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The Media Center Lives (Sunday, February 22, 2009)

Just over two years ago, I built a PC for the purpose of using it as a media center. Then I let it sit for a year and a half. About six months ago, I found a useful way to control it with Synergy. And then let it sit some more. But now, after two years, with the processor now totally obsolete, it is set up to be a usable media center.

The core ingredient of the media center is XBMC, the open source software project on which Boxee is based. Boxee does some fairly cool stuff, but the "extras" it provides, like social networking, are things that not only do I not need, but that I don't want. The last thing I need is for my media center to be able to send information about me out on to the Net without asking me first. Boxee also has some closed-source bits. And for some people those bits, and those relationships are important. For me, not so much. If there is streaming media available in a usable and open way, then XBMC can handle it. If it is only available through some sort of business arrangement, then sure, it would be cool... but I can live without it. This isn't going to replace my DirecTV with TiVo, and it isn't going to replace Netflix. It is just one more piece that will let me use my own media collection in a slightly easier way.

So aside from installing XBMC, I had to do a few other things to finally make it work. When I first got the system, the salesman swore up and down that the integrated NVidia graphics on the motherboard could do Vista's fancy Aero interface. But it couldn't. Turns out that was because NVidia hadn't bothered to get the drivers working yet. Well, the new drivers have long since been available, and after a quick update, I now have a "fancy" interface. I also found that Vista really wanted me to install SP1 before I could go on. That went off without a hitch, much to my surprise — with SP2 on the horizon, I hope I have similar good luck. Microsoft also offered me updated sound drivers, but after that update, there was no sound at all, so I got to test out Vista's ability to roll back a driver. That worked too. That impressed me.

One of the issues that has kept this machine a paperweight for the past two years is that the CPU fan sounds like a jet engine warming up. As slow as the CPU is, by modern standards (and too slow to decode 1080p video, according to XBMC's documentation), I may upgrade it, and get a new quieter fan when I do. But in the meantime, I usually want the system off. And that means getting up and walking across the room to turn it on. If I wanted to walk across the room, I could grab a DVD or a CD and load it into a machine while I'm up. I'm way too lazy for that. But I found a solution for this issue as well.

My system supports wake-on-LAN, and combined with Vista's hybrid sleep feature, I can now turn the system on and off remotely. When I press the "shutdown" button in the XBMC interface, it instructs Vista to sleep, which causes it, by all appearances, to just right down. In reality, it goes into a low power state, while at the same time, dumping memory to disk, so that if there's a power failure, it will behave as though it had hibernated, but under normal circumstances keeps power to the memory, so the system can come up immediately when summoned via the LAN. Very nifty. And when it's sleeping, all the fans are off, so it is basically indistinguishable from being powered off completely. Except for one little thing — the annoyingly bright blue power indicating LED blinks when the system is sleeping. Or it did. I opened the case and disconnected the power for the LED, so now I don't have to look at it, no matter what state the system is in. I can tell when it's on, because I have the pretty media center up on the screen, and I can tell when it's off by the blissful sound of silence. And with the hybrid sleep feature, I don't really have to worry about it — if it doesn't magically come on when I ask it to, then shame, I have to walk over and press the button, because the power failed. Except it won't, because the system is on a UPS.

There are two more bits to this puzzle that I need to take care of. The first is that my media library is an embarrassing mess. I have gigabytes of media in random folders with equally random names. I need to take the time to go through and organize my movies and music into appropriate folders, give the files appropriate names, and maybe even add meta data to them... I wonder if XBMC will go ahead and do that for me? I bet it will.

The second thing I need to do is get a remote control for the system. While it works great using the laptop as a remote control, the laptop isn't quick and practical for daily use — and who wants to sit around with a laptop on your lap when you're entertaining guests. Eventually, I'm going to get myself a Logitech Harmony One to control all of my plethora of systems, and I will likely be using EventGhost to allow the remote to control XBMC. So, it is important to get a USB remote control that will be compatible with both — IR compatible with the Harmony One, and software compatible with EventGhost.

There are a number of USB remote control devices available, and while it seems the Harmony One can probably handle any of them, the software compatibility isn't quite so broad. You may be surprised to discover that the one I'd most like to have is the Microsoft MCE Remote Control for Vista. Unfortunately, it is obscenely expensive, and very difficult to find. There are a lot of products that call themselves that, but aren't actually the Microsoft product, but rather a product simply claiming to be compatible with Vista and abusing Microsoft's trademark in their name. And since I need to be able to interface with both the software and the remote control, I need to be absolutely sure of what I'm getting. And Microsoft doesn't even list the product on their web site anymore.

So while I'd prefer the Microsoft remote, its limited support and availability has forced me to consider other options. It seems like the smartest and most flexible choice would be the USB-UIRT, which is a made-to-order USB universal infrared receiver (and transmitter), which allows your computer to receive any IR signal, and then you can use a program like EventGhost to map those signals to whatever key strokes or macro functions you want. The device is $50, and when you order it, Jon Rhees builds one and mails it to you. There's a lot of people out there using one, but I don't know, it still seems a bit shady to me.

That's why I'm leaning toward the Streamzap PC Remote, which has broad support for Windows and Linux. It's $30 and comes with a receiver and remote control, which will be useful until I get the Harmony One, and for training the Harmony One if I have any difficulty with configuration. The Streamzap is more limited than the UIRT, because it only has 35 buttons (XBMC has 38 keyboard bindings!), but I think that will be okay. EventGhost supports this remote, and doesn't require some of the hacking and guesswork of the UIRT.

In the meantime, I'm in business with Synergy, and I can focus on getting my media library back in working order. Oh, and I probably should spend some time learning how to use XBMC — it has a lot of cool features and add ons, and for the most part, I'm clueless about all of them!

—Brian (2/22/2009 01:38 AM)
(4 comments)

Comments

Be it known that the version of XBMC that I installed is the "Atlantis" release, version 8.10. According to the roadmap, the next version will be 9.04 -- due in April. After much fighting and clawing and scraping and reading pages of really painful forums, I have discovered that the plugin installer framework for 8.10 basically doesn't work, and unless you're willing to run the bleeding edge nightly builds (which I'm not), then you're screwed. At least until April. There are lots of cool plugins, including Hulu, YouTube, and NBA TV, but I won't see any of them until Spring. Fortunately, I have plenty of my own content to keep me busy until then.

-- Brian (2/22/2009 3:45 AM)

I finally made it through all 66 pages of the Hulu Plugin for XBMC forum discussion, and it turns out that Hulu added PID encryption a week or two ago, which sent the programmers scrambling to find a workaround, which they did... and then Hulu went and changed it again on Friday! The reality of it, is that the XBMC folks are working on embedding a Flash player, so they can just download the Hulu application like a Web browser would, and then use that to run the decryption. I'm sure that battle will be won by the time the next version of XBMC comes out. Y'know, I hope they don't make a habit of developing applications exclusively for the next, unreleased version.

-- Brian (2/22/2009 4:09 AM)

This is pretty cool stuff. By the way, I now have Synergy--with my desktop and Lisha's old laptop--and it's awesome. ..Not that I really need it for anything other than to just say I have it. One day I'll have a "media center" in my house too!

-- Matt (2/24/2009 5:33 PM)

See my in depth explanation of making the Harmony One, Streamzap remote, EventGhosts, and XBMC all play happily together.

-- Brian (3/30/2009 1:52 AM)

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