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… ūüôā


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.


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.


Orijnal’s Hulu Desktop WMC Fix

Posted in Windows at 5:06 pm by mike

Orijnal at thegreenbutton.com threw together a quick fix to eliminate the various remote control problems people ran into when combining the Hulu Desktop with the Hulu plugin.¬†¬† You can read this thread for all the gory details.¬†¬† I‚Äôve just offered to host the file for him, so shoot any complains his way.¬† ūüôā

Instructions From Orijnal:

Just unzip it and put a copy of it in the StartUp folder in the Start Menu (to ensures it’s running when the machine starts up). Make sure it’s running, before you try it out (you’ll see a little hulu logo in your system tray). I spent about a half hour on this, and certainly haven’t done extensive testing, but I haven’t run into any problems with it, yet. It works on 7MC and should work on Vista as well.

Worked like a champ for me.


HTPC Config Posted

Posted in Home Theater, Windows at 10:26 pm by mike

I’m now keeping a running page of the HTPC configuration.¬†¬†¬† This is mostly for my own reference so I can remember what I’ve done and I’ll be keeping it up to date as things change.


Windows 7 Installation – Part 1

Posted in Home Theater, Windows at 8:48 am by mike

OK, my first hiccup while installing the SSD drive was not having an extra SATA cable!¬†¬† Solved for $10 (probably $9 more than I needed to spend) with a quick trip to Radio Shack on my wife’s scooter.¬†¬† Decided to time the installation since I got to figure the SSD will make a significant difference.

Total installation time for Windows 7 Ultimate: 17 miinutes, 30 seconds.   Subtract at least a minute for my typing and pauses.

Unfortunately, it took me twice that time to put the machine back together and get all the cables reconnected.    Digital Cable connectors can be quite problematic at times.

Step #2.¬†¬† Download latest ATI Catalyst software for the video card.¬† Windows Update automatically found something, but it didn’t install the full ATI Catalyst system.

That’s as far as I got yesterday.¬† Family responsibilities cut into my fun and I needed to switch back to Vista to record shows during prime-time.¬†¬† Copying over the channel and recording settings is going to be the most time consuming part of the project.


Windows 7 Party Pack Arrived

Posted in Home Theater, Windows at 3:46 pm by mike

So for no good reason at all, Microsoft sent me a complimentary copy of Windows Ultimate along with a box of party swag (streamers, toys, coupons, bags, etc..). I was actually going to hold off on the upgrade of my HTPC (which is pretty happily running Vista), but with Microsoft’s encouragement, I broke down and used my Amazon coupons to buy a 128G SSD drive.¬†¬† Went with the CORSAIR P128 after reading this review.¬†¬† I’ve decided to do a fresh install rather than an upgrade, this way I can simply switch back to booting Vista off the old 1TB drive.¬†¬† Eventually, I plan to hang that drive off of Buffalo NAS and silencing the HTPC completely, but that will be another project.¬†¬†¬† In anycase, given that the rebuild of the media center is non-trivial, I’m taking the week off to do the reinstall before the party bond with my new son.

Finally, I’m going to track the whole process here for my own reference, since it’s helpful to know exactly what drivers and software I installed when, and why.¬†¬†¬† Makes a great reference for my HTPC consulting work.

BTW: Yahoo has upgraded WordPress for me which at first brush looks pretty nice.¬†¬† I still need to figure out how to leverage FB or Yahoo identity management, so people don’t have to create their own accounts to comment on my site.¬†¬† If you know how to do this, please drop me a pointer.


Microsoft: You can’t play Apple’s Game

Posted in Mobile, Windows at 8:32 pm by mike

So I read the NY Times Zune HD review last week and I hope every Microsoft employee¬†is experiencing the embarrassment I feel for them.¬† The feature set reeks of committee compromise.¬†¬† It’s obvious that so many different parts of Microsoft needed to have their say in the Zune design that none of them won, and the goal became to make the second best media player in the world by copying a couple features from the best one.¬†¬†¬† Rather than play up Microsoft’s strengths against Apples weaknesses, the Zune HD tried to hit all the IPod’s strong points, and comes out second best.¬†¬† Somehow, even in Job’s absence, Apple was still able to maintain rigid control over every touch, click and byte over every product they make.¬†¬† This IS NOT Microsoft’s strength and they will fail trying to emulate it.

What Microsoft does best is give their development community fantastic tools for expanding the platform.   This is the one area where Apple still lags far behind Microsoft.   I say this as a Mac enterprise application developer who is currently suffering the pain of lack of binaries compatibility between 10.4, 10.5 and 10.6.   But if I believe this review, Microsoft has abandoned developers for the Zune HD.

One example I have to mention is NControl.¬†¬† This is the best remote control application I’ve seen for Windows Media Center.¬† And BTW, it runs on the IPod/IPhone platform.¬†¬† Where is the Zune version?¬†¬† Sorry, you can’t even start working on it yet because according to David Pogue the development environment and Zune app store is closed.¬†¬† I have a very difficult time believing this, especially when I see other announcements about XNA Game Studio and the like.¬†¬† If this isn’t true, Microsoft needs to get the NY Times to correct that part of the article.

