Category Archives: Gadgets

Home Theater PC

When Liz & I got married, one of her best friend’s from college bought us the TV that we registered for as a wedding gift. Having this fantastic 42″ TV is just awesome, but we agreed that we didn’t want to pay for satellite or cable, so we’re using a regular rabbit antenna to receive local over-the-air stations. Generally speaking its great (caught every college football game that I wanted to see, in HD quality, no problem), but I missed being able to record shows and pause live TV. So we determined a budget and I started plotting to get a home theater PC.

I ended up researching this for more than two months. I had to stay within a budget of $500, and the completed solution had to handle four things:

  • DVR to record TV (preferably with dual tuners)
  • Play DVD’s (and eventually Blu-ray)
  • Netflix streaming
  • Internet TV (YouTube, Hulu, Boxee, etc)
  • One single remote to handle everything

In other words, I want it all. If I’m going through the expense and trouble of setting this up, I want one box (and one remote) that handles everything.

Armed with my list of requirements, I started researching. I looked at everything, and I mean everything: a homebuilt PC running Linux and MythTV, a Mac Mini with Front Row and eyeTV, hacking an XBox 360 or PS3 to act as a DVR, Tivo, Windows running Sage TV or Windows Media Center… For each of these, I looked at capabilities and limitations, new and used prices, searching forums for common problems. My spreadsheet to keep track of all of this was becoming increasingly complex, and I was losing hope that this was possible.

For Christmas I got a gift certificate and a little bit of money, which made my budget a little higher. I’ve now ordered the components, put it all together, and it works. It. Is. Amazing. Here’s my setup.

The total cost of the hardware was $618 shipped, but the gift certificates and cash that we got for Christmas kept our out of pocket expenses below our $500 mark.

Installing the TV tuner was a snap, literally 20 minutes from start to watching TV via my computer. Add another 10 minutes to get Netflix downloaded and configured, and the entire process is done in less than an hour. Everything works.

Over the air TV: comes in HD quality, strong signal, no issues at all. We get 9 channels and they’re all great quality. Once in a while the screen gets pixelated while decoding the signal, but I haven’t seen this last more than 2 seconds, and its happening less than once a week. Recording one show while watching another, or recording two things at one time works perfectly. Media center handles the guide for us, so we can always see the show that we’re watching, what’s on next, etc.

Play DVDs: nothing to say here really, it works better than my 10 year old DVD player. Its flawless.

Netflix streaming: this is my favorite so far. We’re on the $16/mo plan, for which we get 2 DVD’s at a time, and we can watch all the streamed movies we want. I have about 75 movies or TV shows in our instant queue, which means that within 2 minutes I could be watching any one of them. The image quality and sound are excellent, and pause/forward/rewind works just as you’d expect. I love it. LOVE IT!

Internet TV: Hulu & YouTube work great, just as they do on your computer. I haven’t set up Boxee yet, but I plan to at some point.

Transitions: It is super easy to switch between live or recorded TV, Netflix or a DVD. The remote control makes it a snap. The menus are intuitive and the interface is attractive and easy to read.

I have to say, this project has turned out better than I expected. I have everything that I want, I haven’t sacrificed anything, other than a high cable or satellite bill.

BlackBerry

For the past several months I have been shopping cell phone providers and deals. My contract with Verizon expired so I’ve been a free agent. With Verizon, every time you sign a new contract you get a deal on a new phone, but what I wanted was a plan that includes web & email access. I’m on the go all the time so that would be pretty handy.

I shopped online quite a bit so when I finally went to my local Verizon rep I was pretty knowledgeable on what’s available, and I worked him for at least an hour. I already had a Treo that I was happy with so I wasn’t interested in a new phone. We looked at several plan options, all of them were more per month. I finally gave up, thinking that it wasn’t going to happen. Finally as I was walking away, he said “if you sign up for a data plan, I’ll give you a BlackBerry.” Um. Okay. I can work with that. I am paying more per month, but since I can work from anywhere its a wash for me. And, the phone is suh-weet.
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The Ringer

What’s problem with custom ringtones? The price, right? Who wants to pay a couple of dollars for a ringtone that they’ll be tired of within a couple of months? Custom ringtones are available through a bunch of different sources. Many of the ones that I’ve found have been a subscription thing, where you pay $2-$5 per month. That’s just crazy.

But you have to admit, they are kind of cool, right? I like them, but have never had one before because I don’t want to pay someone for a 15 second clip of a song that I already own. I’ve known that there are options for creating these yourself, but who has the time to jack with it?

I got a Treo phone for Christmas from my brother. I love that thing. Its great to have my calendar in my pocket, and I also like putting all of my contacts in one place (Outlook) for my computer and my phone. So all of that is pretty cool. The problem is, the Treo is a fairly popular phone. Probably once or twice per week I’ll hear my phone ring, only to realize that someone next to me has the same ring as me. I’ve never had that problem before now.

