Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Making a Private Network for Friends and Family

The terms VPN (Virtual Private Network) and VNC (Virtual Network Computing) are usually associated with businesses and the act of working from home.  However, there are some free (and not free) tools that can be used to extend these concepts to home use.

VPN's are networks that allow computers from different locations to act as if they are all on the same network.  Most home computers aren't directly accessible from the internet.  A home connection usually has a single IP address which is provided by the ISP and which often changes.  You can have multiple computers all sharing an IP address by using a router, which creates a home network and acts a shield against anyone trying to gain access from the outside.  VPN's create a link between different networks so that computers can be accessed directly.

A widely used VPN tool is Hamachi.  Hamachi is a free program that allows for the creation of small VPN's that can be managed via the internet.  Once installed it appears to the computer like a network adapter and includes a utility that lets you see which other computers are online.  In Windows, these other computers will appear show up as being part of your Network in Windows Explorer and any shared folders can be accessed.

Using a VPN like Hamachi allows you to share files and folders with friends and family.  For example, you can create a shared folder for holiday photos that your family can access and add to.  This is particularly useful for things like videos which can be too large to share via email.  What's nice about Hamachi is that it works in the background and doesn't require much technical ability to take advantage of.

While not exactly a VPN, Dropbox can also be used to similar effect.  Dropbox allows its users to share folders and can be a good choice when you want to distribute files to several people and avoid a bottleneck from having them all download from your computer.  Dropbox has a limited amount of space so while its good for getting files distributed to lots of people, as a longer term archive a shared folder is better.

Anyone who has ever tried walking a relative through computer problems over the phone knows how frustrating the process can be.  With a VPN like Hamachi in place this aggravation can be overcome through the use of a free VNC client.  A VNC application lets one computer take over the other, you can see the screen and use your keyboard and mouse to control the other computer.  While there are fancier and more expensive options that do away with needing a VPN, free and easy is hard to beat.  I've used TightVNC and haven't had any problems with it outside of occasional disconnects.  There are plenty of other options for VNC software including LogMeIn Free which can be used from the same interface as Hamachi and LogMeIn Ignition which can be used from a smartphone.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Subsonic and Network Storage

My primary source of music recently has been a Subsonic server that I set up on my HTPC. While I originally learned about Subsonic through the Android app market, I haven't really used it on my phone as most of the time  when I was using the phone to listen to music I was riding the subway and unable to stream.  I did notice that performance was laggy but as I was using Subsonic to stream to my work computer phone performance wasn't a concern.

What did become a concern was delays in the menu system and queuing tracks through a browser. At first I assumed it was because I'd set the memory limit allowed to the server too low but raising it didn't solve the problem.  After a visit to the forum, the problem became more apparent.  Subsonic runs into difficulties when accessing network files when running on Windows due to some incompatibilities with Linux based NAS devices.   This isn't that unusual of a problem, Windows doesn't play very well with others.  Vista over wireless had a habit of overwhelming some of my NAS drives to the point where they would slow to a crawl and start spiking in temperature.  Windows 7 is not as a aggressive but took registry hacks in order to even be able to see some devices without the use intermediary software.

My music library happens to sit on my first NAS, which is several years old. Its slow to begin with and it keeps the drives on it spun down to reduce heat.  There doesn't seem to be an easy fix so it looks like my music library is going to go on the HTPC with the NAS running as backup.  Considering how cheap hard drives have gotten it isn't a big deal.

With luck, Subsonic's woes will be fixed up once the server doesn't have to deal with the network anymore.  I am really hoping that it isn't Verizon's POS router that's been causing problems.  It recently started acting up whenever network volume increased, basically ceasing to provide any DNS functions.  That problem, at least, seems to have been overcome by using Google's public DNS server as a secondary DNS option in network configuration.  The router is kinda required in order for the cable box to function properly and connects to the Fios box over coax rather than a regular network cable.  While its possible to run a regular cable to the Fios box it would take a service call to Verizon to do it.  Sometime next month I should be getting a TV card that will let the HTPC replace my DVR so I've been waiting to take care of both things with one call.

