Revo HTPC
26Mar/110

Jason Null, Revo HTPC User on Entertainment 2.0

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Jason Null, inspired by RevoHTPC.com was recently on the Entertainment 2.0 podcast with Josh Pollard. He talks about his intense mod of his Acer Aspire Revo, including an SSD, 4GB RAM, and Tuners. He also discusses how he uses Windows Media Center throughout his house. It is a great listen. Check it out here: http://thedigitalmediazone.com/2011/03/25/entertainment-2-0-120-jason-null/

2Mar/111

Linux Powered Revo Guide and Review

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For a long time everyone has asked me to do a write up on how Linux works with the Revo 1600. I am not a huge Linux fan so I went straight for Windows 7 and Windows Media Center for my Revo. However since I built a new HTPC my little Revo has just been hanging out waiting for some love, so I decided to install my age old enemy Linux and see what happens. The goal in mind was to first simply get a system installed that would play back my media and perhaps get some streaming video. There are a lot of options out there including XBMC, Boxee, and of course Hulu Desktop for streaming. I will eventually want to expand this to include Linux powered DVR, but let’s start small.

Installing Linux

WP_000079There are a lot of Linux distributions out there, however the most popular by far has to be Ubuntu. Not only is it the most popular, but it is really easy to install. You can run Ubuntu straight off a USB drive, install it side by side a Windows install, or just install it fully. I like Ubuntu for data retrieval, but this is the first time I will be using it as the OS. All you need to do is head over to the download page and download it. I selected USB stick and that I will be creating it with Windows. It will guide you through the process, but it is extremely easy. Once you have it installed you are good to go. It is important that you remember your password because every time you install something you will be prompted to enter your credentials. You will also want to install the latest NVidia drive for Linux. A nice little guide is located here.

Installing Software

I decided to give three different pieces of software a try. The first install is the easiest by far, which is Boxee, all you need to do is download the Linux .deb file and double click to install it inside of the Ubuntu Software Center. Let’s keep is simple again by installing Hulu Desktop by just selecting Ubuntu 32-bit to download the .deb file and again simply install it inside of Ubuntu Software Center. Now it is time to get all difficult and install XBMC, alright not that difficult. All you really need to do is follow the first step on their wiki page, which is to bring up the terminal and follow what they tell you.

Performance

XBMC:

WP_000080While XBMC might not have my favorite user interface in the entire world, it seems to play back content great on Linux. You can add content in tons of different ways including local content, network content (mine was on my windows home server), and even through plugins. There are a ton of plugins for XBMC including Revision 3, Grooveshark, NPR, Engadget, TWit, Trailer Addict, Youtube, Facebook photo, flicker, picasa and so much more. The plugins can all be installed straight from the user interface as well. I will say that media playback was great streaming across my network. Music, standard DVD rips, and even 720p video files played back very smooth.  The install is a bit odd, but overall I really enjoyed the experience.

Boxee:

WP_000078Boxee is great because it is an all on one solution and has great streaming potential. Boxee is also great because it automatically grabs all of the meta data for all of your music, movies, and television episodes for you. Streaming music across the network was just fine, however when it came to video it was a different story. Stand DVD quality movies played just fine but when I through 720p content at it the choppiness started right up. Even after a few minutes the video seemed to improve but just wasn’t as good as XBMC. Boxee still has a lot of plugins however. I tested out Revision 3 and Onion News and overall the quality was good and playback was pretty smooth, but XBMC still did it better. As for streaming content, what a disaster. Just like the Revo on Windows 7 with Boxee nothing worked at all. The video seemed to buffer and play but it kept to a small tiny box in the corner. Perhaps this could be fixed, but I am not sure.

Hulu Desktop:

WP_000081Oh Hulu how I love you for being able to play back the latest episodes of my favorite shows for free (some ads of course). When flash 10.1 came out it was a revolution for the Revo as Flash content finally played back smooth on the low powered Revo. Hulu Desktop worked pretty well on Windows, but on Linux it was a different story. Usually I am able to play back High quality, but it was just choppy as it could be. I tried Medium and the story was the same. If I brought it out of full screen mode then it seemed to play better. The UI was about as responsive as it was on the Windows, which isn’t saying much so overall fail for Hulu Desktop.

Netflix:

Doesn’t work at all from what I can tell.

