rebooting my mini-itx

It’s been a long time since I’ve worked on much anything computer-related as a hobby.  Things have changed quite a lot in the past year.  I moved to a much smaller apartment in Salt Lake, which is about a third the size of my old place.  The idea was to trim the fat and focus on going back to school, which is my major direction in life these days.  When I moved in, I didn’t have room for setting up a desktop computer anywhere, so it’s been just my netbook and me.  That suits me plenty fine, though, I wasn’t really using it that much either.  I had just upgraded to a six-core so I could rip DVDs much faster, and now it was sitting headless wherever I could find room, and even then, only used occasionally.

It’s not just at home that things have been changing.  At work I got to make the transition from programmer to full-time sysadmin, and I’m absolutely loving it.  I knew I was getting tired of coding, and I had always enjoyed just taking care of servers, and now I get to do that all day long. When I initially started as a sysadmin, I didn’t think our small company would have enough work for me to do after a few months.  In actuality, I’m kept busy all the time.  The part I like the most is that part of my job is doing research, how to do things better, more efficiently, anything to make the workload easier.  It’s fun.

On top of all that, my school attendance is starting to ramp up more, and I’ve been consistently drifting to adding more classes to my workload.  All this stuff has basically booted Linux out of my life as a hobby, and so now I need things to “just work” without hassle, so I leave my installations alone.

One thing I’d been neglecting a little bit was my entire HTPC setup.  I hadn’t been using it much lately just because I would mostly stream some Netflix (yay, Doctor Who!).  My setup has been a beast though, normally running for months on end without the slightest hiccup.  What started to happen though is that I would come back to using it, switching my HDMI input over, and the box would be powered off for some reason.  Most of the time, I would either power it back on and go on with life or just ignore it.  Until one day it wouldn’t power on at all, and I just shrugged it off and determined to look at it later.

Well, later turned out to be finals week, when my brain has been working overtime, and I seriously needed a hobby.  I pulled out my main frontend and started looking at it to see what was going on.  It was plugged in properly and everything looked legit, but when I hit the power, the CPU fan would start up for a second and then everything would stop.  After fiddling with it for a bit, I started to notice that something was smelling burnt.  Once that happened, I abandoned my diagnosis.  Even if I did manage to get it working, I didn’t want it to catch everything on fire.

At the same time, my external USB drive enclosure died on me.  So even if I could have gotten it working, I still wouldn’t have had a way to watch my shows.  Them giving out on me hasn’t bothered me in the least — the entire setup has been running flawlessly for years, and I’d managed to get a lot of mileage out of them.

Now I had to decide what I was going to do.  I have a lot of hardware, but in pieces.  I have four mini-ITX boards altogether, two of them are VIA C7 chipsets, and the other two are Zotac boards both running low-powered Celeron CPUs (around 35W if I remember correctly).  The power supplies for the VIA boards use 20-pin connectors and only run at about 80W, and aren’t enough to handle the Zotac boards which use 24-pin connectors.  So I have this mix of hardware, and nothing powerful enough to act as a frontend.

There are some great packaged systems out there now where for between $200 to $300 you can get an entire package in one go that does exactly what I’m putting together myself. I considered the idea of just starting over, but I decided that it’d be cheaper to just salvage what I could.

So this week I ordered a new USB HDD enclosure, and I also ordered a new power supply for the main Zotac board.  I found a site that sells really small power supplies for mini-ITX boards, called picoPSU.  The design eliminates a lot of the hardware that I would normally need to get all the power to my box.  I was really skeptical about them when I first heard of it, but did some looking around and it looks like it’s exactly what I need.

In the meantime, I ripped out my motherboard out of my desktop, and put both Zotac boards in there to make sure they still work, and thankfully they do.  I got the old setup pieced together using my desktop case, and fired up the old system to play around with it.

I had started to forget how much time I put into this thing.  I forgot that I had put countless hours stitching this thing together, running a custom build of Gentoo suited to run on small environments.  On top of that I made hacks to mythvideo and got those working to polish off some rough edges.  It just started to come back to me how much I’d worked on this … and how much fun it was. :)

I played around with my frontend a little bit, and fired up a few movies just to try out the surround sound.  It was awesome.  I’d forgotten how nice it was to have that huge library on demand, too.

