Saturday, February 28, 2009

Windows Media Center: Way to go, Microsoft!

Microsoft has gotten a lot of flack over the years for their software. Windows 98, Me, XP, Vista, Office, Outlook, Internet Explorer, you name it, people have dumped on it for one reason or another. However, some bits of code the Microsoft churns out work like a charm. XP Pro SP2 comes to mind. It's been stable for me for years. Even rarer yet, some MS apps are total game-changers, meaning they are so useful that they change the way we use computers. In my humble opinion, one of these applications is Windows Media Center.

About 2 years ago, I decided that I wanted to build a DVR (Digital Video Recorder) to record my favorite TV shows and movies. I could have opted for my cable company's bundled DVR/cable box, but I found it lacking in features and too pricy. Besides, building a PC is fun for tinkerers like me. I could tailor it to be exactly what I wanted. So, I bought the parts, assembled it, and ran GB-PVR as my media center front-end software. It was a little buggy, but a very good (free) solution overall. When I switched to Verizon FiOS, I found out the hard way that my cable box was not supported under GB-PVR, so I needed an alternative. Enter Windows XP Media Center Edition.

XP MCE has a clean, easy to use interface. It has a program guide for every TV service in America, hosted by Microsoft and available for free. It has the ability to record in Mpeg2, so the quality is there. Record reruns and/or broadcast premiers with ease. It has the ability to stream your audio and video from network shares, and organize them in a nice, presentable fashion, including tags, descriptions and cover art.

One thing that it is lacking is automatic commercial skip. However this is available with a 3rd-party plugin called DVRMSToolbox. One hardware requirement is the MS proprietary "Media Center" remote. The XP version is no longer made, but is available from eBay for about $30. The XP version of Media Center is being phased out in favor of the Vista version. Even though Vista is, by and large, crap, the Media Center component is even better and more robust than the XP version, or so I've heard. I haven't played with Vista Media Canter at all yet, but reviews I've read are very positive. Also, there's no native HD recording or Blu-ray support in either version of Windows Media Center yet.

If you're looking to roll your own DVR, or you have an older PC that needs a new use, I highly recommend giving XP MCE a go. It's usable, reliable, clean, low maintenance, and cheap. You won't be sorry.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Phosphor Trails: Scourge of the Plasma

This post is not mod-related as such; It's more of a rant. In October, I purchased a Panasonic Viera TH-42PZ85U Plasma Television from Amazon. One of the caveats about owning an HDTV is that it requires quite a bit of time to tweak picture settings in order to ensure that your TV is giving you the best possible picture. In the proceeding months, I've fiddled with the various settings, like color, contrast, brightness, and even used a THX calibration disc and blue filter glasses in order to calibrate my set for optimal viewing from all of my sources (FiOS, DVD, PS3/Blu-Ray, DVR, Xbox). Overall, I've been quite happy with my Panny.

However, in recent months, I've noticed a very disturbing and annoying trend occuring in my TV: phosphor trails. These are green or blue trails that are left behind a moving object in a high contrast scenario. It occurs, as I understand it, because plasma pixels cannot shift directly from black to white, or vice versa. They have a brief green or blue phase in between. An example of this might be a hockey game that has players with dark jerseys on a white ice background. This scenario is plagued by phosphor trails on my TV. The players leave streaks as they move across the rink. I love hockey, and this is a major issue for me. Another example might be a movie or TV show where a person with light skin is moving through a dark room. This scenario is even worse for me. Light objects on dark background leave horrible green trails and are physically taxing on my eyes. Video games often have high contrast scenarios like this, and this effect is present in many that I own.

The video above is not my TV, but shows what I've been dealing with. Unfortunately, I don't have a video camera capable of accurately depicting this phenomenon. On the cheap point-n-shoot I have, the effect is far worse than it appears in person. Nevertheless, I'm very close to selling my TV, cutting my losses and getting a Samsung LN46A650 LCD. I know that I may just be trading one issue for another, as LCD's have problems of their own, but I've just about had it. If a representative from Panasonic is reading this, please contact me, as I would love to remedy this somehow.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Navi-X + XBMC = Streaming Bliss

If you were to ask around, you'd find that more and more people are getting their news and entertainment content from the Internet, and many from Internet-only sources, like podcasts and Internet radio. There are lots of Internet-only TV shows out there. Some of the bigger players in the streaming game are G4TV, Revision3, NPR, CollegeHumor, YouTube, and Apple Trailers just to name a few. It would be nice if there was a place that all of the popular streaming content on the Internet could be found under one roof with an attractive and customizable user interface.

