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. :)

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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.

initial wii review

So, I bought a Wii this weekend, mostly because after playing with it a lot at Jason’s house, I was immediately hooked. So far I’m really loving the whole experience, but it’s not completely perfect. I’ve only been playing with one for probably a week, total, so my perspective will probably change over time.

I’ve only got one game right now — Wii Sports — but that’s enough to keep me going. I love playing Baseball and Bowling and I even get a little Tennis in now and then. I have zero interest in Golf whatsoever.

The way everything works with the sensors is pretty impressive. Everything seems pretty realistic, especially the pain I get when I swing too hard. Being the geek that I am, I’ve quickly discovered where you can game the system and found a few flaws in the motion control feedback. For instance, in Bowling, if you just fling the Wii remote up in the air as you let the ball go, it will go flying up and actually gain speed when it lands. When you’re really bowling, that would slow the ball down quite a bit. In baseball, it’s a lot easier if you just use one hand and gracefully flick it forward to bat, but I find it much more fun and engaging if you get in the stance and do it right.

Boxing is the only thing I have a problem with as far as responsiveness. The nunchuck controller seems way whacked, as when boxing with my left hand I have to jab kind of up and to the left to get it to even go remotely straight. I’m not sure what’s up with that. I suspect that it might be getting the positioning for the left hand as it is relative to the Wii remote, but I’m not sure. It’s the only game I’ve played that uses it, so it could be something else. When I’m actually boxing though, it seems to be okay — its just when doing training that I can’t punch with it to save my life.

The games are a lot of fun, though. I still can’t wrap my brain around the idea of playing video games standing up and getting so out of breath. I’m a little sore in my arms and stomach, but mostly I feel great for getting some exercise. I’m already getting a lot better. And I love how the game adapts to your skill level. As I improve with Baseball, the pitches get harder and harder.

The only thing I don’t like about the Wii is the UI.  It seems totally confusing at times, and it is definately inconsistent about navigation.  It feels like a different team came up with their own UI rules for each little section, and just cobbled things together.  The navigation for the Messages is different than the Settings is different from the Mii Channel.  Sometimes you can use the buttons to move around, sometimes you can’t, sometimes you get a confirmation when exiting back to the main menu, etc.  It took me a while to figure out just how to add a friend, and it didn’t seem intuitive at all.  I still get confused trying to remember where what is.  It’s not all that bad, but it could use some polish.

Really, though, it seems like Nintendo has totally invented a new category of social gaming, though. Playing on the Wii is fun, but it is absolutely hilarious and engaging playing with someone else right there in the room. It’s just a lot of fun.

I’ve gotta find some more games. I didn’t get Wii Play yet, I’m not sure if I wanna get it or not. I figure I can pick up a used copy for real cheap if I want. I took a look at Wii Fit and it looks really cool, and like it has a lot of stuff that would really help. I’m not a big fan of paying more for all these accessories and peripherals, so I’ll have to think about that one. One thing I like is that the Wii is backwards compatible with the GameCube. I only have two games left, but at least I can still get some if I find something fun.

Anyway, if you wanna send me your Mii and add me as a contact, my console # is 5500 7000 5524 4618. I gotta find some good multiplayer games for online, too. My little sister has one. Gotta stomp her somehow.

happy birthday, beanie

It’s not my birthday just yet (not until Friday), but that didn’t stop me from doing some early shopping for presents. :D This weekend, I went out and bought a new receiver for my setup at home. I got a new 7.2 Yamaha receiver, and this thing is wicked slick.

I’ve been wanting to upgrade my whole audio setup for a while now, and this is the first step. I’m going to do it pretty much piecemeal, adding or upgrading one item at a time, and the receiver was the first one to go.

This thing has some really cool features. For one, it supports all the extra HD codecs that Blu-Ray supports, two of which enable up to 7.1 surround sound, and two which are lossless. Right now, I only have one Blu-Ray disc that supports 7.1 channels (Sleeping Beauty), but since I don’t have the extra speakers, I won’t know for a while how nice it sounds. But, one major point of doing an upgrade is to future-proof the system, so that’s what I did.

I also bought some nice stereo speakers to compliment the receiver, since I figured most of the sound goes through there. My good friend Jason, who is far more the audiophile than I’ll ever be, tried explaining to me that most of the audio comes through the center speaker, and I’d be better off investing in that. I didn’t really understand how it could work that way, so I bought some side speakers anyway. It should be worth mentioning at this point, that my audio experience can be summed up pretty simply — I just like the aural experience of feeling like I’m surrounded, and as far as my class as an audio expert goes, I couldn’t tell the difference between a phone and a tin can on a string.

