Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Sideproject tidbits

It's been an exceptionally busy December so I have not had too much time to fiddle with the HTPC setup. Here's some updates on the sideprojects:

"Carputer" Sideproject Update: I couldn't find an sufficiently inexpensive LCD screen to make this worthwhile so I'm just going to use the iPhone screen. (The model I linked to isn't in stock anywhere). For the kid, I'm going to use a motorcycle handlbar iPhone mount to hold the iPhone to to the passenger seat headrest. I've already re-encoded his movies and tested them out on the iPhone. Works great!

Phone Service Sideproject Update: I haven't had a chance to use Fring yet but the native Skype iPhone app works well at home using SkypeOut. I had the first hiccup last night (unfortnately when talking to my Dad, who's picky about these things). While I was talking I seemed to lose wifi signal and the call came in and out before disconnecting. I was all of 5 feet from the router so I'm not sure what the problem was. It seemed to be a problem with the iPhone since the mac was fine. Cycling the wifi seemed to fix the problem.

So far we have not really made too much use of the SkypeIn number. I can see that answering a Skype call with the iPhone Skype app just isn't going to happen. I don't think Shanna answered a call via Skype on the mac yet. I've only done it once or twice. I paid for 3 months so I'll give it until then to decide if it's worth keeping.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

TV Look of the month

This is what the UI on my WDTV looks like these days. As Shanna says, every time I turn on the TV it looks different. The WDTV skin is Minimalistic by Lilibabe.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Sideproject: Phone Service

Shanna and I both have iPhones. They're great little computers, but lousey phones. Unfortunately you have to use them on AT&T's network, which is terrible. We have very little signal at home. If I have to make a call and actually want it to remained connected, I usually have to go outside.

That said, we really don't make that many phone calls at home. Most of our social engagements are arranged via email. We talk to our parents weekly via Skype video calls. Most of our phone calls at other times are when we're out an about. Still, it would be nice to be able to use the phone at home. Too the clugemobile!

In an attempt to fix their crappy network AT&T is developing a product called a microcell. The idea is to essentially make a mobile phone reception cell for your home and route the calls through your internet connection. I have 2 problems with this, one practical and one philosophical. For the former, it isn't available in LA. For the latter, they charge you ~$200 for this thing, why should I pay and use my bandwidth to help AT&T's craptastic network. Isn't that what my monthly phone service bill is for.

So what's the solution? Skype is already running all the time on our home computer. So a good solution for incoming calls is to route the phone calls through there. Skype offers a SkypeIn service for a couple dollars a month that gives us a phone number that normal people can call and it will ring your skype client. For outgoing calls you can subscribe to their SkypeOut service (also a couple dollars a month) and dial an unlimited amount of normal phone numbers from the computer. We've been using Google Voice since the Grandcentral* days so I don't even need to give out the new number. Plug it into the Google Voice number that everyone already calls and no one is wiser, at least theoretically. A call via Skype and Google Voice has to traverse two VOIP networks, I'm not certain this is going to be delay free.

Previously, I looked into using Gizmo5. It's cheaper and has closer integration with Google Voice (I actually set up my account a week before Google bought them). It didn't work very well for me. The calls didn't always go through and the mac client kept crashing. I'm going to keep an eye on it though. Maybe once it goes through the Google grinder it will be worth using.

All this will let us make and answer calls on the computer, it would be nice to be able to make them from our phones. Our home isn't large, and we have good wifi coverage (amazingly, it reaches into the laundry room, and garage, which are 2 floors down). Skype has an iPhone app that allows you to send and receive calls via wifi (no computer necessary). I can see it working fine for making calls but you would have to keep it running all the time to answer calls. There is a competing app Fring that sounds intriguing. Like the native Skype app, Fring allows you to make and receive Skype calls when it is running, but it also claims to use push notifications to allow you to answer calls when it isn't running. I'll try it out but I'm not sure how that will work when Google Voice also rings our iPhones. Fring has some other fun features like iPhone video calls, and also allows you to integrate Google Talk (which we also occasionally use).

Right now I have SkypeIn and SkypeOut set up. I'll report back when I get a chance to test everything out.

* Back when I had to worry about long distance charges, I set up a LA phone number for my parents in GrandCentral that forwarded to all their phones out of state.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Fighting Fires

We had a very busy holiday weekend so I didn't have much time to play around on the system. There were a few fires to put out, however. When I did have time, it was either late at night or early morning. Which of course meant that I often taking two steps backward every step forward.

Ubuntu has an official repository of applications that can be easily installed on your computer from one central place, sort of like an app store. I mistakenly thought it would be fun update Transmission to the most recent version which isn't in the official Ubuntu repositories. As far as I could tell this caused the computer to crash. When I tried to reboot I discovered Ubuntu was unsuccessfully trying to boot with a newer kernel than I remembered. I eventually managed to reboot with an older kernel and remove the offending software. As far as I can tell Transmission has been updated as well.

