geek(n): An intelligent, eccentric person with an interest in the perceptibly useless and esoteric.
asylum(n): 1) A place offering protection and safety; a shelter.
2) An institution for the care of those requiring organized supervision.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Encoding Digital TV

Ok, so it took me a while... I finally realised that because the HTPC is going to be all about digital TV, I dont need an encoder card. I guess I was still buzzed by all the good reviews I read about the Haupage PVR-350 (which includes a hardware MPEG encoder because it is an analog TV card).

Digital TV is already digitally encoded (Duh!) so the data stream is simply written directly to the disk.

Still, a hardware MPEG encoder might be useful for transcoding into other MPEG formats, but the dual core CPU should be able to handle that without assistance.

Im still learning about video and the various codecs and formats, and it is all starting to fall into place. I have a lot of experience with Linux (since 1991) and computers in general (since 1979) but video is something I havnt played with before.

Ive been shopping, and will post more on that soon.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

More HTPC thoughts

Now that the shopping list for this stage of the project is complete, ive been reading whatever I can about MythTV and general tips and tricks. I cant wait to buy the next lot of parts tomorrow, and really wish the hardware was all assembled and working so that I could get on with tinkering with the software that will be installed eventually.

In my research Ive discovered that the DVICO dual DVB-T tuner card that I want outputs one tuner via the PCI slot, and the other via an internal USB connector. I wrote last time about the USB connectors on the motherboard, and my need for more than the usual two (dual) internal connectors. Luckily after the 4 front panel USB connectors and the VFD are connected to the motherboard, I will still have one more internal USB port left. I will use that for the dual tuner card's USB output. I guess in a pinch I could add a mini USB hub to the inside of the case somewhere, to add some extra internal ports.

It also occurred to me that the Haupage PVR-350 is probably an analog TV card. I couldnt find any info which specifically said that it is or isnt, but I assume that if it was digital (DVB-T), the specs would say so. Thats a problem because the analog TV reception around here is rubbish, and digital TV is much clearer to begin with.

I still want a hardware MPEG encoder (one of the PVR-350 features that I was looking forward to) but I may have to do without it, or try and find a decent digital tuner card which includes a working encoder. With the dual core AMD64 X2 CPU, I probably wont miss it too much, but it would be nice to have. The motherboard only has two standard PCI slots, and they are reserved for the tuner cards - I have been quite surprised that I have not yet found a digital tuner card on a PCI-Express board - they all still seem to be on standard PCI cards, but that should change as PCI-Express makes a wider impact.

Friday, October 06, 2006

HTPC Shopping List

I've saved up a bit more money, and spent this week making a shopping list for the next lot of HTPC parts. It took me a while to settle on a motherboard, but the list is finally finished, and I'll be buying as much as I can on Monday.

Im going with an AMD64 X2 dual core 4600+ CPU in a Gigabyte M55SLI-S4 motherboard. I was originally drawn to the M59SLI-S5, but didnt need the dual gigabit ethernet, so I quickly downgraded it to an S4. Then I started tossing up whether I needed SLI or not, but the clincher was the 3 USB connectors on the SLI motherboards, as opposed to only two on the non-SLI models. I finally settled on the slightly older M55 board, which is about half the price of the other two. I may still buy the M59SLI-S4.

Having 3 internal USB connectors means that the board will integrate with the LC20M case, which has 4 USB ports on the front panel (requiring 2 internal connectors) and a USB VFD which also needs an internal USB connector. I dont want to have a couple of dead USB ports on the front panel, and I really dont want to run the VFD cable out of the case and plug it into one of the 4 external USB ports on the back (which Ive seen done before in some LC20M reviews). Going that little extra for the SLI motherboard solves the problem, and choosing the older board keeps the price about the same as a current non-SLI board.

I wont be using the SLI features to begin with, so Ive chosen a Nvidia 7300GS based video card without SLI. Its cheap and will do the job, and later I can replace it with a pair of SLI capable cards. One reason for this choice is that I couldnt find many SLI cards around, and the ones I did find were all expensive. This way I can wait a while until there are more around and the price comes down a bit.

Im adding 1Gb (2 x 512Mb) of 533Mhz generic DDR2 memory, which will take advantage of the dual channel DDR2 slots, a Silverstone ST60F 600W modular power supply, with SLI outlets, and a pair of Liteon SHM-165P6S DVD-RW Dual Layer drives. These drives were highly recommended in the reviews I read, and have the bonus of being easily flashed.

So thats the list. I cant wait until Monday. I'll be cashing in my Tomoko bucks to add to my savings. I should be able to pick up most of it, but if I have to wait a few days for something to be ordered, it wont really be a problem, as I still have to save up for the hard drives and TV cards.

On that front I will probably go with a pair of 400Gb SATAII drives (as raid-1) and at least one Haupage PVR-350 - probably with a DVICO dual tuner card in the other slot, for a total of 3 tuners in the box, with an encoder on the 350.

