Richard Jones' Log Richard Jones' Log: Toys

Tue, 11 Nov 2008
New HTPC time

The old Shuttle HTPC which had a troubled life finally died a week or so ago (no longer recognised the boot disk.)

I've finally settled on its replacement, detailed in this post in the forums of an enthusiastic Australian HTPC community. Don't be fooled by the Windows branding all over it - Linux gets quite a fair dealing in there and I've been given a lot of good advice regarding mythtv (using mythbuntu) and XBMC.

As a bonus, the new hardware is almost half the price of the old. Way under $1000. It'll be more future-proof and repairable (being standard components). And it'll look nicer too.

ps. never, ever buy a Shuttle unless it's covered by a really good warranty with full replacement.

category: Toys | permanent link
Fri, 22 Feb 2008
EEE PC woes

I've really enjoyed having my EEE PC during my commute. I've even gotten quite used to having it just balanced on one leg while hacking away on some random pyglet project or other (I think I have about 4 in play ;).

Unfortunately, the trackpad has just died. Actually, it's the trackpad and buttons. Something in the innards is telling the system that whatever button I press (whether the rocker button or a single tap on the trackpad) is held down. Once when I power-cycled the machine the trackpad didn't respond at all. I've tried resetting the software to no avail.

I'll be taking it in to the shop for a warranty claim tomorrow. I'm really hoping they'll just give me a replacement - otherwise I'll be lugging a full-size laptop around PyCon (amongst the 755-and-growing other registrants OMFG). Boo.

Wed, 21 Nov 2007
A toy I'd buy...

So you can get SD memory cards with built-in WiFi. I want a card with built-in GPS which intercepts JPEGs being written and inserts GPS coordinates into the EXIF data.

Sun, 04 Nov 2007
New camera

I've been wanting to get a Digital SLR for a very long time now. I even had one on my Amazon wishlist for a while there ;)

Thanks to a variety of factors - not the least of which was the price being AU$900 - I finally bought a Canon EOS 400D. And boy is it nice.

It's the third generation of their consumer digital SLR line, and it really does show. It has a bunch of "prosumer" features that I'd always thought would be nice to have some day, like the old 30D's 9-point AF, or the depth-of-field preview that the older non-digital prosumer models had. Unlike even my old film SLR this thing can shoot photos as quickly as I can focus them from power-on (under a second if I'm lucky). And the "basic" modes are so much more useful now than they were in the old SLR. For example, the Portrait mode doesn't just set a preference for wide aperature, it also isn't afraid to use fill-in flash (really, really well-exposed), sets the camera to continuous shot mode (to compensate for blinking ;) and tweaks the colour model slightly to emphasise flesh tones. And it can take 17 shots (3 per second) in continuous mode before it needs to push data to the memory card (presumably it can do more if I reduce resolution, but I've not tested).

I've got some new photos up on Flickr taken with the new camera.

Sun, 30 Sep 2007
Shuttle HTPC update

It's been a while since my last post about my Shuttle PC woes, but I'm still getting hits, comments and emails from people who are having similar problems, so I thought I'd post my "solution".

In the end all of the on-board fan controllers died so I ended up hard-wiring the fan directly to the power supply via a single high-amp 56 ohm resistor (the resistance needs to be miniscule and regular resistors can't cope with the load).

As I mentioned in my last post I will never buy a Shuttle PC ever again and I certainly recommend to everyone I know that they also never buy one. Great idea (cool hardware) but crappy, crappy motherboards :(

category: Toys | permanent link
Sat, 28 Jul 2007
Time for a new espresso machine?
category: Toys | permanent link
Wed, 15 Nov 2006
Some Linux "fun"

I got a new disk drive from a friend and plugged in last night.

Of course it wasn't easy...

When I booted it up, I got the strangest thing. "Waiting for root file system" which then times out. I don't know if you've ever been thrown into the "ash"/"busybox" minimalist environment that you get when boot fails, but it's not fun ;) I had to try to figure out what was going on ...

It turns out that Linux was trying to mount my root filesystem (sda3) from the new disk - which didn't actually have a partition "sda3". Even though I plugged it in as drive #3 on the motherboard, and the BIOS detected it as drive #3, Linux ordered it as drive "sda" because (presumably) it's an SATA-1 drive and the existing two drives (which used to be sda and sdb) are SATA-2 drives. "1" sorts lower than "2" I guess :)

I eventually figured out that the drives had been re-ordered, and then figured out which files to edit to make it all work again (though there was some guesswork when editing the grub menu.lst). My RAID-1 array was broken as well since it used to refer to sda4 and sdb4 and now it couldn't find sda4 but could find sdc4. I ended up with two RAID disks mounting sdb4 and sdc4 independently. Fortunately I could just delete one and add its disk back to the other array, wait for the rebuild, and all's well again.

Thu, 21 Sep 2006
iTunes - what can I replace it with?

