My Current Media Center

August 24, 2013 Leave a comment

Someone on an Engadget forum asked me what kind of NAS I used.  I wrote a VERY long reply and thought I would just post that response here…  I’ve been rather quiet on this blog partly because my current Media Center is essentially perfect.  So, here is the answer I wrote:

That is a great question, because that is one of the 2 main differentiators from a basic PC.  The Tuners being the other.  For storage, I used to use external eSata Enclosures, but a 6-disk or more NAS always seemed overpriced, so I ended up with local storage!  I have 6 HDDs for media and 1 SSD for the OS and apps.  The disks are configured in JBOD so I could lose recordings if a disk dies, but if you keep your disks well cooled and they spin down when inactive, they should be obsolete before they actually die.  Also, JBOD allows me to have a rotation where I replace the smallest drive with a big one when I need to expand.  For instance, I recently upgraded by replacing the oldest disk (750GB) with a 4TB.  If I had RAID (and I used to),  I had to use disks of the same size as the others and the controller had to support expanding the array in place.  If you didn’t do the expansion right, you could lose everything!  RAID was a disaster for a system that needs to grow over time.  JBOD is easy and simple, and the risk is worth taking.  My last RAID experience was when I used the motherboard RAID… then the motherboard died.  Well if you can’t find the same controller for your array, you will lose everything on those disks.  I came to realize that end-user RAID-5 is probably more risky than JBOD.  And for critically important folders, just replicate those on another disk.   

So, to enclose the disks, I needed a short case depth with lots of bays to fit in my Living Room entertainment center, and I ended up with the Lian Li PC-Q18B.  I highly recommend this case.  There is also a MicroATX version from Lian Li, but it is deeper, so watch out.  I also upgraded the front fan with higher CFMs to cool the HDDs better.  I have had a Media Center running in some shape or form for 8 years and this is the best, most reliable configuration I’ve ever had.  It’s perfect.  Oh, and in the 5.25″ bay, I have a slim Bluray player (Panasonic UJ265; allows for 3D bluray) and an SD card reader for the occasional picture dump from our camera.  The bluray and card reader are in a StarTech SLIMCDFDCAGE. 

And here is a picture:

WP_20130824_14_45_09_Pro

Note: the fan blades are yellow, but they are visible in this picture only because of the flash from the camera.  In the room under normal light, I just see black.

