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New Wifi Antenna
HTPC Update
Building an HTPC is a dirty job... but somebody's gotta do it...
HW1: Server downtime
The Power of the "Cable"
Benq S72
Thrustmaster Ferrari F1 Force Feedback Wheel - Oldie but Goodie

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 Monday November 28, 2005

New Wifi Antenna
20:33 PM - kan
Today was a rather hectic day as I took some time off from work to RMA my faulty 200GB hard drive at Sim Lim Square. It's really amazing how fragile hard drives are nowadays! I had problems such as 100% CPU utilisation when copying huge files, data corruption and after a while, the whole unit just failed - along with my data.

Was walking around when I popped by my favourite wireless shop and got myself a new 2.4 GHz Wifi 7 dBi antenna with a magnetic base. From preliminary testings, I seem to be able to achieve better range, but somehow the results still arenít satisfactory. Maybe itís time to do a mini shoot-out with the rest of the antennas we have.



Oh yes, we have also renewed the hardware-one.com.sg domain for another two years. Hmm, wonder who uses that domain anyway.


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 Wednesday November 16, 2005

HTPC Update
01:11 AM - bktoh
After reading about my experiences... kan decided to do some digging around and he found this..



Neat, huh?

It is a lot more compact than my setup and still manages to offer 3 add on cards (1 PCI-E and 2 PCI). Runs on a Pentium M (notebook class) CPU so it runs pretty cool and is a decent performer as well. The implementation does still sound like the setup still suffers from the odd niggling problem, but it should be a simpler experience since it is pretty much fully built up as an HTPC.

Also, here's an update on my meddling with the HTPC.

Took a while to troubleshoot some of the problems I faced.

Using Media Portal has been pretty easy except when dealing with some of the audio codecs. When I first played back some of the video clips, the vocals sounded a bit "off", like it was missing a centre channel. Turned out by default, AC3filter and FFDShow audio filters output to a 5.1 analog channel output and my onboard soundchip only had stereo out. So I had to disable the 5.1 ProLogic decoding being done. Also had to disable AC3/DTS decoding and send the output directly to SPDIF out or I would only get Dolby Stereo output on my AC3 5.1 sources.

I also managed to download a configuration file for the iMON remote control to work with Media Portal. Despite what the iMON software claimed, I still needed to manually assign the keys to the Media Portal controls for each of the commands, but once that was done, it was pretty easy to navigate Media Portal with just the remote. Looks like I will be using the keyboard/mouse a lot less often.

Next I created a System Restore point and then proceeded to install the LIS2 driver I had downloaded from the website. Rebooted and this time it didn't freeze on bootup. That was a good sign.

I then did a google search for plug-ins for the VFD LIS2 for Media Portal and it turned out the plug-in was already bundled with Media Portal for the last few releases. All I needed was to download an interface utility (link provided by Media Portal's plug in) that could talk to the USB-serial LIS2 display.

Woohoos! Now, the LIS2 displays the Media Portal mode I am in (Video/Photos/Music etc), and when I play videos or MP3s, the LIS2 shows the filename of the clip playing, as well as time details.

Awesome.

Still no way of assigning the LIS2 to display details from the TheaterTek DVD software, but I guess that is a much smaller issue.

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 Sunday November 13, 2005

Building an HTPC is a dirty job... but somebody's gotta do it...
22:38 PM - bktoh
Sorry for being offline for so long.. but wait till you hear about my latest project...

I had this old P4 3.2GHz HT system with 2x512MB PC-4000 DDR Geil memory and an ATI RADEON 9600XT that I was planning to pass to the missus since her old dual P3 1GHz setup was on the blink.

The P4 3.2GHz system was a little unstable, and I thought it was a software compatibility issue, and was planning to reformat the system before handing it over.

But the system just ended up crashing on me each time I booted up, so it looked like a hardware problem, and I was going to have to spend some dosh to fix it up.

At about the same time, the Maxtor !!!&@@ POS 120GB HDD on my *cough*XBox*cough* "media center" had also crapped out (*sigh* come to think of it, a lot of my 2-3 year old Maxtors have all begun dying out!), so I was looking at alternative ways of playing back DIVX/XVID TV shows in my living room.

My first solution was a Momitsu V880N Network DVD player. It plays back DVDs, DIVX, XVIDs, AVIs and even MOVs on DVD/CD media, but it also has a great party trick. It can stream movies off your PC acting as a media software.