Two people I know have now been burnt by iTunes / iPods and their policy of restricting access to data they own. In both cases, they've suffered a disk failure and have been unable to get their songs back off the iPod. They were both under the mistaken impression that their iPod was effectively a backup of their song library. A reasonable position to take, I would've thought. My MP3 player can be treated as such a device - why can't an iPod? But they can't copy their music back off the iPod into iTunes.

More recently I've suffered an annoyance at the hands of iTunes. It turns out that when you edit song meta-data iTunes doesn't edit the ID3 tags in the actual MP3 files. When I copy the MP3 files to my other computers and devices, the songs have none of the track/album information that I entered for them. These are freely-available tracks, by the way. I'm not breaking any copyright in copying them around.

So, what can I replace iTunes with on OSX? Something that supports Ogg files out of the box would be nice too. If only Amarok worked...

Mon, 20 Mar 2006
So very fuzzy

I started using my old film SLR again recently. It's been quite fun to move back from the "toy" that is the little digital camera we've been using since Abbey was born. I did the sums, and it works out cheaper to keep shooting film and getting it processed and burnt to CD than it is to buy a new digital body to suit the SLR lenses I already own.

So my first rolls of film went in for processing on the weekend, and I got the results back today. I leafed through the photos at the store, and didn't see anything amiss then, but when I got home and had a closer look some of the shots are kinda fuzzy. They look like there's this very slight noise through them (like you'd expect from a digital camera that's being pushed). Opening up the (JPEG only) digital scans on the CD it's even worse. There's noise all through the images, even the nice and bright ones. Where there's any darkness the noise is quite unbearable and ruins the photo entirely.

My boss has a scanner that I'll try when I go into the office tomorrow, assuming I can get it working (and it's still in Melbourne). Other than that - do any Aussies have recommendations for labs that scan negs well? I had some negs scanned years ago and I'm going to try to look up the lab that did that as the results were excellent.

The results from this scan are so bad I've even started thinking that perhaps it's a deliberate ploy to stop people from using film...

Update: I've used my boss' scanner (a rather nice Nikon Super Coolscan 9000) and achieved much better results

Tue, 14 Feb 2006
Funky tripod idea

The gorillapod is pretty damned cool. Unfortunately it doesn't seem to be strong enough to support an SLR, but then I've not used my SLR in a few years now, so I still want one :)

category: Toys | permanent link
Wed, 19 Oct 2005
HTPC ...

The HTPC won't play our Buffy DVDs.

Sun, 16 Oct 2005
HTPC success, finally

I've finally got the MythTV setup on the HTPC to the point where it's usable (ie. we can play DVDs, watch TV, play music and watch video files). The last hurdle yesterday was getting mplayer to play video in the correct aspect ratio. I finally figured out that I had to hard-code the screen aspect ratio (1280x768 is 1.666 which is between 4:3 and 16:9).

There's lots of little tweaks still to make, including getting the remote control to work consistently. For now, we just use the wireless keyboard, which is bearable. MythTV is definitely not for the faint-of-heart in terms of setting up though. All up, it's taken me months (on and off, including a period of complete arms-in-the-air resignation) to get going.

I'm glad I persevered though. There's lots of benefits, including time-shifting the TV (a.k.a. pausing), watching downloaded content (e.g. TV shows that won't get airtime here), being able to skip pointless intro screens on DVDs and being able to play some DVDs that won't play in my older DVD player.

Wed, 12 Oct 2005
More Shuttle HTPC woes

I finally got the HTPC running MythTV so it could tune the TV. That required me copying some MySQL database rows from a friend, and then shaking a dead chicken in front of the TV while it did a full scan (really, other tools just worked.)

So this morning it makes a funny sound when it turns on. I think nothing of it until Rachel says that the picture's a little funny. I fiddle and eventually realise that the video card is overheating. A little further investigation shows that the case fan is stopped. It's the only fan in the system (excluding the PSU fans, which don't cool the system down at all). Whoops.

I swapped the heat-pipe fan out and put in a spare fan I have - which doesn't quite fit because standard 80mm fans are 2.5cm thick, and the heat-pipe fan is 1.5cm thick. Ho hum. Anyway, I managed to get it all together and plugged in ... and the new fan doesn't work either. Or rather, the fan controller isn't working. Fortunately the motherboard has a (redundant) second case fan socket, and it is working. I swapped the original fan back in too since the replacement fan is quite noisy (even though I paid a fair amount of money for it originally because it was supposed to be quiet ... I don't think I've ever actually heard a noisier fan).

I have no idea what could cause one system fan controller to go bust and not take them all out. I really hope the problem decides to stay isolated.

