Archive for the ‘Mediacenter’ Category

Using Bubba as media server

September 6, 2007

After testing a lot of different media center solutions for the PC, as well as trying to convert an ASUS WL-500g Premium running OpenWRT into a media server, I realized I’d like to listen to some music and watch some movies, and not just try to get the underlying technology working.

So I bought a Bubba. Nice little box, I especially like that there is no fan and that power consumption is low. I have placed in the closet next to the wireless router and modem, so whatever little noise it makes no-one will hear it.

An important reason for choosing the Bubba was the very active and helpful community around it. I have several times been very pleasantly surprised at the speed with which Excito’s (the company behind Bubba) staff reply to questions. A bonus is that it runs pretty much a standard Debian, so there is plenty of software to play around with.

On the negative side… Well it only has 128 MB memory, which is really on the low side if you want to run a LAMP server together with some media streaming software. As I have a Squeezebox connected to the stereo, running Slimserver on the Bubba was high priority. Initial tests weren’t too successful, but the good people at Excito helped out and even put together a full Debian package with Slimserver and other needed software. The web interface to Slimserver is a bit sluggish and indexing of lot’s of mp3s isn’t lightning fast, but it works and does what you expect it to do.

As for media and other features the Bubba comes pre-configured with UPnP and DAAP, a real mail server, print server etc. Good stuff!

To sum things up, I now have a really small, energy efficient, secure, silent backup/file/media server that is running 24/7.

Oh yes, a bonus with the Bubba is that it is quite easy to set it up to automatically back up your PC (or Mac). With a 500 GB drive in the Bubba and using rsync to copy only changed files from the PC to the Bubba, backups are easy and invisible. I had a recent bad experience with some spyware that crippled the PC, and that got me thinking about good backup solutions.

Watching TV on your PC, part 1

March 22, 2007

The title of this post suggest that there is more to come on this topic…. Time will tell if that’s the case, but my general feeling after having spent a fair amount of time on trying out various options for building a mediacenter/htpc/whatever you want to call it, is that the technology may be there, but it takes some serious hacking skills to get it working. And that most of the mediacenter software packages out there aren’t really mature.

Background is that I’ve thrown out the old VCR, I don’t own a DVD player, am looking into getting a new (flat) TV – and that I like the idea of accessing music, movies, basic Internet browsing etc through the TV.

So, when I replaced the trusty old Dell Dimension 8100 (P4 1.4 GHz, 384 MB RAM, 70 GB HD, Haupaugge PVR-350 TV card) with a custom built, small form factor PC the timing was right to see if the Dell could be rebuilt to act as media server. Apart from being big and loud, it should have enough horsepower in it. Or so I thought, at least if I used a suitable Linux distro. Another dimension was to us OpenSource or freeware tools, rather than buying a Windows Mediacenter license. Finally, if a mediacenter was to enter my (our!) living room, it must easy to use and offer some real advantages to having DVDs, CDs etc – my girlfriend would not accept anything else. Fair enough, I actually agree on this. Technology and gadgets are cool, but for day-to-day use things must be usable.

As my Linux skills are rudimentary, I went with Ubuntu and MythTV, as others seemed to recommend it, and there is a good guide at https://help.ubuntu.com/community/MythTV_Edgy. Especially MythTV is very flexible and powerful. The guide is both good and pretty complete, but I nevertheless ended up spending a full day on reading, installing, re-doing same thing again because something didn’t download properly, configuring MySQL etc etc – lot’s of time. Eventually yes, I managed to get MythTV running, but it is slow, hangs every now and then (too often) and is generally useless on this particular machine/setup. May very well be that I have configured things incorrectly, but having followed instructions in the guide to the letter, I’d say the configuration is at least decent. This ain’t working..

Ripped the TV card out of the Dell and put it into the newly built, shiny PC (AMD Athlon 64 4000+, 2GB RAM, 550 GB HD, Nvidia GeForce 7950GT). Even though this PC is not to be used as a mediacenter, it wouldn’t hurt being able to watch TV while doing other things, right? Next step is then to look for software to achieve this.

With a pretty fast AMD CPU and a good graphics card, I expect this Windows XP Pro based system to handle any reasonable TV task I could throw at it. Starting off with Hauppauge’s own tools, these are pretty archaic. The PVR-350 has been around for some years, but the drives are still reasonably recently updated. Anyway, they worked fine and I could watch TV in the provided tools. But the Hauppauge tools are basic to say the least – not nearly what I want.

Enter GB-PVR, a Windows based PVR (Personal Video Recorder) software that has been around for some years now. I tried it a few years ago and it was then quite buggy and not nearly something you could use in a living room setting (the girlfriend-acceptance-factor). To GB-PVR’s benefit, it has come a long way since I tried it last time (as I recall it, a couple of years back I had to re-install my entire PC after trying out GB-PVR on it…). It worked ok, but hung a few times and is not quite as slick as I would like it to be. Specifically, the xmltv programming features were a bit tricky to get working. And the fact that a private Swedish company has strange connections (sorry, in Swedish) to the product makes me hesitant to use it in a real/live/permanent setting.

Next and final attempt so far is to use Media Portal. Also Windows based, Open Source. It took a few hours to set up everything, but the installation is smooth, even offering on-the-fly download of all the TV channels offered by my cable TV provider (ComHem) – way cool! By the options tried so far Media Portal is by far the best. Ok, it’s running on a much more powerful PC than MythTV was, but considering I that MythTV requires you to be more than a little familiar with Linux to install and especially maintain, that is not an option for most of the people out there. User friendliness is key for the vast majority of people.

All in all, I now have Media Portal running nicely. There are some quirks such as occasional hanging when you view TV in full screen mode, the keyboard shortcuts doesn’t always work at all/as expected, but the automatically updated Program Guide is really, really cool. Many thanks to the people at xmltv for this! If you are interested in xmltv and live in Sweden, I recommend a visit to tv.swedb.se.

The main problem with both Media Portal and GB-PVR has been that TV picture and sound get out of synch or chopped up when you do some other heavier work on the PC, or when Windows for some reason decide it needs to do a lot of swapping or similar. On the positive side both GB-PVR and Media Portal installs just as easily as any other Windows program. Configuring them takes some time, but nothing too bad, and this is expected from any similar application.

As a proof-of-concept that you can watch TV on your PC the work so far has been successful. But I still don’t see it as good enough for deployment into the living room… Will keep looking at options though, some of the options left to explore are:

  • Windows Vista
  • LinuxMCE. Open Source Linux project
  • SageTV. Looks a bit similar as Media Portal. Commercial
  • Beyond TV. Commercial
  • Media Engine. Open Source for limited hardware
  • … probably several more