So I’m excited now to get things up and running.  It’s been a good little while.

ripping blu-ray discs on linux … and windows, and ps3

I’ve finally found a way to rip some of my Blu-Ray discs, kinda.  I’ve had to manage a few workarounds because I’m missing a pretty common piece of hardware in the setup: a BD-ROM drive.  I do have a PS3, though, that I’m running Linux on, and I can get to the media just fine that way.  I also have to use shareware, both on Windows and Linux … but, it works, and the files look great. :)

So, the backstory is that the other day I was making a note of all the projects I have to do,  creating what I call my project tree.  It’s basically an ordered list of general projects (Gentoo, home theater system, etc.), and then abstract projects underneath that.  It’s nice because I can get a birds eye view of all the stuff I’m working on without going into specifics about any of them.  One of the home theater ones was to get at least ISO disc rips of the Blu-Ray movies I already have, even if I can’t decrypt them yet, so I can at least play around with my options as they become available.

Well, I had moved my server setup around not too long ago, so I had two 750 GB harddrives just collecting dust.  I put one of them in an external USB drive, and plugged it into my PS3, which was already running Linux (see this pervious post for all the fun details).

I formatted my external USB drive as NTFS, so that I could read/write to it with Windows as well, and then I would insert a disc and just dump it to an ISO file.  That’s easy enough:

$ cat /dev/sr0 > KFP.iso

I grabbed a couple of them (which took awhile, don’t let me kid you on that part) so that I could get a good sampling in case I had more luck with one than another.

Once that was done, I trotted the little drive and plugged it into my netbook, running Windows XP, and installed both Virtual CloneDrive and AnyDVDHD.  The first one lets me mount an ISO as an actual disc drive, and the second actually decrypts the disc for me and dumps the contents back to the harddrive.  So, that’s two passes now on all the data, which is making this take a long time.  But that’s okay, it’s fun.

Now that I have the actual contents, the MPEG2 transport streams, I can play it back with MPlayer, ffplay or whatever.  I’m having limited success with latest MPlayer on the files with VDPAU playback support, but it could just be my video card (GeForce 8600 GTS).  On my HTPC frontend, it works almost perfectly on there, with a nicer video card (GeForce 9300).  My desktop just craps out, though.  I can still watch it with Xv video out, though.

mkvtoolnix doesn’t support m2ts files right now, so I don’t have many options if I wanna change things around.  I’m still in a proof-of-concept stage, so I don’t really care all that much.  Plus, my options are already limited.  AnyDVDHD is shareware that will expire in 21 days, and while it’s amazing and works great, it’s really expensive — something like $200 for a lifetime license.  Eek.  With that, I’ll keep trying my options on Linux.

The second piece of shareware I ran into (which also has a limited evaluation license, though this time for 30 days) is MakeMKV.  The Linux port is always a little more difficult to find, so here’s a direct link to the details on the lastest version.  Boy, I never thought I’d be talking about shareware on my blog.

MakeMKV works really nice, too.  It’s supposed to be able to do the same job as AnyDVDHD, I believe, but since I don’t have the actual Blu-Ray drive, everything I’ve tried has never worked when just mounting the ISO direcly and trying to access that.  I believe that part of cracking the key involves having access to the drive.  I’m really not sure.  I’ve read a bit about the whole process, but it’s still really confusing to me still.

Anyway, the software will let you access it directly through the decrypted contents, and that’s what I did.  The interface is actually really simple and nice, and I would actually consider buying this one (it’s much cheaper, at $50 for a lifetime license).  I’m trying to remember the last time I paid for a software license.  One that comes to mind, is that I actually have a valid registration key for Legend of the Red Dragon, the *really* old BBS door game.  Wow.  I think it cost me something like $15.

MakeMKV is pretty nice, though.  It snags the subtitles I select, and already includes the chapters as well as the HD audio formats.

So, that’s it.  The whole process is pretty tedious, but it works, and I’m happy.  I don’t really care about decrypting it *too* much right now, since I don’t wanna go through the pain of trying to play them back over my HTPC just yet.  I’d need to do a lot of tweaks and upgrades to my system, and I really don’t care that much.  It’s not worth the hassle.  Especially, uh, since I just bought a new Blu-Ray player last month. :D

Really, though, I’m just doing this for the exercise since when I get bored, often times I’ll want to play around with media files and formats and see what I can do with them.

Eventually I’ll buy a BD-ROM drive and see what I can do, but for now I’m trying to save some $$$ and the whole point of this was to see if I could rip some discs with just the hardware available, and I could. :)  Woots.

On a sidenote, I posted aacskeys to the portage tree today, which is one of the tools users need to decrypt the keys on their discs.  Hopefully we can get some more hackers interested in poking at it.  That’s always good.

Last but not least, here’s an actual screenshot from the final rip. :)

I love TMNT. :D  Boy that’s a post for another day … which reminds me, I should get a copy of my home-made videos some day, that I made with my action figures.  Oh man, that’d be awesome.

my hardware closet

I finally called and cancelled my Comcast cable TV subscription this weekend.  I’ve been meaning to do it forever.  I can’t remember the last time I was even watching TV on a regular basis, though I think it was probably around 6 months or so.  With my media center up and running so well, I generally just watch something from there or rent it on Netflix these days.

