Thursday, May 17, 2007

Tip of the day - Quieten your Hard Disk with Vista ReadyBoost

A lot has been written about the performance advantage of adding a memory card or usb stick to your Vista machine to make use of the ReadyBoost feature but one interesting side effect is that it can also reduce the amount of access needed to your hard disk and appear to make it quieter.

To quote the official Microsoft blurb:

The flash memory device serves as an additional memory cache—that is, memory that the computer can access much more quickly than it can access data on the hard drive. Windows ReadyBoost relies on the intelligent memory management of Windows SuperFetch and can significantly improve system responsiveness.

Now a lot of this data would normally be held on the hard disk and will need reading regularly, this can be the cause of the chuntering you can hear from lots of hard drives. Putting in a high-speed flash device can significantly reduce this. Obviously its not going to make the drive any quieter when it actually has to access data but it certainly has had avery beneficial effect where I have tried it.

Performance and a quieter life - two for the price of one :-)

Edit: I should point out that the cache is still written to disk so if you swap programs a lot it will still need to write out the changes and you will see less benefit in terms of noise. Q: Why does it still write to disk? A: Have you never pulled out a USB key by accident? The system need something to fall back on.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

My GeeXboX HTPC now on ebay

It's now up on ebay CLICK HERE

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Building A Linux Media Extender for your Media Center with GeeXbox

I recently took up a challenge to build a media center PC for a friend. Having scoured Ebay I found what I thought looked like a really nice case for not too much money. It was also a Barebones system coming with DVD, Floppy and Motherboard. The motherboard only supported a Pentium III up to 800mhz but I decided that I could always upgrade this.

When I received it the case lived up to expectations and was pretty small. So small that on opening it up I found my upgrade options were limited. The case comes with a BookPC BKI810 3.3 motherboard (really tiny and would make a great basis for a Car PC) This is a custom BabyATX design based on the Intel 810 chipset and supports Pentium III processors up to 800mhz with a 100mhz front side bus. There are no PCI expansion ports but it does have on-board video (with TV-out), Audio (with SP-Dif out), Ethernet, Modem, COm, Game Port, Printer and USB (1.0) ports.

Whilst this would have run MCE 2005 it wasn't going to cut the mustard for my friends Hi-def vista media center so I went to plan B for that (more on that in a later post). I guess I could have gone with upgrading the BookPC a Pico-ITX Motherboard buy they are a bit too pricey.

All was not lost with this case however, I had been meaning to look into the prospect of building a Media Extender to work with the uPNP capabilities of Windows Media Player 11 in vista.

Note I say Media Extender - not Media center Extender - I wasn't intending to stream Live TV or even watch Recorded TV in native DVRMS format but I already transcode my Recorded TV to WMV files and Media Player 11 can share them via its built in uPNP media server.

uPNP stands for Universal Plug and Play a set of standards for Network devices to talk to each other. Windows Media Player 11 implements what used to be called Windows Media Connect and is a uPNP AV server. Basically this can be contacted by any uPNP AV client to access any Music, Pictures or Video in your Media Player Library.

I added a 800Mhz processor, hetsink, fan, 512mb Ram and a 20Gb hards drive to the motherboard. Checked it all out and it booted to BIOS fine. Got as bit of a shock when my 800mhz procssor was shown as 600mhz but then realised that the processor was 133mhz FSB so on a 100Mhz FSB board it scaled down to 600mhz. Not a problem it should be plenty fast enough for what I wanted.

So all I needed was a uPNP client. I also wanted something that could use the inbuilt DVD player to play audio/dvds.

I decided to keep costs down and experiment with using Linux. I heard of Myth so tried that first. To cut things short I'm not a Linux guru and I struggled with Myth. I first tried KnopMyth which I just couldn't get to play CD's or DVD's. I then found MythDora which was a much more straightforward install and did play CD and DVD but I couldn't work out how to configure it for uPNP - if even that was possible.

I was about to give up on the Linux route when I made a great discovery GeeXBox. This is a Live CD(basically Linux which boots from a CD and doen't need a hard disk) designed for playing Media and it has a uPNP client.

I downloaded the CD image (it comes in .iso format) and burnt it to CD. Put it in the HTPC Dvd Drive booted and, after a few seconds of Linux boot messages) up popped the menu including an open option. Selecting this gave me a uPNP option and selecting this gave me my media center as a uPNP server. I was stuck here for a few seconds as it wouldn't display a list of contents form my Media Center, until I realised, stupidly, that I hadn't gome to my media center pc and allowed the new device to access. (In Vista this is really easy as a toolbox popup appears on the PC as soon as a new device is detected)

Hey presto I had access to all the Music, Photos and Videos on my media center. I choose a Video (which happened to be a divx avi) and it played instantly and smoothly. This was great but alas my next choice a WMV file failed to play.

Codecs! I thought as one does (quick aside in the Media Center world I wonder if the word Codecs should now be added to swear word filters)

Scouring the excellent GeeXBox web site I found I was right the WMV codecs were not included by default and I would have to build my own custom ISO distribution. That sounded horrible - I really didn't want to get into Linux toolchains. Fortunately GeeXBox had that covered and supply a very user friendly ISO builder. It even went as far as downloading the codecs for me. Excellent. One more button press and it built me a new Iso and a quick burn later I had a functioning GeexBox streaming video from my Media Center. It even managed a WMV HD file albeit a bit broken up.

Streaming Audio was just as easy and my new custom build also gave me shoutcast radio. To top things off DVD's play well as do CD audio (although I do have a problem with a couple stuttering on the first track)

So in summary for around 100 pounds you can pick up all the components for a decent media streaming extender and if you do not fancy building it yourself the kit I used here, with the configure GeeXbox disk, will be up on eBay shortly. I'll post the link here.

EDIT: Its up on ebay CLICK HERE