03.19.19

Cracking the Disney Blu-Ray Club for around $10 each

Posted in Home Theater at 4:32 pm by mike

So as a general rule, I don’t like to pay more than $15 for a Blu-Ray Disc.    I get most my BDs off of Amazon eye (masks for sleeping) using points/coupons from my credit-card, so I’ll go ahead and spend a little more in that case for something I really want.   Also, I find that box sets can usually get you to that price point as well.    A few years ago, Fry’s had the entire Star Trek collection for $59, which worked out roughly to $10 per movie.    If I find a BD for less than $10, and it’s anything remotely decent, I buy it.    I had quite a party at Best Buy on Black Friday last year where prices were as low as $7.99.

So Disney’s consumer-behavior-big-brother-marketing-machine figured out I buy BDs and have kids, so they sent me an offer to join their Movie club.    Like most people,  there are quite a few Disney classics I’m a fan of and they are now just repeating the limited time from the vault game on BD.   They did this years ago with VCR and then DVD where the movie is only available for a limited time.  Throw in the ABC TV shows, Pixar, Marvel (future movies only) and Touchstone studios, and there’s quite a bit of high value content there.

Cracking the Value Code

The deal is very similar to the old BMG Music clubs that would send you 10 CDs for $.01 as long as you committed to buying X more at regular (full-retail + shipping) club prices over the next year.     The kicker was you had to return a post-card if you didn’t want that month’s selection, and inevitably you’d forget and get a CD you didn’t want at an obnoxious price.

Fast-forward 10 years, and the basic contract hasn’t changed that much, but the difference now is you have email and the Internet to make the monthly decision process much simpler to execute.

First off, the basic membership kit that Disney offers on their front facing Blu-Ray page is NOT the one you want.   This one is for folks really bad at math.   Here they ask you to buy 3 movies at $1.99 and one at $19.95  (with free shipping) but then you have to buy 5 more at the full price. $29.95, and pay for shipping & tax.     Note shipping is $3.95 for the first one, and $1.49 each addition title.    So assuming you’re going to finish your commitment in the first month, you end up paying:

(3 * 1.99) + 19.95 +  (5 * 29.95)   + (9% tax) + 3.95 + (4 * 1.49)  = 179.64/8  =  22.46/BD

So not a great deal by any means since the average price on Amazon for the same movies is around 19.95, and if you buy two of them, you can get free shipping.     But if you do a simple search for the Disney BD Coupon Code, you suddenly find something much better deal.   5 movies for $1 with just a 4 movie commitment!   But add a 6th for $11.95 and it counts towards your commitment, and you can then add a 7th for $8.95 (free shipping for the first 7).    Now this is looking interesting.    Doing the same math as above:

(5 * .20) +  $11.85 + 8.95 + (3 * 29.95)  + (9% tax) + 3.95 + (2 * 1.49)  = 128.74/10  =  12.87/BD

Almost half the cost of the first deal with a far smaller commitment.   But now you have to wonder,  is there any way to improve on that?

As it turns out, there’s always room for negotiation.    Back to my multi-movie set comment at the beginning, Disney will also give you multiple commitment credit for buying multi-packs.     You just need to call the 800 number to find out what commitment credit they’ll give you for a particular pack.   That number can be a little tricky to find, so I included it here.     So I filled my 3 disc commitment by buying Fantasia (2 movie pack which counted as 1) and Pirates of the Caribbean Trilogy (which counted as 2).     The difference here brought the average price down to $12.32.  If you’re an ABC TV fan, you might be able to get there with past season of Lost, or something similar and do even better than me.    As an added value,  I prefer packages which also come with a DVD which we can leave at Grandma’s house, so I created a spreadsheet which assigned half a BD value when it included a DVD version (see attached).    With that calculation, I’m down to $10 a disc, but even at $13, I’m still below my $15 limit for some pretty decent flicks.    If you walk through their catalog, and play with the spreadsheet, you might be able to get it lower than $12.

Should I Stay or Should I go now?

So once you’ve fulfilled your commitment, should you cancel your membership?   Keep in mind when you’re fulfilling your commitment, you have to pay the full retail price, which is usually $29.99 or more, but once you’re done, you have the option to buy at the discount price.    If you stay, my advice is to always comparison shop.   Sometimes you can find it cheaper on Amazon, and sometimes you can’t.   For instance, the Snow White Diamond Edition is only $15.98 for members while the same BD on Amazon is 26.99.    Even with Amazon not charging sales tax (how much longer can they keep that up?) and potentially free shipping, the club price still wins.