Enter Navi-X, a script (plugin) for XBMC. I've mentioned XBMC, the open source media center powerhouse, several times on this blog before. Navi-X is a small downloadable app that allows me to stream all of my favorite shows, audio and video for playback on my TV. Installation is plug and play. Simply dump it into XBMC's "Scripts" directory, and it's installed. From there, browse to it in XBMC's Scripts browser. Not only can I stream all of my favorite shows and podcasts, I can download the streams for offline playback and cataloguing, if desired. I can also create my own "playlists" of streaming content, where I can share my favorite streaming media with other Navi-X users.

The shows I watch the most via Navi-X are Revision3's Systm, Tekzilla and G4TV's Gadget Pron. Sometimes I'll check out Apple Trailers, which is a great place to look at upcoming films, although the standalone Apple Movie Trailers plugin for XBMC is arguably better. Overall, I'm more than satisfied with Navi-X's streaming abilities. I highly recommend this app to any current or would-be XBMC users that need a neat and convenient way to access streaming content in their living room.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

EeePC 901 SSD Face-Off (Part 2): RunCore vs. Phison (SLC)

This is Part 2 of my EeePC 901 SSD Face-Off, where I compare various SSD drives for the Asus EeePC 901 (20G) Linux. Part 1 can be found here. In this installment, I compare the RunCore 32GB (MLC) drive against the stock Phison 4GB (SLC) drive. Going into the testing for this, I was assuming that the Phison was gonna get smoked across the board by the RunCore. Turns out that I was only partially correct.

About the Benchmarks

As I mentioned in Part 1, these benchmarks are not scientific. I didn't try and clone the drives, or assure that they all had the exact same services and apps running during testing. However, I did attempt to make the runtime scenarios as similar as possible. This time, we are comparing NTFS to NTFS to even the playing field. Both machines contained the following:

-Windows XP Professional SP3
-All Windows Updates
-BIOS 1808 (latest)
-"Super Performance" mode a.k.a. full CPU speed
-Latest device drivers


I found these results very surprising. With the exception of Hibernate and Shutdown, The Phison holds its own. Of course, the RunCore still tops the Phison across the board, but it was a much closer race than the Phison 16GB (MLC). Based on these results, one might actually be able to tolerate Windows XP as a system parition on this SSD.

Now this is more along the lines of what I expected from the 4GB Phison. Again, I used PassMark PerformanceTest 6.1 on both drives to evaluate disk speed. All of the other tests in the benchmarking suite, i.e. 2D, 3D, RAM, CPU, etc., were statisically insignficant between the 2 drives. The RunCore, once again, makes the Phison look silly. Even though these are not "real-world" tasks that are running, these benchmarks do allow for the technical limitations of the Phison drive to be seen clearly. The Phison 4GB has a modest gain in Disk scores over the 16GB drive, but neither can touch the RunCore drive.


If you want speed, in both real-world and extreme scenarios, and capacity for your Asus EeePC 901, all at a very reasonable price, then RunCore SSD's are for you. They significantly outperform both of the stock Phison drives in every measurable way. RunCore SSD's are available from MyDigitalDiscount.

If there should be a Part 3 to this series, I'm open to suggestions for topics.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

EeePC 901 SSD Face-Off (Part 1): RunCore vs. Phison

In July 2008, I purchased an Asus EeePC 901 (20G) Linux netbook, pretty much the day it came out. Since then, it has accompanied me on trips long and short, and has been what I consider to be a wise purchase. However, the 901 is not without its shortcomings. The 901 Linux has 2 SSDs, or solid state disks, both made by Phison: a 4GB (SLC) and a 16GB (MLC). Both SSDs have slow read/write speeds, with the 16GB being the slower of the two. Out of the box, the 901 is a Linux machine, running a Xandros variant. I liked this OS, but I wanted to use Windows XPon the machine as well. So the day I got it, I decided to dual-boot Linux and Windows. Until recently, I had the 4GB running Linux and the 16GB running XP. Linux was slow but usable. I've since removed the Linux partition, leaving only XP on the 16GB. I found the read speeds to be tolerable on XP, but the writes were downright painful. Thankfully, 3rd party manufacturers recently began releasing faster replacement SSDs for netbooks. One of these makers is RunCore. Somehow, RunCore has managed to produce the fastest AND cheapest replacement SSDs for netbooks like the EeePC and the Dell Inspiron mini 9. Last week, I bought a 32GB MLC replacement for the 16GB Phison, and installed XP on it. I ran some common tasks and a commercial benchmark suite, and I immediately saw returns on my investment. The results of the tests, shown below, are breathtaking.

