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!  🙂

01.23.11

Hulu update and quick Media Center Studio fix

Posted in Windows at 2:40 pm by mike

I just received a comment on an old Hulu/AutoHotKey fix I had done sometime ago to get a better resolution for Hulu streaming.    Seeing this, it occurred to me that since then, Microsoft made some changes that broke Media Center Studio.   Searching the  Australian Media Center Community (which has a couple interesting projects you won’t find on TGB) there are a number of work-arounds suggested, but I found this one the easiest to implement:

Edit C:\ProgramData\Microsoft\eHome\Packages\MCEClientUX\dSM\StartResources.dll with a binary editor (gvim) and replace these two references to dSM:

xmlns:Movies = “data://dSM!SM.Movies.xml”
xmlns:TV = “data://dSM!SM.TV.xml”

with

xmlns:Movies = “data://ehres!SM.Movies.xml”
xmlns:TV = “data://ehres!SM.TV.xml”


This should work fine until Microsoft update replaces the DLL, then you just need to make the change again. If editing a binary file is a little too much for you, you’re welcome to try my modified version, though your mileage may vary.   If Windows Update changes the file, shoot me a note and I’ll update the DLL on my site.

Finally, the reader was also nice enough to include two Hulu images to use for creating the icons.

11.20.10

Windows 7 Performance Tricks

Posted in Windows at 5:08 pm by mike

Just stumbled across this blog posting.    Pretty good stuff.

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

09.26.10

Open Apple Pages .pages files in Windows

Posted in Windows at 11:11 am by mike

Quick fix for Grammie.   Someone had sent her some .pages files and she couldn’t open them on Windows 7.    Turns out that they are a Winzip compatible file archive with a PDF preview in them.      Since she doesn’t even have Winzip installed, I simply exported, edit, and imported the .zip registry entry so the Windows File Explorer would do the trick.       It ended up looking like this:

Windows Registry Editor Version 5.00
[HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SOFTWARE\Classes\.pages]
"PerceivedType"="compressed"
"Content Type"="application/x-zip-compressed"
@="CompressedFolder"
[HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SOFTWARE\Classes\.pages\CompressedFolder]
[HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SOFTWARE\Classes\.pages\CompressedFolder\ShellNew]
"Data"=hex:50,4b,05,06,00,00,00,00,00,00,00,00,00,00,00,00,00,00,00,00,00,00
"ItemName"=hex(2):40,00,25,00,53,00,79,00,73,00,74,00,65,00,6d,00,52,00,6f,00,\
  6f,00,74,00,25,00,5c,00,73,00,79,00,73,00,74,00,65,00,6d,00,33,00,32,00,5c,\
  00,7a,00,69,00,70,00,66,00,6c,00,64,00,72,00,2e,00,64,00,6c,00,6c,00,2c,00,\
  2d,00,31,00,30,00,31,00,39,00,34,00,00,00
[HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SOFTWARE\Classes\.pages\OpenWithProgids]
"CompressedFolder"=""
[HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SOFTWARE\Classes\.pages\PersistentHandler]
@="{098f2470-bae0-11cd-b579-08002b30bfeb}"

I’m not sure if all those GUID and Shell data values are universal, but if importing the above doesn’t work, I’m sure you can figure out the same export/edit trick I did.  Note you need to logout and login again to restart the base explorer shell.   Enjoy.

07.24.10

CPU Envy

Posted in Intel, Windows at 1:32 am by mike

When I first started working for SCO in 1989, Xenix was the ONLY 32 bit operating system available for the Intel 386 platform.   In fact, in 1983, when Linus Torvals was 14 years old, SCO had Xenix running on two platforms:  the Mac Lisa and the Intel 8086.   Yes,  years before Tanenbaum’s Minux was released, SCO had a AT&T System III kernel running in 640k of memory.   And Microsoft even paid them to do it!  But for that story, see wikipedia.