If it is your goal to collect the Disney classics, then they certainly make it easy to see when each one is coming out on Blu-Ray, and when they are going back to the vault. Snow White, Fantasia and Pinocchio are being pulled at the end of April.    They are also occasionally offer a $10 upgrade coupon if you own the VHS (or DVD).    That’s going to help keep the used market for Disney VHS movies alive.

On the other hand, you do have to be diligent about canceling the monthly title, and you will eventually forget.    Furthermore, it gives them the opportunity to up-sell you every month, and you’ll probably end up buying things you normally wouldn’t of considered.  My advice is to cancel the membership as soon as possible.

Conclusion

One thing to keep in mind is you are making a $130 commitment over the next year or two (check the agreement when you sign up).  Don’t do the crime if you can’t pay the fine.     Also, beware they also play the game of releasing the movie on BD alone, then following it up with the “Diamond” or “Platinum” Edition, so make sure you know what you’re buying.  If you do stay in the club, I recommend you keep the spreadsheet and track your cost/BD and quit when it hits your limit.

04.16.11

RadioParadise HD Plugin for Windows Media Center

Posted in Home Theater, Windows at 2:04 pm by mike

So I’ve become a big fan of RadioParadise.    It’s a listener supported, commercial free radio station which plays a great mix of new, old and eclectic rock, with a random mix of everything else when they feel like it.  Actually, it’s best explained if you just go there and listen.  I also have a shortcut on my phone and it’s the only music I listen to in the car now.

So I’m a fan of the music, but the cool thing they’ve added this year is an HTML 5 192K HD feed along with a photo slide show called RadioParadise HD.    The photo’s are all high resolution, meant to seen on the big screen, but the really cool thing is that they are uploaded by the community, so if you have some high quality 16×9 photos, you can upload them and potentially see your own pics there.

So, obviously, a Media Center Plugin is needed so you can use your remote to bring up the music and slide show.    A couple things you’ll need.

  1. IE9:   Since the HD player is implemented in HTML 5, you’ll need IE 9, Firefox or Chrome.    I tried all three and (surprisingly) had the best experience with IE 9 as far as running in kiosk mode and resizing correctly.    Chrome has security issues being launched from WMC and FF seems to crash after running the feed for a few hours.
  2. Autohotkey: An extremely cool and easy to use scripting utility.   Used to turn off the screen saver and hide the mouse.
  3. nomousy: A utility from the autohotkey community to hide and restore the mouse upon exit
  4. Media Center Studio: To build the plugin.

First, install Autohotkey and cut & paste the following script into a file called rplaunch.ahk (or you can just download my pre-built binary from here):

; Disable Screen Saver
DllCall(“SystemParametersInfo”, Int,17, Int,0, UInt,NULL, Int,2)
; Hide the mouse
Run, C:\bin\nomousy.exe /hide
; Run IE in kiosk mode pointing to the rphd stream
RunWait, “C:\Program Files\Internet Explorer\iexplore.exe” -k http://radioparadise.com/rphd.php
; Show the mouse
Run, C:\bin\nomousy.exe
; Enable Screen Saver
DllCall(“SystemParametersInfo”, Int,17, Int,1, UInt,NULL, Int,2)

Obviously, you should change the file to point to where you installed nomousy, or just install it in C:\bin as I did.   Then just right click on the .ahk file and select “Compile”.    You should now have an rplaunch.exe binary.   Put this in C:\bin as well.

Now run Media Center Studio.    Warning, the UI here is a little obtuse, so just follow these steps:

  1. Once you start the app, click on the “Start Menu” icon on the main toolbar (my version has a blank icon)
  2. Now click on the Entry points expansion button in the lower left hand corner
  3. Now click on the “Start Menu” tab at the top, and you should see something like this:
  4. Now Click the “Application” icon, and fill it out as follows.   Note I put my rplaunch.exe in a location with no spaces in the directory names.    I can’t swear that a location with a space doesn’t work, but it was on of the variables I eliminated during my testing.
  5. To get the Back and MediaStop buttons to exit the app for you, press the green “+” button, and then press the keys on your keyboard/remote:
  6. Hit the disk icon in the upper left (Save), close the tab and you should be returned to the Start Menu.   The new app should show up in the Entry points list.
  7. Drag and Drop your new app from the Entry Points to the location on the Start Menu you desire.   Hint: The TV and Movies row is not editable by default, so put this in the Music row, or go read this thread.
  8. Hit Save again and restart Media Center.