Categories: Uncategorized

A Defect with the HD-PVR will eventually fail for all

April 9, 2011 12 comments

Wow, it’s been a rough month for my Media Center and this was the last thing I needed.  This morning when I switched to a channel that uses the HD-PVR, it gave me a “Weak signal” message and the blue bling light was going off and on.  Also it would on occasion show a frozen, but distorted video frame of the correct channel.  I assumed the satellite receiver was cutting in and out.  It was raining at the time so I thought maybe the picture is breaking up, so I switched over to the HDMI output on the Satellite receiver and it was crystal clear.  Uh oh.  Then I thought, maybe the SPDIF cable that feeds the audio to the HD-PVR got pinched.  When the digital audio goes out so does the video on the HD-PVR, but replacing the SPDIF cable didn’t fix it.  Then I noticed something odd.  The blue bling light was ever so slightly flickering.  I didn’t recall it ever flickering.  Then I noticed the power LED was doing it too.  So, I disconnected everything from the HD-PVR except the power, then power cycled it.  Still flickering.  I thought, it’s almost like it’s not getting enough power.  So, I tested the power adapter with my digital multimeter and it was putting out 5.16 Volts (it’s supposed to be 5VDC 2A output).  I guess that’s ok, but I still thought the power adapter was not right, so I borrowed the 5VDC 1.0A power adapter from my HDHomerun and the flickering was gone, but it would not start streaming, which is exactly what I would expect from an under powered device.  OK, so I decided to go to Radio Shack to get a replacement power adapter.  Threw DSC02256the kids in the car and off we went!  When we got to Radio Shack they had one, for $40!  Ridiculous!  A power adapter like that is worth no more than $10.  So we went to Arby’s for some food then home.  OK, now I went digging into my parts and found an old USB hub with a power adapter that had the perfect output.  So I cut the plug off the suspect power adapter and spliced it to my replacement.  I tested with a multimeter to make sure it was positive on the inside and negative on the outside and plugged it in….  YAY!  It lives.  The HD-PVR was running perfectly once again.  So I thought, what happened to the old one.  I have nothing to lose, so I cracked it open with a vice and whoa Nelly!  What I saw just made me DSC02260angry, so angry.  A capacitor had popped and another two were bulging.  And these are not the high quality metal cased Japanese ones…  oh no, these where the plastic wrapped cheapies commonly associated with Capacitor plague.  If you haven’t heard about it, here is my cliff notes version (go to wikipedia for the longer version): basically, a Chinese company stole the formula for the chemicals that go into the capacitor but they didn’t know what they wDSC02262ere doing and got it wrong.  But, they were able to undercut everyone because they didn’t spend any money on research and development.  So, their crappy mix found it’s way into a massive number of electronics, making them all ticking time-bombs.  The whole thing just makes me so angry.  Anyway, it is highly probable that all of the adapters that come with the HD-PVR will have the same problem eventually.  If your power adapter looks like mine below, be aware of the symptoms.  It is also likely that it could cause streaming to stop intermittently as the capacitor loses its capacitance.  I very nearly bought an new HD-PVR before I figured this out.  I wonder if this is to blame for some of the problems I’ve (and others) had in the past with the streaming failing sometimes.  It’s possible that if you pick a high bit rate for encoding and it draws more current, that the bad capacitors will not be able to provide enough power causing the streaming to stop momentarily.  It could also explain why some people never see the problem and others are plagued by random failures.  Just speculation.  And, it doesn’t completely explain everything because I have had solid/reliable performance for the last 6 months leading up to this failure.   

Categories: Uncategorized

My Sandybridge Upgrade Fiasco

April 5, 2011 3 comments

Well, my previous system was unfortunately limited to 2 CPU cores because Intel never released a CPU with 4 cores and integrated graphics.  I really needed 4 cores because when we were watching TV on 3 TVs, the performance degraded.  Also, I needed more power for Remote Potato which transcodes the video on the fly to stream it (I think) and commercial detection and Video disk ripping.  So, when the Intel Series 6 CPUs and motherboards came out (aka. Sandybridge), I jumped on it.  That was January.  And I am not happy.  Perhaps this is the price for being on the cutting edge.  If you don’t want to read all the details, the take-home message would have to be (I hate to say this):

Avoid the ITX form factor!

I’ll get to the why a bit later…  So, here’s what happened…  The hardware, the Intel Core i5-2500 Quad core processor with integrated Graphics and the Foxconn H67S motherboard.  DSC02213

On paper the board looks like a fine, cheap board, but unfortunately, it has a critical problem.  The obvious issue is that the Sandybridge chipset had a flaw in the SATA controller and was recalled.  The less obvious issue is that my eSATA port multiplier card won’t work with it.  You see, I have a Silicon Image Sil3132 Controller card to connect my TR5M harddisk enclosure.  It has always worked well for me, but when installed in this board, I don’t even see the post-BIOS config screen.  So I bought another Sil3132, which again did not work.   Which suggests a BIOS compatibility issue.  But wait, this is not BIOS, it is the new UEFI system.  Maybe it’s not UEFI compatible?  But wait, according to this news article, they have a firmware update that makes it compatible.  So I finally find the firmware file and discover that the update utility is built into the device manager in its own tab.  So, I update the firmware and… nothing.  It still doesn’t work.  At this point, a B3 H67-based ITX board is in-stock at Newegg, so I order it immediately hoping that the ASRock UEFI works better.  So, I get the ASRock H67M-ITX and same DSC02233problem…  So now I am getting desperate.  This whole time, I have had my enclosure connected in my office, accessed over the LAN and performance has sucked.  With my usually high WAF (Wife Acceptance Factor) tanking rapidly, I have to get this working, so I order a few parts.  So now, I order a RocketRaid 622 card hoping that will work.  I also order a SansDigital TR4UTBPN which is a 4 disk USB 3.0 enclosure.  Thinking that the USB would be a slam dunk, I don’t even try the RocketRaid card and send it back.  Then I tried the USB enclosure which worked great… for a few hours.  Then, the disks disappear from Windows explorer and my Wife’s recordings all stop!  Catastrophe!  She said:

Why can’t we have a Cable Box like normal people? 

