Rummage through this blog

Friday, 27 January 2012

Scottish Independence II

If the vote is yes then the cost will be high, if nothing else the entire cost of moving the nuclear capability should be footed by the Scottish parliament.

Thursday, 26 January 2012

Scottish Independence

As part of the UK everyone should vote on Scotland being independent - if the vote is yes then fair enough

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Negativity & SQL Server

SQL Server 2012 licensing. Clearly an advert for MySQL. Enough said.

Monday, 16 January 2012

New HTPC Build : The Software

I've tried a number of software packages to run my media center kicking off with MediaPortal in the days of Windows XP when no suitable software was bundled but a huge amount of time and effort later Windows 7 with bundled Media Center came along and saved me.

Windows Media Center is not a perfect solution, too many forced adverts, too few rows of content with lots of empty space but it works out of the box. Luckily Media Center Studio helps and is tweaked nicely with Mikinho's Media Center Strips.

What I have found that since Windows 7 there are built in codecs for MP4 files from a Sanyo Xacti camera, quicktime for the Lumix TZ5 and laterlly support for AVHCD files from a Lumiz FZ100, all with no changes by me.

I have also been using MediaBrowser for Movie support and YAMM to pick up move details. Unfortunately, the music plugin crashes my machine which is a shame as WMC's Music library sometimes corrupts of its own accord so having a backup capability would be handy so Music Browser is on hand just in case. In fact I've just had another crack at the Music support on MediaBrowser but it just doesn't display my files reliably, I've checked all of the files to ensure I have tags in place on everything (and weeded out a few corrupt MP3s as a result too) but no luck still.

I also have in place MKV capability which makes life a lot easier for an movies, divx provides the basic codec capability and configuring MKV file extensions via MediaBrowser's External Players works nicely and combined with the integration of Cyberlink PowerDVD that game with the Samsung blu-ray drive for blu-ray disks everything works neatly now.

I did make a short foray into XBMC which looks great, miles better than WMC but configuration changes don't always seem to result in a working solution so blu-rays would play - WMC works so it lives on and the Neo theme in MediaBrowser looks fabulous so why tinker any further?

Sunday, 15 January 2012

New HTPC Build : Power Use

Having got the HTPC working as an after thought I have tested the watts drawn at the wall.

The AMD 4850e solution, with the same WD Green power drive would draw around 80 watts idle and a little more in normal use, peaking up to 120w.

This solution, with the addition of an SSD drive and faster RAM peaked at 42 watts during boot and 28 watts idle - much better, I've since added the Hitachi 1TB drive so that will raise that a little.

I can't feel any heat build up either even after being actively in use for several hours - and that is after my latest mod - I know old tights could be used for something (they weren't mine I hasten to add!).

I have covered all of the vents with old tights with the exception of the top vent (on the thought that heat is rising so lifting dust away, that will get reviewed in a couple of months), affixed inside on the sides and outside on the bottom, the finished product is trimmed neatly and not visible in the cabinet at all. I used this trick on the Silverstone case just to reduce the amount of dust that is able to enter the case while not stopping sensible airflow. It is not a perfect solution,  tights do not make a perfect seal (not helped by wife's unwillingness to donate a pair without ladders, something about wanting to wear them) and there are plenty of gaps in the average case that let some air in anyway but any reduction will reduce maintenance required.

Saturday, 14 January 2012

New HTPC Build : In Use

Installation complete and everything working?

Minor hurdle to overcome, activating Windows 7, completely new motherboard and processor etc which falls outside of the OEM agreement. I have my argument ready for when I have to ring up and try to convince someone as this is clearly the nearest replacement available for the board / processor I had while keeping to the HTPC purpose.

Awful picture of the finished product!

To my surprise activation goes through the automated route instantly. Phew.

The M.Play software supplied with the remote needed a little tweaking to make it work but turns out that it is both simpler to change and more reliable than the IMon Soundgraph software supplied with the Silverstone Grandia. It still has its quirks - I've found that keyboard shortcuts (including those I've defined myself) work perfectly but direct calls to programs seem to do nothing, however, that is consistent and a much nicer interface that the Soundgraph one.

