Saturday, 19 July 2014

New Monitor - LG 29EA73 29 inch 21:9 UltraWide IPS Monitor

I don't normally do reviews on just products themselves, but thought i'd make an exception.

I was in the market a few months ago for a new monitor and as the last time I bought one was over 5 years ago much had changed (both how I use a computer and what is available). I mostly multitask between coding, emulators, emails, web and chat which means I need a lot of screen real estate to avoid alt-tabbing every 2 seconds. The monitor I had at the time was a 24" Acer monitor which was fine, but was VGA driven and I have a Macbook Pro Retina which required converting from DisplayPort to VGA. For reference, I have two brands of this converter, the official Apple one and a 3rd Party. Both are terrible and are prone to flickering and general crappiness. This more than anything coupled with not enough screen pushed me to get something different.

So, after a few weeks of research I settled on the LG 29EA73


With it's super wide aspect ratio at 21:9 vs my old 16:9, I could have email, chat and a 3rd window all open at the same time. It had the added bonus of having the same aspect ratio as cinemascope films, which look great on screen. Games look equally great, some don't scale well (Dungeon Keeper), particularly the older ones, but the modern ones look great (Grid).

Inputs are equally great. I use DisplayPort as the primary input and is by far the best method to utilise the screen, why? Well HDMI again works great but isn't designed to utilise such a wide aspect ratio, meaning the screen has to be stretched. DVI equally cannot support the super wide resolution, but if you hook up a dual link DVI, then it works fine. I'm not a colour profiler or spend too much time tweaking the screens gamut, but I seem to get a better picture if I use DisplayPort. The screen also has USB ports, one for connecting the screen to the laptop and a few more to connect phones, hard drives, etc.

Overall a great monitor, quality is good and it does have built in speakers. I don't use them myself, but a bonus is that you cannot see them. The monitor is super thin and i've got my mounted on a desk arm, this one for reference.

Thursday, 22 May 2014

Plex Essentials - Unofficial App Store

One of the features I missed from XBMC after I done the transition to Plex was the ability to add apps/plugins and customisations. Now I get that Plex's goal is different to XBMC's ie. the later is to be the jack of all trades and the former is a more refined experience, but sometimes it's nice to be able to add a few more things and make it your own.

If you've used Plex you'll know that "Channels" (found on the main menu) is in fact a method in which to access features which can be added to Plex which are not part of the core app. I think out of the box you can add features like BBC iPlayer and Youtube, which are must have's for any serious media center.

If you need more than this, like say for instance a "Channel" which allows you to forcefully update your library remotely, then the Unofficial App Store is the way to go.

More instructions on how to enable this are at this forum post:

https://forums.plex.tv/index.php/topic/25523-unsupported-as-in-totally-unofficial-appstore/

The installation is fairly easy, all the instructions are at the link above. After adding the unofficial app store I honestly couldn't work without it. For instance, I can access even more streamable services for channels here in the UK as well as other utilities to make Plex that little easier to use.

It's worth checking out.

Monday, 17 March 2014

Rasplex & Plex Home Theatre

Recently I grew tired of my complex XBMC setup for the house and decided to see what all the fuss was about with Plex.

I'd heard about Plex many years ago as an alternative to XBMC, but at the time that was all it was, just another variant of XBMC. Targeted primarily at Mac users, I had little interest because XBMC was also available and it was very good and more customisable.

However. Plex got serious!

It's barely recognisable compared to what I remember. What stuck out for me:

  • Incredible ease of pairing my NAS with the Media Center's using a email address and password (plex.tv account)
  • Installation and setup on my Ubuntu based NAS was simple and didn't require any command line foolery
  • The availability of Plex for iOS, Android and the Raspberry PI (not officially supported but works great)
  • The great web interface allowing access from anywhere to my content
  • Airplay support (although this is in XBMC as well)
  • Built in transcoder!
  • Channels for BBC iPlayer, etc
  • Best of all, apart from the mobile apps, it was free!
Now I had a similar setup for my XBMC setup, but it was no where as simple and straight forward to set up. I didn't have to deal with any DDNS configuration, installation of a transcoder, dodgy usernames/passwords for direct access to content, VPN's, plugins, etc. It just worked.

