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.