Custom ringtones are the answer. I had to figure this out. And I did. In about 15 minutes (if I had known it was this simple…). You need to do this. You like custom ringtones, and you’re tired of paying for them.

You’ll need to download two files, Audacity and lame (I laughed, too). Note that this version of lame is for Windows. If you’re on a Mac or *nix machine its available for you, too. Do a search and you’ll find it.

Unpack lame in a folder on your desktop. You’re done with that now, so install Audacity. Once its installed, open it up and click Edit > Preferences > File Formats > Find Library. Point it to the folder that you unpacked lame in. Set the bit rate to 128 and click OK. You now have all the tools you need.

Pick your favorite MP3, open it in Audacity and clip it down to 15 seconds. You get to pick which 15 seconds, so don’t sweat it. When you’re done, export it to MP3 (be sure to change the file name otherwise you’ll overwrite your original song).

Finally, get the new MP3 to your phone by text message, USB, Bluetooth, however. Then on your phone move it to the ringtone folder and you’re all set. Ba Da Boom you’re done. Free ringtones.

Next time you call me, I’ll be listening to Strong Bad. Yippee kai yo.

Dos

Now that I’ve had a couple of days with my new computer, I still love it. And, I’ve had time to work with my old computer. My intent was to get the data off of the drive, then worry about whether or not I’d get it working again. Well, I got lucky, in the process of recovering my data, I fixed it. I now have two fully functioning Dell laptops. Bully for me!

Somehow the filing system on my old system became corrupt. I ran CHKDSK on the drive with the fix and recover enabled and everything was restored, good as new. Once I did that it booted right up, all my applications run, all my data is there, its like nothing ever happened.

I’m not exactly sure how that occurred, I’m just glad that I was able to recover my data. I’m planning to sell the old one on eBay to offset the expense of my new one. I’d kinda like to keep the old one and install Linux on it, but I don’t really need two computers. Even in my geekiest state.

So this story has a happy ending. Recovered data, recovered computer. And, I didn’t even need my backups, I was able to retrieve all my data from the computer itself.

I feel pretty fortunate to have been able to resolve this on my own. Years ago I worked in tech support, but I’ve forgotten most of what I know, and most of what I remember pertains to Windows 98 (blech). I’m sure if I had paid someone they would have had it fixed in a couple of hours. It took me two weeks.

B130

This is my first post from my new Dell laptop. They tried to deliver it on Friday, but I was out of town, so it arrived today. I spent about an hour removing software from it (AOL was the first to go, heh), and then about three hours installing my software.

So far I freakin love it. The new screen looks fantastic, and with the motherload of RAM, everything runs faster than I can click. It has changed my life. Plus, while I was waiting for the computer, I ordered a laptop stand and a keyboard from eBay, so not only do I have a more powerful computer, my desk is more organized.

Powerful, space saving, organized, synergistic; it has changed my life. I feel like a whole new person.

Newness

Well, I have an update on my computer. After my last post I did some research online and thought maybe it was a software thing. So I went home with some new insight and did some testing. I don’t think any of my hardware is damaged, but I think ALL of my software and data is toast. Kaput. Sianara. Gone. Dammit.

Using fdisk I can see the drive and partition information, but DOS won’t recognize the drive. I can’t tell you how much that sucks. I did a backup of my hard drive about a month ago, so I think (*hope*) that I’ll be able to recover my data.

But, on the plus side, a new computer is on the way. I also did some research on new computers, and I found a great deal on a new Dell (DUDE, I’m getting a Dell!) laptop. So, I should have a new computer in a couple of weeks. And once I get all of my data back, I’ll reinstall the O/S on my old system and list it on eBay. So it looks like everything is going to work out.

My new system should arrive week after next. I don’t get a new computer very often, so this is kind of exciting.

Hardware

My blogging ability took a turn last night. I came home from campus, and my computer’s screen said “No operating system found.” Undeterred, I turned it off and back on, and its now stuck in a boot loop. It just keeps rebooting. I haven’t figured out what the problem is yet, but I’m pretty confident that its a hardware problem. This is good, because it means that my data is likely in tact.

I’m not too upset, I bought this laptop used on eBay more than 5 years ago, so I figure I got my money’s worth. But, it does mean that blogging will be more of an effort for a while. Until I get a new computer I’m only going to be able to write from campus.

After input from both James and Micah, I purchased Know by Heart from American Analog Set on Sunday. I’ve been listening to it all week, and I really like them. Way to come through with a solid recommendation for new tunage. Their sound is smooth and melodic, and the way they’re mixed the rhythm guitar is the focal instrument (is that a musical term, or did I just make it up?), which is perfect for them. This gives the lyrics kind of an understated dreamy feel, and that guitar is almost hypnotizing. I really like them.

