19 Feb

HTPC 2010 – The Conclusion

Category:Hardware, Howto's

The Conclusion

So time has come to get down to brass tacks. How much for the ape? I kid. I’ve now been using the HTPC for a little over a week, and i’m liking it. I’m gonna try to be as non-hyping and calm as possible, and list some of the challenges and victories with this build in this, the last post in the HTPC2010 series.

The Cons

First of all, the case is really cramped in a vertical sense. The fat ATX power cable has to be forced down, which feels really dangerous, as the fragile little motherboard starts to almost bend under the force. And all this just to get the top cover on. Some of the cables are also quite short, and the 4pin 12V extra power cable that goes to the motherboard only barely makes it to where it’s going. Cable management becomes a bit hard, when you have maybe a few millimeters of breathing room.

The 55x55mm fan in the rear of the case is also a bit annoying. It is quite loud, and causes some resonance with the metal of the case, and has to be tapped once in a while to shut it up. I could remove it altogether,  but i’m pretty sure it needs at least some cooling. The Asus motherboard has a similarly sized CPU fan, which isn’t quiet either. Would a passively cooled one have been a better alternative? Not if you ask Anteuz, as his Point of View-motherboard came with a passive CPU heatsink. He said it got so hot, he actually took the fan from the rear of the lascala and put it on the cpu heatsink to cool it off. So maybe a small tradeoff here.

There is no space for bigger fans without modification of the case.

The Asus motherboard doesn’t receive high marks from me in another area as well. The onboard connectors are quite limited. There is only one internal USB, no firewire, no esata, no anything. There is actually an esata solder-point on the motherboard, but alas, no connector. This would have been nice for hooking up an external drive, either through firewire or esata, but neither is present. This presents another problem with this case: the front panel. The frontpanel of the Lascala has a memorycard reader, which needs internal usb to work. It also has 2xUSB, firewire and audio. So i have to chose either the usb ports, or the memory card reader, and make due with no firewire.

Oh yeah, and there is no cover-panel for the optical drive slot (which is above the memorycard reader. This makes for a rather ugly front panel, if you open the little flip-down hatch, and find that there is a gap there. I chose to have the front panel usb’s hooked up, and left out the memory card reader. This means there’s a huge hole where the optical drive and card reader should be. Rather ugly. They could have included a damn cover for 160 euro……

I had problems with the sound, but this was to be expected. Using the optical out isn’t always simple in Linux, but once the correct configuration was entered, everything worked fine. Basically it was like 10 rows in my .asoundrc that solved the problem. It was mysterious. Video files with high-quality audio like DTS or other fancy Dolby standards worked fine. But then simple mp3 or other audio didn’t. One would expect it to be the other way around.

I also had problems with the video drivers. I went with the ubuntu recommended 185 drivers, and they had no problems. However, upgrading to the latest 195 drivers from nvidia resulted in XBMC crashing to the desktop immediately upon trying to play an .mkv file. Frustrating.

HDMI also didn’t work with the correct resolution from the getgo, and while VGA did, it has problems placing the image correctly on my Samsung 32R86 tv. I have to run the “automatic placement” menu item on the TV to position the picture correctly. And what’s worse, the placement is different for XBMC and the desktop. So to have a perfect image, i’d have to run that thing every time.. This is probably just a TV issue, so i’ll wait for my new 40 incher until i start spending time on this.

Setting folder content in XBMC is a bit tricky. I found that working on the default Confluence skin was the surest way to go, as many of the custom skins had some kind of reverse polish logic in them. Take this use case: I add a new folder to the library, and press the folder with the right mouse button and select “Set Content”. Here, i select the scraper (which website it uses to get the metadata for the content), and start indexing the content. If i made a mistake, i can’t return to that same folder view, all i have is the contents of that folder. When i manage to get back to that view through some dark magics, i find that the Set content menu-item is no longer there, and i am unable to “re-set” the content, if something went wrong, which it did.Through some voodoo, every media file in the folder got scraped as “Home movies”, by Ridley Scott, 1986. So every media file had the same metadata (which is incorrect, i don’t even have such a file!), and re-trying was not possible. Removing the library and re-setting the content seemed like the best way to go. And even then, some content had to be set manually, because it was not detected or processed correctly. A lot of manual work, that only has to be done once, note.

The Pros

The relatively cheap ION platform, while low powered, can decode media like a motherfucker. There is no chopping or other problems while playing even super high quality full-hd content, with hd class sound. It just works. And CPU load hardly ever goes over 50%.

All things said,  the build is still very quiet, and aesthetically pleasing, with it’s Set-top-box type black case. All that’s missing is a remote. It doesn’t take up much  power when playing media. It’s compatible with most forms of video and audio. Adding spotify through wine, you can even have that functionality all in the same box (though not integrated to XBMC..yet…).

The machine can be used to do pretty much anything except like.. graphics or encoding of media, or playing games. It doubles as a general internet pc in the living room, that you can use from the comfort of your own couch. With a 150 bucks more, you can add a bluray player, and save having to buy yet another box to your already cramped equipment racks.

I’m also pleased with how little tuning XBMC took in the end (save for the partial audio problems). Installing it was easier than i thought. My wife quickly learned to use XBMC as well, though she isn’t what you’d call a total newbie. I’m just waiting to teach it to my 2.5 year old son.. 🙂

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