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Thursday, 25 August 2011

Building my First HTPC - The Result

Ok, so spent a couple of days playing around with my newly built eMachines ER1401 and i'm really in amazement at how powerful the setup has become. Let me try and share some useful information so that others may benefit.

First of all here is the specifications of the system itself, i pulled this from the site I purchased the system from. Here is a link, they still have the deal on for this system:

The Hardware

  • Processor
    • AMD Athlon™ II Dual Core K325
    • NVIDIA® nForce® 9200 Chipset,
  • Memory
    • 2GB DDR3 RAM
    • Expandable to 4GB
    • 2 x SODIMM slot
  • Hard Drive
    • 250GB SATA
  • Optical Drive
    • None
  • Software
    • Operating System:Linpus 9.5 Linux
  • Display
    • Monitor Not Included
  • Graphics
    • NVIDIA® GeForce® 9200 Graphics
  • Input Devices
    • Keyboard and Mouse Not Included
  • Networking
    • WLAN: 802.11 B/G/N
  • Dimensions
    • Height 210 mm
    • Depth 210 mm
    • Width 39.5 mm
  • Interfaces Front
    • Two USB 2.0 ports
    • Headphone and microphone-in jack
  • Back
    • Two USB 2.0 ports
    • DC-in jack
    • Audio - S/PDIF out port (S/PDIF digital audio output port)
    • HDMI™ port with HDCP support
    • External display (VGA) port
    • Ethernet (RJ-45) port (this is actually a 10/100/1000 port)

Ok, so a couple of things to note about the hardware. First it is a nice piece of kit, it's small, quiet (quieter than my SkyHD box) and the power adapter is external (this is good, AC/DC conversion outside the system means it's cooler). It comes with a VESA mounting kit, however it wouldn't mount on my Samsung HD TV. Careful on this point when using the VESA mounting kit, it seems the manufacturer has assumed that if you use the VESA kit that you don't need the VGA port. Thats right, the VESA mounting bracket covers the VGA port, so only the HDMI port can be used. Thankfully though I was planning on using the HDMI port anyway. The system itself also comes with a stand for keeping it vertical if you don't wish to mount it to the back of a monitor or TV, I've opted to use this so I can hide it down the back of my TV unit so that it's out of site and also off the floor.

The Software

So as I previously mentioned I was pondering over which OS would be suit my needs for this HTPC system. After much reading I settled on OpenElec because it seemed logical that if I could get all I needed from a OS which was specifically designed to be small then I wouldn't need a full OS underneath like what XBMC Live provides (XBMC operates on top of Ubuntu for XBMC Live).

For the ER1401, I just selected the Generic Build of OpenElec, it works perfectly.

So I put OpenElec on to a USB Stick (8GB one, but you could do with as little as 1GB I believe). This is actually very easy to do since as part of the download of the OS comes two files, (for UNIX and Linux based systems) and create_installstick.bat (for Windows based systems). Just make sure you have a free USB Stick attached to your system before executing either of these files and make sure it doesn't contain any data that you don't want to lose. During the execution of these programs they will ask you a number of questions, all of them straight forward.

The Installation

So first boot. I attached a keyboard and mouse just to get me through these steps.

Well I was curious about Linpus so I decided to boot it and see what it's like. Honestly, it seems like a good effort, however not my cup of tea. I've used Linux (RHEL and Ubuntu) in many of it's flavours, however this one just seemed to be lacking in any design or effort. I wouldn't bother keeping this however you may want to for other reasons.

After plugging in the USB stick and hitting the delete key before Linpus booted I got into the BIOS. Here you need to set the first boot device to be the USB Stick. Once done save and reboot. If you find it still doesn't work then you can always hit F12 instead of Delete and you will get the Boot Selector screen. Just select the USB stick and continue.

The installation process of OpenElec is crazy fast. Just select the built in hard drive and it automatically formats and copies the required files over. Note that the automated installation will remove Linpus. Once done it will return you to the initial screen where you just click reboot. Make sure you remove the USB stick before the computer reboots otherwise you'll just boot into the installation screen again.

Ok, so the booting time is really fast. Really fast. I recorded around 13 seconds, however this was after I did all my tweaks, library updates and after adding several additional services so it may boot faster for you.

Update: I've since writing this post disabled some of the features I thought I would need and the boot time has reduced to around 10 seconds.

Required Tweaks

Ok, so after getting into XBMC after the first boot some things didn't work right. First of all the sound didn't work, however this is easily fixed, just follow the instructions on this page. These instructions are for the REVO however work just fine with the eMachine ER1401. Note that I was using audio over HDMI.

The boot screen also reports some errors on boot and as a result the nice OpenElec logo does not display on boot. To fix this follow the instructions for the Nvidia configuration on this page.

Update: So after checking out /var/log/messages it seems there is still errors during boot, however they are not visible now.

Additional Tweaks

The key point on a HTPC system is that you shouldn't treat it like a normal PC. It shouldn't have a mouse, it shouldn't have a keyboard, it should have some form of remote control device.

I have opted to have two separate ones.

I had previously bought years ago a Microsoft Media Center remote with the USB IR receiver. I plugged this in and it worked with no issues, no drivers to install and no LIRC configuration files to tweak, excellent! I wanted this option for when my second option was not available. Also I have a All-In-One remote control device which I had configured to control my Xbox 360, it works with the same signals as the Media Centre remote so it worked as well on the HTPC. This means I can control my SkyHD+ box, TV, sound system, Xbox and HTPC with one remote. Yeh, thats awesome, just to be clear.

The second option is the more advanced one. Using my iPad 2 as a remote with the app XBMC Constellation. By far this is the best app for XBMC remote control it simply has more features than you can imagine. You can browse your entire library of movies, tv shows and music and select which ones you want XBMC to play. You can find videos on youtube and blast them on to the TV. More importantly though you can do operations like shutdown, reboot, library updates, control menus and volume. There is a good video here of how to set this up.

Whats Next?

Well now that the system is built I want to setup some more advanced features. At the moment I have to turn on the device by pressing the button. Not a big deal however would like to utilise the Wake On Lan functionality that i've used with other systems. As of yet, I've not got this working so will post an update if I do. For reference, i've already activated this in the BIOS and i'm using an ethernet cable and not wireless.

Post any questions in the comments section. Happy to help.

Update: So I got the Wake On Lan functionality working, you can check out the steps I had to take here.