Now, the question is, what to do with all the hardware?  I have three (yes, THREE) Tivos with unlimited subscriptions.  Two of them are the klunky one-tuner first generation of the Series2 boxes, but the third is an HD Tivo, which is very nice.  I could sell them, but considering the price I shelled out (for the HD one, at least, savvy consumerism got me the first two for real cheap … under $50 each) I hate to part with it.  I keep thinking I’ll get cable again some day, and by that year sometime in the future, I’ll pat myself proudly on the back and say, “way to hang on to a piece of hardware for so long!  Now go get the compressed air.”

I’m cursed with the pack rat mentality, though.  I hang onto stuff far too long in the oft chance that someday, I *might* need it.  On Saturday, I woke up a little early, and as is normally the weekend routine, I get the feeling that I must turn my entire world around by 11 a.m.  This time, it was the closet in my living room which has the distinction of dedicating 85% of its storage space to electronics that I might need sometime before the next century.  The other 15% is a mix between my puzzles, dust bunnies, air, movie posters, and movie t-shirts.  I have a red t-shirt promoting “Searching for Bobby Fischer”, I kid you not… I’ll even take pictures to prove it.

I swear I’ve been carrying this collection of cables and equipment for at least ten years or so, probably ever since I haven’t been living at home.  It never really bothered me that I don’t use most of the technology anymore (or ever, really), you just never know when you’re going to need a floppy IDE cable.  Really!  I’m all about being prepared, but for the wrong circumstances.  I can just see the day when I’ll be someone’s hero for helping them be able to flash the BIOS on their 15-year old Dell desktop.  I still have the floppies to put it on, too.

So, this weekend was the closet’s demise.  I grabbed a bunch of plastic bags from the kitchen (the bachelor’s preferred method of storage and transportation for all things non-essential) and started filling them up with stuff.  My method of deciding what to keep and what to throw out was pretty simple: if I couldn’t remember the last time I used it, it gets tossed.  Normally it could be times like these that a selective memory can cause problems down the road, but I had so much junk anyway, I don’t think it’ll cause a problem.  Besides, the memory problems go both ways — when I do need a new cable or piece of hardware, I can’t get mad at myself because I’ll have forgotten I used to own one anyway.

All in all, I filled up something like eight to twelve bags of stuff.  I don’t remember how many it was, but I do recall that when I took it to the thrift store and started unloading, I had so much stuff that it took two guys to carry it all away, and one of them kept laughing because the stream was endless.  I think most of it was cables.  There were some notable things that I’d been hanging onto for a long time, “just in case,” some of which were: my old Gamecube, an 8 GB IDE harddrive, my old home-theater-in-a-box speakers (which were about as powerful and had as much wattage as two light bulbs), three PCMCIA wireless cards, a few wireless USB dongles, and a slew of PCI slot brackets.  I elected to hold onto the floppy drive — it was a sound investment in 1990, and it’s a sound investment today.

That’s not really the interesting part, though.  There is still all the stuff that I decided to keep because it held some kind of value, but I don’t have the energy or drive to see them through the process of being sold on the secondhand market.  Nothing makes a closet grow quite like a pack rat mentality combined with the laziness of avoiding the hassle of making spare change.  I’ve still got my Tivos, for instance.  There’s an old (now) AMD Athlon64 desktop that is pretty nice — top of the line of about 5 years ago.  Runs really quiet, too.  Then there’s a used Gateway desktop I remember I bought on Craigslist for some reason a while ago, and I’ve never used.  I’m holding onto that one because it came with Windows, and I might someday want *another* Windows XP Home key, so I can just use that one.  It probably wouldn’t work, anyway, but hey … hope lingers longer than logic.

I almost dragged off my original Xbox to the thrift store, too.  It hasn’t been as fun as I’d hoped it would have been, and having one console (PS2) with corded controllers is enough for me.  Plus it’s a bit wheezy.  Probably just needs a new fan, or harddrive.  Dunno.  I also decided to keep all my TV tuner cards, even though I never use those either … especially now without a cable subscription.  One of them was the Plextor external USB one that has MPEG4 hardware encoding (very nice).  I think my brother wanted that one.  Maybe it’ll be a nice holiday surprise, as in, I’ll be surprised if I manage to make it to the post office before Christmas 2010 to mail it off.

