Monday, November 30, 2009

nVidia ION for HTPC

This is an exciting time for buying HTPC devices. They come in really small sizes, they are efficient and yet can playback 1080p video and boot in under 30 seconds. The most exciting hardware (for me anyway) is the ION platform from nVidia. These are tiny motherboard and CPU combos that do wonders considering their size and power usage. I had my eye on this one for a while now. It looks great and for once I can put my HTPC in front of everyone in the living room. But there are a couple of reasons I keep reconsidering. First the bare bones HTPC has a small 2.5" 320 GB hard drive. Well I guess that is what gives it the small size. And the second reason is that it does not have a PCI slot. The tv tuner card I have sits in a PCI slot. Of course I can buy the latest and greatest USB tv tuner card, but I have my reasons to not to.

I have painstakingly configured my PCI tv tuner card in Gentoo (my favorite OS). When I brought the tuner card the drivers were still buggy and you had to use the latest kernel and even then there would be problems. Luckily I use Gentoo so using the latest kernel is no big deal. And since I compile the kernel from scratch I can modify the kernel source code too. And I did just that. I had to tune a few parameters in the v4l driver for my tuner card. Then I had to hack around with mplayer to get everything right. Anyway that was back in the day. The linux drivers have improved a lot since then. At least for the old tuner card that I have, I didn't need to modify the latest kernel anymore. Things just work now.

Yet I don't want to part with the PCI card and go for a USB tuner, because I think the latest tuners will still not be supported by linux yet and I will have to invest a lot of time to get it to work again. And I don't want that. So my next best option would be to use an ION platform that has a PCI slot. That means I will have to build the HTPC from scratch which is fun for me except that it might not look as nice on the exterior. I will probably have to hide it again. At least I will save some on my electric bill if nothing. Running a full desktop PC 24/7 with 4 hard drives and a lot of power hungry components like the very powerful graphics card is not helping my bills :). So in my next post I will try to find an alternative to the barebones ION HTPC and perhaps I will have better luck.

Thursday, November 26, 2009


I have my eye on a new HTPC, but what does my current one look like? Here it is.

The desktop PC that acts as my apache, mysql, samba, vnc, nx, xbmc and mythtv servers. In addition it is a media player. I have to hide it behind my TV because it looks so big and ugly. But it serves me well. Even while running 24/7 for the past two and a half years, I never had a single problem. It has 2 fans, one to cool the processor and one at the back to blow the air out of the case. The fan at the back sometimes would not run after a restart and I have to kick start it by spinning the fan with my hand and it will continue to run. For this reason and also to keep the PC much cooler I have left one side of the desktop open.

This is how my media center running xbmc looks like from the front.

And here is the vnc viewer connected to my HTPC showing off mythtv tv guide.

You can see the gkrellm running on the left side showing all the vital stats like cpu, gpu, hard drive temperature, memory, cpu, hard disk, network usage etc. All in one place. Next up my future HTPC wishlist.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The new HTPCs are so tempting

It has been a while since I blogged here. Got very busy. But I am hoping to restart. We will see how it goes.

Today's topic is HTPC. There are some really wonderful HTPCs coming out these days. I wish I could buy all of them :). I have an old HTPC now. You can barely call it a HTPC. It is simply a desktop that I filled up with a lot of hard disks. It has an AM2 motherboard capable of 6 channel surround sound with AMD X2 3600+ processor and nvidia 9800 GT GPU. The GPU is way too powerful than required for a HTPC I know, but it was also my gaming machine for a while. Crammed into all the spaces are 4 hard disks with 250 GB each. I also have a kworld pci ATSC/QAM tuner for all my digital tv recording needs. It was so much fun when I built it more than a couple of years ago.

For the software I used freevo as my media center software. It would record shows too. So I did not need anything else. It was very configurable and everything is in python and most importantly it can playback media using various media players. Of course mplayer handled every kind of media for me. The advantage with this kind of setup is that I need not wait for freevo to pick up the new mplayer code. As soon as I install a new version of mplayer, freevo would start using it. However freevo looked so '90s when it came to graphics and UI design. So I switched to xbmc.

Now xbmc is my favorite media player. It is beautiful and all the animations and skins are a treat to the eyes. But it does not record live tv. So for that I installed mythtv and setup the backend to record live tv. A crobjob faithfully downloads EPG every night. I configure everything in mythtv using the web interface. Easy! The best thing about xbmc is that it uses nvidia's vdpau for decoding and rendering my videos. I love this feature. Of course freevo could also do it too because mplayer can render using vdpau. Anyway the point is that now all the work is offloaded to the GPU and so the CPU is not as taxed.

This and the fact that hard drives with lots of space are dirt cheap brings me to the idea of using a much much lighter setup. What if there is a small low power device that has a nvidia GPU and a low power CPU with just one 1 TB hard drive, has 6 channel analog and a digital audio output and a PCI slot for my tv tuber card? That would be awesome and then I would not have to hide my dirty HTPC behind my LCD TV.

I have my eyes on such a setup. More tomorrow though.