Now I had some issues with Rasplex and the RPi, but only because I think the USB WiFi device I had was a little cheap, maybe too cheap, and it didn't work for a few boot ups, but it slammed into life for no apparent reason and started working great.

I also installed Windows 7 on to my main media centre in my living room and installed plex home theatre on top. For the moment, there doesn't appear to be an x86 lightweight variant like OpenElec or Rasplex, so this will have to do for the moment. I might consider changing this to a Ubuntu system if Windows give me any problems.

I've also purchased the Plex Pass feature, which among many other things, allowed me to use my many cloud based storage services as extensions to my own private storage. And without any effort, these locations show up on the Plex home screen :-)

I may write up some more technical explorations of Plex and any customisations I make in future. I don't see my changing for a while unless it starts doing something unexpected.


Upgrading Macbook Pro 13 Inch Mid 2009 - SSD Upgrade

Some time ago I bought a new Macbook Pro and gave my old one to my wife. She loves it but it already had a good few years on it. It was a Macbook Pro 13 (Mid 2009) and was in need of a good home. At the time since I had my fancy new machine, so the normal maintenance cycle i'd do on a 2-3 year old system just floated by. My wife isn't a techy so naturally she put up with the bad battery life and the performance issues and just put it down to the "Crapbook" :-)

Enough was enough!

There being nothing technically wrong with the system, fans were operating as expected, memory wasn't dropping address's and even the HDD, a 500GB Hybrid Momentus XT was working great. The battery I actually replaced about 6 months ago because it was lasting all of 40 minutes, got it off ebay and was easier to install than the HDD upgrade. The only clear reason for bad performance was that after years of OS upgrades from the original version of OS X to the very latest, it was finally struggling to keep up. Thankfully there is an easy solution to this. The core bottleneck of any pre-SSD system is the HDD. Yes, it didn't have the original hard drive and yes it was using a Hybrid drive, one with a built in 8GB SSD. But, this was simply a bandage. Modern OS's do so much more with disk space than ever before.

My honest opinion on Hybrid drives is that they appealed to a market of people who simply couldn't afford the SSD drives at the time. They promised better performance without really telling you how the "magic" of instant speed improvement was accomplished. For me, the performance gain wasn't significant, but i was doing a lot of work with Aperture at the time and that requires a lot of random reads and writes. Now that SSD drives are significantly cheaper, us mere mortals can afford to stick them into our ageing systems and breath new life into them.

So I bought a 120GB SSD from Amazon along with a caddy for the 500GB Momentus XT:
I didn't know before I purchased the drive, but the Macbook Pro I was upgrading only had SATA II support and the SSD was SATA III. Not a big deal as the drive after installation worked just fine. I've yet to check on any serious performance implications, but a quick check with Blackmagic Disk Speed Test tool showed significant gains.

The process of upgrading a hard drive in one of these pre-retina Macbook Pro's is well documented by Apple and there are plenty of videos of YouTube for the same. But here is a link just in case this is what you were expecting when you arrived here.

After I sealed up the system, I originally wanted to clone the drive from the old HDD to the new SSD. However figured this was a good opportunity to get a clean OS up and running. After all, out of all the OS's i've done re-installs for, OS X requires the least amount of effort by far, so it wasn't a difficult choice.

If you do decide to do a clone, there are a couple of ways to do it. You can use a second system to perform a dd from one drive to another, use a tool like Carbon Copy Cloner or perform a restore from the Disk Utility that comes with OS X. If you don't have a second system, you can always put setup for OS X on to a USB stick and boot to it from your Mac you are upgrading. Once in, use the Disk Utility inside the installer and do a restore from external drive to internal.

Well thats it really. Thanks for reading.

Saturday, 25 May 2013

My New Raspberry Pi & OpenElec System

Been meaning to post about this one for a while, but I suppose with some actual experience using the system now i'm better placed to give some real feedback.

The Hardware

So before getting started, the following are the various bits of hardware I had to purchase from Amazon:
I already had a few SD cards lying around, so I just used an 8GB SD card that used to be in my SLR. It was actually one of these:
Putting it together is not complex. The case I bought fits the RPI perfectly, just slots into one half and just attached the other. Couple of screws later and it's sealed. You shouldn't need to open it ever again, unless you are planning on customising the hardware i.e. using the GPIO port. I attached mine using the VESA 100 mount to the back of my TV. Plugged in the Flirc device, Wifi Adapter and power supply and the hardware setup was done. All in all, around 15 minutes.