I've discovered some oddities, so for instance there is an Eject button, that once shortcut has been setup to a small script, does successful Eject the optical disk (has to be defined for Windows and Media Centre) but as it points to a specific script is not able to close the drive. I can live with that as the only time I'm likely to need the button is when physically removing / inserting a disk so I'll have to get off my backside and cross the room anyway.

I have also had to redefine the Media Center button so that it actually starts Media Center when on the desktop (which seems a glaring oversight but wasn't hard to fix).

In fact the controller works so well that we have not discovered what all the buttons do / do not do yet because everything else we care about works out of the box - the lack of a mouse action is not really a problem as I've a USB mouse stuffed behind the CDs in the cabinet along with a mini-keyboard. I am missing the alphabetic option on the remote though for digging through > 20,000 music tracks.



Thursday, 12 January 2012

New HTPC Build : Installing Windows 7 from scratch.

It is all looking good and time to build the SSD version. This is where things get a bit lumpy.

Where just turning on the old Windows 7 installed booted to a usable system the installation on an SSD suffered from numerous lock ups following graphics issues :


Took a while to figure out, I made sure the graphics were attempting to use the built in HDMI (and I tried the VGA connection which for a few minutes gave me false hope). I guess the only good news was that the failures were shortly after Windows had copied files onto the hard disk and with the SSD that wasn't taking much time to reach.

I had just about decided to try installing to a different drive thinking that maybe my first experience of SSDs was about to be a bad one when I thought to reset the BIOS. Note to self, always reset the BIOS on new installs. Worked perfectly first time after. I've since tweaked various settings (yes I am using AHCI mode), no overclocking, no underclocking, just default settings to keep stability as best as possible and not had a single extra problem.

I can safely say I like the Asus BIOS too, I've been using Gigabyte boards for sometime now and still to in my other PCs but I might  be convinced to change. Naturally the documentation is still useless and  Google is required to explain some unfamiliar options (EHCI Hand Off for instance).

Once Windows was installed, getting all the latest motherboard drivers and case drivers in place has been an absolute breeze.

Performance?

The WD 1Tb drive had about 10Gb free on it and even defragged as best as was possible performance of that drive seemed sluggish - so spreading data across both the 1TB drives improved freespace to around 30% and  performance looked pretty good for a 3Gb/s devive. However, the SSD performance is amazing [I did take screenshots of a performace testing tool but can't find them or it anywhere now!] - at least 10x the read & write speed of the hard drive and boot times are significantly quicker on this machine (SSD + dual core 1.6Ghz APU & 1066 Mhz RAM) than my i7-2600 machine booting off a 6Gb/s drive with 1800Mhz RAM - it really goes to show just how much of Windows' performance is bound by disk & looking at Resource Monitor, even with an SSD install and unwanted services turned off there is still almost continual activity.

When it comes to raw processing power the E450 doesn't cope well - decidedly down on horsepower so raw processing jobs are slow to respond. However, Windows Media Center is heavily disk bound and the caching used by Media Player means that the Album Artists display is massively faster now that existed on the 4850e install where is was virtually unusable as it took so long to load up the Album graphics.

I think the way Media Center works needs some help as it would appear that none of the system resources get maxed out when rebuilding libraries even on this machine, indeed, there are times when nothing seems to be happening at all. I suspect poor code - it should detect how active the machine is and get on with it.

Graphics performance is excellent. The blu-ray drive came with Cyberlink so testing a blu-ray film gives the processor a thorough work out but playback is flawless at 1920x1080 and processor usage dropped to < 50% when I remembered to tick the "use hardware acceleration" box so am very pleased.

Even more importantly is that the playback of films does not appear (yet!) to display audio / video sync problems with the built in AMD Radeon 6320 graphics over HDMI that were displayed using the AMD 4850e with a Gigabyte GA-MA78GPM-DS2H board with built in HD 3200 graphics which rendered the HDMI connection useless.

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

New HTPC Build : Switching on for the first time.

First switch on, no SSD yet, just using the WD drive which has Windows 7 Ultimate (a legit copy too!) installed for the AMD 4850e installation that was in the Silverstone box.