Oh yah, and there’s an MSI Mini-ITX motherboard with an Intel Atom that I’ll probably never try to revive, but I hate to donate it since I still think I could get at least $20 for it somewhere.  Then there’s my new Motorola RAZR phone that I used for about a week before I switched to Verizon.  That’s gotta be worth something.  I’ve also got two MP3 players, an iPod Nano and a Sansa something, each 4 GB … too small for me to do anything with … but I’ll hang onto them just because.  I think I still have a portable Sony Walkman cassette player, too.

In actuality, I’d like to get rid of all of the stuff, provided I can do it through a simple way … meaning I don’t have to do any work, and non-creepy people flock to my house with cash in hand.  I doubt it’d happen, but hey, if you live near Salt Lake and are interested … drop me a line.  That’s about as proactive as I’m gonna get about it.  If you ever need your BIOS flashed, too, I could probably do that as well.

hardware setup

I got woken up this morning at about 5:30 because my server’s fan was so loud.  Seriously.  Actually, I think I had trouble sleeping anyway, but it was unusually noisy, and when I woke up, the first thing I thought was, “what the heck is that noise?”  The rear fan in the ATX case of my server is precariously placed, and if the elements don’t align quite right, it rattles quite a bit, and that’s what happened here.

This is the server that houses all my media files, so I can’t really just rip it out and replace it with something else.  It has two 750 GB drives right now which make up my entire library space.

I shut the sucker down for a bit so I could pop it open and see if I could adjust the fan and blow out some of the dust in there.  While it was powered down, it was so quiet in the room, I couldn’t believe it.  I forgot how much noise these things make.

Since I was already up, I decided to look into some ways to either reduce the noise pollution or find an alternative storage setup.  I’ve got a spare Mini-ITX system and a spare external SATA drive enclosure, so I decided to fire that up and see how good my transfer rate would be if I just used external drives with a fanless low-powered Mini-ITX.  By the time I left for work, I was in the middle of transferring a bunch of media files over to the new harddrive, so I guess I’ll find out later.  But the transfer rate was at about 8 MB/s, so I think it’s safe to say that it’ll work out pretty nice.

I’m hoping that this setup will work in the future for my dream scenario: a quiet file server.  I figure if I can buy a few 1.5 TB harddrives, and plug them all into external SATA enclosures, then I should be good to go.

I went ahead and bought a Western Digital Green 1.5 TB harddrive this morning, too, to replace my other drives in the server.  I know the Green line of harddrives isn’t the fastest of the line, but I think that, for my circumstances, it’ll run just fine.  They run between 5200 and 7200 RPM.  Less speed should mean less heat, which would make me worry not as much about having it as an external drive being passively cooled.  I’m not gonna be using it as the OS, for the Mini, I’m already running that off of a 4GB USB drive, and that runs plenty fast.  The only thing it’ll do is just be serving up media over the wired network.  As long as the read speed is decent, I probably won’t have any complaints.

my blu-ray ripping trial run

Yesterday, I wanted to see if I could rip a Blu-Ray disc using my PS3.  I really want to get a BD-ROM drive, but they are so expensive still, and since I can install Linux on my PS3, I figured maybe I’d try and save myself some money and see if I could manage to get one ripped and decrypted.  It actually worked, which surprised me.  Ripping the disc was the simplest thing in the world, but the key on the movie I tried (Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory) was too new, and currently only AnyDVD has support for it.  I’d love to buy a copy of that, but it only runs in Windows, and it’s really expensive.  Instead, I’ll just have to wait for the keys to pop up eventually on the doom9 forums.

The first step, though, was getting the PS3 to run Linux.  I took the shamelessly easy way out (and I don’t regret it either) and installed Xubuntu.  I won’t go into details about how I got Linux on my PS3 since that’s well documented.  I will say that I remember quite vividly now why I can’t stand binary distros.  Bleh.

The BD filesystem is UDF.  Providing you have a recent kernel (2.6.20, I think) with UDF v2.5 support, you are good to go.  I mounted a remote share and just dumped the disc to an ISO file onto my desktop.

$ cat /media/cdrom0 > wonka.iso

That was the easy part.

The hard part was trying to get it decrypted.  I had to use Java tools (bleh) to get to the source.  There are three applications you need.  And if you hate digging through forums and using download services, then I’ve got direct links for yah:

For Gentoo, you’ll need to install the JDK to build the aacskeys library and binary.  I just emerged dev-java/sun-jdk and it worked for me (I know absolutely nothing about Java, but my stabbing in the dark miraculously worked).  You’ll also need a runtime environment to actually execute the stuff, and I emerged dev-java/sun-jre-bin and that worked fine, too on my amd64 box.

For aacskeys and Gentoo, you’ll need to apply this patch that I cobbled together from what I found on the doom9 forums to get it to compile.  It just fixes the Java include directorys for the Makefile.