The Software

I'm a big fan of OpenElec. Have been since I set up my first media centre more than a year ago now. It does everything you'd expect and well.



There is a specific version for the RPI (Raspberry Pi) thats fully supported and maintained, so best to download it straight from their site. Here for those who want the shortcut. They also have non-RPI versions if you are interested.

The guys over at OpenElec have been kind enough to put together a fairly good guide already. You can find it here. It's relatively straight forward. You copy the OpenElec OS image to the SD card, insert the card into your RPI and you are off! It really is that simple.

So I won't try to re-invent the wheel with super detailed instructions, but instead provide some pointers based on my experience.
  • I did the installation of OpenElec to my SD card using my Macbook Pro running OS X, so be comfortable with the command line, otherwise use Windows.
  • You will lose everything on the SD card during the installation process, so backup and remove everything from the card.
  • The RPI won't run an OS on a USB stick, it has to be on the SD card.
  • I actually discovered after I bought the power supply above that I already had several that would fit the mini-usb port on the RPI. However make sure there is enough supply. If you want to run USB devices off the USB ports on the RPI, make sure it supplies more than 1000mA, ideally around 1500mA. But of course this depends on the USB devices themselves.
  • Don't attempt to power a USB based hard drive that doesn't have it's own power supply. This will cause all kinds of issues for the RPI.
  • The RPI can just be powered off the USB on your TV, so long as your TV supplies enough juice. Be warned though, every TV is different in when it supplies the power e.g. in standby or not and may just cut the power whenever it pleases
  • Don't choose a complex skin like Aeon Nox, the RPI will run it, but badly!!! Use the default OpenElec skin, it has good performance.
  • If like me you are going to mount it to the back of a TV, then get short cables, nothing worse than going to all the effort in making a small and nimble system if you have 3 metres of HDMI cable hanging from the back
  • The FLIRC device is amazing. So simple to configure. Check out their site for a short video on how to use it.
  • I ended up using an old Sky HD+ remote paired with the FLIRC device
My Setup

So because I have a few OpenElec media centres, I have a MySQL DB and a NAS which keeps the Thumbnail content and database centralised and consistent. It turns out that as of XBMC Frodo that this kind of setup of having a centralised Thumbnail content repo isn't really required, although I stand by the decision to keep it as RPI's generally don't have much storage attached. I'm reluctant to attach an additional drive (because I want to keep the setup simple), but may consider in the future attaching a larger SD card and making thumbnails local.

Conclusions

Well i've covered some of these already above, but there are some more.
  • OpenElec is awesome! But don't hate the alternatives. Raspbian is a good alternative if you find OpenElec lacking in some respect. There are others like Raspbmc which offers a similar setup to OpenElec.
  • Highly recommend mounting the RPI unit to the back of the TV, gets it out of the way
  • Don't worry about the FLIRC device being out of sight behind the TV. IR devices are not lasers, they are beams of light similar to lights on a car, which means it will bounce off walls and eventually reach the FLIRC device
  • HDMI-CEC wasn't working with me, but I think it's because i'm using a non-Branded TV from a supermarket
  • There is a good guide to read if you are interested in HDMI-CEC here
Thanks for reading. Hope I helped.

And if you are looking to do something crazy different, check out this post for some inspiration

Saturday, 18 May 2013

Asus RT-N56U Router with Stock Firmware & Sky Fibre

Wow, what a nightmare Sky Fibre is. All I wanted to do was replace the crappy Sagem wireless router with my Asus Black Diamond router and it turned out to be a 3 week sprint of reading about Asuswrt, Tomato and udhcpc. Turns out that yes, it's a pain to setup, but it's definitely possible... and with the stock firmware! :-D

So, how does it all work?

Well, firstly, the Sagem router communicates the with BT OpenReach modem like any other ethernet based device, except it uses MER (MAC Encapsulated Routing) to authenticate the device so that you can't just plug in any old router. What does this actually mean? Well it means the Sagem router sends some very specific information to the OpenReach modem, the client id.

This client id is naturally not found in any configuration screen, you have to sniff it out of a DHCP packet to get it.


