Home Media – Part 3 – The Rip

It’s been a while but finally I got around to completing and old series.

Part 1: The NAS build, can be found here. 

Part 2 The Setup can be found here.

The whole idea of this was so you could have your media at your finger tips. Your movies, your TV shows and your Music. If you’re like me you have shelves and shelves full of Movies and Television shows, and plastic bins full of CDs.

I’m not condoning piracy, and personally I think you should have control over the media that you own, as long as you don’t distribute it or broadcast it for the masses. Having said this you should probably check with your Country’s copyright laws. Either way it is nice to have it all at your finger tips.

I’m finding less and less compatibility between software and HD DVD movies these days, some titles I am unable to convert into a digital format form HD DVD. Also there is a draw back with HD DVDs, they only support Dolby Digital and DTS audio, where as newer Blu-Ray movies support lossless audio such as Dolby True HD and DTS Master Audio formats. There are a few new ones on the horizon as well, these would be Dolby Atmos, DTS:X and, Auro-3D.

Couple of good sites where you can find a lot of information on ripping and appending videos are http://www.videohelp.com/ and http://www.doom9.org/ .

To rip movies/tv you will require a few pieces of software. Besides the necessary codecs only two, Make MKV and Handbrake. Make MKV strips the copy protection and rips 1:1 video and puts them in MKV containers. Handbrake compresses the videos to specific formats and output devices. These are both free, if you want to pay for a single piece of software I would recommend DVDFab Blu-Ray ripper.

K-Lite Codec Pack is used to decode the material and the different formats for converting the material you will be ripping.

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MakeMKV can be used to strip the AACS and BD+ protections from discs, however this software goes a step further and can also convert your Blu-Ray movie to a MKV container. Mind you the movie will be large and there will be no compression, so the files can turn out to be 20GB, great if you want a lossless 1:1 copy of your movies. This software is free while in beta and for full functionality. You must input their beta key in to the software to make if functional, the key can be found here on their forum. This software also allows you to rip 3D Blu-Ray Titles. You can actually get away using only this software for ripping content.

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HandBrake requires you to have the disc already ripped and stripped, generally using MakeMKV or Fab Decrypter. I really like using the batch processing mode in HandBrake, it’s very useful for TV shows. Also with handbrake you can create a custom template so it’s nice and easy to work with TV shows or repetitive content. HandBrake is also a converter so it can convert content for portable devices, it can make the file sizes smaller and change the resolution of the source, etc.

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DVDFab HD Decrypter is used to copy movies into a file and remove the encryption on the disc. This will remove AACS and BD+ protection. This software is free and usually the first step to digitizing your library, uless you are using MakeMKV. Be aware though, some software is not able to create Rips from these backups there is something specific to this software that sometimes does not play well with other applications.

DVDFab Blu-Ray Ripper (3D Plus), I use this software to rip my 3D Bly-Rays. This software allows the movies to be ripped into a 3D half side by side MKV or a 3D half over under MKV file. It’s paid software, but worth the money. Having said this there are other options for ripping 3D movies, MakeMKV can do it as well. Nice thing about this application is that you can compress the file and there is no need for a 1:1 copy.

Pavtube ByteCopy, I’ve actually never used this software but in my research I found that people have good things to say about the software.

BDtoAVCHD is another tool that came to my attention recently, If you ever want to create discs from your ripped content this is the tool to use.

So now that you have the necessary software where do you go from here?

Note that if you are looking for menus etc, this is not the guide for you. I don’t really care for the extra content and only want Audio track/Subtitle options. Mind you with Make MKV you are able to rip the special content as well, but I reiterate there is no menu system. Also I will only cover the Make MKV how to here, the DVDFab method is a paid method and kind of an all in one package that is simple to use, so no need to get into the details of that.

Download, install, and get the beta Make MKV key from the forum. The key changes with each Beta release, and even though MakeMKV is in version 1.x it is still free/considered beta.

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Once you install the software start up Make MKV and input the key in Help > Register. If you like the software and want to purchase it go to Help > Purchase. Untitled5

Insert the disc with the material you want to rip, make sure you have the right optical drive selected in the drop down list, then press the Open Disc icon in the left pane of the application window. The icon looks like a DVD drive with a disc inside. Alternatively you can go to File > Open Disc and select the appropriate optical drive where your disc is. Untitled2

 

The icon will start to look like it’s spinning and the software will take a minute to read and decrypt the disc in the drive. Once this process completes you will be presented with a list of valid Video sources on the disc. Generally the large ones are the content that you want.