Tue, 12 Apr 2005
Home Theater PC update

I've had some good success with the HTPC. I've got Digital TV coming in, DVDs playing and MythTV setup is in progress (the TV channel setup is a little tedious, but I'm getting there). My brother came over last Saturday and helped route the network cable. Still to do:

  1. Remote control. I received some instructions for geting the remote control working this morning, so I'll have a crack at that tonight.
  2. I'm using suboptimal video drivers (vesa) at the moment, so it runs at 75% CPU playing DVDs. It works though, so I'm happy waiting for fixes to the Unichrome driver. VIA have just open-sourced a large chunk of their video driver software, which is a great move. Unfortunately, it's mostly been for their EPIA-based boards, and not the K8M800-based board I have. I can be patient though.
  3. The AC3 audio is being processed by ALSA (and possibly mplayer) which I need to change so it's just passed through to my amp through the S/PDIF line.

I'm very happy with the hardware, as mentioned before. When it's down with the rest of the A/V gear, it's very quiet (can't hear it when sitting across the room on the couch). The DVD drive (or player?) is smart enough to not run "full speed ahead" when playing DVDs, so that drive isn't as noisy as it could be. Some of the driver issues have been a little annoying, but I knew what I was getting into. The one change I'll have to make soon is to disconnect or dim the hard-drive indicator light, as it's quite bright and unnecessary :)

I'll have a full writeup when I'm done. So far my notes just indicate where I deviated from the Myth(TV)ology HOWTO (and I'll feed my notes back to the author of that document too).

It's so refreshing not having the DVD player pop up "operation not permitted by disc" messages when you want to skip through the crap before movies :)

Wed, 06 Apr 2005
HTPC creation begins...

My HTPC components arrived on Tuesday. I went out and bought a Dremel yesterday and spent last night putting all the hardware together (well, and pulling some of the hardware apart ;)

After reading many articles and forum posts on the subject, I decided to just go ahead an cut out the grille at the back of the box:

I then placed all the parts into the box (sorry, I was so caught up I forgot to take photos)... with the result being:

The last shot is of the new box next to my current midi-tower desktop. The Shuttle boxes are really quite amazing to work with. They're really well-designed inside. Every component was easy to install and there's plenty of cable clips to keep things tidy. The box comes with a split (smaller) ATA cable for the optical drive already routed and clipped to the box. My only concern was with the SATA power lead -- it seems too short and under some stress to get to the HD. Also, I managed to plug the SATA drive into channel 1 instead of channel 0, so it didn't come up (minor panic) and moving that plug without taking out the whole drive chassis was difficult.

I tried to install Knoppmyth but it only supports /dev/hda as an install target, not /dev/sda. I need to get some more writeable CDs and then I'll try FC3 using this excellent and comprehensive HOWTO.

And boy, is the box quiet. When running, I can't hear it. Admittedly, my current desktop is quite noisy, and it's right next to the new box at the moment, but still... Of course, I can't compare the sound level against what it would be with the back grille still in place, but I have read enough to know that it would be louder.

Final parts list:

  1. Shuttle SK83G Barebone PC w/VIA AMD64 Skt754 board
  2. AMD Sempron 3100+ CPU, Socket754
  3. AverTV DVB-T 771 digital terrestrial TV PCI card w/remote control
  4. Western Digital Caviar 200Gb Serial ATA drive, 8mb cache, 7200RPM
  5. PC-3200 512MB GeIL 184-pin DDR SDRAM CAS 2.5 w/blue heatspreader
  6. LG 4163BBK Black 16x DVD±R, 4x DVD+R DL, 6x DVD-RW, etc. ;)
  7. 1 tube Cooler Master "High Performance" thermal paste

Note the last entry. That was my only real surprise with the whole thing - the Shuttle, and its bundled heatpipe, didn't come with any sort of thermal paste or pre-applied thermal bonding agent (the heatsinks that came with the Sempron and my previous AthlonXP purchase, for example, both had the latter). Thermal paste kinda scares me - I hope I got the amount correct (I have nightmares now about having applied too much and it dribbling down onto the motherboard and causing a short).

Tue, 08 Mar 2005
Starting to settle on HTPC components

Having done a bunch more research, I've started to settle on the following currently-available components:

  • Shuttle SN85G4 - small box, potentially quiet with a simple fan change, optical digital audio in/out, SATA drives. Good Linux support for all components.
  • AMD Sempron 3100+ - quite capable, and cooler than the regular Athlon64s.
  • AverTV DVB-T 771 - digital TV reception at a very reasonable price, and AverMedia have Linux installation instructions (Word doc).
  • Western Digital Caviar 200Gb Serial ATA (no review) - as far as I can tell, it's the coolest, quietest available drive for under $1 per GB.
  • Antec 80mm SmartCool fan - replaces standard fan in the Shuttle case; thermally-controlled to lower fan speed when cool enough.
  • ATI RF Remote Wonder - seems to have good Linux support.
  • Existing Matrox G400 MAX video card.
  • ... and some other components like the DVD-RW for the Shuttle case and some memory.