Another "fun" problem is that when the system puts the screen goes to sleep it occasionally doesn't wake up. Other times it will wake up but only after a long time. I'm pretty sure this is a hardware limitation that isn't going to be solved so for the time being I just disabled screen shutdown in the power saving options. My longer term plan* is to setup a remote desktop server so I can control the server from the Mac. Then I can keep the screen shutdown.

* I should really make a TODO post somewhere on the blog. I'm losing track of all the stuff I say I'm going to do.

Monday, November 23, 2009

The sound of silence

Tonight's task was to get Airfoil working with the Mac and Ubuntu machines. This software allows you to play any audio via a Airport Express. Via Airfoil Speakers, you can connect to another computer's speakers as if it were an Airport Express. It's a great idea in theory, but it didn't happen.

As far as I can tell Airfoil is working fine on the Mac and it connects to an Airport Express just fine. I tried Airfoil Speakers Linux and no dice. The remote machine appears in Airfoil but when I connect it crashes. Something is not right with the remote program as well. I can't see any of the text in the menus.

Plan B is to install Wine and try out the Windows version. I don't really have high hopes for this. This isn't a very high priority task, so I'll probably come back to it later.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Little Things

It isn't much, but I set up a print server on the old Dell. So Now I can print wirelessly from the Mac. This page described what to do exactly. It's actually unsettling how easily this went.

Previously I had been using an Airport Express in this role. I also found a cable to connect the audio output of the Dell to my AV receiver. Everything seems to be working there as well. Eventually I'd like to set up Airfoil Speakers on the Dell so I can relocate the Airport Express to somewhere else.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Second Cousin Networking

OSX and Linux both have Unix heritages. That said it isn't as easy to get them to talk to each other as I was hoping. They're really more like second cousins than siblings. (Just to stretch the metaphor, they're probably like first cousins once removed*) In the past I was able to set up a NFS server on the Mac, running both OSX Tiger and Leopard, using NFSManager and serve files to the Linux based WDTV without any trouble. I was hopeful that setting up a NFS client in Leopard would be just as easy. So far I haven't been successful. I started with this page as a reference. The basic idea is to use Leopard's built in Directory Utility to mount NFS shares. For me there is some sort of inherent problem with the permissions that I haven't been able to fix yet. I'm not sure if it is on the server or client side. One suggested solution is that since the NFS server exports the folders "securely", I can either deal with it, or disable it. The latter didn't work for me.

For the time being I'm using Windows Samba protocol to share files between the two computers. I'll probably set this problem aside and come back to it later. I don't really have a philosophical aversion to using a Windows file sharing method but it feels like NFS ought to be easier. Why is the default sharing protocol in both Ubunutu's and OSX's default file browser a Windows method and not something more native, and presumably higher performing.

* Linux is more of a direct descendant of Unix than OSX, which is derived from the NeXTSTEP operating system (itself a fork of a Unix derivative, BSD).

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Sideproject: "Carputer"

There was a time when I really wanted to build a carputer. That is a HTPC-like computer for the car.* I'm glad I didn't. On one hand, the WAF of building this in our primary family-mobile was atomically small, my garage isn't very good for working on a car, and I was never going to take more than a 20 minute drive in the other car. On the other, technology has largely made a car PC obsolete.

The basic idea behind putting a PC in your car is to be able to play music, movies, get directions, play games and maybe watch TV or websurf from your car. Typically, with a touchscreen interface. Hmm, sounds a lot like my iPhone.

In the not so distant future we're going to go on a little car trip. Now, it would be nice if our toddler would calmly enjoy the beautiful scenery we're going to be driving through, but being realistic, we might as well drive through the black gate of Mordor if that kid doesn't get some distraction. And I can only sing "I've been working on the railroad" so many times.

Shanna suggested to me that we get a portable DVD player or something for the ride. While that certainly is a possibility, at this point it's less expensive to go with what we already have, our iPhones. There are two issues, A/V output and content.

In terms of content, I already have all of our DVDs in digital form. The issue is to put them in an iPhone friendly format. Also, we only have 24 GB storage between the 2 of us, and a full resolution DVD is ~6GB, so we'll want to cut them down in size. However, with the size of screen that we'll be using you most likely won't notice any loss in resolution. I'll probably use Handbrake to reencode the movies, it has built in iPhone presets.

For A/V output, the cheapest thing to do would be to just show it on the iPhone screen and use a 3.5mm Stereo Plug cable . I suggested we just use some elastic straps or some velcro and an iPhone case to secure the phone to the back of the headrest. Shanna, bless her heart, thought the screen would be too small. I'm now thinking that I'll get an iPhone composite video adapter** and an inexpensive 7" LCD screen. I'm not sure which one, but I'm thinking about using this.