I was sure, though, that since I wanted it to sound like stuff was coming from all sides, that I needed good speakers for the sides. So I got some good ones. As I was wiring the new receiver, though, I noticed that it had been opened and returned by someone else. The previous owner’s hair being all over the place was a good indicator. I think they owned a cat who apparently thought a receiver would make a great tanning bed. I wanted to make sure it would work properly before I set everything up, so I wired my old speakers, and being the lazy bum that I am, only did the side ones, leaving out the center speaker. I popped in a Blu-Ray (Clone Wars) and everything sounded fine. I puttered around for a bit looking at the manual and left the movie playing. After a few minutes I realized that I wasn’t hearing any dialogue. That seemed normal enough, since I knew that it comes through the center speaker, but what I didn’t realize was that wasn’t *all* that comes through there. There was a cool space battle (which is one reason I recommend watching Clone Wars — some of the coolest Star Wars battles are in there), and all I could hear from the side speakers were these little pings. None of the good stuff was coming through at all. Well, there’s nothing like real world experience to school you, so with that, I packed up the very expensive speakers and took them back. I still haven’t found a good center speaker I like, but I’m glad I didn’t blow a load of cash on an otherwise mostly secondary effect.

I also took my receiver back, in exchange for one uncoated with fur, and setup my old speakers and away I went. The setup came with a little microphone that you can plug in and run an automatic setup to determine the distance of the speakers and how they need to be adjusted. That is really nice. One of my speakers had to have the volume level slightly higher than the other one, so it worked out well to get it all balanced. Despite the 7.2 capability (supports two subwoofers as well), I’ve only setup a 3.1 system so far — two bookshelf speakers, one center, one subwoofer. I’m not sure how I want to wire my living room just yet for surround sound, and for some odd reason the idea of running speaker wire across my ceiling or floor seems a little unsightly to me. I guess I’ll never be a true A/V geek.

All in all, though, it sounds really nice. For some odd reason, my old receiver had a perceived A/V sync issue on Blu-Ray discs played from my PS3. It’s gone with this one, I’m glad to report, though I’m still not sure if I was just imagining it or not. Another great feature I found out about is that the receiver will upscale and export any input video through the outgoing HDMI port. That means I can plug in pretty much anything from Composite to Component and have it all go out through one display port. Not a bad feature, but my TV already comes with something like 7 input sources anyway, so I probably won’t ever need it. It also has a Monitor Out feature, where it will give you an OSD for the setup. That is a really nice touch.

Just as cool as a new receiver, I got a new book in the mail from my parents — Batman Animated.

I’m not much of one for coffee table books, but with Batman, anything goes. :)

I probably wasn’t supposed to open it already, but if I get unwrapped presents in the mail, you can bet your bippy I’m opening it up.

It’s a great book. I absolutely love the new animation style that started with Batman: The Animated Series that Warner has been using since. I’m a real freak for certain styles of art. The whole book is all sketches, drawings, commentary and the like. Awesome stuff.

I wonder what else I’m gonna get …. er, that is, from myself for me. :) I asked my little sister the other day, “Why is everything I want to get so expensive?” She said, “Because you’ve already bought everything affordable.” How true it is. :) Happy burfday to me :D

new mini-itx

I spent part of the weekend setting up my new Mini-ITX and getting Gentoo on there. After so much time, I’d forgotten what a tedious task it is to setup a binary distro — there are so many small things to remember (like device nodes). Things are going well though, and everything so far is working without a hitch, except for some minor snags with X (Intel 945GC).

I ran into some problems because I originally used a stable tree with some really old drivers. DRI wouldn’t work at all, and it hated pretty much every resolution I threw at it. I just barely finished upgrading everything X-related to ~amd64 and so far it’s much smoother.

I’m working now on getting XvMC setup. It’s not a bare necessity, and it’s more of an attempt to see if I can get it done more than anything. I think I had it setup on my old VIA C7 with Unichrome before, but ended up ditching it because I couldn’t use any video filters. The same thing will probably happen here.