BTW:  Here’s the icon I used as well.

If anyone is willing to package this all up into an installable (or even give me instructions) I’d be happy to provide a download site.

Enjoy.

02.02.11

Replacing the ATI Radeon 5450 with an NVidia GT 430

Posted in Home Theater, Intel, Windows at 11:11 am by mike

So I had reached the end of my rope with the MSI ATI Radeon card on a couple fronts. I had HDMI bitstreaming working with Arcsoft TMT (as long as AnyDVD was running), and I could even put up with the flaky Catalyst UI and drivers. But I was stymied trying to get the refresh rate set to 23.976, which the Kuro PRO-141FD will execute a 3:3 pulldown for picture perfect Blu-Ray playback at 71.928.   Given the cost of the graphics card vs the 60″ plasma, it was time to make a change.

So with $75 of Amazon coupons burning a hole in my pocket, I decided to give the Zotac NVidia GT430 a shot. Since it goes in the HTPC next to the TV, silent cooling was a must.   Gaming performance is a non-issue for me, and since the Kuro isn’t getting replaced anytime soon, 3D video support wasn’t important either, though the Arcsoft BD & 3D assistant gave the card a thumbs up on all accounts.

Upon opening the package, the Zotac NVidia card looks much bigger than the MSI ATI with the giant heat sink, but both cards take up two slots in the machine.  The Zotac actually has two brackets, which make it a nice secure installation. Also, the Zotac has an DVI, HDMI and DisplayPort connections, while the MSI had VGA, DVI and HDMI. What a difference 9 months makes.

MSI ATI Radeon HD5450

MSI ATI Radeon HD5450

Zotac ZONE GeForce GT430

Zotac ZONE GeForce GT430

Installation was painless, it was time to download the NVidia drivers. A couple things impressed me right off the bat:

  • Clean install option – The NVidia drivers will blow away all previous NVidia registry settings and configuration when checking this box.   Very nice when you’ve mucked around with one too many registry hacks.
  • No “crap-ware” in install.   Thank you, I don’t need a 2 week trial to LOTR online…
  • Windows performance index:   ATI 5450: 4.9,  NVidia 430: 6.7!   Very impressive for a fanless card still less than $100.

So the next thing to try was getting to 1920x1080p@23.976.     First of all, the NVidia Control Panel was so much easier to navigate than even the ATI Catalyst Beta (the old ATI UI was horrid.  The latest is bearable).   From there, getting to 23Hz couldn’t of been easier.     Although it’s not listed in the defaults, click Custom, and 23p, as well as 59p, are at the top of the list.

No need to dig into the “Create Custom Resolution” dialog (but I wish the ATI UI had that!)

So that was too easy. Hmm… what about my other Blu-Ray playback issues? While I’ve had HD bitstreaming working with the ATI card for a while, I’ve had two other problems with the Arcsoft TMT software. First off, for some reason the TMT player refuses to play ANY BD disc. No explanation given, and all the HDCP tests come out fine. This started happening with their 3.0.1-170 release, and continues through 5.0.1.87. The only fix I’ve found is to install Slysoft AnyDVD .   Unfortunately, the problem wasn’t the ATI card in this case, and I still need AnyDVD to watch BD.    Not the end of the world since I already own it, but a little disappointing since the software has questionable DMCA legal status in the US.  (BTW: If you haven’t figured it out by now, do NOT use your HTPC as your sole Blu-Ray player, unless you want to spend twice the money for twice the headaches.)

The second problem I’ve encountered with TMT is during BD playback (with bitstreaming) the audio will get out of sync if I decide to pause, rew or fastfwd.   Fairly irritating.   Luckily, Arcsoft has created a hotfix for ATI cards if you encounter this problem, and that seemed to work, though I needed to re-apply it on the latest  version.    Now for the Nvidia… Change refresh rate to 23.967, pop in the Inception BD, press play and wait for the DTS-HD MSTR display on the SC-07…   DTS!?!?!   WTF!!!!!   Arrrggghhh!!!   After getting this far, I’m no longer bitstreaming the uncompressed HD audio track!