Now, I’m still a bit fuzzy about what each program does, and whether you need all of them or not, so I won’t go into a lot of detail.  What you want to use, though, is the dumphd program.  But to use it, you’ll need to copy the aacskeys library and a file from the bdvmdbg package as well into the path or same directory as the dumphd program.

Once you have that, you can just run and it’ll fire up a simple little GUI telling you if it has all the libraries it needs.  Then you just specify the source and destination, and aacskeys will see if it has a working key to access the disc.

I can’t really give much more detail than that, since I’m so new to this.  Suffice it to say, if you read the accompanying README doc that comes with each one, you’ll get along just fine.

It took me a long time last night to get just one disc ripped and transferred over my subnet to try it out, and by the time I managed to get it mounted (mount -o loop -t udf wonka.iso /mnt/udf) and access it, it was pretty late.  The keys I had didn’t work for my disc, and I didn’t want to try the whole procedure over to try another disc.

Anyway, good luck if you try it.  One thing that impressed me is how much simpler it was than I thought it’d be, but what a pain it was trying to figure out where things went wrong.  The doom9 forums are a good resource, but not exactly the best place to find clear, concise information for a beginner.  That part was frustrating.

Personally, I don’t think it’s worth the hassle right now, the way I did it.  I’ll get a BD-ROM sooner or later so I don’t have to transfer the content over the network and can instead just test it directly.  But, I started out to see if I could at least get a copy of the ISO and get the tools running all without Windows, and I can.  So, that’s progress right there.

the hdtv mini htpc that may never be

So, my efforts to get a small Mini-ITX system capable of playing back HD content so far has not been successful.  And, as is usual with stories of my hardware adventures, the problem always lies with something totally unexpected.  Here’s the story so far.


At the end of September, I finally plunked down some cash and got a Zotac GF9300-D-E Mini ITX motherboard from Amazon.  The board is a bit older, but it’s loaded with features.  It’s got an onboard Nvidia 9300 video card, with HDMI output along with both SPDIF ports.  On top of it, it is a socket 775 Intel chipset, so that means I wouldn’t have to bite the bullet and go with a sluggish Atom again.  Don’t get me wrong, the Atoms are nice for general computing, but I still don’t think they are really up to the job for dedicated video playback.

So, I got one of those, along with the same 35W Intel Celeron CPU that has been working so extremely well on my first Zotac Mini-ITX that is only capable of SD playback.  I don’t want to knock that board either, because it has been doing extremely well.  I’ve been very happy with it since day one.


The board arrived, and I immediately set it up and got everything plugged in.  I took out my old Zotac and rested the new one into the Silverstone HTPC case.  I’ve got an LC19 which is actually big enough to hold a Micro-ATX board — really, this thing is huge — so a Mini is comfortable and capable enough to slide right in there.  There’s a lot of things I like about this case.  It’s top cover is covered with ventilation holes so you don’t have to worry about the board overheating.  In fact, the original Zotac was running so efficiently, that the CPU fan would rarely turn on.  It was great.  I do have some issues with the case, though.  There’s no reset button, which would have been nice, and the power supply has always seemed a bit flaky to me for some reason.  I can’t really pinpoint what the problem is, but it just seems a little cheap to me.

Anyway, I plugged in thew new HD-capable Zotac, hooked up all the cables, and hit the power button.  The CPU fan started spinning briefly, then stopped completely.  At first I assumed it was like the original board, and it the smart fan meter was kicking in and it was just powering down because it was running cool.  Except that the board wouldn’t POST.  I wasn’t getting any video output at all.  I took everything back out and meticulously checked all the connections, and they certainly looked fine.  I made sure all the connections were secure on the case as well, and they seemed good too.  A bit puzzled, I put it all back together and tried again, with the same result.

At this point I figured that maybe it didn’t like my RAM configuration, so I took the module out of the first row, and set it into the adjacent one.  After doing that, I hit the power button, and then *nothing* happened this time.  The fan wasn’t even spinning up at all.  Crap.

Finally I did what I should have done the first time around, and I grabbed a PC speaker component and plugged it into the motherboard.  I’ve had tricky motherboard issues in the past, but my last line of defense was always the BIOS beep codes.  Once I interpreted those, I could fix the determined issue and be on my way.  I was expectantly hoping that the same would hold true here.  I plugged in the speaker, turned on the computer, but nothing.  No POST, no initial fan speedup, and no speaker codes.  At this point I assumed the board was DOA, so there was nothing I could do for it.  I did have *one* last sneaking suspicion though.