At the moment I don’t know when I’m going to be able to get a new PC, so my posts may be sporadic. But don’t give up on me. I’m not giving up on Lenwood.cc!

I Think, Therefore iPod

My coveting has ended. I am now a member of the new generation. The iPod generation. I’m inches from receiving my second “free” iPod (a 60GB video iPod), so I went ahead and ordered a 30GB video iPod for myself.

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I was debating whether to get a 30GB or the 60GB. I finally came to the conclusion that 30 is plenty for me, and I’m glad I did. So far I’ve loaded somewhere around 60 CD’s on it, and I’m not even to 4GB yet (that’s right, less than 10% drive capacity taken by 60 full length CD’s!). I don’t think I’m going to fill this thing within the next couple of years.

Once I sell the 60GB unit that I’m about to recieve, this one won’t quite have been free, but I will have gotten it for significantly less than half price. I’m happy with that.

Now that I’m a member of the iPod club, I’ve started moving into accessories. First, I plan to install an adapter into my girlfriend’s car so that she can listen to and control her iPod through her factory stereo. The cool part of this is that she’ll be able to use her steering wheel buttons to control track and playlist selection, and her dash unit will display the artist and song info. How cool is that?

Then, I plan to do something similar for my aftermarket stereo in my truck. I’ll keep you posted on how these projects progress.

Listening to Johnny Cash (obviously). Reading Getting The Love You Want.

My First Free iPod

Okay, remember waaaayyy back when I posted about wanting a free iPod? And then later posting about giving up? Well, in early December I gave it another go, and it worked. I just received a 4g iPod Nano, complements of Freepay.

So now that I’ve been through the system, I understand a little more about what makes this possible. First the bad news. You should know going in that the iPods aren’t exactly free. This is basically a different type of marketing, Freepay is getting paid for referring you to their advertisers, and you have to spend money there, typically between $10 and $40, though some of the offers are trials that you can complete for free.

You’ll want to sign up using a gmail (let me know if you need an invite) or Yahoo! email address, because the address you use is going to get a lot of spam. I created a gmail address specifically for this, and I typically get over 30 spams per day into that account.

Once you’ve signed up, you have to get people to sign up underneath you. This is where I got stuck. I didn’t want to pimp that link all over the web, so I decided to let it go. But then I found Referral Swapper, which is a site that helps people connect to complete their referrals and get their products. I ended up paying people to complete my offers.

But now for the good news. The iPods aren’t free, but after everything is said and done the price you pay is a fraction of the cost of purchasing one from Apple. And the iPod is brand new in the shrink wrapped box. Warranty and all.

If you can endure some spam, and you aren’t in a hurry, you can get an iPod for less than half price.

This first one goes to my girlfriend for her birthday. But I’ve already started working on obtaining one for myself, so I should have my own iPod within the next couple of months.

And now, the Nano. Holy cow is this one cool little device. Color screen, 1,000 songs, small enough to fit in your shirt pocket, and that easy interface. I’m opting for the Video iPod for myself, but I have to say that this tiny thing is pretty tempting.

I’ll write again when I receive my own.

Listening to Beck. But not on an iPod.

Apple Media

A couple of weeks ago Apple released a new iPod that plays videos (not the Nano), you may have seen it in the news. Half the planet seems to think its the coolest thing ever, and the other half thinks its a dumb idea. Who cares, right?

While the new video iPod is grabbing all of the attention, Apple sneaks in a new iMac also. I haven’t seen too much press about it, but its more than your average iMac, its a media center, complete with remote. There it is on their website, ready for purchase.

I know, I know. Microsoft’s Windows Media Center has been out for a while. I did a web search, and if they’re moving in the digital media direction, I can’t tell. And besides that, it runs on Windows. Blech.

Well, about a week ago I read an interesting post on Ken’s site. Its a pretty cool notion, that Apple could be trying to move Hollywood in a direction that consumers would appreciate, similar to what they’ve done for the music industry with the iPod & iTunes. Remember way back when Blockbuster and Enron promised video-on-demand? Think of downloadable videos, movies, and TV shows. Or if not downloadable, at least streaming.

And then, this. Ken isn’t the only one noticing what Apple is up to. The video iPod and new iMac could be a foot in the door. Right now the new iPod will play music videos, and Disney is making their TV shows available for download. In a couple of years would they be willing to provide streaming movies to customers? And what of the rest of Hollywood? Will they also make stuff available? Netflix? Napster?

I’m excited about this. It seems like if this took off, it could get really cool really fast, just like MP3’s did. I want to download movies, don’t you?