OK.  Off to Arcsoft Forums to see if anyone else is experiencing this.     Found one guy from back in Dec, but it’s not clear he knows what he’s doing….    Post my problem…. Next day check the forum (no email subscription!?).  Hmm… it seems Arcsoft has only certified the 260.99 driver, while I had downloaded 266.58.    Back to the NVidia site, archived drivers, 260.99, download.    Remove 266, install 260 (with the clean install option), reboot, play BD…. WHOOO HOOO!!! DTS-HD MSTR is back!    AND no problem with pause, ff, rew, etc all at true 1080p24!

So one thing I noticed is the 260 “Clean Install” check box didn’t do such a great job.   Even though I had removed the old driver and rebooted before installing, I was still prompted by numerous “Newer File Exists” messages during the install.  Furthermore more, the nice list of resolutions you see above all showed up blank with the older driver, but Windows Monitor properties still said I had 59Hz and 23Hz available .      I should probably go back to a restore point prior to installing 266 and then install the 260 version again but it’s working the way I want, so I’m not sweating it for now.   I may just wait for Arcsoft to support the 266 drivers, and then upgrade again.

So while not perfect, the NVidia still wins the day.     Time to not touch it if it ain’t broke.   We’ll see how long that lasts!  🙂

11.19.10

Windows 7 Sleep Debugging

Posted in Home Theater, Windows at 10:29 pm by mike

So after I added the SSD to the HTPC and moved my hard disk into the  NAS drive, I began to notice the machine no longer automatically goes to sleep.    If I hit the power button (set to sleep) or run it from the command line (%windir%\System32\rundll32.exe powrprof.dll,SetSuspendState Standby) the machine goes to sleep just fine, but won’t do so automatically.

Mucking with powercfg (which is a very interesting program BTW.  Run powercfg /? if you’re not familiar with it) I found the following:

powercfg -requests

[DRIVER] \FileSystem\rdbss
A file has been opened across the network. File name: [\medianas\Photos\blah\blah\blah\IMG_9088.jpg] Process ID: [4456]
[DRIVER] \FileSystem\rdbss
A file has been opened across the network. File name: [\medianas\Photos\blah\blah\SANY0014.jpg] Process ID: [4456]
[DRIVER] \FileSystem\rdbss
A file has been opened across the network. File name: [\medianas\Photos\blah\blah\blah\IMG_9160.jpg] Process ID: [4456]
[DRIVER] \FileSystem\rdbss
A file has been opened across the network. File name: [\medianas\Photos\blah\blah\SANY0118.jpg] Process ID: [4456]
[DRIVER] \FileSystem\rdbss
A file has been opened across the network. File name: [\medianas\Photos\blah\blah\IMG_0053.jpg] Process ID: [4456]
[DRIVER] \FileSystem\rdbss
A file has been opened across the network. File name: [\medianas\Photos\blah\blah\PC060102.jpg] Process ID: [4456]
….

So basically, the Media Center Screen saver is actually preventing the system from going to sleep because it has all these photo files open across the network.    I really like the screen saver, and I don’t want to suck up space on the SSD with photos.   What to do?

It turns out, there’s a hidden setting in powercfg which will allow to enable sleep when files are open over the network.   I assume the option is hidden by default because most folks wouldn’t understand what “remote opens” were.     There’s a very helpful blog post here which explains a number of hidden power/sleep settings in gory detail.   Low and behold after importing the registry file (run regedit as administrator):

Hidden option in Windows Power Config

Still need to do a little more testing but I figure this should do the trick.   Just a couple more handy commands for my own reference:

Put the computer to sleep from the command line

%windir%\System32\rundll32.exe powrprof.dll,SetSuspendState Standby

What was the last reason the PC woke up from sleep

powercfg -lastwake

List all the requests from processes to prevent the computer from sleeping:

powercfg -requests

Analyze any power usage issues the system might have

powercfg -energy

See “powercfg /?” for more info.

10.29.10

Jumbo Frames, iSCSI and Disabling Nagle

Posted in Home Theater, Windows at 12:47 pm by mike

So the new project (which I get to spend about 15 minutes a week on) has been to remove the mechanical harddisk from my HTPC and have it run completely silently off the SSD.   The first stage was purchasing the ReadyNAS NV+.  2TB drives have dropped below $100 so a NAS device with 1Gb networking was the no brainer solution.