About the Benchmarks

These benchmarks are not scientific. I didn't try and clone the drives, or assure that they all had the exact same services and apps running during testing. However, I did attempt to make the runtime scenarios as similar as possible. The one "apples-to-oranges" issue would be that the Phison was formatted FAT32 and the RunCore was formatted NTFS. I used FAT32 on the Phison because FAT32 has a smaller block size and does not use journaling or the other more advanced write-intensive features of NTFS. On a systems with slow write speeds, this seemed to make sense. Both machines contained the following:

-Window XP Professional SP3
-All Windows Updates
-BIOS 1808 (latest)
-"Super Performance" mode a.k.a. full CPU speed
-Latest device drivers


These are the common tasks I chose to look at. Number 3 is a cold startup timed from button press to right after the sound drivers load, but before the network (wireless) drivers load. Number 5 is copying and pasting a 98Mb zip file.

I used PassMark PerformanceTest 6.1 on both drives to evaluate disk speed. All of the other tests in the benchmarking suite, i.e. 2D, 3D, RAM, CPU, etc., were statisically insignficant between the 2 drives. As you can see, the Disk tests yielded far different results.


The results speak for themselves, I think. The bottom line is that the RunCore SSD destroyed the stock Phison disk in every measurable way. Some of the results are so extreme, they're practically laughable. In short, adding a RunCore SSD to your EeePC 901 will turn it into the machine you wished it was out of the box. I'll go so far as to say that it makes the 901 useful for more than just web browsing, which in the realm of today's netbooks is really saying something. RunCore SSDs are available from MyDigitalDiscount.

Not sure what Part 2 of this article will be. Could be Phison NTFS vs. FAT32. Could be Phison SLC vs. RunCore. Ether way, Part 2 will be coming soon. If you have strong feelings about what you'd like to see given what you've just read, feel free to comment.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Cell Phone + Memory Card = Portable Hard Drive

This one isn't a true "mod," but more of an "upgrade." Some of you may have a phone with a slot for a memory card. I personally have an LG enV2. Among this phone's many amazing features is a memory card slot for microSD and microSDHC cards, supporting capacities up to 8GB! This means that if I was to purchase an 8GB microSDHC card, then I could have a portable hard drive, right in my pocket. To put that in perspective, I could fit tens of thousands of pictures, thousands of mp3s, or seven 2-hour movies in AVI format, all right in my pocket. I can use Bluetooth or a Micro USB Cable in order to transfer files back an forth between the phone and any Mac or PC. This phone also allows me to take pictures and movies and store them on the memory card. I could literally shoot movies every day for the life of the phone and never fill the card. Many LG phones support these same features. I love the enV2 for its full QWERTY keyboard, great battery life, bluetooth, memory expandability, large screen and overall ease of use. If you don't have an enV2 or other LG phone, upgrading your phone's card memory is a very cheap (less than $20) and very easy way to get more out of your technology.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Turn a $40 router into a $100 Wifi powerhouse

A problem that I had for a while was that I have wired devices, like my Media Center PC and my Xbox that are not wireless (B/G) enabled as such. I needed a way to give these devices network/Internet access without spending $100 or more to do so. After looking around, I stumbled upon DD-WRT, which is an open-source firmware for many of the common wireless routers around today. This software allows me to use my $40 (used) Linksys WRT54G Wireless-G Router and turn it into a 4-port wireless bridge, which would usually cost $100 or more to buy off the shelf. A wireless bridge is a device that acts as a network access point for wired devices, allowing them wireless network access, essentially "bridging" the gap between non-wifi devices and the network. DD-WRT has supported hardware listings so that you can see if your device is supported, and full installation instructions are also available. It's fast easy and free. Check it out.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

XBMC Part 3: Install a bigger hard drive

This particular mod is not directly related to XBMC, but will defintely upgrade your overall modded Xbox experience. The stock Xbox hard drive is only 8GB, which doesn't leave much room for adding Xbox games, emulators, roms, music, movies, videos, pictures, applications, and anything else you'd want to store on the Xbox itself. Adding a bigger hard drive is easy, and almost essential. Any IDE hard drive that can be "locked" in hardware will do the trick. To find out which ones will work, look here. Almost any Seagate will work, which is what I'd recommend. I am using this Seagate 250 GB Hard Drive.

