@madpilot makes

MythTV on an Intel Atom

I’ve been using MythTV for about 4 or 5 years now, first as just a DVD player, video and music player and more recently as an actual television replacement.

Unsuprisingly, my old VIA M10000 was starting to get a bit long in the tooth (it IS a 4 year old motherboard that was underpowered when it was new), so when the D945GCLF was released by and Intel a few months ago, I decided to give it a go.

Just like all the netbooks out there at the moment, it’s a Atom 1.6Ghz, so it’s still underpowered, but it surely has to beat the old 1Ghz Nemehiah…

Since the board was so cheap – it was about $AU90, compared to around $AU300 I paid for the M10000, so the extra dollars I had to fork out for new RAM, a HDD (I needed a SATA one), power suppy and extra heatsink didn’t hurt as much as it could have.

The last two items were required because the Travla case I have only had a 60W PSU which turns out wasn’t quite gutsy enough (more on this in a moment) and because of the large factory heatsink (for the Southbridge or Northbridge or whichever one ISN’T the CPU) stopped the DVD player from fitting – thankfully an after-market low-profile heatsink seems up for the job.

Problem 1: The Realtek 8165 network card wasn’t recognised by the Gentoo 2008.1 live CD, since the kernel was too old. Throwing in a spare PCI network card allowed me to bootstrap it, and kernel 2.6.27+ seem to support the card. Thankfully the rest of the base install was realitely painless – well as much as a Gentoo install can be… As of that kernel, there isn’t yet a kernel optimisation options specifically for the Atom, so I picked the Dual Core defaults which seems fine.

Problem 2: I spend WEEKS trying to fix this until I gave up. As usual XvMC, the interface that makes DVD and digital TV playback less CPU intensive would segfault on Xine, mplayer and MythTV (From memory I spent two years trying to get the M10000 working – I’m obviously less persistent now). I tried different gcc flags, getting the latest version from the relevent repositories, but nothing seemed to work. However, since the CPU would happily decode SD over-the-air broadcasts and DVDs I was tempted to cut my losses and forget about it. The fact that XvMC wouldn’t have helped out HD content either (It theoretically maxes out for anything bigger than 1024×768 I think. Oh, and it doesn’t do MPEG4) the decision was made.

Interestingly, Xine would happily decode a Channel 10 “Full HD” ATSC recording, but MythTV seems a little more CPU hungry, so live tv is too choppy to watch. I wonder whether the dual-core version might have enough headroom – I might try that in the new year (Although I have a feeling the larger CPU heatsink will stop it fitting in my case).

Problem 3: The board would randomly (or not so randomly as it turns out) reboot itself. You would have thought after spending so much time in class during electronics units at Uni, I would have worked out that the 60W wall adapter I was using couldn’t supply enough juice. If the second USB tv tuner and the DVD player were in use at the same time, the picoPSU 120 would shutdown. Thankfully ebay came to the rescue, and an 80w adapter is sitting on a delivery dock somewhere in Hong Kong. Hopefully it will find it’s way to my house.

Problem 4: The volume from the Intel HD chipset is REALLY low. Normal listening has the volume at ~80-90, rather than the 30-40 of the old board. I can probably fix that, but it’s tolerable, so I’m not to worried…

Problem 5: The GPU fan IS LOUD. It’s ok when there is something on the TV at a decent volume, but when it’s off, it sounds like a really small 747 in there. Mind you, if we are in the lounge room, the telly is probably one, so again, no biggie.

Problem 6: The latest version of Gentoo has trouble compiling mjpegtools-1.8 which is required by mytharchive. I had to compile it by hand, after applying some patches.

Problem 7: There is a bug in the network card driver, where sometimes, if the system performs a warm boot, the network card will stop working, which can only be fixed by a cold reboot (sometimes multiple times).

Problem 8: Clutch – the web interface to Transmission has remove the ability to have transmission download .torrent files for you. Now you have to download them to the desktop, then upload them. Dumb. The developers said something about not wanting AJAX calls to have to wait, which sounds like a dubious excuse to me – file uploads aren’t AJAX calls, they have to make a full round trip to the server.

So after all that (Oh, come one – 8 issues is a walk in the park for installing Linux! :P), the system is up and running. Overall, it’s not bad.

Advantage 1: The menus are much, MUCH snappier than the old machine. I can press a button on the remote, and I no longer have enough time to make a cup of coffee before the menu item changes.

Advantage 2: The standard transitions in  mythphotos now work. OpenGL doesn’t though.

Advantage 3: One of the plus sides of not having to use XvMC means the OSD is in colour and not distorted (Because the overlaygot mixed in before the scaling is done, the font rendering always looks weird).

So if this a good buy? If you aren’t afraid of a compiler, and aren’t going to miss HD OTA (Blueray WILL NOT WORK), then sure – it’s cheap and mostly easy to get working. It would be nice if there was a DVI output on the board – Intel could have easily replaced the serial port or parallel port with one. It also would have been nice it they had put a better GPU – either a low powered one, or a better spec’d one, I’d be happy with either.

But all in all, for a cheap, interium board it’s quite nice. 3 stars.

EEE-PC. So cool!