Given I have two ATI CableCARD tuners (which BTW are no longer being made or supported by ATI), I needed to make sure the network and NAS had enough bandwidth and performance to write two simultaneous HD streams, while reading a third.  Now in theory, with a 1Gb network, you should be able to get roughly 100MB thoughput, unfortunately the real world doesn’t work that way.

My initial testing using Lan Speed Test (more on that later) showed I was getting around 24MBps writes and 45MBps reads.  (Remember big Bs are Bytes and little bs are bits.  8 bits to a byte)  So looking at my Comcast HD recordings, it turns out Fox is broadcasting 1920×1080 MPEG2 at around 14Mbps.   This isn’t that bad.  Note that DirectTV uses MPEG4 at around 5Mbps.  Since mp4 delivers better quality at lower bit rates,  the DirectTV advertisements aren’t lying when they say the picture is better.   For comparison, a typical DVD is MPEG2 @ 9.8Mbs and a BlueRay is MPEG4 at 40Mbps.   So if you haven’t figured it out yet, HD can really mean anything you want.

But the answer is if you want to record 2 HD TV channels from Comcast, you need about 2MBps per stream, or really just 4MBs, but you definitely want to have some head room, and there’s also the need to play DVD images back from the drive

I was hoping to get a little better than 25% of maximum throughput so started looking for solutions.    The first thing I poked at was the Nagle’s algorithm attributes.    This basically tells the TCP stack to gather all the small requests in to one big one before sending.     Turns out gamers want to disable this feature to make sure every keystroke/click is sent the moment they enter it, and not let things batch up on the network card.    For media streaming, you want the opposite behavior, but you’re rarely sending small data packets anyways.    But just for kicks, I set the following registry settings

HKLM/SYSTEM/CurrentControlSet/services/Tcpip/Parameters/Interfaces/{nicid}/

GlobalMaxTcpWindowSize = 0x01400000 (DWORD)
TcpWindowSize = 0x01400000 (DWORD)
Tcp1323Opts = 3 (DWORD)
SackOpts = 1 (DWORD)
TcpAckFrequency = 4 (DWORD)
TcpDelAckTicks = 2 (DWORD)

And ran this command:

C:\ netsh interface tcp set global rss=disabled chimney=disabled autotuninglevel=disabled congestionprovider=none

Mostly from recommendations from this iSCSI site (more on that below):

Basically I’m saying the opposite.   Package up as many small bits as possible into larger ones to avoid the overhead.  Difficult to measure the differences here, but I’m recording them here for myself in case I run into problems.   Though, it turns out there is another TCP feature along the same lines that does help with streaming media and was much more noticeable.

I had already done all the cache optimizations possible on the ReadyNAS, and configured it for Raid 0 since I really don’t need redundancy for recorded TV shows and I’m using Amazon S3 for offsite backup as described here.   One of the features I found on the ReadyNAS was support for TCP Jumbo Frames.   So it turns out the standards the Internet still runs on today were defined over 30 years ago.   Given the reliability of Ethernet at the time, the designers decided that 1500 bytes was the largest amount of data to be communicated in each packet so if the receiver didn’t get the packet, the resend wouldn’t be so large.    In today’s home gigabit switched networks, collisions and data corruption are almost unheard of.  So rather than waste all the CPU & interrupt time splitting and joining small packets, you just build one big one.   This is also a bit more efficient because each packet also requires header and footer  information describing where it should be delivered to.   Unfortunately, because everyone has to follow a standard, the largest the Jumbo Frame packet goes to is 9K, but that’s still almost a 4x increase in the data delivered with the same header and footer used for the original frame size.

So I started looking at the configuration for the on-board network adapter on my Intel P35.  No Jumbo Frame option, but this I found this note:

Note: The Intel PRO/1000 PL Network Connection supports jumbo frames in Microsoft* Windows* operating systems only when Intel® PROSet for Windows Device Manager is installed.