Yikes, I had to figure this out quick.  Confidence in my Media Center was declining more imagerapidly than I thought.  I checked out the event log and I see some sort of paging error.  Out of desperation, I try another cable, then the USB 2.0 ports… and that is working.  Two days of perfect operation and counting…Whew.  Although this is not ideal, it’s working.  I have since read in a few places online that the ETronics USB 3.0 controller chip used in this motherboard is buggy.  I read that some USB 2.0 devices will BSOD (Blue screen of death) windows when plugged into these ports. 

So, the reason why I am down on Mini-ITX is that this is the lastest example of, “if I had another card slot or 2…” I could work around this with an NEC based USB 3.0 card.  Well, who knows if the NEC is better, but I would have more options for sure.  Mini-ITX is just cutting it too close and you live and die by the integrated components working…

Categories: Uncategorized

How I made my XBox360 Media Center Extender Silent–Final Result

August 26, 2010 1 comment
Awesome!  It works as great as I had hoped.  I have all of my cables run through my wall with the XBox360 in the closet and the IR Receiver now zip tied to the bottom edge of the LCD TV.  It looks great and it works great.  The Power LED for the XBox is just as convenient as I imagined and the IR Receiver is not picky at all with respect to direction, even working when IR is bounced off the opposite wall (that was my wife’s test).  I definitely have a 10 out of 10 WAF approval on this one.  I would definitely say it works better than the IR receiver built into the Jasper XBox.  Also, as I had anticipated, putting the two IR receivers in parallel allows either one to receive IR, although I suspect that if they both get IR at the same time, it would work poorly.  Also, since I have fluorescent lighting in my closet (which can emit IR), I taped over the IR receiver built into the XBox with Black electrical tape (white tape was transparent to IR, so I put white tape on top of the black tape).  Below are the pictures of the final product.
TV with IR Receiver attached at bottom
Close up of the receiver with red power indicator
XBox360 neatly tucked away on the top shelf of the closet (notice the IR Receiver plugged in on the right side and the tape covering the IR receiver)
Done!
Categories: Uncategorized

How I made my XBox360 Media Center Extender Silent–Part 2

August 23, 2010 4 comments

The XBox360 in the bedroom has been a tough road.  I was unsatisfied with the occasional RRoD (Red Ring of Death) and with the IR Receiver’s poor reliability on the second generation XBox360 (aka. Falcon).  So, I picked up a new 3rd Generation XBox360 (aka. Jasper).  The Jasper has much better out of the box IR reliability and is less directional.  Also, it runs cooler and rarely gets the RRoD, fingers crossed. 

IR Receiver

So, I started reading and researching the IR receivers in the XBox.  The Falcon appears to be a Sharp Microelectronics receiver.  The Jasper is clearly a Sharp receiver with the Sharp “S” on the side.  I believe it to be similar to this one here.  There is a key difference though.  The one in the XBoxes have the ground as the middle pin and I could not find any 38K Sharp receivers on Mouser that had such a configuration, so these may be a special run for MS?  So, in my reading it seems that you may be able to put these in parallel as long as only 1 is getting blasted at any one time.  So this time, instead of removing the IR receiver, I am going to leave it and my plan was to buy a second compatible IR Receiver component to have externally.  This way, the external IR receiver will be detachable and leave the XBox360 bootable/functional.      

Power LED

At first I thought it would be cool to use a green LED, like on the XBox.  But then I thought that red is actually a better color to have in the dark.  There is a reason why most devices like alarm clocks and telescope electronics use red, I think it has something to do with preventing pupil dilation or something.  So, I got a red LED that would work with the 5 volts I could harvest from the XBox. 