  • You have to connect your laptop/system via ethernet to the Sagem router and make sure nothing else is connected.
  • Then give your laptop/system a static ip.
  • You'll then need to fire up a packet sniffing tool like Wireshark.
  • If you start capturing from your ethernet port (eth0 most likely)
  • Then turn on the Sagem router you'll get a lot of packets come back
  • The one you are interested in is the DHCP packets (under protocol these are marked as DHCP). 
  • Open it up and look for the client identifier field (should have the number 61 beside it)
  • Right click it and find the option to copy the value (plain text, or something similar)
  • If you've done it right on paste you should see something like xxx@xxx|password.
  • You'll need to convert that to HEX, use any old web site for this and make sure you remove spaces.

Once done, you'll need to telnet into your Asus RT-N56U. This must be enabled first in the Administration section in the web interface. Once in you'll find that udhcpc is already running (just run ps to see active process's). This is the process that negotiates the IP with the BT OpenReach modem. Copy down the name of the process, something like:

udhcpc -i eth3 -p /var/run/udhcpc0.pid -s /tmp/udhcpc -O33 -O249

Kill the existing process via killall udhcpc

Then start it again, but this time with your client identifier i.e. something like:

udhcpc -i eth3 -p /var/run/udhcpc0.pid -s /tmp/udhcpc -O33 -O249 -x 0x3d:###HEXUSR&PASSWD###

Then plug in your BT OpenReach modem into the WAN port and if it has all worked, after a couple of messages it will successfully get an IP and your internet connection will be up.

No more Sagem router! :-)

Saturday, 23 February 2013

GeekTool - For Everything Else...

So it's been some time since I last posted. Much has happened since then, some big life changing events but all good thankfully! My life has settled down a little bit now so have found myself with some free time.

I thought then it would good to start posting on blogger again; about something new and not media centre related. Although, plenty of that to come as OpenElec and XBMC has been making big waves since last year.

Over the Christmas period just past I was able to get myself a shiny new Macbook Pro Retina while out in the states. Amazing machine. I'll save you all the usual amount of "it just works", but really it just does. After getting back I immediately set about customising and getting it to a place I was happy with everything.

However, one thing I was lacking was easy ways of getting to information on the system without having to run up several apps. If I wanted to get my IP, I could either use the terminal or the network preferences, if I wanted to check out the system log I could use console or the terminal, if I wanted to check when CCC (Carbon Copy Cloner) last ran a backup, i'd either run up console or the terminal.... you get the picture.

So it seemed I could do everything with the terminal, but having to type in commands time and time again would eventually frustrate me. I want the information now. And as much as I love the terminal, it drives me nuts sometimes.

To solve this challenge, I used a tool called GeekTool. GeekTool allows you to create simple desktop widgets that can either display an image, output from a command or the contents of a file. Using a combination of these you can get some fairly complex information displayed on your desktop, here is what I was able to achieve in 30 minutes or so:


I've got my IP, last 10 lines from /var/log/system.log, details of my last CCC backup, current usage of the root partition and date/time all on screen at the same time. They all update a varying intervals depending on how often I need it. The system log updates every second and the CCC stats section updates every 30 minutes. Apart from the disk usage (round graphic), everything else I was able to do out of the box. The round graphic above is actually what is called a geeklet, an extension of sorts, but in reality it's a clever apple script which changes to pre-rendered images. It can be downloaded here for those interested.

Some examples of what is seen above:

  • Getting the date of the last CCC backup from command line
    • cat /Library/Logs/CCC.log | grep "Backup Critical Files: Time" | awk '{ print $1 }' | tail -n -1
  • Percentage of disk space used by root partition (i.e. / ) from command line
    • df / | awk '{ print $5 }' | tail -n 1
  • Current IP Address from command line
    • ifconfig en0 | grep inet | awk '{ print $2 }' | tail -n 1

My terrible command line usage aside, the above will allow you display these pieces of information on your desktop via the shell Geeklet.

There are examples of other peoples setups available here if you need some inspiration.

My final note on this great tool is that for some reason, it consumes a stupid amount of memory when you create and modify geeklets. For instance, after creating the above, I noticed it was consuming around 1.2 GB of memory!!! However if you quit GeekTool and start it again, this number drops significantly.

Happy customising!