Cool!  So Installed Intel ProWin and still couldn’t find the JF option.   Do a little more research and find this:

The following gigabit LAN components included with Intel® Desktop Boards do not support jumbo frames:

  • Intel® 82566DM Gigabit Ethernet Controller
  • Intel® 82566DC Gigabit Ethernet Controller

Eeeekk! My motherboard chipset doesn’t support jumbo frames!    So it was off to Amazon to see how much a 1Gb PCIe Network card with JF support would set me back.    Since 1GB is not longer the bleeding edge (they now have 10Gb NIC over Cat6),  this Startect card was just under $25.    This also allowed me to do some real world performance testing between the two use Lan Speed Test:

HW

Intel 82566DC

StarTech ST1000SPEX

SMB Read MB/s

48.05

45.8

SMB Write MB/s

24.28

33.43

So I’m pleased with the 30% speed improvement on write.   I read somewhere that JFs aren’t used for reads, hence there wasn’t any significant difference there.    So I’m all set right?   Oops, wait a minute.   It turns out that Windows Media Center won’t record to a network drive.    This is part of the DRM associated with CableCARD, which I’ve ranted about before.   It turns out the new ATI BIOS relaxed OCUR standards addressed most my CableCARD concerns.  This left two possible solutions:

  1. Record to the SSD and use DVRMSToolbox to move the recordings to the NAS (after commercial detection)
  2. Use iSCSI rather than SMB (Microsoft File Sharing)

Once again, going back to 30 years, there were a couple competing standards for attaching disk drives to computers.    Once of these was called SCSI and was championed by Apple and Sun (as well as many others).    SCSI had a bit high level command structure and some interesting chaining features that are similar to today’s USB features.   PCs meanwhile were using IDE interfaces which have evolved in their own direction.    Fast forward 30 years, and have these network cables which are now as fast as those big thick SCSI cables, so why not send the SCSI protocol over that?   Now you have iSCSI.

So the cool part is, you use iSCSI, and Windows thinks the drive is a local SCSI drive, not a remote NAS drive.     Of course, since I bought the cheaper ReadyNAS NV+ rather than the latest and greatest ReadyNAS Ultra, iSCSI support was not yet built in.   Enter the OpenSource world to the rescue.    Since the ReadyNAS NV+ is basically a little Sparc machine running Linux, Stephan at http://whocares.de/ ported the Linux iSCSI Target daemon.    If you go this route, be sure to check out his support page which was a little tricky to find.    In short, the original directions pointed you to the wrong config file, as I explain here:

Downloaded and installed 1.4.20.2. After following the instructions verbatim, I realized my target was not being created and spent a lot of time searching the net for the cause of this message:
iscsi_trgt: iscsi_target_create(131) The length of the target name is zero

I finally came back here and read all the comments. The problem the whole time was ietd.conf needs to be /etc/ietd, not /etc like the instructions say. 🙁

Hopefully google will find this comment for the next guy who comes along.

I mention a couple other quirks on the support page, but the above is the only one that matters.   So back to performance testing via Lan Speed Test:

Protocol

iSCSI

SMB

Read MB/s

21.05

45.8

Write MB/s

191.28

33.43

Whoa, check that out!    More than 6x improvement in write performance!    In fact, it now writes almost twice as fast as the theoretical network maximum… umm… wait-a-second….   That’s probably not right…

A little more investigation showed that because Windows considers it a SCSI drive, there’s lots of local caching going on which was fooling Lan Speed Test.    Using Blackmagic’s Disk Speed Test (which also won’t work on a network drive), write speeds were around 14MB/s.    So the freeware implementation of iSCSI leaves a bit to be desired performance wise.    There may be some other things you could do via direct device access and later versions of iSCSI, but I decided to go back to the DVRMSToolbox solution.

So I’m actually pretty happy with the current solution where I record to a temporary directory on the SSD and then move the file over to the NAS.   This also allows the Dragon Global Showanalyzer to work on the files locally rather than scanning them over the network.

HW

Intel 82566DC

StarTech ST1000SPEX

SMB Read MB/s

48.05

45.8

SMBWrite MB/s

24.28

33.43

05.20.10

Every SSD could use a little TRIM

Posted in Home Theater, Windows at 9:01 pm by mike

So I was an early adopter of a Corsair P128 SSD drive for my media center machine.   I was extremely pleased with the fact that it eliminated 95% of the disk noise, even though I left the 1TB HD in the machine.   Even when recording to the HD, it barely makes a noise since the OS is completely running off the SSD and the HD doesn’t need to do any seeks.   But because I bought the disk right around the time Windows 7 was release, the SSD firmware didn’t yet support the TRIM command.