Media Center IR Receiver

Then it dawned on me that, everything I was looking for was already in a spare Media Center USB Receiver that I had already lying around in a spare parts bin.  So, I cracked it open (needs a small torx head screwdriver) and sure enough, it was another Sharp IR Receiver.  This one actually had a “D28” on the side, so I know it is this one.  Unlike the XBox, this appears to have an off-the-shelf pin assignment with the ground on the side and power in the middle.  So, basically, I decided to reuse this with some re-wiring. 

Wiring the XBox

So, for simplicity, the connector to the XBox is a USB plug.  It may be confusing, but I don’t care.  The easiest mounting location was to put a USB Breakout connection from a PC on the side opposite the harddrive.  I just drilled a few holes and neatly mounted the USB port on the side.  One thing I wanted to do (and succeeded) was to be able to solder only on the top surface of the motherboard because I do not want to remove the heat sinks from the GPU/CPU because they are working just fine and I wanted to simplify the job by disassembling no more than I had to…  removing the heatsinks would have been necessary if I needed to solder to the under side of the motherboard. 

 

Breakout USB socket

Final external appearance

Wiring to XBox (labeled with USB colors; my cable was too short so I extended with the phone wire shown).  Wires must be carefully soldered to the legs of the IR receiver without contacting the ground!  Then use some hot glue to mount everything in place. 

Re-Wiring the IR Receiver

This is more tricky. And this post is getting long, so I’ll just post the pictures of the wiring. 

The Result?

Well, my HDMI cable went bad, so I have not fully tested this.  But so far, so good.  Here is the video! 

 

 

The USB cable attached the the receiver is long ( 10 – 15 feet) and will work great when I run it through the wall.  Also, since this is not USB, it could probably be extended with off the shelf USB extension cables.  I’ll post an update after I test with my new HDMI cable arriving tomorrow. 

Disclaimer

I don’t recommend anyone try this unless you are willing to void your warranties and you REALLY understand electronics.  Maybe after some Electrical Engineer says this looks OK, others could try it.  But, if you miss one step, stuff could fry.  You have been warned! 

-Valkyrie-MT

Categories: Uncategorized

How I made my XBox360 Media Center Extender Silent–Part 1

August 23, 2010 Leave a comment

This is a repost from TGB of my first version (with critique at bottom):

So, the situation is that I have an LCD TV mounted on the wall in a bedroom and I want to use a Media Center Extender.  What I want:

  • Silence (no fan noise)
  • Playback of MKVs and DVBLink for HDPVR recordings 
  • Remote control that has backlighting and the same button layout to my other Media Center remote
  • Reliability. 

What I tried and why it failed:

  • Linksys DMA2100 sitting above TV – Did not playback my DVBLink for HDPVR recordings and the UI was sluggish (even with animation off), and I didn’t like the look of it on a bracket above the TV. 
  • XBox360 in room – too noisy to leave in room
  • XBox360 in closet connected through hole in the wall – Great!  But how to control it?
    • XBox360 RF based Game controller – no backlight and I prefer a remote with the button layout like my other remotes
    • RF to IR UFO repeater – doesn’t work with Media Center remotes… ugh.
    • Xantech IR Repeater – Can’t get it to work with Media Center remote even with LCD/CFL proof receiver. (tried 2 different models)
    • HotLink Pro – This actually works well with my Media Center remote, but I couldn’t get it to work reliably in the presence of my LCD TV after shifting around the sensor for about a month. 
    • Logitech Harmony – This should work, but it’s expensive and the button layout is not like my Media Center remotes.  I did not try this. 
    • USB Media Center Receiver connected to XBox360 – Neither the PC Version or Xbox version from Scene-It work at all.  I personally tried both.  (This really should have worked and MS should step up and add a driver for this IMHO)
    • Seriously – Crack open the XBox360 (voiding the warranty), cut out the IR receiver and extend it into the bedroom with phone cord – will it work, is it reliable?

