My year with Little Eddie

Its been about a year now since I started using my HTPC (Hainsworth Television PC). Mr. Michael and I went to Canada Computer and bought a pile of parts, and he spent a day and a half cannibalizing stuff from my old desktop and fashioning two fantastic computers, which I named The Stallion and Little Eddie Dingle.

Stallion was designed to be my audio-video production machine, outfitted with a Soundblaster Audigy Platinum sound card, ATI All-in-Wonder 9800 pro video card for digitizing video and playing big ass videogames, a big RAID for video capture and encoding, a dual-layer DVD burner, and a new motherboard with an AMD Sempron 2GHz and 1GB RAM. I added a Datavideo TBC-1000 time base corrector for improved VHS capture. Problem is, I never learned the software side of video editing, despite majoring in video editing back in my Ryerson RTA days, so its mostly been used to check email and suck BitTorrents.

Eddie, OTOH, has had a lot of use. Michael took the old mobo out of my desktop and put it in a slick home-theatre style PC called the Antec Overture II. My old Sapphire Radeon 9000 card had S-video out, so that'd provide a clear signal to the TV. I got a cheap Soundblaster Live!24 OEM card hoping the digital output would feed a SPDIF signal to my Yamaha 5740 surround sound system -- it did, with help from a two-dollar mono mini-to-RCA cable from Active Surplus. I chose a huge hard drive to store shows and music -- so big, Windows XP couldn't format it as one drive, much to our surprise. A Snapstream Firefly remote would run the machine from the couch (or anywhere in the home, since its RF) allowing the fun of playing all my music through Meedio. I'd had a ton and a half of fun at the Hainsworths playing with that.I grabbed a Hauppauge WinTV-PVR-250 tuner card on sale for $149 at Future Shop and bought BeyondTV 3 to round out the package as a whole HTPC solution. Michael configgered it up and made it go, and I took it home to begin life with my new boys.

It's really changed the way I watch TV. That's become the cliche with PVRs, but its so true. For much of the year, I watched TV as normal, but enjoyed being able to pause for a few minutes, do something, then come back and be able to skip through commercials. Plus I would tape shows in the middle of the night and watch them later. Basic stuff, really. Now that 'manda and I are on different schedules, almost everything we watch is recorded. We tape The Daily Show for next-day consumption, and often start rolling on prime time stuff in the evening and play catch-up as we go, skipping past ads along the way. I'm probably missing a lot of advertising, but that's rarely a bad thing. We pick and choose our viewing more carefully. It means less TV and certainly less wasted TV time. And we can pause to laugh, pee, get food, look up a disputed fact raised in the program, and so on. Instant replays are a treat, whether on America's Funniest Home Videos or Hockey Night In Canada.

I don't use Meedio as much as I thought I would. It was fun to go through my music and make playlists with the remote control, and the Name That Tune game (which, if I'm not imagining things, was born out of a basement chat at Michael's) is a blast. But I don't have the patience or present skill level to get in there and configure and tweak it as much as I know I ought to. I still fire it up now and then, but nowadays I mostly use itunes to load up a random party mix when I want to hear some music. Meedio is usually only seen when someone sits on the remote and hits the Firefly button.

Having a wireless keyboard, wireless mouse and wireless high speed infernet has been the biggest blessing. Browsing the web on the teevee is great for ordering delivery food, looking up spur-of-the-moment facts, searches during tv shows, etc. We make our grocery lists on Eddie and print 'em off over the network. We fly around the world on Google Earth and order arline tickets from the couch. We can play Super Mario Brothers or MAME or even Grand Theft Auto. A game of Monopoly is so much simpler using a mouse or the Firefly, instead of spreading out a board and dealing with funny money and property cards. Having a PC hooked up to the TV has meant so much more than a cool mp3 jukebox. Everything fun I can do on a computer, I can do on my TV, and it's more fun 'cuz I'm on the couch.

As a radio guy, I can't finish up without talking about sound. I suppose I could have simply put a stereo line out from the pc to my amp... But f-that. I ran a SPDIF line from the SBlive24 card to the home theatre amp, so its a pure digital signal. From there, the amp let's me use Dolby Pro Logic II (interesting link, there) or other surround-sound filters to process the stereo sound from the TV or music into gorgeous 5.1. For months I was using the original Pro Logic, til I read more on matrix processing and moved up to Movie or Music under PLII depending on the source. Cool stuff.

The only thing I haven't done with this machine is watch DVDs. The first few attempts playing DVDs looked like hell, so I'm sticking with the standalone player into the component inputs on the TV.

