 6060 that has a couple of HDMI inputs and three component inputs. I also have an Xbox360 as I am into Rock Band. I use a Gyration GO wireless keyboard and mouse. Last but not least, a Harmony 880 remote makes it simple to operate everything and is crucial for a high WAF.

I also have three other HD-200 extenders throughout my house and one Sage client version so I can watch my recorded TV throughout my house. One of these is in my bedroom which was a bit of an issue as it is not easy to run network wiring to this location. I solved that problem by using Motorola NIM-100 coax over ethernet adapters.

Why do I prefer Sage? It has support for a wide range of hardware including, most importantly, the Hauppauge HD-PVR. The support from Sage is fantastic. They release updates on a very timely basis, around once a quarter. The user community has created a wonderful set of add-ins that provide all sorts of benefits, such as the Fanart and the commercial-skipping shown in the picture below. And the development of add-ins is continuing all the time, even when you think that there is nothing left to improve upon.

SageTV Program Screen


Lessons learned through the years:

  • Extenders are crucial if you want a multi-room solution.

  • Don’t try to share a cable box between regular TV viewing and a HTPC/TiVo.

  • Get a Harmony remote!

  • Don’t watch live TV.

  • You probably won’t end up browsing the web on your Home Theatre TV.

  • SageTV is currently the best solution for recording HD content

The sad truth is that it is likely that I spend far more time tinkering with Sage and my setup than I actually do watching TV. But I have come to realize that this is something that I enjoy as a hobby, not unlike someone who likes tinkering with cars and spends more time tinkering than driving.

What do I record? Movies, sports, kids shows and a few TV series. The bulk of the content that I record is TV shows for my daughter: Dora, Diego, Wonder Pets, Wiggles, etc. I also have recorded lots of movies as I subscribe to several HD movie channels. I am a sports nut and I record all of the games of the Toronto Raptors and Toronto Maple Leafs. I played rugby in high school and I enjoy watching rugby. I subscribe to Setanta sports which broadcasts most of the major club, regional and international rugby games and I record all of them. I am a golfer and I record most of the PGA tour events, at least the weekend rounds. I don’t end up watching most of what I record but at least it is there for me if I have the time.

In terms of TV shows for myself I only actually record a few shows: Flight of the Conchords, The Trailer Park Boys, My Name is Earl, Battlestar Galactica and 30 Rock. I haven’t even watched one episode of BSG yet but everyone says it is a fantastic show so I will have to start watching it soon.

About wayner:  "Wayner resides in Toronto, Canada and is a frequent commenter on GeekTonic.  I've gotten to know him from the many hours spent on the SageTV Forums where you'll often find him (under the same online name)  Thanks to wayner for sharing his media setup.

If you'd like to have your setup or media gadgets highlighted, and want a chance to win some spending cash via gift certificate read the guidelines for submission here.  We're looking for things as simple as a few photos of your favorite media-related gadgets or as elaborate as the the HTPC setup outlined above, ZetaVu's HTPC setup, Damian's HTPC setup, Dennis's home theater setup from last week and Sodarkangels HTPC build from earlier.  Either way, join in on the GeekTonic flickr group and upload your media gadget photos!

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

GeekTonic Month in Review - March 2009

This March was probably one of my most challenging in terms of stress, precious-little time for running GeekTonic or any other fun.  Once again, the month just flew by, but it turned out to be another great month at GeekTonic.  The guest posts for this month have been some of my favorites so far,many excellent comments and the site has continued to grow to over 130,000 pageviews for March!  Thanks to you, the readers for reading - I will continue working hard to bring you the content you came here for!

To wrap of March 2009 I wanted to share the most popular posts (as measured by Google Analytics) of the month:



I'll be covering Media Center, SageTV, Kindle, Some Really cool gadgets and much more in April.  Stay Tuned!


If you have any topics or questions you’d like to have covered in April, let me know in the comments or send me a note.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Media Gadget Nirvana - How I Use my Home Theater PC

I've used a Home Theater PC in my home for many years now and during that time I've spent countless hours on forums, twitter and in person learning about HTPCs and sharing my experience with others.  Multiple times I've been asked the following questions about my setup:

  • How do you use your HTPC?
  • Tell me about your Media Center (HTPC) setup.
  • What Tuners do you use?