I've heard that Windows 7 transfers between hardware much more easily than previous Windows versions but I was surprised that on first attempt (the plug it in and find out what wires I've got wrong trial) the machine booted into Media Centre with only one minor complaint about the graphics card and wanting a reboot for changes in drivers - Microsoft have gotten that one rights it seems.

Now seems like a good time to switch over to an HDMI rather than VGA cable and the connector is exceedingly tight which made that a bit of a battle and took a couple of forced reboots to wake up (turns out I had forgotten to change the BIOS settings so was looking for a PCIe card).

Now the machine is running I can start to get an idea of sound levels and actual vibration through the case.

I can safely say that the case has zero sound dampening capability.

The Samsung BD drive sounds like an aircraft taking off until it spins up (we've only got plasterboard walls and it sounds clear through the walls, luckily it's only while spinning up). The Hitachi drive is a nasty rattly thing. However, the single noisiest thing is now the power supply - it's not the loudest in volume but as its fan is spinning constantly it is a continual noise. I've cleaned all the dust out which helps keep it cool and I've also removed the rear wire grill - there's little chance of small fingers getting pushed in there where the unit will be located finally and the removal of the grill notably smooths the air path reducing volume. Still noisy and for a fairly quiet PSU that was a surprise to discover. Am I going to replace it with a silent model? No, not a chance, the silent standard PSUs are all much higher wattage than I want or need so are likely to be less power efficient and the ones with external power bricks give me limited options for drives (now 4 in the case) and it's just more money.

Testing further with the lid on though does demonstrate quickly that outside of the aircraft drive spinning up the others noises are at an acceptable level even close up - I don't really mind the hard drive ratting when it's doing something and at a couple of feet none of the noises are problematic and by the time some media is playing it's not noticeable at all & I'm really picky about this sort of thing so I am pleased that isn't going to drive me to distraction.

The Tooth Fairy

It seems that even when a first tooth is lost the tooth fairy still comes.

Alex's first wobbly baby tooth disappeared at school when he knocked it out during karate but nowadays a simple note to the tooth fairy suffices.

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

New HTPC Build : Time to stop moaning and build it

Yes really, finally time to stop moaning and see what happens when everything is put together.

Here's with the motherboard and power supply in place, standard size powersupply (Antec Earthwatts 380w) and the micro ATX motherboard (Asus E45M1-M Pro). You can see the various cables at the top of the picture to provide connectivity for the front panel, volume control and infra-red receiver.  The cables are very long and would be likely to support a mini ITX board (not having one to hand I can't tell if the mounts would work but I'm yet to find a case that would fail to accomodate a smaller board than intended).


For drive bays there is a mounting panel on the left and right, the left according to the documentation is for 2 drives and on the right for one (all 3.5" mountings, no 2.5" laptop drive mountings are provided) and a central space for the optical drive.

It's possible to just make out some foam padding near the PSU, that's a sheet of noise dampening material I had left over from another build and I've covered all the hard to access areas for now while I am building and we'll see if more is needed on completion.

As you can see adding wiring start to gets a bit tangled quickly. One review I read suggested that a modular power supply is required, I think that is a bit OTT but would certainly make life easier. I've also found that the 20+4 pin connector a bit stiff for connecting to my mainboard and along with the extension lead for attaching the IR was dangerously close to being just too much wire blocking access to the connectors on the back of the optical drive, thankfully SATA connectors are so much smaller than IDE that with right angled connectors it all fits (incidentally 2 SATA cables were provided with the board which has 4 6b/s SATA connectors mounted at right angles to the board, which further points cables at where drives will sit, that keeps the board nice and clear of wiring but makes tight fits like this uncomfortable.

You can see in my second spaghetti picture that I have the optical drive mounted (Samsung SH-B123L, the cheapest blu-ray I could lay my hands on) in the centre, on the left my 1TB Western Digital Green Power drive and on the right the SSD drive. There would be no problem mounting two drives on the left although the upper one might not have a lot of airflow which if it is getting high levels of activity might be a problem (as an HTPC that's unlikely so not a worry).