Unfortunately, because of the placement of my Momitsu player, I had to use a wireless-G bridge to connect the Momitsu to the PC. Encountered tonnes of stuttering even in 640x350 sized encoded clips. And it just gave up and died when trying to play back higher resolution clips or those with AC3 5.1 audio tracks.

So I thought: why not transplant the components of this old PC into an HTPC and have a proper Media Center. I mean, I already had a good CPU, some good memory to start with.

But first I had to do some research and get some components.

When building an HTPC, I feel aesthetics are important. If it is going to fit into your AV rack, it should look like it belonged there. WAF (Wife Acceptance Factor) was important. Obviously a quiet and cool design would be important as well.

For me, this ruled out those shoebox shaped Small Form Factor (SFF) pioneered by Shuttle. I always thought they looked rather naff, and while I can understand using it as a LAN party box, it just wouldn't fit the living room.

That's when I began venturing into XTremeForums' HTPC forums which led me to www.htpc-gear.com and I got a lot of help from one of the guys who founded the site: ciputra.

There was a barebones system called an Accent H400 casing that caught my attention. It looked a lot like a high end DVD player (like a Denon's 3910 model) and it definitely looked the part.



It was bundled with a 300W PSU and a MetalwarePC motherboard using an ATI RS350 chipset with integrated RADEON 9000 class graphics.

It also came with an iMON infrared sensor built into the front of the chassis and a corresponding iMON infrared Media Center remote control.



I also had the option of adding a USB linked VFD LIS2 display on the front of the casing, so I took that as well. You can check out what it can do, by viewing this video clip.



For cooling, I turned to Silverstonetek's NT02 which was surprisingly quiet.



And as for video cards, if you wanted to playback HD quality video clips on an HD display, the cheapest card in the market was the GeForce 6600GT. It has hardware HD decoding built in properly (not working properly in the earlier 6800GT/Ultra cards), and was a decent 3D performer to boot.

Since I knew the IR remote wasn't going to be full proof, I figured I needed a proper keyboard/mouse and settled for this RF transmission mini keyboard/trackpoint mouse.



For storage, no more Maxtors, so it was a Western Digital 250GB SATA drive for me.

The other components I used were salvaged parts: an old MSI 16xDVD-ROM, my P4 3.2GHz HT and my Geil PC4000 DDR 2x512MB.

I figured that was it: Nice and Simple.

But that was just the beginning.

First of all, the bundled PSU couldn't make it. Couldn't even POST properly. UUrrgh. First rule of building a PC and I made a n00bie mistake. NEVER EVER SKIMP ON THE PSU .

So I headed down to Sim Lim and bought a BeQuiet BlackLine 470W unit. This PSU boasts a really shiny surface (LOOK!!)



But this wasn't really important to me since this project isn't using one of those perspex side window casings, but a quiet unobstrusive HTPC.

It was because it was a quiet unit that was important to me.

Then, it looked like the RAM seemed to be causing problems during the OS installation. I removed one stick and stability improved, but still generally flaky.

And I was about to go SLS to buy some new memory when I decided to try the motherboard manufacturer's (MetalwarePC) website. There I noticed a new BIOS supposed to support DDR400 (Kingston). What the heck.. upgraded it. Voila problems solved!

Another newbie mistake.

*sigh* I guess this motherboard manufacturer is a small player. Not as extensive certification as Asus, Gigabyte or MSI. I haven't needed to check for updated BIOSes on my last few machines for the longest time, and had gotten careless.

OK. Looked like it wasn't going to be as cheap a transplant as I had earlier imagined.

But with power and memory issues sorted, I was finally able to complete the OS install without a hitch.

Then came graphics. For some reason, I couldn't get the ATI AGP GART driver to install. When I then installed the Nvidia Forceware drivers for the GeForce 6600GT, I experienced corrupted graphics - 640x480x16 colors! UUrrgh.. not since the days of Windows 3.1!

Another round of OS reinstall later, I decided to forget the GART driver and just install Nvidia Forceware drivers for the 6600GT. Everything looked hunky dory. but when I installed and ran the bundled PowerDVD player, it froze the system. As expected, it was to do with the missing GART driver.

So I removed 6600GT, installed the OS again and this time, the ATI AGP GART installed properly. Then I shut down the PC, installed the 6600GT, and installed Forceware. UUUrrrggh!!! Same corrupted graphics!

Faced with prospect of not having my HTPC up and running, I decided to fall back on my old trusty 9600XT until I could sort everything out. SUCCESS! Everything installed fine... once I remembered to install DotNet for Catalyst!