I've answered those questions piecemeal, but after reading Ben Drawbaugh's post about how he uses windows media center, I thought it would be helpful to share a little more about what makes up the GeekTonic media gadget home.  To do that, I'll start with this top-view post about "How I Use My HTPC" and then in future articles, tell you a little more about my setup, the tuners I use and more.  In a future segment, I'll also share photos of my setup.

I think there are three different types of Media Center (HTPC) Enthusiasts:

  1. The Dabbler/Experimenter - Still an enthusiast, but just experimenting with the concept of using a computer to drive media in the home.  Usually just one or two TVs are connected and the HTPC is secondary for recording/watching TV, Movies and Music.  This is a very generic label, there are many people in this category just learning about HTPCs who might move on to moving their setup more front-and-center to their home.
  2. The Thrifty Enthusiast - Are you one of those who look at cutting the cable bill, free EPG service and other cost-saving methods?  Maybe you're looking at purchasing a cheap computer to handle everything and can see saving money over a few years or less by going with a HTPC?  You are the person that falls into this category.
  3. DIY Custom Installer Enthusiast - If you're in this category, you've come to realize that you want the HTPC to be solid, stable and powerful.  A workhorse behind the scenes - to the user it's simple a super-powered, central media server that distributes all of your digital media to TVs around the home.  This person thinks more like a professional custom installer, but with a careful eye to ones own personal budget.

I started somewhere between category one and two above, but within a year I had moved on to category three.  I'm not in this to save money - if I were I would have a much different setup.  More important to me is that the setup is stable and easy to manage while bringing the key functionality I desire.


Home Theater PC Requirements for the GeekTonic Home

During the years I've used a Home Theater PC, the way I use the HTPC has evolved quite a bit.  Even with those changes I've followed a few basic rules to keep everyone in the house happy (at least as happy as possible) in regards to the HTPC:

  • One remote to rule them all - All media components must be controlled by a single universal remote.  And that remote must be easy enough for my family to use it without my help.
  • The TV/DVR Must Just Work...Always -  When you turn on the TV (yes the family thinks of the HTPC as part of the TV - not a computer), it must work.  Any other behavior could cause mild-to-moderate domestic disputes or worse - a cable box rental!  Any sign of a BSD (Blue Screen of Death), a Mac, Linux or Windows Menu rearing its ugly head on the TV set is not a good thing during normal use.
  • TV/DVR Must Haves Include
    • Smooth and functional fast forward and rewind of all media - Some people are fine with a skip-forward/backward a certain number of seconds to navigate their media.  Our family requires smooth fast forward and rewind.  Anything less is unacceptable.
    • Commercial Skip - One of the things you get with an HTPC that you can't from a cable DVR is commercial skipping.  Any show recorded (on my system even live) are marked for commercials so that I can skip them with a simple press of my remote.  Much, much better than the 30 second skip many DVRs tout.  My wife still to this day calls this feature "SmartSkip" which is a term coined by Snapstream's BeyondTV even though I'm using comskip with my SageTV setup these days.  As simple as this function is, it's one of the biggest wow factors that guests notice when watching TV at our home.
    • Resume of all media works.  Stop a TV show, music or movie and when you start it back up (on any TV in the home) it allows you to resume where you left off or start from the beginning.
    • Web-based Guide for remote recording and reviewing upcoming shows.  I use this feature pretty often.  From work or away from home I can check my upcoming recordings, schedule new recordings and do many other things from a web browser or even my phone.  DirecTV has been moving in this direction as well although their use of this has been pretty rudimentary thus far.
    • Advanced EPG - Easy to view, customize and search Electronic Programing Guide (EPG).  I should note that making the EPG service free (or really pre-paid) is crucial for the long-term value appeal as well.
    • Multiple, Expandable Tuners - I count seven tuners currently being used on my HTPC five of which are HD.  This means I can record 6 channels and watch another live - or I can record 7 channels at once.  Overkill for most times, but nice to have if your a "power user" and I know there are many out there with even more tuners than that.
  • Movies & Music should be easily accessible on the HTPC and logically organized so that the user can browse (by genre, date, alpha-sort name, playlist etc) that media and play the movie or music all with that same universal remote control.  Unlike many HTPC users, this is the feature set that pulled me into the HTPC world.
  • Follow-me functionality is a must.  I'm a firm believer that if you're going to invest the time, energy and money in a Home Theater PC, it needs to have a central server that hosts all media including TV.  Also that media must be "linked" across the home.  Here's what I mean by that:  You start watching a TV show (or watching a movie or listening to a music playlist) on one TV in the living room for instance.  You should then be able to stop playback on that one TV, go upstairs to the bedroom and turn on the TV there and start that same show (or movie or song) right where you left off when you were viewing from the Living Room.  That is the "follow-me" concept that I consider key to the HTPC experience in my home.
  • Uniform UI - Any additional HTPC or extender device in the home must have an interface that looks and acts like all others.  I started this gig using separate programs driving the TV/DVR functions compared to the other HTPC front-end functions.