Update: Changing to a local drive completely fixed Subsonic.  Like night and day.  My phone connects perfectly and playlists update almost immediately.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

XBMC 10.0 Released

XBMC.org recently announced that the latest version of XBMC has been officially released.  I've been using the beta and release candidates for some months now and the software has been significantly streamlined from earlier versions.  For anyone who's interested in building a media center, now would be a great time to download XBMC and try it out.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Gmail Command Center

There was a great post today on Lifehacker about using Gmail as a hub for all your communications.  Its something I'll be looking into over the weekend, although its a little overkill for my needs. For anyone using an Android phone Gmail, Google Voice and Gmail's contacts list are well worth tweaking out.

In particular, it isn't too hard to consolidate all of your contacts into Google Contacts.  There are a number of sites that help in this respect and one that I've used and found satisfactory is Gist.com.  Gist will take all of the contact info from any accounts you let it access, including actual emails and consolidate that information into a database.  Gist will also take email addresses from your contacts and look for other accounts on various sites under that identity, i.e. Flickr, Myspace, etc... From there you can export your contacts database back into Gmail and all of your contacts will be in one spot. A nice feature is that the various contacts can be tagged depending on their source.  Once your Google Contacts are updated you can then import that database into your other accounts such as Facebook and Linked In. The whole processs isn't seamless, you get some duplicates and not all of the info gets transferred but overall its a useful tool.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

A/V Receivers: What you should know

When it comes to home theater equipment the A/V receiver is a gadget lovers dream and a technophobes nightmare.  With a back panel featuring dozens of different jacks, massive remotes and a manual littered with arcane acronyms just figuring out how to get it hooked up properly can be a daunting task.  

Luckily, the last couple generations of equipment have made things much easier with the introduction of the HDMI cable. HDMI is a digital standard for transmitting audio and video.  Before getting into the details of the different versions, its worth learning a bit about its history.

HDMI is the product of the consumer electronics industry trying to appease the entertainment industry by offering a "secure" link for the transmission of digital video.  One of the major concerns of the big movie studios has been the possibility of digital versions of their films being easily copied.  To prevent this, the HDMI standard strictly limits what type of machine can recieve an HDMI signal. This process is called "handshaking".  HDMI first became prevalent with upscaling DVD players and HD cableboxes.  The idea at one point was that any video signals that were higher than DVD resolution could only be transmitted digitally through the HDMI interface.  This practice wasn't completely adopted but enough so that the older analog method of providing a high res video signals (called component video and using three different cables) became obsolete.  Now, almost every cable box, TV and dvd player use HDMI.

The shift to HDMI was paralleled with the introduction of Bluray and HD-DVD. Both of these formats offered high res video as well as a higher fidelity version of surround audio.  Overnight, every A/V receiver on the market was rendered obsolete if it didn't have an HDMI input.  Worse, the HDMI standard went through a series of upgrades from 1.0 to 1.1 to 1.2, 1.3 and finally 1.4.  These revisions added plenty of functionality but also served as a dividing line between different generations of equipment.  

For now, HDMI 1.4 is the current standard.  It has features like support for deep color (allowing for more fine variations between colors) that are of no practical use as no equipment or media use them.  It does have support for 3D video, which is currently in the same state that HDTV was ten years ago (with TV's available but nothing to watch on them).  Most importantly, it provides a connection between any two pieces of equipment with just one cable.  HDMI 1.4 appears to be the end of the road for the HDMI standard, it can handle anything that the Bluray format can deliver and a new format is unlikely for many years.