So where can Microsoft trump Apple?¬†¬† The one evil thing Apple does is lock it’s users into a box which they are not allowed to escape.¬†¬† Now, Apple marketing does a wonderful job convincing customers they really want to live in that box, and life will be better if they just give Apple their credit card numbers, and never leave the box.¬†¬†¬† Google has already begun to play on that theme by making Android as wide open as possible, and they must snicker every time the see Microsoft try to pull the Apple trick.¬†¬†¬† But there are at least three places Microsoft can win while making Apple look like the evil empire. Learn more about worldwide business marketing right here

#1: Jail-Break everything!

Take the handcuffs off the developers and let the hacking community loose.¬†¬†¬† So much time is wasted fighting the DRM requirements for media that developers are losing interest in the Media Center platform.¬†¬†¬† Take a hard look at XBMC.¬† There’s simply no way that a company the size of Microsoft can compete with their development community when it comes to innovation like this. Rather than try to create a poor mimic of that interface, provide a mechanism for it to tie into the CableCARD pipeline and MCE recording engine.¬†¬†¬† Yes, I know the legal issues surround DRM are non-trivial, but Microsoft is one of the few companies in the world with the resources to manage the Entertainment industry’s legal charge to their own death.

At the same time, open up the XBox to anyone.¬†¬† Sure, some small percentage might be lost to Linux gaming stations or crypto decoders, but it’s never going to be enough to effect the bottom line and that minor revenue loss will make up for itself in marketing value.¬†¬†¬† It’s a much better solution than what you have today, where people buy the machine anyways, hack past the DRM and then just promote more bad press against the Microsoft experience.

Furthermore, this obviously puts Apple on the defensive, since they need to keep their users in the box to micro-manage the experience.¬†¬† It appears Microsoft is trying to emulate this with the Zune HD, and it’s a fatal mistake.

#2 Build a mobile browser that works on ALL WEB SITES

Another area where Apple convinces it’s users the IPhone box is a good place to live.¬†¬† You can’t stream video or audio through Safari. ¬†¬†¬† Meanwhile, Skyfire (which has been blocked from the IPhone App Store) has done it for Windows Mobile with a Proxy RDP browser architecture.¬† Every Flash, Silverlight, Javascript, etc.. site works perfectly! ¬† With the Zune HD touch controls, you’d have all the slick touch controls of the IPhone, but without boxing in the user.¬† The only problem they run into is when a site decides to block their proxy.¬†¬† I assume Microsoft could correct such misunderstanding much faster than a small startup.¬†¬†¬† A full web browsing experience could the the killer app to take a big bite out of the IPhone.

#3  Support the development community

Of course Microsoft hasn’t abandoned their developers, but they certainly weren’t included in the Zune HD announcement. ¬† The community needs Microsoft to do a couple things. ¬† One, solve the hard grungy problems, like CableCARD OCUR specs and running Flash and Silverlight on the same handheld device.¬†¬† Two, provide a roadmap through the plethora of Microsoft API’s and SDKs especially with respect to the three screens and the cloud.¬†¬† How about some $1M contests and prizes for the best Zune/Mobile app, or the best combo 3SC app?¬† Apple basically abuses it’s development community, counting on the fanatical user community to beat them into submission. ¬† That strategy will not work for Microsoft, and I fear the company is trying to emulate Apple in this respect as well.¬†¬† The danger here is all the interesting applications get pushed to IPhone, Android and Palm.¬†¬† There’s still no Stitcher app for Windows Mobile.¬†¬† It’s now been pushed to your third or fourth port after BlackBerry, Android and soon Palm WebOS.

Now that Microsoft is releasing some amazing products (W7, XBox, Zune HD hardware),¬† it’s time to¬†go back to Microsoft’s roots, and focus on the developers.¬†¬† There’s plenty of cash in the coffers to throw at the development community, and the bang for the buck has to beat a Windows 7 launch party.¬†¬† This is the place Microsoft can¬†win big and avoid the large company¬†politics sucking the life out of product development.


Comcast Digital Transition

Posted in Home Theater, Windows at 9:28 pm by mike

So it seems Comcast has finally turned off the analog signals for the extended basic channels in San Francisco as I alluded to here.   Since it took over 3 months from the actual announcement, it gave me plenty of time to crawl all the forums and websites to understand exactly what happens from here.    Futhermore, a couple new news items popped up in the meantime which clarified what Comcast and other cable operators are doing.

So I’m currently running Microsoft Media Center on Vista, and I actually don’t experience all the horrid Vista stories you slash.dot readers may be accustomed to.¬†¬† That said, there still are a number of quirks, but keeping an eye on thegreenbutton W7 posts, I haven’t been convinced that Windows 7 Media Center is going to be much better.