Thursday, 12 April 2012

eMachines ER1401 Memory Upgrade

Normally I wouldn't write a post for something so trivial such as a memory upgrade. In a normal ATX or AT form factor Desktop PC or even a modern laptop, it normally isn't that difficult to upgrade the system memory. In fact this was one of the first things I learnt to do when playing around with my dad's old system, an Intel 486dx based system with Windows 3.11 installed.

However for those who own a ER1401 they will know that it's form factor, case design, etc is compact and I had some challenges while doing the upgrade.

Here are some notes for others which if I had known in the first place would have helped me:

Please note that this is not a complete list of instructions and that if you attempt to do this, that you may (and probably will) cause some damage to the chassis due to the fact it was never designed to be opened! 


  • I done the whole upgrade i.e. Opening of case, removal of old memory and installation of new and rebuild in around 30 minutes, but if you are new to this sort of thing, take your time! 

  • Consider not doing this! It is very difficult and noisy to open the case up, at times during the upgrade I wish I hadn't, however it worked out just fine. 

  • I used 2 x 2GB modules which were left over from my Macbook Pro upgrade. They were the exact type I needed i.e. DDR3 modules. You can also order memory from Crucial if you don't have any spare.

  • There aren't any custom screws it's all just Philips screw drive

  • There is a video on YouTube which may help you understand the process of disassembly. However it's more of a joke than an actual guide, so don't expect it to spell everything out.

  • The case is made up of 5 distinct parts
    • The plastic cradle and support
      • This is attached to the main body by two screws, easy to remove and must be removed.

    • Top Black Cover (With the power button on the top right and the VGA port on the left)
      • Is attached to the side plastic support and also the bottom black cover by plastic clips. When removing this start at the bottom, where you removed the cradle and slowly separate it from the edges with a flat head screwdriver (or similar implement). As you do this you will hear clicking noises as it separates. Do this for 3 out of 4 of the edges, once on the final edge, you should be able to just pull the cover off.

    • Side Plastic Support
      • Is attached to the bottom black cover by metal and plastic clips. For me this was the hardest part. I started at the top where the power button is and used the same method as above, slowly separating the side plastic support from the chassis. After removing the side panel I found I broke two of the clips... doh! However when I later assembled the parts, it went together just fine with no visible or noticeable change.If you manage to remove this without causing damage, then my hat comes off to you!

    • Internal Metal Cover
      • Easy to remove, is attached by 3 screws, little bit awkward to remove at first, but just requires a slight bend in the metal cover to remove properly.

    • Bottom Black Chassis (which has the other side plastic support attached to it and also the motherboard inside)
      • The motherboard is housed within this chassis, before removing though, you have to disconnect the CPU/GPU fan power lead and disconnect the two antenna's for the WIFI card (little gold connectors). You also have to unscrew the CPU/GPU heat sink via the 3 screws. Once disconnected and removed, the motherboard should not be attached to anything on the main chassis. Removing it requires a bit of wobbling from side to side, but should pop out with no damage to either itself or the chassis.

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

OpenElec Upgrade to 2.0 (1.95.1) aka XBMC Eden - Conclusion

In my previous post I talked over the experience I had with the initial upgrade. It wasn't the smoothest of upgrades to be sure, however it's always a good upgrade when it works without my better half knowing anything has changed :-D

I also mentioned some issues I was having, specifically the following:


  • VGA Mode error on boot
  • Audio set to Analog but coming through HDMI anyway
  • Thumbnails on my shared drive don't seem to work with the new database, this is either because XBMC Eden index's them differently or that during the migration from the old to the new format, there was a conversion fault in the DB. However I haven't checked this out yet in more detail, could well be something entirely different.

Well the good news two out of three of these issues are solved. Details below:

VGA Mode error on boot


So it turns out that a fix that I had to put in place with a previous version of OpenElec caused problems for the newer version. Specifically the splash screen fix which previously allowed the boot screen logo to display properly however in this version results in a ugly error message. The good news is that the fix is straight forward, just remove the changes that were made to apply the fix at the link above. Excellent! Thanks to Stephan Raue for posting this solution in the previous post!