Anyone looking to get a new receiver should pay careful attention to what version of HDMI is being supported.  If its 1.3 or lower, then its an older model that is probably not worth it unless deeply discounted.  A/V receivers tend to be marketed over a broad price range with each brand having several products from the no-frills budget options to behemoth flagship models at around $3-4K.  As with most things, neither of the extremes is worth the money.  The rest of this article will address the features to be found in a modern receiver.

HDMI switching is the first thing to look for.  HDMI receivers are designed to be able to take HDMI signals from different sources (cable box, Xbox, Bluray player), decode the audio to feed a set of surround spearkers and send the video onwards to a TV.  You could plug any of these devices directly into the TV but if you are looking for a receiver, presumably its because you want to send the audio to a set of speakers.  Using the receiver as the go between for all devices gives a few advantages, notably, you should be able to sync the audio and video signals better.  While there are standalone HDMI switches that allow for more devices than the receiver can handle on its own, they sometimes have problems with the built in copy protection methods.  Its much better to pick a receiver that has enough HDMI inputs for any devices you want to hook up to it.

The next major feature of A/V receivers is autocalibration, specifically Audyssey.  Audyssey uses a microphone hooked up to the reciever and a set of test tones to determine what the optimal listening profile is for your room.  All rooms have their own unique acoustic characteristics that can overamplify or mute parts of the frequency range.  Audyssey balances all that out.  It makes a noticeable difference and its a feature that is well worth it.  There are now multiple versions of Audyssey and more details on the differences can be found at www.avsforum.com.  In short, you can pay more for additional precision.

Network capabilities are another feature found in modern receivers.  This is fairly recent.  In general you find two types of network capabilities, DLNA and proprietary services like Pandora, Netflix, etc.  DLNA is an industry standard for discovering and playing music and video files over a network.  If you have a computer you can share files and any DLNA compliant device should be able to at least see them.  Playback is trickier as most devices have a limited range of formats that they support. The proprietary services like Pandora are better supported.  Overall, added network functionality isn't worth looking for considering how cheap network devices and HTPCs are.  Its ok to have but not worth paying a premium for.

Upscaling is a feature that used to be a major selling point with several competing companies offering upscaling hardware designed to improve picture quality.  Nowadays, almost every device has built in upscaling.  Upscaling takes a lower resolution video signal, such as a DVD and increases the resolution to HD quality.  This doesn't provide much of  an increase in picture quality, although bad upscaling may introduce artifacts that make the picture look worse.  Generally, a mid-range receiver will have the best upscaling hardware compared to other devices released the same year.  However, its a mature market and the differences between upscalers has shrunk considerably.  Unless you feel like you can't watch your DVDs without the best possible picture quality there isn't much reason to spend extra for a higher grade of upscaler.

Another feature is multi-zone support.  This is generally found in mid-range and higher equipment and lets a receiver play music and sometimes video to two or three additional zones.  If you want to be able to play music in the kitchen from the receiver, this feature and some good wiring is what you want.

These five features described above are the main things to look for in an A/V receiver.  Often times, they come bundled together.  The key to buying an A/V receiver is figuring out which features you really want and looking for the most affordable and reliable solution that provides them.  Avsforum is a crucial resource for researching consumer opinions on the quality of any given brand or product.

Finally, in describing receivers I didn't mention a related product, namely the A/V preamp.  A/V preamps are the same as receivers but don't include built in amplifiers for driving speakers.  They are not as popular an option although in some ways they are superior.  The one area where many receivers skimp is on amplification.  While you don't really need much power to play very loudly, the built in amplifiers do add heat which lowers product life.  Preamps produce less heat and can be coupled with cheap pro amps for a system with plenty of muscle and longevity.  Pro amps are resilient and usually significantly cheaper than amps sold for home audio.   Further preamps typically have a build quality on par with top range receivers.  Personally, I have an Integra preamp, which is part of the Onkyo brand (a nearly identical product line is the Onkyo Pro line which is sold mainly to installers but available online).

