Jul 30, 2012

My Silent HTPC - part 4

All right, software time! After putting the last screws in the Streacom cabinet, I had to test if it could actually be put to use.

My original idea was to try (all) the different setups for the same box. First I'd install OpenElec, then Windows + XBMC, then some Linux variant with XBMC. Turned out to be impossible to find the time with the arrival of my daughter! (Also impossible: completing this post before summer vacation.)

So to save time, I went straight for the low-cost option of Ubuntu and XBMC - following  this guide Howto Install XBMC PVR Xvba for AMD/ATI Radeon and Fusion GPUs. It worked really well, but keep in mind, it only applies if you have an AMD/ATi video card.

So, I wanted to install from a USB stick (obviously). Had to insert the USB stick in the right USB port for the BIOS to recognize it. Turned out to be the top left one, don't ask why. 

Install of ubuntu minimal from stick was effortless, though I had to rely on ethernet for the time. The installer did not seem to recognize any of my USB WiFi dongles.

Installing a usb wifi dongle - worked better than anticipated when using Atheros chipset (TPLink TN300N) (given that I didnt remember all the iwconfig, iwlist and ifconfig commands. Thanks, google!).

Using a WPA2 passkey was nearly impossible. I tried different ways in the config file and in command line, but to no avail. Turns out, it has to be converted to a hex key and saved to the config file.  Had to create the hex key using this tool [wireshark.org]  and punch that into the /etc/network/interfaces file. Here's a handy howto for that.

Then everything was golden, on boot, it skips right into xbmc without any login or menu selection or other funky business. To compare with my Syvio, I never in almost four years got it to boot straight to oversight, which was the "xbmc UI app".

Setup a Samba share for my Windows boxes to share files - no weirdness there, up and running as planned.

But then I had problems with connection speed on this usb dongle when transferring big files. Speed started out good - then dropped, then connection would time out. This seemed to be the case with the old Syvio system as well, but then I blamed it on crappy hardware. This time - not so much! So I purchased an Asus N53 USB Wifi dongle - available from Amazon.com.

After switching to the new one, sporting a Ralink 2800 chipset, no problems, and did not need to install any drivers or update the /etc/network/interfaces file. Smooth! (PS, for Ubuntu 11.10 apparently things were a little harder)

Now, to wrap up very quickly and get this post posted, there are some remaining issues.
-No sound for the time being. Have to look into that. Well, that was fixed easily, but I don't know what happened. Basically I followed the standard procedure of selecting transport and output - and the first time, I had no luck. Second time around - it works. 

-Overscan problems with Aeon - what to do. Switched back to Confluence. Probably a driver-issue. Not a biggie, anyhow.

Screen capture of sensors output
-Sensors for Asus motherboard not available for Linux. Oh joy... That's a problem, but it turns out, it kinda works anyway. It's a lot less inaccurate than some others report. And luckily it has not hit the roof - yet. Not even on a hot summers day. But I suspect that may change when I put it inside the cupboard...

-No power on/off by remote. Again, not a biggie, but I need to look into it. Especially if my girlfriend is to use it. Or if I succeed in my plan to hide all the equipment behind a wall or in a separate cupboard, that makes the power button inaccessible.

I've not used the box as much as I wanted this far, but the times I have, it has been pure bliss. It boots quickly, it looks great, the xmbc navigation is great - and it always downloads correct information about the movies/shows that I watch. Gone are the days of creating .nfo files with IMDB ids in them...just make sure you have the folder structure ready and you should be safe.

 I've encountered one single movie that didn't play well, it kept showing articfacts. I suspect it may be because of the H.264 level but haven't had time to confirm it.

All in all I am happy with the result of project, and I'd get the same hardware again. There's only the faint sound of the harddisk when the box is running, and of course during playback, it's not going to be heard by anyone. Temperature, when it's still sitting on top of my media bench, is comfortable. Performance is great, even when playing full-HD material - save for the one movie I mentioned earlier (actually performance is still good there, but there are artifacts in the picture).

Now to make some pop-corn...