But the nightmare wasn't over. For some reason, after I installed the iMON infrared remote drivers AND the VFD LIS2 display drivers, the machine would freeze on bootup.

So as a compromise, I just installed the remote control drivers since I needed that more. LIS2 would have to wait.

Next, I purchased TheaterTek DVD player 2.2 (S$130) with an Nvidia decoder and had scaling processing with the quality of high end DVD players.

I gotta admit, it gave very good deinterlacing after I used AVIA DVD to tweak the picture adjustments.

For user interface, I got freeware Media Portal (Media Centre shell lookalike!).





It looks pretty good and very easy to use. I still can't get the iMON remote to work with Media Portal to control playback etc yet. Hope to get some help to troubleshoot it soon ( that means you, ciputra HEH HEH)

In the meantime, I am really enjoying this new experience watching my clips on the projector.

With a good MPEG2/DIVX/XVID decoder and a good software scalar, I can get much clearer and sharper video clips on my projector than the Momitsu ever did. And this is comparing the Momitsu running a short 1.5m DVI connection, vs a 10m DSub15 VGA cable from my HTPC.

Lessons learnt -
  • Some lessons are pretty much the same as building a normal PC: Don't stinge on Power Supply. Update your BIOS/firmware if you can (not so much a problem for mainstream/established board makers these days, which leads to my next point)
  • Get a motherboard from a more established manufacturer
  • Don't mix and match chipsets - ATI chipset and Nvidia graphics don't seem to go well together.
  • Ideally don't get onboard video on motherboards unless you plan to use it. I have a server at work with an integrated RageXL that was a pain to disable when I hooked up a PCI-based Nvidia GeForce FX5200
  • When working with not so commonly used PC components like iMON and LIS2, be careful of incompatibilities
Overall, I'd say "ease of use" of today's HTPC isn't quite "appliance"-ready, but it is getting there and it is definitely bang for the buck. With a sub S$200 card, I can get hardware MPEG2 decoding, and Hard Disk Video Recording capability. The equivalent Sony HDD/DVD recorder costs S$1,499!


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 Monday November 07, 2005

HW1: Server downtime
21:45 PM - kan
Oops, looks like the server coughed up and was down for the whole of last week.

I will be doing some more upgrades to the kernel and services pretty soon and I hope it won't cause too much impact.
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 Friday October 21, 2005

The Power of the "Cable"
07:42 AM - wymun
Was just reminiscing about my audiophile upgrades I did a few months back, when I thought I'd just share a bit on the significance of Power cables...

Well, term me a skeptic, but I've never believed that better Power Cables could really make notable improvements in one's audio setup. Backed by staunch engineering beliefs, I simply could not envision how thicker and purer grades of copper in one's Power Cable, could discernibly accentuate the "oomph" or strengths of a pre-amp or amp, considering the host of larger attenuating factors at play...

So bearing such skepticism and eagerness to prove my own assessment, I loaned a set of "audiophile"-grade power cables for test. Each 1 inch thick braided cable cost about S$250 a piece, comprising special plugs at both ends that supposedly better resist RF interference. Even before any tests, one must accredit that the cables have an impressive construct, requiring some real effort to fashion any bends in them...

After a few benchmark sessions with my regular test CDs, I swapped my existing power cables for the "better" ones, onto my Densen B200 pre-amp and Densen B300-XS amp.

Boy, was I surprised!! Audio quality was definitely improved, and I could actually hear a distinct difference!! Startled and on the verge of junking all past technical hypotheses, I swapped between the original and "better" power cables to be sure. Sure enough, the improvement was consistently telling...

Apart from slightly better clarity, the audiophile-grade power cables offered a much improved dynamic threshold, where zero levels sound even quieter than before! On the "quieter-than-quiet" phenomena, it's a bit hard to elucidate, but akin to having lived with a veil all your life, and suddenly having it lifted, thereby imparting a self-realisation that this was how it should have originally looked / sounded. Another analogy is that of LCD projectors, where black levels seem tolerable, until you've encountered black levels of a DLP...

Since then, I have bought over the cables, and also upgraded that for my subwoofer. And as Yoda would say, "Power-cable convert, I have become"...


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 Wednesday October 19, 2005

Benq S72
08:21 AM - wymun
Just when I thought that my PC upgrade activities had closed for the year, my 2nd PC (i.e. wife's 5-yr old Pentium 3 700MHz on Iwill's WO2-R motherboard) started acting erratically, before becoming completely unbootable. So now, armed with a direct mandate from my CFO, I gleefully trotted off to Sim Lim for yet another round of PC shopping...