Youtube & the Web:

I wanted to give Youtube a try on Linux since thing thing came pre-installed with Flash 10.2 & Firefox. I tried out the same video that I tested with the Revo which was the Nvidia 1080p test video and it was all over the play. 1080p completely chugged so I tried 720p and it was the same. Lowering the quality down to 480p seemed to work just fine. I tried out southparkstudios.com and after a few attempts and a lot of buffering it kind of worked… Let’s just say it had a lot of problems as did vimeo. I thought perhaps it was Firefox so I decided to give Google Chrome a try. After a short download and install I tested out the sites again. First off Chrome on Ubuntu is way better then Firefox even for browsing. It was faster and oh my goodness flash videos actually played. Southparkstudios.com was able to stream all sorts of videos even at full screen just like it should. Vimeo seemed to play back just fine as well if HD was not on, after buffering of course. HD youtube still didn’t play and I had to go down to 480p to get it streaming smooth.

Summary

Overall I am really impressed with XBMC on the Linux powered Revo. I feel as though I need to go out and get a wireless dongle for it to put it under my television in the bedroom. I still need to test out some remotes with it for it to become a true HTPC. I also plan on testing out mythbuntu for a Linux powered DVR. I still think that while the Windows Media Center interface might have been a bit slower overall it was a better HTPC compared to this setup. However if you just have a lot local files and music and don’t want to purchase Windows 7 this might be a pretty good route to go. Hey it is free, so give it a try if you want!

Video Review

5Feb/1112

HTPC on the Cheap [Part 2] Review

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Cheap HTPC is a Champ

Two weeks ago I decided to create a HTPC on the cheap. The goal was simple build a powerful HTPC for under $500. I put together full list of parts that you can read about in HTPC on the Cheap Part 1. The main points are 2 TV tuners, large hard drive, smoking fast AMD Athlon II X3 processor, and a motherboard with a Radeon 4250 built in. This machine should be able to play 1080p content, Netflix HD, Amazon VOD, Hulu, and just about anything else you would want from a HTPC. I have already had an Acer Aspire Revo machine as my main HTPC for just about a year now and I even created RevoHTPC.com to showcase how I completely configured it, but after just 2 weeks with this new HTPC I am basically blown away. Here is a full breakdown of everything I have gone through.

Setup

Building a computer can be a challenge if it is your first time. Luckily this was my third time putting together a computer, and all of the parts just fell into place. One issue I did have was with the power supply inside the case. It only had 1 Sata power connection, so I did have to run to my local Fry’s electronics to grab the 4pin to Sata power adapters which added an additional $6 to the configuration. If you are only going to be using 1 drive then you would be fine, however I have 1 drive as the main OS drive (80GB) and 2 1TB drives. One drive is dedicated to recorded television shows, and the other is all my music and video files until I have a home server up and running again (waiting for Vail to officially release). Loading up Windows 7 was easy and painless as usual, and I found an amazing tool online that allowed me to transfer my setting from my Revo to this new machine, which is mcBackup. This tool simply allows you to save your configuration and then reimport it. There are more features to mcBackup such as automatic backups every night, but I just uninstalled it when I was done. After setting up all of my tuners inside of Media Center I went ahead and installed Hulu Desktop and the Media Center Integrator. I also installed the Revision3 media center plugin, Media Browser, Netflix, and Internet TV.

Inside of the Bios I adjusted the UMA buffer for video to 512MB. By default this is set to auto, however we really want 512MB of RAM dedicated to the Radeon 4250 since we are using this as a main HTPC, and not a normal computer. I only ran into one little issue, which was that I couldn’t get 5.1 audio to pass through the HDMI. The Biostar A880G+ said right on the box that is supported 6 channel audio so I was extremely confused after installing the driver from the included CD and the official AMD HDMI audio driver. No matter what I did it just wouldn’t work. I talked to Josh about the issue and he pointed me over to the Realtek website where I found the ATI HDMI Audio Device R2.55. After uninstalling all of the old drivers and installing R2.55 Windows still displayed 2 channels for audio. Then I went into media center and configured the speakers and it pushed out 5.1 just fine when watching movies or television. I did attempt 5.1 with VLC, but it still only output 2.0 audio, which is a let down. I am thinking that the problem most likely has to do with my sound bar that I am using, Sony HT-CT100, which is a 3.1 system that accepts up to 7.1 audio. Perhaps when I move and get a full receiver and surround sound system I can test it out again, but that will not be for a while.

Besides these few tweaks everything fits into the case that I purchased. And it is sitting happily in my entertainment center. If you are just getting started on HTPCs check out the Beginner's Guide to HTPCs over at the missing remote.