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Note that with this particular disc you have 4 episodes/Titles and that the 5th 7.0GB file is all of the episodes in one seamless Title. When I was converting this I generally skipped this one Title. Select the titles you wish to rip. Change the output folder on the right side of the window to where you want to save the converted files to. Then click the Make MKV button to the right of that. Depending on the processing prowess of your PC this can take a bit, it will also prompt you to create the folder if it does not exist. Untitled6

Once the process completes go into the folder and rename the files to something meaningful.

Once you have your MKV, you can start to compress and convert the formats.

To do this use Handbrake, it has several presets available for you to use. However if you wish you can create  your own and save it. This is where you can take 1080p content and convert it to 720p, having said this this will take a long time if you have a slower computer.

handbrake

You select your source which is either a file or a folder, and you can set your resolution in the Picture tab. Notice the output settings, you can change them to MKV or MP4 in this example. This is something to keep in mind.

handbrake2

In the Video tab you can change the codec that the encoder will use to recode your video in, H.265 is an option, select the Quality and you can even do 2-Pass Encoding. While 2-Pass encoding does improve the quality you will be looking at a really long encode unless you have lots of RAM and a really fast processor.

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Then you have your Audio section where you can downmix to stereo or upmix to a different codec all together. Note that you can have multiple audio tracks.

Once you have selected your desired settings you can save them as to use at a later time, just click the ADD button on the bottom right. If you have multiple videos to encode add them to the queue and keep going, nice thing about Handbrake is that it does batch conversions.

 

Install and Configure OpenVPN on OSMC/Kodi

Let’s face it, Kodi is pretty popular right now, everyone is talking about it. One of the first things I did after I installed OSMC on my Raspberry Pi was to configure OpenVPN. There is a little bit of work involved so I figured I’d share what I did to get it up and running!

Login to OSMC via SSH using PuTTy or your client of choice.

Elevate to Super User.
osmc@KODI:~$ sudo su

Update the software repositories.
root@KODI:/home/osmc# apt-get update

Install OpenVPN.
root@KODI:/home/osmc# apt-get install openvpn

Reboot.
root@KODI:/home/osmc# reboot

Create a folder to put your OpenVPN configuration files in.
osmc@KODI:~$ sudo su
root@KODI:/home/osmc# mkdir vpn-conf

Copy your .opvn file/files and your .crt file into /home/osmc/vpn-conf, there are a few ways to copy the files here, I personally like to use PSCP. This
example is using PSCP from a Windows computer.
C:\temp>pscp c:\temp\ca.crt osmc@192.168.1.100:/home/osmc/vpn-conf

Create a new file that will contain your login credentials for OpenVPN
root@KODI:/home/osmc# cd vpn-conf
root@KODI:/home/osmc/vpn-conf# vi login.conf

  • Press Insert
  • Type your Username on first line press enter and type your password on the next
    line.
  • Press Esc, type :wq
Username
Password

Now edit the .opvn file/files of choice to make sure the login.conf and <ca_file_name>.crt file are referenced correctly.
root@KODI:/home/osmc/vpn-conf# vi <filename>.ovpn

  • Find the following lines that begin with:
    • auth-user-pass
    • ca
  • If they exist – edit them accordingly, if they don’t exist you will need to add them.
auth-user-pass /home/osmc/vpn-conf/login.conf
ca /home/osmc/vpn-conf/ca.crt

Let’s test out OpenVPN, the service should start and connect successfully after running this command.
root@KODI:/home/osmc/vpn-conf# openvpn /home/osmc/vpn-conf/<filename>.ovpn

Confirm VPN connectivity by using curl, this should retrieve your VPN’d IP address.
root@KODI:/home/osmc/vpn-conf# curl http://checkip.dyndns.org

If everything checks out and is working so far it’s time to install the OpenVPN Add-On for
Kodi and import a profile. Grab the latest OpenVPN Add-On for Kodi, the quickest way is to just grab it is to use wget right from OSMC, using your web browser right-click on the script.openvpn-x.x.x.zip and Copy the link address.
root@KODI:/home/osmc/vpn-conf# wget -c <paste_link_addr_here>

From Kodi on your TV, go to Settings -> Add-ons -> Install from zip file

  • Select Install from zip file.
  • Navigate to the ZIP file and select it.
  • In the bottom right corner, Kodi notifies when the add-on is installed and enabled.