The new Mini-ITX motherboard also had a 4-pin CPU power plug, but I wasn’t plugging anything into it.  The manual casually mentions plugging it in, but I had assumed that it was optional — only because my previous Zotac ran perfectly fine without plugging one in, and because my case, while the power supply has a 4-pin port, didn’t come with a cable.  So I always assumed I didn’t need one.


I decided to see if that was the issue, instead of sending it back, and trying my luck to see if I could still solve the problem.  So, I went off to Monoprice and ordered three of the cables (for 85 cents each, I love you, Monoprice).  In a rare show of patience, I waited almost a week for them to arrive in the mail before resuming my experimentation.

With my new little cable, and honestly the last piece of the puzzle at this point that I could try with this case, I plugged it in and hoped for the best and … nothing.  Still no initial fan spin, no POST, no love.  I took everything out and replaced the original Zotac (with the same RAM, too), plugged everything in, and of course, it started up just fine.  So, at least I know the case and power supply are still okay.


It’s about this time that I finally realize that perhaps I should try my second Mini-ITX case instead, a Morex that I got from Logic Supply.  At first I kind of scoffed at the idea, since the Silverstone is by far the better of the two, and if it didn’t work in that one, there was little chance it’d work in the economic model.  I was wrong, though.  It powered up just great, and worked fine.  So, now I’m really lost as to why.  I still suspect that there is something funky about the power supply on the Silverstone case, and I’m currently toying with the idea of replacing it myself.  It’d certainly be cheaper than getting a new case.

So, I decided to move my hardware setup around, and keep the new Zotac in this smaller case.  The only problem was that it didn’t have as good an airflow, with the only real ventilation on the sides.  That would (and does) work fine with my fanless VIA C7s, but not here.

After setting up the system and playing around with the box, I was extremely happy with the performance.  I watched all my HD trailers in 1080p a couple of times each, with VDPAU and the picture was gorgeous.  It was great, and would have worked wonderfully if the motherboard wasn’t running so hot.

The problem was that the heatsink on the northbridge (I think that’s the right term, I’m not a total hardware geek) would get really, really hot.  The CPU itself was running really cool, since it had its own fan, it was just fine.  I didn’t realize there was a problem until I came in to watch TV shortly I think the day after I had set it up, and the box was turned off.  It was just after all the intial setup and testing stages, so I assumed that I had just turned it off and forgotten.  But as I was watching some video, it shut itself off.

I took the top of the case off to see if I could figure out what the problem was, and that’s when I nearly scalded myself touching the heatsink.  It seemed kind of flimsy and cheap to start with, and I was kind of surprised to see how crappy it looked, finally giving it a good look, and comparing it mentally to the other Minis I have.

I rebooted and went into the BIOS menus to see what the temperatures were looking like.  The northbridge was running at 66 C, which is 150 F.  Again, I don’t know too much about hardware, but I was pretty sure they’re not supposed to get that hot.  I left the top of the case off to let it cool down, and kept it running.  Coming back later, I saw that it had dropped to 48 C.  I rebooted, went back into my OS and watched plenty of video, and it was chugging along great since then.  So, it seems like it just needs some good airflow, and will probably be reasonably happy.

That leaves me with the problem of what to do next.  Technically, I could leave it in the Morex case, without a cover and expose it to dust and who knows what else is floating around my house, or I can try fix the Silverstone case just so I can use this board.

At this point, I’m a little tired of throwing so much money towards the problem, especially when it all should have worked in the first place.  Add to that that the new Mini-ITX I got is really the first-generation of this type of arrangement, and the nvidia ION is the one that is replacing this.  Aside from the Intel Atom CPU, I probably wouldn’t have a problem with it, and so I’m also considering replacing it with that one.

I’m still not sure what to do, and part of me is leaning towards a third option — wait for a year or so for the hardware specs to improve.  I’m not dead-set on having HD capable playback just yet, and it’s more in the realm of “would be nice to have” instead of “really useful” right now.  Besides, even before I could start getting some content, I need to expand my server’s capacity issues, as my media storage is almost at 100%.  I think I have something like 40 GB free space left.  Even then, I still need to get a Blu-ray ROM so I can rip my movies, and I only have about 12 Blu-rays right now to start with.

So, everything right now just tells me to wait.  Which is real shame, considering this board is very nice — once it’s given the proper TLC.  I think this is one of those situations where I would really like the whole thing to work out, but I imagine at the same time that the issues that are causing me problems right now, will only give me headaches later on down the road.  It’s probably better to just cut my losses now and save up for something better later.

setup a few terabytes or so

I’m getting to the point with my little media library where I’m running out of space, and I need to find a way to expand my diskspace a bit.  I’d like to find a next-generation solution, one that I can use as I expand from 1.5 terabytes to (eventually) 12 or so.  That’s what I project the final size I’ll need is.  Right now, I only need about 4.