Friday, December 10, 2010

Coffee Glorious Coffee

For many years now coffee has been an integral part of my morning routine.  While I've always liked the taste what put me over the edge was getting involved in home roasting.  In this post I will go over home roasting, where to get the equipment and green coffee beans and some of the more interesting ways of brewing up a good cup.

Going Green

Roasting coffee at home is nowhere near as daunting as it seems.  All you need is some basic instruction, a good source of green coffee beans and a roaster.  For green coffee beans, Sweet Marias has been my primary source since I started roasting. They offer a wide variety of beans from different regions as well as several blends that make for good introductory choices.  They also sell coffee roasters of different types.  
The main types of roasters are drum and air.  A drum roaster is just a rotating drum that keeps the coffee beans constantly moving for an even heat dispersal.  You can get large batches roasted at once but you'll also get a lot of smoke. If you have to roast indoors and don't have a room you can ventilate well don't get a drum roaster.  

Air roasters use a stream of hot air for roasting, similar to popcorn poppers. In fact, you can use a popcorn popper to roast coffee, although you lose some of the fine tuning that the better air roasters provide. The best air roaster on the market right now is the iRoast2. Its currently out of stock, but worth waiting for especially for apartment dwellers.  What distinguishes the iRoast2 is the ability to program roasting curves and a way to hook up regular aluminum ducting to vent away smoke.  I take advantage of the venting feature much more than the custom roasting curves, the stock curves work fine for what I like.

When it comes to roasting the ideal flavors fall in between the two extremes that are the most commercialized, Starbuck's burnt coffee and the generic light roast typically found in offices.  Too light a roast and you get untempered acid and undeveloped accents, too dark and all the flavors get burned out.  Personally, I like darker roasts, maybe because my stomach handles them better.  Still, lighter roasts are where the best of the green coffees shine. From Hawaii's Kona to the small batch Cup of Excellence competitors, if you're going to pay upwards of $15 a pound you should go with the recommended roasts.  The distinctions that lead to certain lots costing two or three times as much don't really make much difference with darker roasts.  

Good Grinding

Once you have your roasted coffee the next critical step is proper grinding. The most common grinders are blade grinders and they should be avoided.  Blade grinders grind unevenly so that in the subsequent brewing you end up with some particles that are too big or too small and get extraction problems.  Blade grinders also require some guesswork to determine when the right grind is reached.  A much better solution is to use a burr grinder.  Burr grinders are more expensive but the end result is worth it.  You can dial in the exact grind you want and the size of the grounds is much more uniform than with a blade.  If you really want to save money you can get a manual burr grinder but be warned that fine grinds like espresso will require a lot of work.

Each brewing method has its own optimal grind.  Coarser grinds are better for drip coffees, slightly finer for French press, fine grinds for espresso and ultra fine grinds for Turkish coffee.  

One note, while you can get excellent roasted coffee beans, ground beans quickly lose their aromatic components within several days of grinding. Don't buy quality coffee beans pre-ground unless you plan to drink through it in a few days, you will get much fresher and more flavorful coffee by grinding right before brewing.

The most divergence in coffee drinkers comes when you get to brewing.  There are espresso fanatics who swear by $5K machines imported from Italy, always searching for the perfect espresso shot.  Some people love vacuum brewing for the clean coffees the process producses.  I'm partial to French press coffee.  

For espresso drinkers who don't want to break the bank in getting a machine, the Mypressi, recently reviewed on Gizmodo  seem like a good solution, as well as being very cool looking.

For French presses, one tweak that I've been using is to add an additional fine filter.  It lets you use a finer roast for a stronger cup of coffee and keeps the coffee from getting too muddy.  I also love the Aerolatte French press mug for travelling. Its a little messy to clean but way more portable than a regular glass press.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Media Storage Solutions

Anyone who's ripped their CD or DVD collection knows that its a time consuming process and not something they'd want to repeat because of a hard drive failure. 