Now the OpenVPN Add-On for Kodi should be installed… go to Programs > Add-Ons
> OpenVPN from Kodi and import your .opvn files, once complete try to connect. It should work successfully since it’s literally just an interface to the actual OpenVPN service that we just installed and configured.

That’s it! …but if you’d like to take it one step further you can. I personally like to have a certain OpenVPN profile connect at startup of Kodi. It’s pretty simple to do this.

Browse to the userdata folder for Kodi and create an autoexec.py file.
root@KODI:/home/osmc# cd /home/osmc/.kodi/userdata
root@KODI:/home/osmc/.kodi/userdata# vi autoexec.py

  • Type the following where <profile_name> is the profile
    name of the profile you have created in the OpenVPN Add-On for Kodi.
import xbmc
xbmc.executebuiltin('XBMC.RunScript(script.openvpn,<profile_name>)')

Now every time you power on your Kodi box, OpenVPN will launch and the VPN
profile of choice will connect automatically. Cheers and happy streaming!

Home Media – Part 2 – The Setup

Part 1: The NAS Build

Part 3: The Rip

So what do you do if you want to build an unRAID box?

unRAID boots from a USB flash drive, and the flash drive needs to have a GUID or Globally Unique Identifier. This is for the purposes of licensing. If you do end up loosing or something happens to the flash drive generally lime-tech is pretty good about it and all you need to do is email them, they might ask for a new GUID and send you a new key. Here is their policy on that. I’ve had two flash drives fail on my and they were pretty good about giving me a replacement key. Once unRAID boots from the flash drive it mostly runs in memory, and since it’s a stripped version of Slackware Linux it doesn’t really require a lot of memory to run.

First, grab a 4GB flash drive, for best results grab a flash drive from the Hardware Compatibility page. The key here is that your flash drive needs to have a GUID, some have it and some don’t. Speed is also a factor, as in read and write speed. Alternatively if you want to know if your drive is compatible and has a GUID grab any flash drive and quick format it to FAT32, use Volume Label: UNRAID, then unzip the contents of the ZIP file found here to said drive, and boot it on any networked machine. If you’re having trouble booting follow the drive preparation instructions. Once booted log into unRAID, username:root, password:<blank>. Type in ifconfig to obtain the IP address, then head over to another networked machine and type that IP into a browser, this should take you to the main unRAID page. Here is the getting started page from Lime-Technology which describes the same thing in greater detail. Alternatively by default you can access the unRAID web GUI by typing in http://tower instead of http://<unRAID IP address>.

There is also something called the GO file which is located in the /config folder on the root of the flash drive. The go file gets executed at boot and in here you can put any special instructions or drive maps that you’d like to execute at boot. In my case I mount a drive that is outside of the array, I call it the system drive and it holds all the configurations for my docker containers. This is not necessary as the same can be accomplished with the cache drive. Here’s what my go file looks like.

#!/bin/bash
# Start the Management Utility
/usr/local/sbin/emhttp &

# Make directory and Mount the system drive
mkdir /mnt/system
mount -t reiserfs /dev/disk/by-label/systemdisk /mnt/system
sleep 5

#Install Screen and Utemper, utemper is necessary for screen to work
installpkg /boot/packages/screen-4.0.3-x86_64-4.txz
installpkg /boot/packages/utempter-1.1.5-x86_64-1.txz

The free version of unRAID (uR) allows you to use 3 drives. The Hardware compatibility list also provides some standards and minimum requirements for the server hardware, usually an old desktop will do. If you decide to go with a 8 or 25 disk server, you will need to pickup a decent RAID card and a good enclosure.

There is also something called the GO file which is located in the /config folder on the root of the flash drive. The go file gets executed at boot and in here you can put any special instructions or drive maps that you’d like to execute at boot. In my case I mount a drive that is outside of the array, I call it the system drive and it holds all the configurations for my docker containers. This is not necessary as you can to the same for the cache drive.

Plugins vs Docker. In unRAID, plugins were the go to in version 5 and prior, this was the way to install applications on your NAS. They were easy to install and worked well, until you installed a new plugin which had, let’s say a newer version of Python in it. If this happened it would break all the plugins which relied on the previous version of Python. I ran into this issue multiple times in both version 5 and 4 of unRAID. There was no standard and people wrote plugins they way it suited them. At one point in version 5 I had to go into a the plugin and change the python version it pulled and installed, this broke a minor function of the plugin but made it sort of work. There was also an issue I had with sql lite, a plugin was pulling a newer version than was supported by another application, and finally some plugins would break the web interface. When version 6 of unRAID entered beta and docker was a possibility I jumped for joy. Yes by nature the docker equivalent is larger, however since these are self contained application on top of a OS layer, there is no chance that one application would break another. Also now with docker one could have multiple versions of python ans whatever the prerequisite for an application was. The only problem with docker is that it is not as easy to implement as the plugins. It takes a little know how to get it up and running. But, since I moved everything to docker I have less downtime on my server, and I’m not as often remoting into the server to administer it. That’s a win in my books.

