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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, imdb.com 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!

Comments

  1. Thanks for the year in review! I'm glad to see Eddie and The Stallion are still going strong.

    You're right: Our conversation about Name That Tune was triggered by my recent iPod purchase. I then pitched the idea to the volunteer developers at Meedio.com's forums, and within weeks we had a working application. Go into "Meedio Updates" because it's been improved since I installed it. It's far more intuitive now and less sluggish when randomizing.

    If you like using Windows on your television, you're going to love using Windows on a High Definition TV. Mine has a VGA port and you can read 8 point fonts on the thing.

    I still use Meedio, but I've tweaked it considerably. I loathe the stupid "import" requirement to view videos, so I've abandoned the "Media module" in favour of the "File Browser" and the files come up as a hierarchical structure. Fast, efficient. Sure, you don't get movie descriptions and posters, but that's all window dressing anyway.

    I won't use iTunes, simply because mousing around is inconvenient for guests. And I only listen to music on it when we have guests.

    The Meedio weather module is handy, and I've moved it up to the number 2 spot behind "Videos" and ahead of "Jukebox."

    I can't say enough good things about the Firefly remote. It's the best there is. But it may soon be abandoned: our new HDTV setup has forced the resurfacing of the ol' Surround Sound remote and we're looking at getting a Logitech Harmony 686 remote to combine all features. The Firefly is RF based, not Infrared, so I might switch to an IR reader so I can use the Logitech with Meedio, too.

    I'm with you on the DVD issue. I've never liked the clunky way Meedio handles DVDs and if you opt to launch PowerDVD or WinDVD, you're into a whole new world of hurt. Plus, if you've got component-in, you're getting a better quality image anyway.

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