What the TRIM command does is tell the SSD to actually clear all the data from deleted files.    Regular old harddisks don’t care much whether they are writing to an empty space, or overwriting a deleted file.   Hence, when you delete a file, usually all the operating system does is mark the space used by the file as free.   Then the next file is welcome to overwrite that space.

Unfortunately, due to the design of SSD memory, it’s actually much slower to overwrite existing memory, because it needs to be cleared first.   This becomes even more time consuming when you are writing a file that is smaller than the SSD block size (Both traditional and solid state drives like to deal with data in a standard size like 256KB or 512KB.  This is called a “block”).   In the case of the SSD, it needs to read the entire block into memory, clear the entire block, then write it back with your small change.    Now this is all done internally on the drive, but still is much slower than a simple read or write.

If the OS knows it’s dealing with an SSD, it can send along a TRIM command after every delete operation.    This tells the SSD to clear the memory associated with the files that were recently deleted.   Note this can usually be done in parallel to other work, so by the time you want to write something to that same block, the freed data has already been cleared!   Note, this does disable the ability to retrieve deleted files, which has long been a double-edged sword in the DOS/Windows world.

Anyways, I thought I was running on a TRIM-less SSD, which meant my performance was going to suffer over time.   Luckily,  at the end of last year Cosair released a firmware update for the both the P and X series which adds the TRIM command.  It just took me a while to remember to check for it.  I was able to verify the SSD firmware version using a clever tool called Crystal Disk Info.   Unfortunately, I only have the “after” screen shot.   In the before shot, the work TRIM was faded/stippled, like the APM in this one.

That’s the good news, the bad news is that the firmware upgrade ERASES THE ENTIRE DISK!   That meant I need to explore Windows 7 backup and restore options a little more.

I was pleasantly surprised.   Backing up an image SSD to the HD was just a few clicks using the windows backup tool (OK, I did have to delete a number of old episodes of Ace of Cakes and Project Runway to make space [ sorry honey ] ).   The one hiccup I had was creating a bootable recovery CD.    After telling you to insert your CD, the create recovery disk program would hang and eventually error out with an Optical Drive error.   The problem turned out to be an old version of Virtual Clone Drive which was giving the system fits when trying to identify the disk devices.  Removing it solved the problem, and I wasn’t able to repro it after installing the latest from Slysoft.

The most challenging part was that firmware upgrade documentation insisted that the installation program was only supported when running from a bootable USB flash drive.   This turned out to require a bit more research than I expected.    I found a number of links with a number of different methods for creating a bootable flash drive.   The simplest one I actually found on a German website I translated through Google.   But after a quick search today, I found the same instructions on a native english site as well. The bottom line is you grab the HP Flash Format program and a copy of the DOS system files.     The HP program is fairly idiot proof, and will allow you to browse for the DOS system files you want to load.

After copying the P128 firmware files to the USB drive (after formatting it with the bootable OS) it was amazing how quick and painless it went.    I did have to muck with the PC Bios to tell it to boot off the flash drive, but once I did, every thing went quick and easy. I actually wasn’t sure it had worked, but running it the second time it said there was nothing to do.   I then booted off my Windows recovery disk, and it automagically found my backup on the HD, and asked me if I wanted to restore the SSD.   It really couldn’t of been any easier.

Now, if I could just get the latest version of Arcsoft TMT to play BDs on my system.. but that’s a story for another time.   For now, learn from my trials and tribulations and DO NOT try to use your HTPC as your primary BD player.   It will cost you at least $400, and you can buy the same thing for $99 at Best Buy.   As you can guess, there’s a 1000 word rant waiting to be released about this one.

04.26.10

Amazon HTPC Spec

Posted in Home Theater, Windows at 7:25 am by mike

I put a new HTPC spec up on Amazon listmania.  I’m not sure why… 🙂

04.24.10

Couple Interesting Finds

Posted in Home Theater, Windows at 11:35 pm by mike

Hanging out in Santa Cruz this weekend, using the new hammer drill to bore through some tile and concrete floor. Quite pleased with the result. Found a couple other things that I need to follow up on this week.

