Monday, March 16, 2009

A Media Center in the Living Room: Part 2 "Local and Remote"

In Part 1, I successfully assembled a PC for the living room that can browse and play video.
In this phase, I'll add a "real" remote control, and add more storage.

The iPhone xbmc remote app works well enough but the phone often takes a few seconds to find the wifi when waking up. And of course, it's hard on the batteries. Logitech's Harmony remotes are very full-featured but can cost more than this entire machine.

Newegg had a basic Anyware MCE Remote for under $23. It looks like that model has already been replaced (did I buy the last one?) with newer, more rounded model.

Just for fun, I tried to get the remote working on a number of machines:
MacBook Pro: Nothing. Not even recognized by USB Overdrive.
Windows XP: It tried to download drivers but failed.
Windows Vista Ultimate: Worked perfectly.
and on our Ubuntu box: I had to install "lirc" using Synaptic Package Manager. Then it Just Worked.

I also installed a 1/2 TB IDE drive. Obviously, with a newer motherboard, you could opt for even larger SATA drives. By storing the media files locally on this machine, we will get the smoothest playback.

After the physical installation, we have to format and mount the drive. I caught myself bringing up the terminal before remembering that one of the goals of this project wast to everything with the GUI.

I used Synaptic Package Manager to install "gparted" and "pysdm." These packages provide graphic tools for formatting and mounting the hard drive. (You'll find them on the System::Administration menu.)

At this point, I veered off the "anyone can do it" path and set up remote volume synchronization and some streaming media services on my media server machine. This basically just mirrors the video files on my media server to the XBMC box so I don't need to stream them over the wifi. Most people won't need to anything like that...
Just rip or download your files directly to your media center.

Now, with these upgrades, I can sit on the couch, remote in hand, and watch any of the hundred of individual episodes I've ripped on my media server.

Issues with the current setup:
  • I need to re-enter the wifi password whenever I reboot the system
  • Haven't figured out how to turn off the video signal so the monitor will "sleep"
  • vnc is slow. With no keyboard/mouse attached, I need good vnc performance
  • Volume level on the analog audio is lower than other components on the stereo
  • Need to auto-launch XMBC
We will work through these issues in the Part 3.

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