That sums up the somewhat steep requirements I have for my Home Theater PC setup.  There are many other features that are important to me, but those are the big ones.


How I Use The HTPC

My first motivation to use a HTPC was movies and music - not TV.  I had a large collection of CDs and DVDs piled up and wanted a better way of consuming that media.  So I began digitizing all of those movies and music until I had quite a bit of media stored on a few hard drives.  I really liked having that media accessible via remote control and it wasn't long after when I started with the TV/DVR obsession as well.  What I hadn't realized at that time is that the TV/DVR is much more exposed to the rest of the family than the other functions of the HTPC. 

Most of the time I could "fix" anything that went wrong with a movie that wouldn't play or a music playlist that didn't work when my wife or daughter tried one of those, but if the TV didn't record a favorite show... I'm in big trouble. 

Goodness sakes the wrath of the family is mighty loud!  It took all of a few days to realize that this thing had to be rock-solid stable and work all of the time before my family would use it full-time as a supercharged DVR.  That is why you see the first two points on the above "requirements" as the most important factors for our HTPC and key to success of the HTPC builder.


Server - My HTPC is driven by a single "server" computer.  This means all tuners and the main HTPC software runs on a single computer.  A true, multi-room solution means all media is recorded, stored and manipulated on a single computer, but is streamed to extenders and other HTPC computers.  Multi-room without a hitch is something elusive to most Cable, Satellite, TiVo and sometimes even Media Center solutions.  But I've enjoyed this feature using Meedio, BeyondTV and now SageTV for years.


Remote Control

If you're going to spend the time and money on an HTPC system, you better have a nice, easy-to-use, universal remote control.  A device to control the whole setup from the couch.


If you've ever used a TiVo or even a simple Cable Company DVR, you know how nice it is to be able to time-shift your television.  If you want to skip over the commercials, catch every show on a popular night and grab everything in HD, the HTPC just might be your thing.  My HTPC has seven tuners, five of which are HD tuners.  That means I can record seven shows at once or watch one while six others are recording.  No, I don't use all seven tuners all that often, but its nice for those times when I want to.  Add to that the HTPC's ability to detect and skip commercials with the press of a remote control even while the show is still recording and you catch my meaning of "superpowered TV".  Even though those features are important, stability and reliability is even more important.  If the HTPC misses a recording, I'm in trouble and the trust in the HTPC setup drops through the floor - not a good thing.

Some have an HTPC in the house for "special times".  In my home, the HTPC IS the Television.  Users know no different except for the somewhat different (and more powerful) user interface.  Live TV, recorded TV, movies etc all are powered by the HTPC and nothing else.


For my house I have all of those seven tuners running of of a single tuner, but serving up five Televisions in the home.  I can start a show in the livingroom, stop it and start back where I left off in the bedroom or the bar/game room or even the shop/lab.  Even better, I have my livingroom TV "broadcast" the video/audio signal to the kitchen TV so I can have both the livingroom and kitchen TV viewing the same content simultaneously thanks to a cable modulator pushing that signal to the kitchen.


My first compelling reason to start with HTPCs was to create a nice, easy, accessible way to archive and access all of my purchased movies from any TV in the house with the remote control. 

The HTPC sort of functions like a DIY On-Demand Movie Server without the crazy cable company price. 

SageMC Movies

At the time I had a young daughter who would watch movies over and over (she still does by the way).  But those same movies tended to get scratched and even lost over time.  I wanted to do away with the physical DVDs and move them to a box in the basement for safekeeping while still being able to browse and view that movie collection from any of our TVs throughout the home.  Resume, fast forward, rewind and all the other basic features are included and required in my home.