Come to think of it, the death of my 2nd PC came timely, as I had intended to replace my similarly old Acer notebook, which can then double up as a desktop replacement for my wife as well. The added mobility also helps, as she can then feed our little Nadine, whilst working on the notebook in bed...

So just after 2 hours of notebook hunting, I finally settled for Benq's S72 Joybook for just over S$2K, which IMO proffered promising value for its feature-set. Though it may not be their latest offering, the S72's dip in price from ~S$3K during launch, came as a tantalising offer...



The Benq S72 comes in a sleek looking magnesium alloy case, and is comparably light (about 2.2kg) for its 14" wide-screen form factor - certainly a consideration for my wife. Another reason why I opted for Benq, was its decent track-record in LCD technology (i.e. Benq is a well-known maker of LCD monitors / projectors), which is exemplified in the S72. The S72's screen features an impressive 200nits brightness, with sufficient contrast that can handle good viewing angles, which IMO is key to making long working hours on a notebook tolerable. Bundled with a Centrino 1.73MHz CPU (533MHz), 512MB and 60GB of HDD space, the S72 certainly seemed more than sufficient for my wife's basic PC needs.

Apart from meeting basic requirements, the S72 has some interesting add-ons that make it worth the $$$. Firstly, it comes with a nifty remote with integrated laser pointer (stashable into the unused CF card slot), that can control powerpoint presentations (or other mappable functions) of the notebook via a front IR port. Secondly, the Benq S72 seems built for candid presentations as well, as it also includes an S-Video output. Thirdly, it also comes with a 64MB Radeon X600 graphics card, that can handle my occasional mobile Quake 3 sessions satisfactorily.



After 2 days with the notebook thus far, one of the gripes that I have is the heat generated on the underside, excaberated probably by its slim form factor and magnesium alloy casing. But thankfully, its top palmrest areas seemed ok, which doesn't inhibit work on the notebook. I've yet to fully test battery life, but I reckon it should be average lasting (~3hrs), under "Normal" power saving conditions. :|

Well, more impressions to follow. But recently, it seems that I have been working more on this notebook than my desktop, with the added freedom to carry or be close to my little Nadine in the process...


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 Wednesday October 12, 2005

Thrustmaster Ferrari F1 Force Feedback Wheel - Oldie but Goodie
22:50 PM - bktoh
I saw this wheel a couple of years ago, and while it looked really good, it was just too darn expensive. For the price it commanded (S$399!), I could have gotten the ActLabs Force RS, plus the 8-speed/gated ActLabs RS Shifter and the ActLabs Performance Pedals, with clutch pedal!

In fact, I actually got most of the ActLabs gear (except for the Performance Pedals) before ActLabs finally closed shop. Shame though. It was an awesome product. The ActLabs eventually got relegated to one of my geek heaven piles in a store room somewhere, while I began getting more interested in console games.

I recently got interested in PC gaming again since my PC can now support the newer games with better quality than my consoles, and the promise of GTR bringing in a whole new level of realism to car simulation, compelled me to look at PC wheels again.

From what I can understand, the local distributor for Thrustmaster was abandoning the line, and I managed to pick myself one of these for a steal S$120! Thanks to Daniel for the heads up!
  • 8 action buttons + 1 Point of View button + 1 "Back to center" button
  • Wheel-rim : Carbon texture + rubber handgrips
  • 2 full aluminum gearshift levers
  • 2 gas & brake full aluminum wheel-mounted levers + polished aluminum foot pedals
  • Metal axis + ball-bearing steering mechanism
  • New, strong, smooth and silent Force Feedback mechanism
And it looked really really good in the flesh. The faux Carbon Fibre trim on the wheel looks really cool alongside the shiny Ferrari red assembly.

Been playing a bit of NFS Underground 2 and GTR on it and the thing is really gorgeous and with great build quality to boot. Force feedback is really smooth and strong. I think Thrustmaster really didn't cut any corners building this thing. It is miles ahead of the next best wheel IMHO, which would be the Logitech GT Force Pro (for the PS2).

If you can pick up one of these gems in Sim Lim, and you are a car sim fan, you really owe it to yourself to grab one!

Just before ActLabs went out of business, they modified their RS Shifter and Performance Pedals so that it would work with any USB device and partner with any other wheel in the market. I think adding an RS Shifter to this wheel would make it PERFECT. Think I need to go bug Mr Woo again

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