The last point is what I have right now… and it works.  I cut out the IR receiver from inside the XBox360.  THIS VOIDS THE WARRANTY!  Actually, right after doing this mod, I got my first Red Ring of Death.  So, I did the standard RROD repair on Wednesday and it’s been workings for 2 days now…  Now, I am no Electrical Engineer, so I have no idea if this will continue working or eventually fry something because of the added resistance of the phone wire.  I have about 6 feet of wire going through the wall.  Here are a few pictures of this experiment: 

Connection to XBox360 motherboard

Sensor mounted with zip-tie to back of TV and hanging down

Overview with sensor (yes that tiny thing at the bottom of the TV is the sensor)

Update after 9 months of usage:

So, I’ll be honest.  This solution was barely usable.  When using a Media Center IR remote with this setup, the response was hit or miss because the IR receiver used in the Falcon XBox360 sucks.  It is a very picky receiver.  Also, when I turned on the XBox, I had to wait about 5 seconds before anything came up on the screen because there is no way to know if it is turned on.  Sometimes I would turn it off because I thought it hadn’t worked, but that would turn it back off, ugh.  Also, if I unplugged the IR receiver from the XBox360, the XBox360 would not boot at all.

See Part 2 for how I addressed all of these issues…

-Valkyrie-MT

Categories: Uncategorized

Controlling Volume… Look Ma, no extra Wires!

July 2, 2010 2 comments

Wow, I hate extra cables.  It turns out I have a little Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and I am compelled to simplify everything around me.  I like to joke that all good engineers have a little OCD.  But, one of the things that bugs me is that when I pop in a Blu-Ray and enable that magical Digital True-HD audio through my surround sound AV Receiver, my computer volume suddenly has no effect because audio is digitally passed through to the receiver.  So, the computer cannot modify the audio stream to change the volume.  The natural solution is to use the AV Receiver to exclusively control the volume.  My remote control and most other universal remotes can emit simple IR codes to control the volume, but I wasn’t satisfied with this.  The main reason was that I wanted to control the volume from the kitchen, but I didn’t have line-of-sight for the IR to work.  The RF would raise and lower the computer volume, but not for any digital audio like DTS and TrueHD.  So I used my USB-UIRT with a nice program called Intelliremote to repeat the IR codes to the AV Receiver, but there was terrible lag that sometimes led to disaster with the Receiver volume appearing to be possessed by demons for 10 seconds after a volume change if you held the button too long.  So, one day, I came across an HDMI-CEC USB bridge device and was immediately struck with the dream of controlling all of my devices through the magic of the HDMI cables that already connect them.  So, on a whim and looking for a fun project, I bought the thing.  A few days later, I got it and I’ve been playing ever since. 

I first plugged it in with USB and immediately looked up the command to increase volume and it worked!  But, even though I had plenty of HDMI ports on my Receiver, I wanted the computer itself to be CEC enabled, not an external box (OCD again).  So then, I thought, wouldn’t it be great to have a CEC enabled graphics card?  Oh yeah!  So since the only card with HDMI outputs and support for TrueHD digital Audio was the new ATI 5xxx series, I got one of those and created what is probably the world’s first HDMI-CEC enabled graphics card.  

Behold, the first HDMI graphics card with CEC and Digital Audio!

All that was needed was a free internal USB header to plug the CEC bridge board into.  DISCLAIMER: WARNING – doing this voids all kinds of warranties and if you do it wrong, you can probably fry stuff.  But anyway, it worked!  Unfortunately, the Catalyst drivers didn’t work well for me with Media Center and after a month I abandoned this.  I moved on to one of the only other ways to get 1080P video and TrueHD audio.  That was the chipset integrated Intel Audio and Video (although I think it’s all Realtek based).  But to make that work, I had to solder to the CEC bus on the underside of the Motherboard (another warranty voider). 

Soldering to the CEC bus on the Motherboard

 

 

RainShadow Tech’s CEC Bridge Mounted Internally

While trying different ways of connecting the CEC Bridge, I started on my specialty, the software.  Below are some screens followed by a video of CEC in action!  Now, the software works most of the time, but for anyone else to use it, it has to work 100% of the time.  At some point soon, I’ll have to recruit some testers…  Hopefully, this will get recognized by the industry as awesome and get integrated into products.  I’m open to ideas! 

 

 

I’m not very good with the camera, but you’ll see how CEC wakes up the TV and AV Receiver, setting them to the correct inputs.  Then CEC control of the volume.

Categories: Uncategorized
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.