There are a couple of ways to do this, obviously, but I’m not sure what the best way to approach it is, or the one that is the least cost-prohibitive.  Generally speaking, all I need is some *way* that I can access multiple harddrives (of various sizes, since I have old ones I can use) through one mountpoint, either using LVM or RAID (I’m not that picky).

Now I could spend lots of $$$ on a Drobos or something similar, where I just cram them into one box and let it fly, but I don’t need that level of sophistication.  The idea I’m currently toying with, is just getting a bunch of eSATA HDD enclosures, and hooking those up to my fileserver.  My server currently has six internal SATA ports on it, along with one eSATA port on the back, giving me seven drives I could plug in (either internally or externally).  So that’s not a problem.  I’m curious, though, how realistic getting a bunch of external enclosures is gonna be.  Typically, the drives I use (Western Digital) don’t run that hot, so cooling doesn’t seem like a big problem.  I already have one external SATA drive that I’m using, and it silently runs and sits on my desk without a problem.

That’s not my only option though.  I’m thinking of switching out the server completely for something less beefy and much more quiet.  In fact, that’s my biggest annoyance right now, is that it’s loud.  I’m not sure what it is, and I really should pinpoint the source before I rip everything out and buy lots of hardware.  I’m fairly certain though, that it’s just the CPU fan first and the power supply second.

If I did replace the server’s hardware, then I have a few options there — I could go with a Mini ITX motherboard that doesn’t need a PSU with a fan (just get a Morex power connector that uses 120W max or something).  Since I’d be hooking up everything externally anyway, they wouldn’t draw on the PSU for power, so the chipset could be really low wattage.  I’m not sure if I want to spend money on that, though.

Ideally, I’d have a place in my apartment where I could stick a server that can be as loud and as noisy as it wants, and I wouldn’t have to hear it.  Sadly, that’s not the case, and I doubt I’ll be moving anytime soon.  So, noise pollution is a factor in this as well.

Anyway, I’m still trying to think of what the best way to go is.  There’s a few directions this could take.

another new motherboard

Well, I finally picked something.  Huzzah!  Now I can move on with my life, now that indecision is out of the way.  I’m going to explain my thought process a bit in choosing this one, which has been known to fry the brains of many friends, so consider yourself warned.

I’ve been trying to pick out a motherboard again, and I came to a few decisions and realizations.  For one, I just need a simple replacement for the previous motherboard that totally crapped out on me, and I only want some basic playback features for standard-definition DVDs.  I also was not going to settle for anything but an Nvidia video card, so that already eliminated a lot of possibilities.  Basically I made a list of things I would like to have, and would use, right now, and then a list of things I would like to have sometime.

The list of things now was pretty simple and sweet: VGA (my TV has a port, I could use HDMI, but meh … who cares … then I’d have a free port that only a computer can use), 10/100 Ethernet, quiet, standard-def playback, IDE port and stereo sound (I never run stuff to my receiver, even when I could … besides that, I never watch movies on the HTPC, just TV shows).  The list of stuff I would want for the next-gen one, the future-proof edition as I like to call it, has this list of stuff: VGA + DVI or HDMI, Gigabit and/or Wifi (I might use powerline networking too, haven’t decided yet), fanless CPU, HD capable playback — which means at least a GeForce 8300, and both optical and coaxial SPDIF, because I can never decide which one I want to use (starting to notice a pattern yet?).

I threw the whole fanless thing out the window, for one simple reason — I decided there’s no way for me to pick between which one I think I’m gonna like better, so I’ll just buy both.  Heh, that’s one way to deal with indecision.  Actually, there weren’t any fanless options except for the new Zotac ION-ITX boards, which just came out, and *nobody* has them in stock.  So, I couldn’t really buy one even if I wanted to right now.  Aside from that, though, I don’t like the idea of buying the very latest hardware, especially when it’s a new chipset thats just come out (Nvidia ION).  Not that I don’t think it would be exactly what I would need, it’s just that when you factor in my luck with a new design, things tend to go south pretty often.  I have the kiss of death when it comes to hardware.