I’m writing this blog post using my brand-spanking Eee PC – the 7″ mini-laptop brought out by Asus. This thing is small, I’ve taken a picture of it sitting on my regular 15″ widescreen laptop, and you can see the difference:

Asus Eee Pc compared to a Toshiba M30

They have managed to squeeze a pretty decent machine in there – it is a 900Mhz Celeron (under clocked to 630Mhz) with 512Mb of RAM and 4Gb of SDD drive space, not bad considering the size and the fact it weighs less than a kilo! Even with the specs, it is suprisingly zippy – I suppose because there isn’t really anything running on it. Boot up time is less than a minute, and shutdown is even quicker.

There is an 8Gb one as well (exactly the same, just with a bigger drive), but I threw in a $25 2GB SD card and that suits me plenty.

It comes loaded with Xandros Linux, a Debian derivative, and with a little hacking, you can unlock the less than useful “simple” mode to reveal KDE. So me further hacking still, and you can pretty much load up any software that will run on Linux. I have a LAMP stack, and I nearly have Rails working (getting Rails to work on Debian is a pain at the best of times).

One of the other great things about this machine is the hackability – many people have managed to install internal USB hubs and bluetooth adapters, touch screens and even digital tv tuners behind the screen (I’m very tempted by this…).

Alas, there are a few downsides. The battery life is pretty average (mind you I’ve been spoilt by my extended 5 hour battery on my main laptop) and hibernation takes longer than shutting down, so the default action when shutting the lid is sleep, which surprisingly chews through the battery. I had it fully charged the night I got it, closed the lid and it was almost dead by morning.

The keyboard takes a little getting used to (but what do you expect). For example, I keep hitting PgUp instead of shift.

The only other annoyance (and this is probably a Linux thing more than anything else) is the WiFi doesn’t auto-connect and it doesn’t seem to like JoikuSpot, so I’m still stuck with my iPod Touch on the train.

All in all though, for a $AU500 miniature laptop, it is freaking awesome!

One computers, one PocketPC and some funky software

I recently wrote about MaxiVista – some software which allows you to turn an old laptop into a  second monitor. I still use it at work everyday to get three screens of happiness. However , what to do at home? I’ve only got two screens  at home and frankly it makes me sad. As far as I’m concerned three monitors is the holy grail of productivity.

My old Compaq iPAQ was sitting next to my laptop looking at me all forlorn – I haven’t used it much lately, now my phone does everything it used to do, so it was just sitting there using electricity. I thought to my self

“How cool would it be if I could use that as a third monitor”

Yes, this is the sort of thing I think about. Since I only use the third monitor for Getting Things Done, such as my scheduling sheet and my time tracking, the smaller screen would actually do the job. Even Synergy would have done the job, as it would have allowed me to easily edit a Pocket Excel document, and 88 Miles works on PocketPC. Alas, Synergy for PocketPC doesn’t exist (no suprises there).

What does exist though, is SideWindow by Innobec. Seriously, they have created a piece of software that, just like MaxiVista allows you to extend your desktop to another computer – except this time the other computer is you PocketPC! Crazyness.

Shows my PocketPC displaying the extension of my laptop desktop My PocketPC displaying 88 Miles via SideWindow

Now unfortunately my PocketPC doesn’t have WiFi, only Bluetooth so the connection is a little slow (and flaky), but it works! If does discconect for no reason occasionally, but I suspect this is more to do with my dodgy networking hack (I connect my iPAQ to my server via bluetooth and BlueZ, which in turn connects to my laptop via WiFi.).

SideWindow has a screen rotate feature built in, so you can run your new screen at a more natural landscape layout, rather than the less then useful portrait. Obviously 320×240 pixels isn’t really much real estate to gain, so the clever people at Innobec allow you to scale the window to fit more in (right up to 1024×768!) The more you scale the less readable things get – I’ve found 640×480 is a nice comprimise between readability and speed, however if you have a fast network connection you might get away with a higher resolutions.

It’s $15 to buy, and probably isn’t for everyone, but it’s still on of those “Cool” things to show off to your geek friends.

Review: Siemans SpeedStream 6520 ADSL2+ Modem Router

With my move to my new house/office, and with Amnet offering static IPs on their ADSL 2 plans it has become time to retire my trusty Alcatel ADSL modem and WRT54G modem/router combination. I went through this process about a year ago when I blew the power supply on my WRT54G and was not impressed with the quality of many of the routers out there. Instead, I modified another power supply and got a UPS (I learnt my lesson)

Anyway, my luck hasn’t changed. Amnet offer a Siemans SpeedStream 6520 with their accounts, so I thought I would give it a go. As far as I can tell, this modem/router is only being offered by Telstra and Amnet as a package and as a result, you can’t purchase it from a retail store.

Problems:

  • The router doesn’t seem to handle persistent connections well. If I open an SSH session, it will often drop out after a period of inactivity – using the PuTTY “keep-alive” feature fixes the problem, so it isn’t the quality of my connection. The same occurs with my Outlook IMAP connection. Very annoying.
  • It doesn’t support port forwarding beyond DMZ – not a huge problem, but I liked this feature of the WRT54G
  • For some weird reason, my VoIP software – eyeBeam, can’t connect through the firewall. It’s little brother, X-Lite works fine, but eye-Beam is so much better I’m quited annoyed at this. Note this may not be a problem with the router, but it worked fine with the WRT54G.

I’ve asked for a refund for it and have ordered a Linksys WAG54Gv2 which is the combination big brother of the WRT54G. Hopefully Linksys is on other winner with this product. I’ll let you know.