All in all, I like BeyondTV better than any standalone hardware PVR I've used, be it from Rogers or Bell. I haven't tried the one Eastlink out here uses -- gotta be better than the Rogers one ... as Michael noted, it's as though the Soviets developed a parallel PVR technology in the 80s, and Rogers licensed the tech. It works, it's solid, but it's as pretty as a Commodore 64.

Lest I go through a whole post without complaining, as an afterthought, I offer a few notes. The Antec case is gorgeous, but it was a bit warm. The reviews said it, and it was true. I drilled vent holes in my A/V stand, and the bugger still overheated and screamed and cried. So now it sits on top. Shame. The wireless networking kept crapping out, and often. It'd lose contact with home base and require me to Repair Wireless Connection. Recently I got new drivers and software for the Linksys card, and it's been smooth as Astroglide ever since. Over time, the silent fans have grown less silent. The rear right one makes a helluva racket (think outboard motor) when I turn it on, 'til I poke it with something and get it in a less resonant spin. It gets dusty. But so what? It's still an ass-kicking, awesome machine. Little Eddie Dingle changed my life. Thanks, Michael!

Piggy clock and long ramble

Michael sent word of a guy who crafted an alarm clock that wakes you up to the smell of bacon. How? By cooking real bacon.

When Sallin first woke up to his Wake n' Bacon alarm clock -- constructed from a gutted Wal-Mart alarm clock, a PIC microcontroller, and two 100-watt halogen lamps -- everything came back to him again. "My first thought was 'Mom's in the kitchen,' soon followed by "The apartment's on fire."

Wow. And I thought programmable coffee makers were cool. I don't drink coffee, but I likes me my bacon. Some of you may recall the year that I made "Eat More Bacon" my New Year's resolution. The only one I ever really kept. Following year was "Eat More Velveeta" but that got old really fast. I'm not sure what 2005's resolution was, if any, but I have a feeling that if it was something big and life-changing, I've done at least a half-ass job of it, since nearly everything big in my life has changed in the past year. More on that in the coming weeks, I imagine.

Check out some of the new goodies over on my flickr page. I've upped myself to "pro" member which means no worries about uploading a ton of crap, all the time, and creating an endless series of unconnected photo collections. It also lets me get my own dub-dub-dub dot flickr dot com slash whatever web address, but I haven't done that yet. Recent updates include photos from last weekend's Big Ass Snow Storm (of which we're getting a repeat tonight, says the meteorologist with Brian Hill's weather knowledge but Russ Holden's sense of puns), a collection of some of my favourite pictures from the years I've had a digital camera, and a bunch of shots of the kitties, Kitty and Kitty. Oh, and some shots of when CPAC was in the studio for a TV broadcast of Maritime Morning with Andrew Krystal. I tried to tape it, but some night-before messing with the BIOS on my HTPC (Hainsworth Television PC) (code name: 'Little Eddie Dingle', little brother to Big Ass A/V PC 'The Stallion') crashed the machine without my knowledge, so the show went un-TIVOed. One of those "keyboard missing - hit any key to continue" errors. I was futzin' with it because it keeps losing track of time, despite being ordered to get time updates over the infernet each week. Stallion's clock keeps adding minutes, too. Maybe it's this Atlantic time zone. I can't keep track of time either.

Hopefully the next update will have pictures of the new car. Amanda settled on the Kia Rio5. It's a black hunchback with .... uh .... I dunno, car stuff. It's an automagic instead of a stick-shift, though, so I'll be driving it some time. I'm sure car people know stuff about these things, but all I know is it has bum-warmers in the seats, an MP3 CD player in the dash, power windows and locks, and the lights fade out when you hit the button on the keychain. Anyway, she loves how it drives and it's performing well in the winter weather.

I've got my fresh new oh-fish-al Nova Scotia ID -- new drivers' license and health card. The government operations here are so gosh-darned efficient, it's enough to make you wonder if there's a catch. Instead of dealing with disgruntled drones at the MTO, the folks at the Nova Scotia drivers-license-whatnot office were friendly, cheery, and insanely fast. Health card people were the same, even though that was a simple phone and mail deal. Almost makes me want to see what else I can do at a government office. Almost.

Gonna start putting together the Definitive Magic 8 Ball CD package in the coming days, so get those photos in if you haven't already. I've gone through years of basement footage for a bonus disc of outtakes, and found some good stuff. Only one rare track I'm missing, though, and that's the improvised gem titled "Moderation". If I can't source a copy of that one, it'll forever remain The Lost Big Ass Track. I've even invested in the best stock photography money can buy for the cover art -- seriously, I paid for stock photography. Gorgeous.