Composite is just about the worst video connection possible but the video quality is already going to be less than SD, and it's only being viewed on a 7" screen by a two-year-old, so I'm not concerned. Apple makes an iPhone component video adapter, but a HD quality LCD screen costs much more than I want to spend.

*If you're interested in this sort of thing, here is a good website.
** With one of these iPhone adapters, I'll need this to plug the audio into my car stereo Aux port. I'm pretty sure I have 1 or 6 in one of my "cables" drawers.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

File Systems Mystery

So I've made some progress on my Linux file server. Of course not everything works right out of the box. It's primary function is to serve video files via NFS to the WDTV. This basically worked, however there are some hickups.

I have three external drives connected to the server, two of them are formatted in Fat32, and a third (the largest) in HFS+. Fat32 is an older file system developed for Windows95 but it has the benefit of being read/write capable in nearly every system. It also has a file size limitation of 4GB, too small for most movie video files. For these files I have an HFS+ formatted hard drive. HFS+ is the standard file system for Macs. Drives formatted with this system can be read out of the box on Ubuntu (and on the XBox360). With some free software you can read HFS+ drives in Windows and read/write if you want to pay for it.

Unfortnately, Ubuntu won't let me share my HFS+ formatted drive via NFS. I'm not sure if this is because the drive isn't write capable or some inherent limitation of the file system. It is apparently possible to get Linux to have read/write capabilities on HFS+ drives so I may work on that. Functionally, however it isn't too important, I don't copy files to this drive very often so I can keep it directly connected to the WDTV. I'm also not too far away from needing a new hard drive which I can format in a Linux file system.

Useful links:
Setting up an NFS server on Ubuntu

UPDATE: I forgot that I never checked a change I made to the NFS exports file right before I gave up for the night. Of course it didn't work when Shanna tried to watch a file off the server. VERY LOW WAF! I was able to fix it rather quickly. For whatever reason, the WDTV doesn't like files served to "/files,no_root_squash,async)" changing the ip address to that of the WDTV fixed everything. Generally, this is a better way of doing things, but I was being lazy.

I made it up to her by finishing the sweet potato baking she had started.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Teaching an old Dell new tricks

For the past week or so I've been using our Macbook Pro as the backend to the HTPC setup. Technically, it works well, but Shanna (the wife) and I both use it for other things so I really would rather it not be tied down doing HTPC stuff. Therefore my current project has been to resurrect my 2003 vintage Dell Inspiron 1100 notebook PC as the HTPC backend. Here's what I want it to do, roughly in order of importance:
  1. A video file server to the WDTV for videos
  2. Record TV from the HDHomerun
  3. A Bittorrent client for when that's appropriate
  4. A file server to the Mac for iPhoto, iTunes, and file backup.
  5. A media server to the XBox 360 since I don't like how the WDTV does photos
  6. A music jukebox, preferably controlled from the Mac or one of our iPhone
My first task was to get it up and running with Linux. It, of course, came with a version of Windows, but with Windows up to date date it ran remarkably slow. Besides I wanted to learn something about Linux. In principle a Linux server should also work well with both the WDTV and the Mac.

I decided to go with Ubuntu. I recently set up version 9.04 on a old HP tc4200 tablet PC for Shanna and it worked great. (She ultimately needed Windows on it, but I wanted to make sure it worked before I went through the trouble of installing Windows). Ubuntu 9.10 is available now but I already had the 9.04 CD so I figured that was good enough. Unfortunately, I really should have done more research before I attempted this on the Dell because apparently Ubuntu has problems with the Intel video chipset in this particular model. 3 different flavors of Linux later (all from ancient CDs I already had) it ended up working. The trick was to disable the splash screen, upgrade Ubuntu to version 9.10 and use the Intel video driver. It almost certainly would have been easier if I installed Ubuntu 9.10 from the get go. Oh well.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Hello navel!

Home theater computers or HTPCs are my rather obsessive hobby. By design the damn things are never finished. There are always new things to add or new tricks to try out. On top of that I'm relatively cheap so I'm usually trying to squeeze the maximum performance out of the bare minimum hardware. Sure, conceptually I could have dropped $2K on a new HTPC 2 years ago and use it unchanged until today. But where's the fun in that.

All this means that the method of watching TV or videos or playing music in our home is in a nearly always in flux. This is where the Wife Acceptance Factor comes in. Wife Acceptance Factor, or WAF, in regard to HTPCs denotes the spousal tolerance of and desire to use the HTPC. I've been interested in HTPCs for 6 years or so and the WAF of my AV setup (and my HTPC hobby in general) has gone up and down.

In the interest of improving my personal WAF, and make the most of my HTPC me-time, I thought it might be useful to give myself direction on what I'm trying to accomplish. In this blog I plan on keeping track of my HTPC projects. If this proves useful to someone else, all the better.