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Normal Usage

WP_000071I am inside of Windows Media Center about 99% of the time when using my HTPC, which means it needs to be snappy, responsive, and just work. I must say with this processor WMC is super fast, the menus fly, the guide works splendidly, and the movie gallery is smooth. I mean this thing is really fast and really makes you love the media center user interface. Inside of the bios there is a setting to automatically adjust the fan based on the CPU temperature and turning this on made the machine completely silent. If the CPU gets too warm 37C or higher then the fan ramps up and you can hear a quiet hum. I have only ever had this happen once when I closed the front door on my entertainment console. It was back down to normal temperature in a few minutes. When recording a show and watching a 1080p movie the core CPU temperature was only 33C.

WP_000073WP_000072Now as far as CPU usage it is really amazing how little is being used and how fast this machine is. My standard test was recording an HD show and watching a1080p movie CPU usage hovered at 2-8%, which is absolutely crazy. Pulling up Netflix and watching HD content only tagged the CPU at 30%. The real big test however is to see if this machine can handle a lot is to have an extender and watch television on both of them at one time. I hooked up my Xbox 360 and the first thing that I noticed is that it worked really great and was fast and responsive. CPU usage was alright averaging around 40-50%. It should be said that the extender used up an additional 200MB of RAM. It is looking like the 4GB of RAM is really helping out and is recommended. I tried to play all sorts of content to really see if I could bring down this machine, and it was basically impossible.

Playback

WP_000068Basic playback of television was extremely smooth and never had any issues at all. Even if I brought up the mini guide on top of live television there was no stutter at all. Playing movies and videos was flawless as well, there is absolutely nothing to complain about here. There was nothing I could throw at this machine that it couldn’t play. Even 1080p movies inside of VLC played back great. The Radeon 4250 pairs with Athlon II X3 is just a great combination.

Streaming Services

Netflix

WP_000066I decided to renew my subscription to Netflix just for 1 month to test out this new build. One big problem with my Acer Aspire Revo was that it could not handle Netflix HD. Since Silverlight is not yet GPU accelerated it really took down the CPU and would just choke. This wasn’t the reason I left Netflix, it was mostly because I ran out of interesting shows and movies to watch and there was no reason to keep paying $8 a month. However, now that I have been gone for a while from Netflix the circumstance has changed and there are a lot of new shows and movies, and Netflix HD streams absolutely perfect on this machine. Not only does it stream perfect, the user interface inside of WMC is really fast and responsive. It is a pleasure to flip through and see what I haven’t watched yet and just add it to my queue.

Internet TV

Internet TV is a feature inside of WMC that offers a lot of content from CBS and other sources. The steam is usually just standard definition video with some commercials and is all Flash based. Everything was pretty flawless as well.

Hulu

Good old Hulu Desktop has been my best friend on the Revo ever since Flash 10.1 came out. Hulu has a huge collection of television shows for free. I am not a huge fan of the entire user interface, however it was very snappy and High Quality streamed perfect.

Power Consumption

One question a lot of people asked me when I put up the first article was how much more power this new machine was going to consume. So I went out and purchased a Kill a Watt so I could monitor power usage in different circumstances. The standard use case would be that the HTPC sits idle, then you have just watching television, and then recording a television show and watching 1080p content. I figured that for around 17 hours a day the HTPC sits idle, 4 hours of normal usage, and 3 hours of heavy usage. Of course this can vary every day, but I figure this is a good estimate.  I decided to make a super crazy Excel spreadsheet to measure everything I possibly could on both my Revo and this machine and I was really surprised by the results. The Revo I had could never go above 60W, but I also had a whole bunch of other attachments including 2 hard drives and a USB hub. The new HTPC has a 420W power supply, and the CPU itself is 90W so I knew there was going to be a difference.

There are a lot of different things that I measure, but the most important are the Watts (current power being used) and KWH (Kilowatt Hour, which is how much power the machine uses after 1 hour). Most power providers simply charge you a standard rate for each Kilowatt you use. I have APS here in Arizona, and I am on an odd power plan where it cost 16 cents per kilowatt (9am-9pm weekdays) and then 5 cents all other times. If you do the calculations it looks like the Acer Aspire Revo would cost me around $35.50 for a full year while the new HTPC would cost me around $53.25. I am completely comfortable paying just $17-$18 more a year to have this HTPC. If you want a full breakdown you can download the full Excel spreadsheet here.

Conclusion

Overall I am extremely happy with this new HTPC. Everything just works and works very well. It is almost night and day from the Revo. I was always happy with my Acer Aspire Revo, however I am thrilled about this new setup and I don’t think I can go back. If anyone has any more questions please feel to leave comments and I will respond.