Other than that, things are alright. Still tired. Still not hitting the gym enough. (At all.) I've done so much walking since arriving here in September that I've worn a pair of nearly-new shoes right down to the insole. But finally getting into something of a routine. Hopefully a groove, not a rut. Later, dearies.

Sneak a peek

You can get a peek at the News95.7 studio tomorrow when CPAC broadcasts live tomorrow. CPAC is bringing cameras into the station to simulcast Maritime Morning with Andrew Krystal during the morning:

Building on its popularity from the last election campaign, CPAC's Talk Radio listens in on even more of Canada's most provocative talk radio shows. Starting in Atlantic Canada and moving west, Talk Radio offers viewers regional perspectives on campaign issues and invites them to call and participate.

Watch for it December 7 at 9am AT / 8AM ET / 5AM PT and you might catch me lurking around at the end, waiting to do the noon news.

Test drivin'

Manda's 1999 Suzuki Swift failed Nova Scotia's mandatory annual safety inspection, big-time. $900-$1400 worth of work required to make it street legal, apparently. Not quite the road equivalent of a Sea King helicopter, but the car was given ten days' driveability before the red stickers thereupon become a flag for police to pull it over and take it off the road. She needs a car for her job, and she needs the job to help pay the rent etc., so after much gnashing of teeth and fretting and such, the decision was made to look into leasing a new car. Extensive research on the Internet followed, and Manda hit up a few dealerships this week to get prelim figures. With the Car Death Clock ticking, today came the test drives.

Halifax has a stretch of road near the radio station loaded with car dealerships and food joints. O'Regan's and Steele dominate the car market, each handling several brands in multiple locations. Wendy's, Harvey's, McDonald's, Swiss Chalet and others feed the auto buyers. Kempt Road is the place. Expect to see lots of crappy cars and lots of brand new cars. Makes senses, yes?

First up: the Kia Rio 5 (Convenience model). Amanda's notes:

Any new car is going to feel like a Lexus compared to what I've been driving. I found this car handled very well, steering felt solid, good visability from the car, good pick-up for a car in its class, quiet engine and an overall pleasant, comfortable and enjoyable ride. The other thing I liked about this car is some little extras that come "standard", like 60/40 split rear seats, MP3 player, heated front seats, power windows/locks, keyless entry, large cargo area, nice interior and a 5yr, 100,000km warranty. Very roomy with plenty of leg room. We also checked out the back seat and found that to be plenty comfortable for an adult.

Then, lunch at Wendy's (I've switched from fries to baked potato with my combos -- I'm diggin' the change) and over to the Toyota dealership for a look at the new Toyota Yaris.

The Yaris (multimedia gallery) 5 door LE model (with "Package B"). Amanda's notes:

The first thing that turns me off about this car is those lovely little "extras" that come standard with the Rio5 are only available if you add on the "Package B" (like a/c, power locks/windows) or if you upgrade to the RS model (60/40
split rear seats) which adds on quite a bit of money to the price. The warranty included is for 3 years only and a fourth year is extra (which might be wise if you're leasing for 4 years). That being said, I wasn't quite as impressed with the quality of the ride in the Yaris. It didn't feel as smooth, it didn't have quite the pick-up, the engine made a lot more noise (on acceleration), and I had a hard time seeing out the rear window. I also noticed it moved quite a bit in the wind (to be fair, I don't think it was quite as windy when we were driving the Rio5). The cargo space is smaller, the model I can afford does not have 60/40 split rear seats or an MP3 player, and we found it overall to be less roomier for foot, head and shoulder room. The Yaris has tons of mini compartments to stash stuff, which is really cool, but the interior felt a bit "toyish" whereas the Rio5 felt more "expensive". The front end of the Yaris is also significantly shorter than the Rio5. Say what you will about safety in that regard, but I prefer the longer look to the Rio5. The Toyota salesman was a real pro: very helpful and knowledgable.

After two unsatisfying uninformative visits with the confused kid at the Kia place, I Blackberry-Google searched for more Kia options and found a dealer in Dartmouth, across the harbour. We zipped over and were impressed. The salesman knew his stuff. He entered us in a test-drive-and-win sweepstakes to go hang out with Doug Gilmour in Florida (as if I care, but, y'know), and gave me a free Sidney Crosby Reebok hockey hat (doesn't fit my head, and I don't want anyone thinking I'm at all affiliated with hockey, but I appreciate freebies at any time). [Amanda's notes: Plus, he's going to give me more money to take my current vehicle off my hands.]

Back home, and Manda's chatting with stepdad who's in the biz to get his take on things. Will letcha know how it develops.

Feedback from gearheads is welcome. Not that I know any.

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