  1. Microsoft Silverlight 4 It looks like they added the h261 hardware accelleration in this release, just like Adobe is doing with Flash 10.x.   The one thing Microsoft likes about Apple these days is Steve Jobs telling everyone Flash sucks, but I don’t think we’ll see Silverlight on the iPAD anytime soon.
  2. oishiiunko on TGB just posted a link to his Remote Control application for WM 6.5!   He’s now officially my new hero.   I’ve already installed it on the Tilt 2, but of course, I can’t do anything else until I get back home and install WMC Controller on the HTPC.    I can see some late nights and low contracting productivity  coming this week.
  3. Speaking of gigs, I just finished a little HTPC R&D project for a customer.   I’m considering posting a version of the results on Amazon’s Listmania to see if I get some more traffic back to here.
  4. So I used the proceeds from #3 to order  a MSI ATI Radeon HD5450 1 GB DDR3 VGA/DVI/HDMI PCI-Express Video Card R5450-MD1GH from Amazon.   Two things about this card.   The most important is I’ll finally be able to send the TrueHD audio track from a BluRay Disc to my receiver.   In short, the studio’s insist on a 100% hardware encryption/decryption scheme for the audio track on a BD, so you need a complete hardware solution to play it.   My recommendation to anyone else is just buy a $99 BD Player and get on with your life.   That said, Intel has just released a processor line that will do it, along with ATI and Nvidea.   This ATI card is only $70.   It doesn’t have any of the fancy 3D engines (actually, I think the 3D is slower than my current card) but aside from the TrueHD bitstreaming, it also has DDR3 SRAM, which runs cooler than DD R2 and hence doesn’t need a fan.   The only remaining noise after installing the SSD is the fan on the ATI 4850, which I now know is much more graphics card than I needed.   I’ll see if I can resell it on EBay, since this is still a decent gaming card.
  5. Finally, I also game across a Windows Services Hacking article on hack7mc.   This will be another time sync, but it will be nice to free up some memory on Windows and get the boot and response time just a little bit faster.

That all should keep me busy for a while (not to mention I’m doing another LCD screen mounting and install for another customer this week).   If you know anyone looking for help setting up their Home Theater, Flat Screen or HTPC, please send them my way.

02.27.10

Improved Commerical Skip

Posted in Home Theater, Windows at 8:32 pm by mike

Many thanks to Spockers at the Dragon Global forms for posting his ShowAnalyzer global.conf file.    Commercial skipping is now much improved and no longer being confused by the odd opening scenes in Damages and Fringe.   Seems the tuning effort is a continuous process and if I get anymore info, I’ll post it here.

02.13.10

More 7MC and Video Streaming

Posted in Home Theater at 3:17 pm by mike

So I finally carved some time out after the 11PM feeding to do some more Media Center upgrades.    Following a tip from this 7MC config page, I installed the Adobe Flash 10.1 Beta to address a flash performance problem I was noticing.  This, plus the ATI Catalyst 10.1 drivers did the trick.  I now suspect it was a driver problem all along, since the release notes call out a problem dropping frames in Flash. Now Hulu playback is pretty much flawless.

I also took the opportunity to upgrade to DVRMS Toolbox 1.2.2.0, along with the latest DTBAdd-in for Windows 7 and ShowAnalyzer. The latest DBTAdd-in has a fix for the null MediaExperience bug which I was forcing me to restart Media Center in order to get commercial skip working.      I’m hoping the upgrade to ShowAnalyzer will improve the over-aggressive commercial removal when watching Fringe.   But it’s been almost perfect on all the other shows.

I’ve also recently begun to play with Handbrake for converting videos for streaming from Amazon S3. And when I want to stream my favorite shows I’ve been using the best iptv provider.  Converted a whole set of Girls basketball games from a tournament in Wisconsin. These were raw captures from a Canon GL2 which even though it’s only an SD video camera, still runs around $2K. I ended up encoding them 3 different times: 1600kbps@30fps, 800kbps@15fps, 400kbps@15fps, all mpeg4/H.264.   It turns out the average Internet connection in Wisconsin isn’t quite the same as Comcast in San Francisco.   I was very impressed at how good the 400kbps videos looked.   The page is a mix of all three, so you can see the difference yourself.   Also, I need to plug Flowplayer which made the integration with S3 a painless cut & paste operation.

Funny thing is that DVRMSToolkit can do all the things Handbrake does, but the UI’s are designed for vastly different purposes.

Finally, the home theater consulting and installation work is beginning to pick up.   On the list of things to do is tossing up a gallery of my installations.

« Previous entries Next Page » Next Page »