Filed under: HTPC 12 Comments
17Jan/112

Do it yourself HTPC on the Cheap, Part 1

I have been working on a big post over at The Digital Media Zone. We had a discussion on Entertainment 2.0 to see if we could build a HTPC for under $500. The Revo is a great choice as it is pretty cheap, but they wanted an all in 1 box. This has been a great experiment for me so far, if it works out nice then I will be using my Revo for a lot of HTPC testing. Everyone has been asking me to do Linux reviews and XBMC reviews so I hope to do them soon :).

A few Entertainment 2.0s ago we discussed building your own low cost HTPC. I have always been a big fan of Intel with my Revo HTPC, however for most people the Atom/ION combination is just not powerful enough for them. The Intel i3 is a great HTPC processor paired with Intel HD Graphics, however, this comes at a price. I decided to go where I have never gone before...AMD. AMD processors and Radeon graphics are both powerful and affordable.

So here is my goal:

  • 2 ATSC/QAM tuners
  • Dual Core+ processor
  • 2 GB+ RAM
  • 500GB+ Hard Drive (TV Recording)
  • 1080p/Netflix HD/Hulu/Youtube HD flawless playback
  • $500 price point
  • The first things to do is to pick out the processor and motherboard. I looked around at all of the processors that AMD offers and it was a tough decision with prices of dual and triple cores ranging between $57 and $80. The Athlon II X2 240 (on Amazon) offers a 2.8GHz dual core processor and only pulls in 65W for $58, while the Athlon II X3 450 (on Amazon)is a 3.2GHz triple core processors but pulls in 95W of power. This was an extremely tough decision as I am on a tight budget, but the decision was easy once I found the motherboard, which was to go with the Athlon II X3.

    The motherboard needed to support the AM3 chipset of the Athlon II chips and had to have the Radeon HD 4250 onboard. Since I want to build a small HTPC I found the BIOSTAR A880G+ (on Amazon), which features the 4250, has HDMI out, a PCI Express 2.0 x16, 2 PCI Slots, and 4 Sata ports. This little beauty was only $55, and had a $10 mail in rebate. To top it off if you bundled it with the Athlon II X3 you saved an additional $15, which brought the total of motherboard and processor to $110, which is a steal!

    Since I found myself such a great deal on the motherboard and processor I decided to splurge just a little bit and get 4GB of DDR3 RAM. The choice was easy as G.SKILL has been my preferred memory of choice for some time, their
    G.SKILL Ripjaws Series 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR3
    for only $49 will compliment the motherboard nicely.

    Finding a nice computer case on a budget that has a nice design is extremely difficult to do. Finding a small form factor case adds complexity to this process as most cases are cheaply made, or just don't look attractive. I took a long time to look through all of the MicroATX cases that Newegg had to offer, and I landed on a case by
    APEVIA
    . It features a 420W power supply, four hard drive bays, and a front LCD temperature display which is a nice touch. This little guy looked like it would look nice sitting under my television and was only $80, plus it had a $10 mail in rebate bringing it down to $70.

    Let's get the software out of the way right away, we are going to be using
    Microsoft Windows 7 Home Premium
    . It has the main feature we're looking for: Windows 7 Media Center. We need an operating system, so there is no way to get around it. This will add on $100 to the base price of your machine.

    For tuners I really wanted to put an internal card, however most of the dual tuner cards are PCIe x1, however the motherboad only supports x16. You could go with 2 PCI cards which would be just fine as well, however to make everything simple I would recommend picking up a
    SiliconDust HDHomeRun Network-based Dual
    (on Amazon). This is a network tuner, and Josh could not recommend it enough. It was on sale for $90.

    You can get absolutely crazy with hard drives if you would like. I would recommend a nice SSD for your main drive, and a larger data drive, but with only $80 left in the budget I had to keep it simple. I was in luck today as I found a nice
    SAMSUNG Spinpoint 1TB
    (on Amazon) on sale for $55. With $25 under budget you could stop here and checkout, or maybe you want to simplify your life with a nice
    Media Center Remote
    (on Amazon) for $23. I would obviously recommend a nice Harmony remote, but that is not in the budget. If you don't need a remote then you could always get a dedicated hard drive for Windows so the 1TB drive is dedicated to Recorded TV.

    There it is all for $500, but how does it perform? You will find out in Part 2, I still have to build it! I just received the parts in the mail today, so check out this sweet unboxing video below!

    Filed under: HTPC 2 Comments