On the right the mount is different (2 different mounts designed, they fit each others space perfectly because mine were mounted back to front according the to manual description) but could still accomodate two drives.

Pictured below is the almost completed build, as you can see I've managed to tidy the wires, for the most part I have cabled tied them in place and managed to keep them in place under the drives.

In its final form I have since added another 1TB drive (a cheap 1TB Hitachi, noisy & slow compared to the several years old WD Green Power) above the SSD. The solid state drive is not mounted at all, just slotted into the space below the other drive and as there will be no movement and there is plenty of wire it will stay in place and there will still be airflow between it and the Hitachi drive.

Another feature to note in this picture is the appearance of the Asus processor fan - supplied with the board I've read several reviews where people are leaving it off to get silent operation from the board. My experience was that the CPU temperature rapidly rose to 45 degrees C, not worrying in its own right but given how fast it got there and how warm to the touch the heatsink got I decided to mount the fan to see would happen. It feels like a cheap and nasty little fan and airflow seems minimal, further there are no clear mounting points on the heat sink, just screw in between the fins.

Once in place though I was pleasantly surprise that the fan is effectively silent (as quite as the Noctua fans I had in low noise mode in the Silverstone box) and temperatures are yet to exceed 32c so works great and has stayed in place every since.

Monday, 9 January 2012

New HTPC Build : Getting some more gripes out of my system

I've still got some moans to get out of the way!

First and foremost is the remote - not bad looking all in all and around the same size as most normal TV remotes. Notably missing is an option to switch between keyboard style controls with the arrow pad and mouse style operation and there are no letters on the number pad - so searching is next to impossible which is a major oversight, big loss that one.

On the plus side the keys feel good and responsive, the Silverstone one had less substantial keys so this feels like it might survive more use. What's more, as I'll find out later the buttons appear to work and doesn't require resoldering to work out of the box like the Silverstone one did.

The biggest annoyance is that out of the bag is was scratched, it looks like a plastic cover on the remote, the sort that tears off to protect during shipping except that this doesn't. I was all set for getting this replaced but events overtook me and I forgot.

The other notable component in the box was the stick on bar to attach to the front of a blu-ray player- in the pictures I've seen online it usually say "DVD" but the supplied one says "Blu-Ray". Of all the parts to make substantial you would have thought the last one to make heavy would be this but using some cut up business card it has stuck nicely [any stayed put to date]. Needless to say for the WAF I purchased a blu-ray player [and sure enough the first statement on revealing the finished item "oh, so it's got blu-ray then?" so good plan there.

Internally, the drive bays are the same aluminium and have no noise dampening and are too tight fit to allow rubber fittings or even a washer to dampen drive noise.

Thursday, 5 January 2012

New HTPC Build - First Impressions

The new Moneual 312 case certainly is smaller than the Silverstone Grandia GD01MX, in all dimensions :


What is also manifestly obvious is build quality, the Silverstone is made out of solid material, I think the case itself is steel, fronted with aluminum. It is one heavy beast but that has some significant sound deadening qualities in its own right. What's more you can see Silverstone have put some thought into airflow and making sure air flows in a suitable path for a PC.

The Moneual is disappointing at this point - the GD01 takes a firm grip to get onto the table, the 312 could be balanced on one finger, thin aluminium everywhere, not that I would as the risk of damage to the black surfaces looks all too likely so a firm grip is also required. The top of the case fits securely and there is not messing around trying to line it up to slide into place but the sides / rear bend worryingly while getting the snug fit back in place. I am surprised in the reviews I've read that no one has seen fit to mention these details - looks count for a lot but a lasting finish is critical at this price level and those surfaces will drum badly on a higher spec machine.

Worse still is the airflow, it looks to me that Moneual make stereo equipment not PCs - there is no attempt to provide an airflow path, the case is riddled with grill like cut outs , they are well cut, look smart and have no sharp edges but I don't for one moment imagine airflow will be directed in a coordinated fashion across the surfaces that need it.

For me, with the Asus E45M1-M Pro I'm not expecting huge issues with heat generation and I already know my drives won't overheat but the bigger issue I see looming is dust, I'll be forever having to take the case off the shelf to dust the insides (with 2 adults, 1 small person and 2 cats we do generate a good amount of dust).