So when I arrived at SCO, their primary focus was still writing OS software and I was working on the X Windows port to the new SCO Unix, the successor to Xenix.  I started with a Zenith 16MHz 386 on my desk, and at the time, that was considered a lot of CPU to dedicate to one user!  But the best part of the job was being one of the first people to work on the 486 in order to get the X server running on the platform.   Of course, I didn’t get it on my desk, I had to drive over the hill to Olivetti for a few weeks (where people smoked in their cubicles!) and work on the machine there because there were so few of them.   Later on, I had the same task on one of the first Pentium systems in order to demo an X Windows application running faster than the Sun Workstations of the time.

Those were the days when it was simple to tell which was the faster Intel Processor.   You just looked at the name: Pentium, Pentium II, Pentium III, and the MHz number and it was obvious.  With the Pentium 4 we were up to 10K MIPS.   And then Intel decided it was better to confuse the market.   So now let me ask a simple question:  Rank the following Intel processors in order of performance:

Intel Core i7 820QM @ 1.73GHz

Intel Core2 Quad @ 2.83GHz

Intel Xeon X5670 @ 2.93GHz

Well you have to figure this is easy,  the Xeon line was introduced in 2001, the Core 2 in 2006 and the core I7 in 2010!   So even given the lower GHz number, the i7 must be the fastest of the bunch, right?    Turns out to be just the opposite.   The i7 is the slowest processor listed, and the Xeon is the fasted, with the Core 2 winding up in the middle.     Of course, the Xeon platform has been redesigned a few times since 2001, and if you look at this handy chart from PassMark, you’ll see that an Intel Core i7 X 980 @ 3.33GHz does now top the list as Intel’s fastest processor, but the models vary widely below that depending on everything from cache size, to bus speed. (And they haven’t listed the Xeon x7350)   It’s been fairly widely recognized now that increasing clock speed no longer gets you the performance returns it once did.

But how does this help you decide which Intel CPU to buy?  Well there’s one more piece of information you need, and that obviously is price.   In this case, the folks at pricewatch are nice enough to give us the latest CPU prices for both Intel and AMD (ignore the PassMark price, it’s already out-of-date).   So now you can see how much each of these cost.   But the thing you really want is a mash-up page (sorry, someone with more time than I needs to build it) that shows you the PassMark/$ figure.    Going back to the three I listed:

Intel Core i7 820QM @ 1.73GHz 3500/$250 -> 14PM/$

Intel Core2 Quad Q9300 @ 2.50GHz 3500/$149.00 -> 23PM/$

Intel Xeon X5670 @ 2.93GHz 9600/$1359 -> 7PM/$

So it’s interesting that with the cheaper processors, you actually get more bang for the buck than the ultra high end.   Another thing that adds to the cost is the power draw.   So I’ve been eyeballing the Q9550S, which is the low power version of the Q9550.  The lower power also means less heat, which means less fan noise, which is always a big win in a HTPC to replace my poor Intel Core2 Duo E8500 @ 3.16GHz.

The E8500 only rates 2400 on the PassMark test, while the Q9550 is at 4300.  But once again we find at $148, the E8500 is getting 16PM/$ while the Q9550S at $350 is only 12.   Now do I really need 2 more processor cores to rip all the old Disney video tapes to disk?   Probably not, but it’s not like you need 4WD on that SUV, but you sure like having it…

05.21.10

Simple document scanner program

Posted in Windows at 3:11 pm by mike

Ever needed to scan a document using a manual scanner?   I used to go through this painful process using the scanner wizard and pasting the images into a word document.    With a quick search, I found Documalis Free Scanner It’s written by a French company, so depending upon your language skills, you may have to click over to the English UI when you start it up.    From there it’s one button push for each page, with thumbnails showing you the pages you’ve already scanned, and the ability to save the whole thing as a PDF.   Couldn’t be easier and you can’t beat the price.

Two minor oddities:

  1. The first scan starts immediately.   You need to be ready to go when you start the program
  2. You have to pre-select your destination directory.    The filename dialog at the end isn’t the standard Windows browse and save.

Once again.  It’s a great program for the price.

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.

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