Most applications that you would want on your NAS more than likely already have a docker container created for them. However if you want to create your own and if you’re curious about docker in general here is a great Docker 101 tutorial video by Ken Cochrane.

I’m not going to tell you how to setup docker in unRaid or how to put together your server hardware, but what I will do is point you to some really cool articles/blogs that describe how to do so. In my opinion there is no point in reinventing the wheel.

Update: In the final version 6 of UnRAID docker container manager is included and installing docker containers is as easy as point and click for the most part. Good place to get the containers is from http://linuxserver.io

Over at the Corsair Blog there is a really cool How to Build a PC section. I hope http://www.corsair.com doesn’t mind me linking to their site. It’s intended on teaching you how plan and build an gaming PC, but there are still articles relevant to building and putting together computer hardware regardless of what the desired purpose is. If you click the link make sure you sort by Date (Older – Newer), this way you will start on the first post and you can continue on in a logical order.

The Lime-technology website has a really good tutorial on how to get docker up and running on your server. Check out their Docker Guide over at http://lime-technology.com/ . Again I hope they don’t mind that I link to their content as this is a very well written and comprehensive docker guide.

And last but not least there is a really good plugin for Docker containers in unRAID, yes I said plugin, it’s ok to have one. This plugin allows to view / add / remove unRAID docker template repositories. The alternative is adding the repositories yourself, you can get these from this lime-tech forum post.

To install the plg you need to SSH into your server, I generally use PuTTY from a Windows machine. Once there navigate to the directory /boot/config/plugins by typing the following:

cd /boot/config/plugins

Any plg file that is located in this folder will get installed on server boot. Once there you’ll need to download the plg to your local machine. Do this by typing the following:

wget –no-check-certificate https://raw.githubusercontent.com/Squidly271/repo.update/master/plugins/community.repositories.plg

This will download the plg file. Now you can either reboot the server or install it manually by typing the following:

installplg community.repositories.plg

That’s all for now. You should now see a new tab under the Docker heading in the web GUI of unRAID.

If you have any questions or comments, post below.

Next: Part 3 – The Rip

Home Media – Part 1 – The NAS build

This is all part of a series.

Part 2: The Setup

Part 3: The Rip

Digital media and distribution is the way of the future. Netflix is doing it, iTunes is doing it, and Steam is doing it. These are three very successful examples of cloud based streaming and digital distribution services. There are many more I could have used as an example, but in my opinion these are the most successful ones out there and the most popular. While iTunes and Steam charge on a per episode or per item basis, Netflix charges a flat monthly fee for unlimited viewing. I prefer the Netflix model, unfortunately with Netflix you don’t get the content right away, instead it usually arrives after the season has ended or the Blu-Ray has been released. However Netflix does have original programming such as Daredevil, Trailer Park Boys, Lilihammer, Arrested Development, Hemlock Grove, and House of Cards. Still this requires an internet connection, and if you want to watch in Super HD a somewhat fast one at that.

netflix-logo

What if you own hundreds of DVDs, HDDVDs, and Blu-Rays as it is in my case. What if you could access this content instantly on your television and reproduce them in 1080P with high fidelity multi-channel sound, and even in 3D if you would like. Well if you have the time, money, and would like to learn something new this is all possible. That and you will also have the satisfaction of completing something cool. You could have an instant on, Movie, Television, and Music jukebox library that you can share through out your entire house.Lime_Tech_Logo

The goal here is to put together a Network Attached Storage (NAS) device which is capable of serving up the information to your network and the devices on it. These devices could include a smartphone, HTPC, or a laptop. As far as NAS devices go you have two options, either buy a ready made NAS from manufacturers such as QNAP, Synology, ASUSTOR, Drobo, NETGEAR, or if you have an old computer kicking around you can purchase a registration key for unRAID and build your own solution. The benefit of going with your own build is that you can expand it as you please and you can add hardware and hard drives as you go along. You would be future proofing by going with a custom build, as you can tailor it to your needs. It can grow with you as you require. The ready made NAS devices come in pre-configured sizes and they take a limited number of Hard Drives. One thing to note about unRAID, there are three levels of licensing for unRAID, Basic which supports 4 drives, Plus which supports up to 8 drives, and Pro which supports up to 25 drives. Prices are $29, $69 and $119 respectively.