The reviews I've read also suggest getting a couple of 4cm fans to dissipate heat from the word go. Well I can see two 4cm mounting points but I agree with other reviewers, nasty little 4cm fans aren't very effective and often disproportionately noisy. I do, however, wonder if Moneual have responded to those reviews because one of the largest cut-out areas is directly over where any processor will reside. I would imagine if you have heat problems then the route for venting would be a standard style processor fan as supplied by Intel / AMD or something like a Scythe Shuriken (not sure of the measurements but I'm sure the low profile model would fit, likewise the BIG) where air is pulled over the heat sink & up through the fan and towards the top of the case ... and out....would be best that the machine has decent clearance above on that basis but looks like it would work nicely and make diddy 4cm fans a pointless affair.


Monday, 2 January 2012

New HTPC build

Following the demise of my last home theatre PC, which was my first attempt, I've had to make some new decisions with regards what makes a practical HTPC.

 My decisions have also been driven by the need for a relatively fast turn around as the loss of Clone Wars has been a bit of a blow to our 6 year old son.

I've been looking at various options mentioned before and those decisions have now been made, all that is left is to purchase and build.

 First off, the new motherboard is definitely going to be an AMD E450 based machine, I looked at the main board / processor combinations but to summarise, the Sandybridge processors were too powerful, generate too much heat and will necessitate active cooling. The i3 2100 was a valid option but at twice the price of an E450 solution couldn't offer the same value.

At the other end of the scale, the Atom based machines just don't have good enough graphics yet and the Ion solutions do not appear to be working well when it comes to functioning drivers.

Looking at the APU options I had started looking at the E350 but that too seemed a bit on the weak side but luckily the E450 arrived in the nick of time in the form of the Asus E45M1-M Pro, a mAtx board giving good PCIe support over their uATX board which was a bit too skimpy unless I selected a genuinely small case.

 Onto the case, the existing Silverstone Grandia GD01 is just too big & too much like a PC, yes it can accommodate a load of drives but elegant it is not. At the other end of size scale, devices like the Nexus Psile seem to forget all about remote controls and that became a criteria, a case with bundled remote at least then I have known support, pre-drilled IR space and no nasty external USB devices, equally the capacity of 2.5" drives means I would rapidly need external storage and I'm not in the market for external drives / NAS / server (yet) so everything needs to be self contained.

I had also learned that the VFD as supplied by Soundgraph is a useless, inflexible, small, unreliable piece of junk that at it's best was a clock that kept resetting itself a hour different to the BIOS and Windows.

I also have a Hauppage TV card which was connected to Freesat but all the HD channels have moved over to DVB-S2 which wasn't available / in use when I first set my machine up - I'm not fussed about not using the card any more as its purpose was HD channels but I might want to replace it one day.

I liked the look of the Wesena E5 case :
But by the time all the parts are purchased that's a lot of money and I'm not sure the case is that good, if it was then good pictures would be easier to find online.

I loved the look of the Streacom FC50D but given the supplier's website was lacking detail which just seemed a non starter.

That supply issue was rather reminiscent of where the Karma T5 (not it's first brand name) seemed to die a death, fabulous looking machine, couldn't get one for love nor money (the UK site seems to have vanished and they were downright rude when I asked where I could buy one, heaven forbid a customer) and those who did seem to have quality issues.

I seem to have been around the houses forever on this so reassessing my needs I came up with a list :
  • Looks like Hi-Fi equipment / looks stunning
  • No VFD, I'm watching everything on television why do I need an extra display.
  • Supplied remote.
  • Can handle expansion cards :
    • firstly if the graphics on the Amd E450 aren't up to the job I need to be able to add a board
    • secondly I might want to replace my TV card one day
    • I can grudgingly accept low profile as an option as there do appear to be plenty of low profile cards around nowadays.
  • If possible keeping my current power supply (Antec Earthwatts 380w) as it works fine.
Enter a case I've also had my eye on for some time, the Moneual 312B, terrible name to spell but great looking box :
All the parts are here, just need to put it together now....