There are several options for adding extra storage to a computer or network of computers.  The simplest of these is an external hard drive.  There aren't too many considerations to take into account for a single drive solution.  The real choice is in what interface you use,either USB or eSATA. USB has more support but you will generally get better speeds from eSATA, at a slight price premium.  USB 3.0 theoretically should level the playing field but for that you'd need a compatible motherboard and enclosure.  Beyond the choice of interface, the options are to buy an external hard drive from a name manufacturer or buy an internal hard drive and enclosure to make your own.  I've never really been in the market for single external hard drives, when I've used external drives they've been old drives that I upgraded from.  I believe that enclosure+internal drive gets you more storage per dollar over external.

When buying hard drives, www.newegg.com is always my first choice because the reviews of available drives give a good picture of which drives could be problematic.  There is a sweet spot for storage that's usually one or two notches down from the largest drives on the market, right now its 2 TB.  Performancewise, big drives are generally better, featuring more modern tech than smaller drives although starting around the 2TB mark some drives have a new organizational system that can cause compatibility problems with older hardware.

For enclosures, I've had good results with Vantec, also bought from newegg.  If portability is more of an issue you can also go with 2.5" laptop drives and smaller enclosures.

The next step up from the single drive system is to get a dedicated RAID enclosure. You can get 2 drive solutions but in order to get RAID 5 you need at least a four drive enclosure.  Moving from 4 drive bays to 5 comes at a premium so unless there's a good deal or you really need the extra space 4 will work fine.  With a multibay enclosure the options are to get a NAS, which operates by itself on a network, or a direct attached storage box (typically via eSATA).  One thing to bear in mind is that with a RAID system, the Green drives that are usually pretty cheap can be problematic.  Going with enterprise drives isn't necessary but pay close attention to reviewer comments and message boards in choosing drives for a NAS system.

Several years ago there wasn't much competition for consumer grade NAS boxes and Infrant's READYNas were the best option.  Since then, Infrant got bought out by Netgear, resulting in an inferior lower tier line and a significantly more expensive high performance line.  Other competitors have stepped up though and affordable, high performance NAS boxes are available. Smallnetbuilder.com is an excellent resource for keeping up to speed on which NAS boxes are the best deal.  

With direct attached storage the options tend to be simpler as the extra features such as built in servers and  torrent clients aren't there.  Newegg provides a decent product selection.

The last option is cloud storage.  This option is really meant for lesser amounts of storage but does benefit from much more mobility.  Dropbox is a good choice, with 2GB free but the possibility to expand that with a little effort. I only started using Dropbox a little while ago and its a very useful tool.  

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Google's new app market for Chrome

Looks like Google is going all out in its support for Chrome as a platform rather than just a browser.  The big announcement today was Chrome OS but more immediately of interest is the Chrome Web Store. The Chrome browser has been expandable via all sorts of extensions for a while but the new store adds apps, both paid and free to the mix.  Its still in the babysteps stage and already has the uncoralled feel of the Android Market but I'm eager to see how this turns out. Chrome has been my browser of choice for a while now and I don't see myself going back to Firefox any time soon.  For the HTPC, Chrome is the primary browser so I'm very interested to see how well the apps on the app market integrate into an HTPC setting.

Monday, December 6, 2010


I've had a computer hooked up to my TV for many years, starting back from around 2003 or so when I was still living in a studio and decided to make use of some spare parts left over from upgrades. However, it isn't until the last year or so that I've really turned it into what could be called an HTPC or home theater PC. Up until then it was a just computer hooked up to a TV, with a mouse and keyboard needed to navigate and a regular Windows interface. Fine for occasionally watching videos or playing music at parties but not user friendly in the slightest.

What pushed me towards making a real HTPC was learning about a program called XBMC. XBMC is a fantastic piece of software designed to turn a computer into a home theater powerhouse. It takes all of your digital media and presents it beautifully, with thumbnails and fan made artwork for movies, TV shows and albums.  There are many guides on how to set up XBMC at their homepage as well as on lifehacker.com.