Technically, it’s working right now, but I’m not sure if everything is running correctly. The CPU will jump to ~30% on playback with MPlayer for an MPEG2 video, which is way too high. If it really is offloading the processing, it should be much closer to 3%. I’m not sure if MPlayer even supports it correctly, as the last time I tried it, nvidia was the only one it supported. I’m having some trouble finding some information about it, but I’ll keep plugging away.

One thing I did stumble on is that there is a bug in the mplayer ebuild (28058) where it is doing something wrong when building against libXvMC. The ebuild doesn’t work, but just unpacking the same tarball and configuring it with no arguments worked fine. I haven’t had time yet to investigate why, but I’m glad I found that. XvMC has always been one of those dark horses that I’m never sure what the status is. The whole thing could use some more documentation.

Anyway, aside from that minor issue, the only other problem I’ve run into is that the kernel doesn’t have a CPU frequency driver for my processor (Intel Atom 330). Everything else works great. The sound seems fine, though I haven’t really had a chance to test its quality yet. I’m still setting everything up, so it’s all hooked up to my desktop components still. I plugged it into my HDTV briefly just to verify that I could indeed get a fullframe X session, and that was about it.

I did have a nice surprise which was quite a bonus. I was doing some research on the CPU to see what it could do, and it turns out that it is 64-bit, not 32-bit as I originally assumed. I’d never even imagined that there were any 64-bit Mini-ITX boards out there, so it came as quite a shock to me. I had to rebuild the entire OS, but I didn’t mind. I actually let the Mini do most of the work, since it can handle the load by itself quite well. I still can’t get over the fact that this thing is fanless.

So, I’m almost there. Development has gone incredibly fast, especially compared to my last one. Getting a bigger hard drive made a nice difference, since I don’t have to worry about space anymore. I think it’s already up to 400 megs. I just need to finish getting some configuration stuff done, and then it should be ready to roll and then I can do some quality tests to see how nice the picture and audio really are. It’s a great little board, well worth the wait and and awesome deal considering the price. I can’t wait to put it into production. :)

the motherboard of my dreams … hopefully

After much waiting and wrangling over which one to get, I have finally bought a new Mini ITX motherboard to use for my mythfrontend. I’ve been planning to get a second one for a long time, ever since I pretty much realized it wasn’t just a possible goal, it was a completely awesome solution as an embedded frontend.

Here’s the board I got: an MSI IM-945GC.

Just looking at it, it doesn’t look like a good board for multimedia playback at all. It doesn’t have SPDIF, S-Video, Composite, Component or HDMI ports. Just VGA, stereo jacks, PS2 ports and three COM ports. Woots. But, it is stocked with lots of cool stuff.

The processor is a dual-core Intel Atom. Dual-core! That’s just amazing, and the first I’ve seen. I would normally be hesitant to go from a VIA C7 chip (which is what I already have) to something else, but my netbook also has an Intel Atom CPU, and it runs surprisingly fast. This thing also runs at 1.6 GHz, which is the fastest that I’ve seen, and still fanless. The next thing that even comes close to this is a VIA C7 1.2 GHz single core that is also fanless. So, this thing is gonna rock.

Because it’s using an Intel chipset, that means that the onboard video is also Intel’s. It’s got a GMA 950 onboard, which means I’m not gonna have to worry a lick about the graphics or OpenGL. My only complaint in that area is that, like all onboard video cards, it uses shared memory which I’m not a big fan of. But, the picture will look really gorgeous.

Despite the lack of media ports, there’s still other reasons why I got this thing. It has a PCI Express Mini slot on it, which means I can get a wireless card and stick it in there and it’ll rest on top of the motherboard. It also has a PCI slot so if I really want to, I can get a different video card in there. I doubt there are any PCI ones with HDMI, but I do know you can snag one with S-Video.

Perhaps most importantly, though, this thing supports 2 GB of RAM. I had a really hard time deciding on which features I wanted the mobo to have, and when I finally listed features by priority, this one came out on top. My current Mini only supports 1 GB, and while that’s sufficient, I’m more in the market of making sure I can future proof this thing as much as possible. The harddrive will be a SSD flash module that plugs into the IDE port, and I’ll run it in readonly mode using ext2 with no swap. I’ll have a small partition for /var so that I can write temporary files, but that’s it. Everything is going to use RAM, and that’s it, so I want to make sure my option is maxed out.

Another great feature is that this thing also has two gigabit NICs on the back. Plus, there are four USB ports, all 2.0. I’m really excited for this board. I think it’s gonna be pretty fast. The CPU also supports hyperthreading, so it’ll look like I have four cores in there.