No More Analog Channels

So as Comcast started turning off the analog channels, I started seeing complaints from Media Center as it could no longer record shows on those channels.¬†¬†¬† Running a channel scan didn’t pick up any of the new channels, which I thought was odd since I knew the digital broadcasts of the extended basic channels are not encrypted (yet).¬†¬†¬† It turns out that Comcast sets a privacy flag on those channels which VMC respects and thus doesn’t automatically tune the channel.¬† (Thanks John) Instead, you have to go through a fairly cumbersome process of adding the channel by hand, editing the listing of the channel to merge it with the old analog channel in the guide, and then edit the sources of the channel and disable the analog signal (which is just static at this point).

For those of you who simply bought a TV with a digital tuner, connected your cable to it and found all the channels you paid for the same way your old analog set worked, that should still work, assuming your TV ignores the privacy flag.¬†¬† If not, I’m told the digital TV tuners provide a similar mechanism to enter the digital channel number.¬†¬†¬† Unfortunately, Comcast and the other cable providers have received an FCC waiver to encrypt these channels as well.¬†¬† So eventually everyone will need to either have a full set-top-box, a DTA converter, or a CableCARD compatible tuner.

So it’s unclear when Comcast will start encrypting those channels.¬†¬† In order to do so, they will need to either replace or upload new firmware to the DTA’s currently distributed to customers.¬†¬† Supposedly, these devices are designed to be updated in the field,¬† but I suspect that’s easier said than done, so we may have the unencrypted channels for some time. ¬†¬† That said, the current situation does allow Basic Cable subscribers to get Extended Basic without paying for it, but to do this you need to be pretty savvy (or read this blog, and who does that?).

Tuning Digital Channels

So how do you find the digital channel numbers for the clear QAM extended basic channels that VMC or your TV won’t scan by default? ¬†¬† Well first there’s the hard way.¬†¬† It turns the new DTA’s deployed by Comcast have a simple diagnostic mode which will tell you the actual frequency and program number the current channel is broadcasting on.¬† Once you have the frequency, you can either do some math, or look it up on Wikipedia to find the channel number.

Or, you can simply go to SiliconDust, enter your zip code and find a complete listing there.¬†¬† Make sure you choose the right line up. ¬† After tuning a couple channel using the first method, going to SiliconDust is simply cheating.¬†¬†¬†¬† SiliconDust is the maker of the HDHomeRun which is a combined DVR/media server solution.¬† Unfortunately, the value of this product will be greatly reduced when Comcast starts encrypting the extended basic channels.¬†¬† It will still be able to record all the local broadcast channels, but that’s going to be a much more limited set than what they have today.¬†¬† I suppose they can always offer a CableCARD version of the product, but their current customer base is probably going to be very unhappy.

Just Install the Damn CableCARD!

So not only would all these headaches go away if I just picked up a couple CableCARDs from Comcast, but I’d also be able to record a slew of new HD channels my VMC box currently doesn’t see.¬†¬†¬†¬† The problem here is that the current CableCARD firmware incorrectly adds DRM to all recordings, even when not specified by the broadcaster.¬†¬† This means everything recorded on the HTPC must stay there. ¬† This means my daughter can’t watch Sesame Street on the laptop while I watch football, which is unacceptable.¬†¬† The DRM also disables the commercial skip capabilities provided by programs such as ShowAnalyzer.¬†¬†Futhermore, who has time to actually watch the shows when you’re spending so much time hacking the system?¬† In any case, the CableLabs OCUR (OpenCable Unidirectional Receiver) spec has finally been updated to remove this requirement.¬†¬†¬† But in order for this to work, a firmware update from ATI is required for the DCT.¬† I’m hopeful, but I’ve heard this story before.

Update 06.07.2010

So before ATI killed the card, they did release the firmware update.¬†¬† I’m now happily running Windows 7 with 2 ATI tuners, both with a CableCARD and no DRM.¬†¬† I’m happily watching on my laptop and skipping commercials.


Vista Control Panel Crash Solved

Posted in Windows at 1:12 am by mike

So for quite sometime I was ignoring an Explorer crash everytime I opened the Control Panel:

Faulting application Explorer.exe, version 6.0.6002.18005, time stamp 0x49e01da5, faulting module ntdll.dll, version 6.0.6002.18005, time stamp 0x49e03821, exception code 0xc0000374, fault offset 0x000afaf8, process id 0xbe0, application start time 0x01c9ee300cc436fa.

My work-around was to drill into Control Panel via the Explore folder view.   Turns out this was simple to debug.    Just go to your Windows\system32 directory, sort by file type, and then double click on each .cpl file until you see the crash.   Then rename that file foo.cpl.hide, or in my case: idtsg.cpl.hide.    Since I still have the Intel IDT applet show up in my Control Panel, I suspect this was an old one that somehow became corrupted after an upgrade.

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