So, I just did what I always do after weeks of research and comparison — I just kinda picked one at random that looked good, and could get here fast.  Works for me!  Actually, I’ve done a lot of looking at all the boards I was considering, so I’m pretty confident it will work out.  Specifically, the one I got was a Zotac NF6301-D-E Mini-ITX.  It’s not as powerful as similar stuff, and I could have gotten one with a lot less features, but I decided to at least make sure it has DVI on there, just in case.  Compared to my must have in the future list, it’s obviously pretty barebones.  I got a pretty low-powered CPU for it as well, an Intel Celeron 430 Conroe-L 1.8 GHz that only runs at 35W.  That may seem way too under-powered, but consider that on my VIA Mini-ITX I’m already watching SD with (pretty much) no problems at 400 MHz.  Whee!  So, yah, I’m not worried about speed.  For the fan, I got a Silverstone NT07-775, which is small enough to fit inside my case.  I guess we’ll see how it works.  I’m betting that the CPU will run slow enough and cool enough that it won’t generate a lot of noise.

I should get all the parts by Tuesday, so I’ll know by then how it’s all gonna work out. :)

another new htpc mini-itx

I’m having a hard time deciding what to do to get my replacement Mini-ITX board for my HDTV.  I’m hoping that if I do a bit of a braindump, it might help me sort things out, and soliciting outside opinions wouldn’t hurt either.

The basic story is that, last time I bought a Mini, I did a lot of research on the VIA C7 boards and had a good one picked out, but at the last second changed my mind to get an MSI instead with an Intel Atom 330 (dual-core 1.6ghz with hypertheading).  I just saw all the fancy CPU features and went ga-ga, and ignoring it being from MSI, I picked that one.

I made a lot of assumptions with this board, and I’ve had a lot of problems since.  I won’t go into the details here, since that’s boring, and I’ve already covered it.

Now then, I’m looking at options for replacments, and it’s basically come down to two contenders: a Zotac Nvidia ION chipset with an Intel Atom, or another Zotac Mini-ITX board without an integrated CPU.

For reference, here’s the two boards I’m looking at: Zotac GF9300-D-E and Zotac IONITX-C-U.

As far as specs go, they are nearly exactly identical.  The only real differences is that the ION has a PCI-Express Mini slot, while the other has a regular one.  But aside from that, they both have onboard Nvidia graphics chipsets (ION: 9400M, GF9300-D-E: 9300M), so using VDPAU isn’t going to be a problem.

The difference I’m looking at is that one is fanless (the IONs all are) and the other isn’t.  Now, generally speaking, I hate background noise.  I sometimes can’t filter it out when I’m trying to pay close attention to something, as in watching TV or a movie, which is where this thing would be.  So having a fanless HTPC would be a top priority, but if it’s going to overheat with the Intel Atom, then I don’t want to risk it.

The alternative is to get the 9300M Mini, and put a low-powered Celeron in there with a quiet fan and hope for the best.  That CPU would come with speedstepping so I could throttle it down to pretty low.  My VIA at home runs at 800 mhz all the time and does perfectly fine for standard-definition playback, which is what my entire library is in now.  I’m guessing (and this is where problems start to form) that if I throttle it low enough, and it’s already a slow processor to start with, that the fan won’t be kicking into high gear much and it’ll be easier to ignore.

On the flipside, the argument for the Intel Atom is that, if I get one of the IONs with the Atom 230 instead of the 330, then it would run less hot to start with.  My MSI Mini-ITX at home is a 330 and is both a dual-core 64-bit and has hyperthreading.  Both the 230 and the 330 have hyperthreading, and run at 1.6 ghz on the ION, but only the 330 is dual-core.

I really can’t decide which one I should get, and have been bouncing back and forth between the two options for a while now.  Frankly, it’s driving me a little insane.  On one hand, I’m betting that the fan won’t be loud, and on the other, I’m hoping the CPU won’t run too hot and burn things out.  It’s a gamble either way.  Right now I’m leaning towards getting the 9300.  I figure I’d have more options with picking my own CPU and fan and being able to throttle it myself.

new monitor on the way

Well, I bought a new monitor yesterday on New Egg. And I feel a little bit poorer today. I did some more research, and actually ended up with a ViewSonic instead of a Samsung, for one very important reason: the box has a picture of a dragon on it.

24-116-401-02Actually, I’ve always wanted to get another ViewSonic. The first CRT monitor I bought myself was one, and I remember it was really nice. Plus (and this’ll really give away how old I’m getting), I remember when VGA was just first coming out — and how incredibly cool it was that you could have 256 colors instead of 16 — and I remember thinking the ViewSonics back then always looked nicer than the others too. So, there ya go.

The specs look good, though. It’s only got a max res of 1920×1080, but I think that’ll be fine. I was hoping to get an HDMI input, and this one has one. It wouldn’t be a big deal, but kind of nice to have just in case. Actually, I don’t really know what any of the specs mean … all I know is this one can tilt, so I’m happy. A monitor is probably the only thing when it comes to computers that I’m pretty indifferent about. I imagine it’ll be fine.