I decided to go ahead and forego some of the other media ports because I don’t see me wanting to use them anytime soon. Or, by the time I want to, I’ll probably want either a better motherboard or a completely different delivery option by then. Both of my mythfrontends are used primarily to playback TV shows and casual movies that I just feel like watching. They are not intended to deliver an amazing presentation, such as duplicating a great picture like or surround sound. When I want the best quality, I’ll just pull out the DVD and turn on my receiver. But that doesn’t happen very often. My HDTV that I’ll be hooking this up to has a VGA port on the back, and so that’s all I needed. It also has a stereo input jack, so I can just run an audio cable straight in without any fuss. The low quality playback solution works perfectly since 90% of my content is old and in stereo to start with.

This thing doesn’t come even close to being able to handle an HD stream, and I’m totally cool with that. As strange as it may seem, I am an incredibly slow adopter when it comes to new technologies, and in cases like this I get extremely stubborn and stick with what works for a long time. That does have one advantage to it — by the time I do get around to working with something, it’s not in alpha or beta stages anymore, and I can usually do what I want without much of a hitch.

I’m just now barely starting to warm up to BluRay just a little bit (another post that I need to write about) ever since seeing some actual quality films. I only have three films at home — the first three Harry Potters — only because I got them at a great deal at Amazon ($40 for all three) and I bought them just so I could have *some* source material on hand to see what its like whenever I get the urge. Movies is pretty much the only thing I would care about when it comes to HD anyway, and since almost all of my time accessing the mythfrontend is watching TV shows from the 60s to the 90s, HD isn’t even a variable, and it won’t be for a long time.

So, I’m really excited to get this thing. My old setup was working perfectly well, and I just barely took it down last night. Right before I did, I looked at the uptime to see what it was at — 141 days. Freak, that’s over 4 months that this thing has been working without a hitch. I’m pretty proud of that.

This time around I bought a bigger flash drive. My old one was 256 MBs. Yes, megabytes. I had a job a few cycles ago developing an embedded multimedia operating system (based on Gentoo, of course) which is where I learned everything. The job or the company didn’t quite work out so well, but the experience was a great learning one. The OS that is running on my current Mini is completely crafted from an extreme amount of TLC. Every single program that is on there has both been modified to cut out cruft and save space, and optimized where possible to run faster. I did not have any space to play with, and when you need X, MythTV, Qt3 and glibc you gotta really learn to squeeze. It is quite possible though. In fact, I think my image is closer to 180 megs in space total, after using SquashFS.

The amazing part is how responsive the thing is. Since everything was nicely tweaked, it seriously feels like I’m using my dual-core amd64 desktop because it is so snappy. In some cases, it is more responsive, the latency is just so low. There are a lot of shortcuts you can take, though, mostly in the kernel … such as not dumping anything and turning off a bunch of other stuff you wouldn’t dare do anywhere else, but building for embedded is so amazingly fun. Plus there’s just nothing cooler than knowing it runs with such an small footprint. I highly recommend Building Embedded Linux Systems, Second Edition from O’Reilly if you are interested in doing some of the same. It’s a lifesaver. And, of course, I recommend using a source-based distribution like Gentoo because it will help you to very easily trim down the fat and get only the bare essentials on there.

I bought a new flash IDE drive along with the new motherboard, and this one is 4GB in size, so I’m not going to have to ever worry about size. I’m not sure if I’ll create a new custom build for this one as well or not. It was a lot of work getting the first one done, but a great learning experience. It reminded me a lot of when I first started installing Gentoo years ago, because up until that point, I thought I knew a lot about how things work together. There’s nothing quite like getting into every single program you install in your OS and digging to see if you really need it or not, just trying to save an extra 59kb to 4MB of space. Good times.

Anyway, I’ll be sure to take some pics of the new one once it gets here. I already started taking some of my old one, as I’ll have to dismember it a bit and move it to a new case. I might end up replacing that one as well, since it’s starting to fall apart a bit. I’m not sure I could go through the decision making process again, though. :)

Edit: leio-dl was asking me in #gentoo-dev why my image was so large, so I dug up a list of all the packages that is installed on the image, and here it is. 180 megs for an embedded image is actually really huge, but mine has a lot of stuff.

Edit #2: Er, just looked a bit closer. Main image is 97M, and then I have /lib in a SquashFS image which I think is about 40M, so it’d be closer to 130 total than 180.