Once I'd decided I wanted to move forward, the next step was a big one.  XBMC is capable of automatically identifying movies and TV shows but only to a certain extent. TV shows in particular require a particular naming scheme and file organization in order to be detected properly.  The process of making sure everything gets named correctly and identified properly is time consuming but as I learned, its way better to get it taken care of ahead of time.

One thing that I realized fairly soon into the process of building my HTPC was that my old hardware simply wasn't up to the task anymore.  This isn't to say that all HTPC's need to be powerhouses, in fact there are many Atom based nettops being sold that are perfectly good as an HTPC. However, in my case I had settled on having a few features that required a better system.  For one, I like computer games and I wanted a system that could play decently well at 1080p resolution.  I also wanted to be able to run both audio and video over a single HDMI cable, something which required the latest generation of video card at the time. Finally, I'd been wanting to replace my cable box with a PC based solution, something that requires a fair bit of processing power.

Where I ended up was with a new MB, quad core AMD processor and a Radeon 5770 video card.  On recommendations from avsforum.com (also a fantastic source of information) with regard to driver support I installed a 32 bit version of Windows 7.  I made one big mistake in that I kept an old hard drive in place, but eventually fixed that by replacing it with an SSD.   There have been massive delays in the release of TV cards compatible with cable, I'm still waiting. Once I do get the TV card, I'll probably add an additional HD but it isn't needed yet.

My media is all stored on NAS devices rather than the HTPC.  One of the great features about XBMC is that you can save all of the metadata and artwork in the same folder as your media so that from a brand new installation all you need to do is identify which folders to scan and you library is restored.  Getting all my video files sorted and tagged properly was a load of work and not the kind of thing that would be fun to do sitting in front of a TV with a mini-keyboard.  Being able to handle all the organization from my desktop and then have XBMC up and running with in full visual splendor almost immediately after I built my HTPC was fantastic.

With the local media side of things taken care of the next step was on how to work with streaming media, something XBMC isn't really geared towards.  Because the HTPC interface is supposed to be simple I installed a program called ObjectDock to create some very large application buttons along the side of the screen with all of the applications I felt would be needed for day to day use.  This lets me put in very specific streaming solutions, like HBO GO, next to more general purpose apps like Boxee.  I decided to go with several specific applications. XBMC handles local media and at some point will be configured to launch other apps directly from within it.  Boxee is very good at aggregating streaming content, although I'm not a big fan of the interface in general. HBO, Amazon VOD, Netflix, Hulu and Pandora each have their own standalone applications, in the case of Amazon really just a link. Another general purpose streamer called ZincTV, still on a trial basis as I haven't used it much and the times I have its been crashprone.

While it sounds cluttered, in practice each application is just one button along a strip on the side of the screen. In order to make it more friendly for my Android phone there is a separate folder with links to each application as well. In fact, for music only its possible to open up XBMC without even having the TV on and navigate to the music I want to play.  Before I had the phone I was using a Lenovo wireless mini-keyboard which worked well for navigating from the couch.  For certain tasks its still preferable to using the phone but I've fallen in love with the XBMC app on Android.

There is still quite a bit of work to be done with the HTPC and probably always will be.  There will always be ways to add new functionality or tweak the interface to make it a little more polished.  A recent addition was to put a webcam and Skype software in place in order to have video chats with family (the next and much more difficult step is getting Skype set up for my parents and teaching them to use it without assistance.) Another recent addition was the addition of a Subsonic server. Subsonic is a great music server that handles almost any format and can stream to a PC or phone.  I love that it can index lossless music files and also transcode them when bandwidth is an issue.

That's it for now.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

First Post

Just trying out this blogging thing. For a while now I've wanted an outlet to discuss some of my varied interests, particularly in the technology area, but also literature, music, patent law, parenting, cuisine and whatever else grabs my attention.