To accomplish this mod, you need:

- A modded Xbox
- Torx screwdrivers/drill (gauges 5,10,20)
- A hard drive
- Xboxhdm software
- A PC supporting IDE drives
- A router

The basic procedure is:

1. Backup your eeprom to a file (eeprom.bin)
2. Transfer your Xbox C Drive (and E if nec.) to a PC via ftp
3. Use Xboxhdm to make a bootable linux iso CD
4. Open your PC and disconnect your existing hard drives
5. Connect only your new Xbox hard drive
6. Boot from the CD
7. Format the hard drive, then reboot to CD again
8. Lock the hard drive
9. Open your Xbox using Torx screwdrivers
10. Remove old hard drive, install new one
11. Close up the case and boot the Xbox
12. Hook you PC's hard drive(s) back up and boot

Rather than list the steps myself in detail, here is a great tutorial from Scenyx. There are many other tutorials out there, too. Good luck.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Unlock the power of your iPod with Rockbox

Rockbox is an open source firmware for mp3 players that allows you to do many things with your player that the manufacturer doesn't support or allow. For example, I have an 80GB iPod Video. I also have lots and lots of digial music files, mainly in FLAC. My problem was that Apple does not support playback of FLAC files in iTunes or on iPods. Enter Rockbox. This alternate firmware (AKA iPod operating system) allows for the playback of FLAC files along with a plethora of other formats. Rockbox also frees my iPod from the death-grip of iTunes, which I find to be bloated, slow, and limiting software. Many other players are supported, including Archos, Cowon, Toshiba and Sandisk. I've been using it for about 2 years now, and it's just phenomenal. It plays video and pictures, and even records audio. It also comes with lots of games, has every hardware/software EQ, setting, and option you could think of, and is skinnable, meaning the player and its menus can look however you want them to. If you have an iPod or other supported player and you have music Apple doesn't support, or you just hate Apple but love the iPod, then Rockbox is for you.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

XBMC Part 2: Setup and Installation

The best and easiest way to get XBMC running in your living room is to start by obtaining the following:

- An original Xbox (optional: Xbox Remote)
- An Action Replay for Xbox
- A copy of the game MechAssault (original version, not Platinum Hits edition) for Xbox
- XBMC software for Xbox (obtain the latest T3CH release from torrent sites)
- Softmod Installer Deluxe (w/ MechAssault game save, obtain from torrent sites)
- A PC or Mac w/ a router to transfer files to over FTP

Rather than list all of the steps myself, I'll link to 2 excellent tutorials at and LifeHacker.

I've also added a 250GB hard drive to my Xbox and a Xir remote module so that I can use the Xbox remote to power on/off the unit, which is not possible without. Here's all of the things I do with my modded Xbox:

(Via XBMC)

- Stream my entire music collection w/ artwork from my PC to my living room, then to my receiver. All music file types supported.
- Stream my movies/tv shows to my living room, similarly
- Show picture slide shows from my PC
- Watch internet television shows such as those from G4TV and Revision3
- Get weather forecasts from The Weather Channel
- Watch current movie trailers from Apple
- 720p HD resolution and digital Dolby/DTS supported (via adapter)

(Independent of XBMC)

- Store and play full Xbox games directly from the hard drive
- Store and play any/every game via emulators for the following systems: Atari 2600, Colecovision, Intellivision, NES, Gamboy, Gameboy Color, Gameboy Advance, Super NES, Genesis, Sega Master, Game Gear, TurboGrafix-16, Arcade coin-ops, Playstation, Neo-Geo.
- Copy DVD movies to the hard drive for playback without the disc

Next up: Adding a bigger hard drive to the Xbox

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

I'll take XBMC in my living room, FTW.

I've been using XBMC for the past few years as my "living room media center," in other words, the machine that allows me to view/hear all of my digital music, movies, photos and net-based content, among other things. I have XBMC installed on my modded Xbox. The software is free of charge and freely available from torrent sites, although it's only quasi-legal, as it contains code pilfered from Microsoft. However, despite its legal status, I've found it to be the perfect solution for people that are looking for a cheap, easy and user-friendly way to enjoy their digital media in a living room setting.

Modding an Xbox (the original one, not the 360) is not required, as the software is available for Windows, Mac and Linux as well, although the Xbox package is the cheapest and easiest way to get the job done. I'll cover modding installation and setup in my next post.