Anyway, I'll add links to all the gear when I get a bit more time later today. (Done).

Linux Upgrades

Once the web server was back up and running, I started on upgrading the two remaining servers to Linux 2.6. (The web server has been on 2.6 for years). This involved first upgrading all of the other software to the latest levels. That isnt so hard under Gentoo, but the mail server is complex and was a pain to reconfigure, and the other machine is a bit older and took a while to compile everything.

The old machine doesnt need much in the way of speed, and it has been caringly maintained over the years. It runs an old 233Mhz Pentium-MMX CPU, but it did have its motherboard upgraded a few months back so that it could be added to the rack, instead of sitting next to it on the floor. I was rather surprised when I found an ATX style board for an old Socket7 CPU on ebay, so I snapped it up and moved the machine to a new 2U Spin Server rack case.

While I was doing the mail server, I was trying to clean out a bunch of old dead symlinks in /usr/lib and put together a "find" command to list them all. After I had tested it and it had located all the right files, I thought I would be clever and get it to delete them at the same time...

It was taking too long so I killed it, and found that it had somehow (I still dont know how) wiped out half of /usr, which is an important part of the filesystem hierachy on a linux system.

I copied a few key files over from another system to make the machine usable again, and then set about rebuilding the GCC compiler, without having a working compiler to start with. Once that was back up, I then basically had to reinstall every library in /usr/lib and rebuild most of the binaries on the /usr partition. It took several days to get it all back again. Every now and then, while I was rebuilding something, the compile would crash as it discovered another missing library, and I would have to stop, reinstall the library, and then continue. I wont be adding -delete to my find commands in the future.

Then I had to rebuild all the missing modules under /usr/perl5 which took a while because I was getting version mis-matches with bits that had been left behind. I eventually deleted the whole /usr/perl5 tree and started over from scratch.

As part of the upgrade, I had to migrate both systems from devfs to udev, which was fairly painless. I run raid on my root partitions, so I decided to upgrade my initial ramdisk (initrd) to support the latest version of EVMS. The Pentium-MMX loads the new initrd fine, but doesnt seem to execute linuxrc, which causes a kernel panic because it cant find the root filesystem. It works fine with the old version of the ramdisk, and the other machines have no problem with the new one. Go figure.

Eventually the Linux upgrades went smoothly, and im just cleaning up a few loose ends, such as ntp, which refused to run on any of the machines. It turned out that the problem was due to some missing compile options (Gentoo USE flags) which had been introduced since the last time ntp had been compiled here, so suddenly bits stopped compiling until I added the new flags.

Everything is now up to date, and I can get back to other things such as 3D modelling, creating web sites, and building the HTPC. I'll be buying the next lot of HTPC components on Monday.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Going down the tube?

A friend emailed me a heads up about this story. Here is my emailed response.

Hmmm. Interesting about the future of Youtube. I'd have to agree,.. and disagree.

One of the first things that struck me as strange when I first started using YT was that their flagging system, while having options to flag offensive or illegal material, did not (and still doesnt) offer the option to flag copyrighted material. Then again, its quite possibly fair use to clip a few minutes of a 2 hour movie, and the quality is so reduced that even a 3 min music clip isnt anywhere near as good as the original version that you might see on a purchased DVD.

Eventually the RIAA will sue YT - they sue everyone else, including 12 year old girls, so why would they make an exception. I dont know how that will go, but I bet that fair use (and reduced quality) will play a part in the legal argument. The reduction in quality reduces the size of the copied data significantly and could arguably reduce the clip to something that may qualify as fair use. (IANAL).

On the other hand, my absolute favourite stuff on there is not the questionable TV shows or music clips, but rather a few selected individuals who have a bit of talent (or some other interesting quality) who regularly upload original videos, often from their webcam, but sometimes even from a proper expensive video camera.

Brookers is the obvious one, and not having looked at YT in recent weeks, the others that still come to mind are Moshihino, Smosh, and some Canadian girl whose name Ive forgotten (but shes on my subscription list - no, its not LisaNova).

I think YT will survive even if they are forced to pull the copyrighted material (Im surprised the flagging system wasnt designed to weed it out in the first place, but then they probably wouldnt have gotten so big so fast if it had) Why will they survive? Well, to answer that, heres a few more questions...

What has made the press? What has gotten YT all the attention? What made us all watch it? The recent ones that I can recall are Brookers (Hired by NBC on the strength of her YT videos) Geriatric1927 (an old guy recalling his very interesting life (personally, I flag him as another possible "fake" - I mean what 80 year old can use a computer, let alone a webcam and internet connection?)) The EepyBird guys with their massively upscale (and entertaining) Coke and Mentos experements (before they moved to Revver for the money) and of course everyone knows about LonleyGirl15.

All of these, that have created the most buzz around YT have been original content. I think those calling doom and gloom for YT's future are probably lobyists paid by the TV networks.

Ya'know, I really should blog this stuff :)