To make this feature compelling I had to be able to archive those movies once, and add metadata (information and coverart for the movies) to the movies fairly easily so that even with a large movie collection, the end user (my family) could browse, choose and watch a movie all by using a remote control while sitting on the couch.  The convenience of browsing a large movie collection by genre, title, release year or date added to the collection made finding and choosing a movie very easy.  And the ability to start a movie in one room, and pick up where you left off after pausing a movie from any room in the home was a tremendous feature that was awfully difficult to beat. 

Another nice use of the video/movie feature of HTPCs is using it for home movies.  We have a lot of home movies that have been digitized an categorized for easy, instant viewing.  So when you have a family get-together or a graduation party for your kid, the HTPC comes up strong as a convenient, easy way to view all of those silly, but precious home movies you made of the family moments.  I fear that without making these home movies easy to find and view, they would be relegated to a dusty old box to be rarely if ever seen by most.

This is a feature still extremely important to my wife and I as well as my daughter.  Beyond the Television/DVR, this is the most popular feature on our HTPC.


As I was digitizing my movie collection years ago, I also began moving my CD and even phonograph music collection to MP3.  The same nice features of the movie server were just as nice when it came to my music media.  Instant access to my entire music collection including playlists from any room in the home was incredibly nice.  I began listening to music differently - by playlist instead of by "album" or "CD" and eventually began taking this same collection portable with MP3 players. 

The bottom line is this:  All music accessible from a single server all with the same appropriate metadata thanks to my HTPC. 

SageMC Music

To do this I do have my TV on which is a turnoff for many others - they would prefer a Sonos or Apple Airport Express to drive their music.  For me it was a simple thing - I needed to get the most value from the HTPC setup I had invested in so making music work on my HTPC was essential.  I do use iTunes and iPods, but my main music collection is from archived music and all hosted on a single HTPC server.

Third-Party Add-Ons

This is another arena where HTPCs can shine over the traditional DVR.  Wanting online video streaming, internet radio, weather (actually built-in to most HTPCs), DVD/CD ripping, Home Automation, Creating DVDs or iPod video from your recordings and more?  HTPCs can often do many of these things and more.


All Digital Media Across the Home and Everywhere

My HTPC-driven setup started small, with a single multi-use computer hosting movies, music and photos to a single Television set in our home.  But it didn't take long for me to want more.  Once I had "the bug" I had to leverage that digitized media across the home and even placeshifted over the web.  I now have a powerful media server with nearly 5 Terabytes of hard drive storage, three extenders, a HTPC client (softsled extender) and a TV that simulcasts any content from the livingroom TV to the kitchen TV.


The end result has been a very useful Digital-Media-Home driven by a single HTPC server.  If your curious about the details of how everything is set up, what hardware and software I'm using and what I plan to do next, stay tuned for the next segment of "Media Gadget Nirvana" at GeekTonic.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Hauppauge HD-PVR Driver Update

If you own the Hauppauge HD-PVR, you might want to check out their latest driver update for the popular component video recorder.  This update claims to solve an issue I didn't know exists: the "rare but potential problem with flash memory being corrupted during the power down cycle of the unit".


I'm hesitant to install this update at the moment as my HD-PVR is working well and Hauppauge's record of providing usable firmware updates is poor at best.  Still, I might give it a try in a few weeks when I have more time.


Hauppauge HD-PVR Driver Update


via AndyVT

Sunday, March 29, 2009

TV Premieres: What To Watch March 29 - April 4

Week 13 of the Winter (almost Spring) 2009 TV Season has arrived.  Several new and returning shows are  in store for the week.  Read on for all of the details.
           Greek returns on ABC Family Monday Night


Premieres and Returning Shows For this Week:

Sunday 03/29/2009

The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency (9pm on HBO - avail in HD) -


Monday 03/30/2009

Greek (8pm on ABC Family) -

Sophie (9:30pm on ABC Family) - The series premiere


Tuesday 03/31/2009

Cupid (10pm on ABC) season premiere

My Boys (10:30pm on TBS)


Wednesday 04/01/2009

Reno 911 (10:30pm on Comedy)


Thursday 04/02/2009

ER (10pm on NBC) The Series finale with Julianna Margulies and George Clooney returning for the final show.



Saturday 04/04/2009

NCAA Basketball Championship (6pm on CBS) semifinals


That’s it for this week.  Stay tuned for a few more premieres which you’ll find on GeekTonic this coming Sunday morning and each week on Sundays.  I'm working on the Summer TV Premiere List that should be ready in the next few weeks.


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