Thumbnails not showing correctly


One of the changes which happened with the introduction of Eden was a change in how Thumbnails and in general how special locations are referenced and managed. Previously I had just soft-linked the /storage/.xbmc/userdata/Thumbnails folder to a SAMBA location however XBMC did not like this after the upgrade. After doing some reading it became apparent that I needed to add a Path Substitution into the AdvancedSettings.xml file. I added the following above my tags:


<pathsubstitution>
<substitute>
<from>special://masterprofile/Thumbnails/</from>
<to>SMB://192.168.2.100/mysql/Thumbnail Cache/</to>
</substitute>
</pathsubstitution>


A quick restart and the Thumbnails were working like a charm again.

I also after solving the issue found an article on the OpenElec Wiki which covers this issue... doh! My google ninja skills failed me at first, alas, I learnt something new, read the OpenElec wiki first!

With regards to the audio settings. As the audio is actually working at the moment, it's not so critical that I fix this, however I want to take a better look at the weekend. Wish me luck!

If I find anything interesting, will post again.

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

OpenElec Upgrade to 2.0 (1.95.1) aka XBMC Eden - How it went so far...

Nothing more nerve racking than preparing for a major upgrade on production hardware. Sure I could have installed the new OpenElec to a external disk then tested from there, but I prefer to jump in with both feet! So how did it go?

So I downloaded the latest image from the openelec.tv site (the 1.95.1 version which to all intensive purposes is 2.0) and extracted the contents as normal. I used my Windows laptop to do the work required below as apposed to my Macbook, simply because it was closer to me... yep I'm hardcore :-p

I then copied the new KERNEL and SYSTEM images (along with the MD5 files) over to the SAMBA location //openelec/updates on my running ER1401 system.

So far so good, system restart is then required to have OpenElec do the upgrade based on the files that I just transferred above.

Apon reboot I got the familar messages than new images had been detected and that it was upgrading. It automatically reboots then starts with the new and updated OpenElec and XBMC.

However, as it was booting for the first time, I received an error message indicating that the incorrect VGA Mode specified was incorrect. I knew this to be false since I had applied the boot screen fix before and this was adjusted to vga=792, it was also reporting a number I had not seen before. As of yet I've not investigated this further.

Skipping this message, I was then presented with the OpenElec boot screen as normal, albeit not in full perspective due to the above issue. Once the screen disappeared, only a black cursor "X" remained on the screen. No error message, no immediate issue was clear.

After some investigation though it turned out that because I was using a MySQL database on my NAS as the backend for XBMC, it was having issues migrating the database to the new XBMC Eden format. I found this error in the /storage/.xbmc/temp/xbmc.log file, however as the log is now gone I cannot share this with you, but you can't miss it if this is happening to you, it keeps printing it.

Just as a note at this point, you have to re-enable SSH support as the guys over at OpenElec have disabled it by default. It's easy to do, simply create a file called "ssh_enable" in the ConfigFiles folder via SAMBA. Username and password are the default as before. Official instructions on this are at the OpenElec site.

So I renamed the AdvancedSettings.xml file in the ConfigFiles folder and done a restart and bingo! XBMC Eden was now showing on my screen. Things to note at this point.
  • Audio was working already although I want to investigate it further. Currently it's set to Analog however I'm using audio over HDMI.
  • I had to adjust the screen over scan, but I also had to do this with previous versions of OpenElec
 After I changed to my favourite skin and did the normal amount of customisation, I tested Audio and Video and both work great. All the hardware (apart from the built in wireless which I did not test) seems to work fine.

However as mentioned above I had to disconnect from the MySQL DB to get XBMC to load without looping infinately with errors. To fix this I created a copy of the original database and modified the AdvancedSettings.xml to use the copy. After restarting OpenElec and monitoring the progress via SSH I could see it was now working. No clear idea on why it failed originally, except that I do have other devices on my network using the same database.

XBMC Eden is now using the copied version of the database which I will migrate my other devices over to once I've squared off my ER1401. Given that this is a prerelease though, it's actually very stable!

Issues still open which if I find fixes for will post on:
  • VGA Mode error on boot
  • Audio set to Analog but coming through HDMI anyway
  • Thumbnails on my shared drive don't seem to work with the new database, this is either because XBMC Eden index's them differently or that during the migration from the old to the new format, there was a conversion fault in the DB. However I haven't checked this out yet in more detail, could well be something entirely different.