serverlevel

As a best practice, you always want to have a parity drive in your drive array. A parity drive is a Hard Drive in a RAID array to provide fault tolerance. This will ensure that is one of your drives fails all your data will be recoverable. If one of your drives does happen to fail you should immediately replace the parity drive and rebuild it. A good practice is to always have a spare drive on hand, or hot spare as some call it. Also when you are making the initial purchase and buying multiple drives of the same make for your array, another best practice is to buy drives from different stores. This way you can ensure that the drives came from different manufacturing lines and all of them will not fail at the same time. After all you’ll probably want to store your pictures, and home movies on this rig. Always have a hot spare ready to go, it’s an empty drive that sits in your array ready to be used if another one fails, this is important as it prevents any down time or a double drive failure.

unRAID is not a RAID array, hence the name. unRAID is an array of disks with a parity drive. The parity drive holds a bit sum of all the drives in the array, and if a single disks fails the parity can rebuild said failed disk. If two disks fail, then you are SOL. Having said this you will only lose the data on the failed disks, the rest will retain their data. This is why it is important to have a hot spare on hand at all times.

If you plan on going with a pre-built device might I recommend Synology or QNAP. In my opinion these are the most popular ones on the market and they both have good communities that are willing to help you out if you hit a wall with with any settings. Also they are one of the few NAS devices that have packages for SABnzbd, Sick Beard or Sonarr, and Couch Potato. I will not get into specifics of these applications but these are some of the more popular packages.docker-logo

As of Unraid version 6 most of the packages that you would require can be installed as a docker container. Docker is a sort of Virtual Machine that runs applications in a self contained package on top of an OS layer independent of the OS that the container is running on. I find this to be a better solution than the Unraid plugins in previous versions, however you can still opt in for plugins in Unraid 6 there just isn’t a lot of them. They’re a dying breed. I would strongly advise against plugins. Why? Well, I find that the plugins have a tendency to break too often, especially if a prerequisite is changed or altered on the server, or another plugin updates it’s version of a prerequisite. With docker this is not an issue as all the prerequisites are in the container itself, and migrating to a new version of unRAID will not break your applications. Docker is also OS agnostic, meaning the same docker container can run on Linux, Windows, and Unix operating system. If you want an idea of what kind of docker packages are available for Unraid 6 just head over to the Lime-Technology forum and have a look at some of the packages that the awesome developers have designed specifically for unRAID.

Another nice feature in unRAID is that it supports virtual machines via either XEN or KVM. In the final version of unRAID there is a possibility that XEN might be dropped in favour of KVM. KVM is native to the Linux kernel and allows for easy hardware I/O passthrough. I’m currently using KVM with the assistance of a couple of plugins. I’m running an Ubuntu server with murmur installed on it, but this might be punted in light of a developer creating a docker container for it. If you wish to run KVM on unRAID you’ll need to install the VM manager and the Libvirt plugin of the server. The instructions are available here in the second post. Or you can just grab them from here:

https://raw.githubusercontent.com/dmacias72/vmMan/master/vmMan.plg

https://raw.githubusercontent.com/dmacias72/virtMan/master/virtMan.plg

As for the hardware requirements, almost any computer will do, you’ll need a flash drive, a motherboard with some sata ports and some hard drives. Realistically you could be running unRAID on your laptop if you want to, but that would defeat the purpose. I would recommend at least a 4 core processor with 8 GB or RAM, less if you do not plan of creating any Virtual Machines and 4 Hard Drive slots.

As for other hardware I recommend the Supermicro AOC-SAS2LP-MV8 8 Channel 6GB/S SAS/SATA PCI-E SAS card, and the Norco RPC-4224 24 Bay Hot Swap SATA/SAS 4U Rackmount Server Case. If you already have a tower case then you could opt in for a 5 bay drive enclosure such as the Norco SS-500 5-bay SATA/SAS hot swap rack module. This bay enclosure fits 5 standard size Hard Drives and occupies 3 x 5.25″ bays in a case. It’s a perfect fit for the smaller size setups. If you do go the route of the Norco SS-500 bay and get a SAS card you will also need a Forward SAS to SATA breakout cable.

Yes you will spend money on something like this, however it will still be cheaper and more effective than purchasing a QNAP or Synology device. Having said this there are pros and cons to both.

An unRAID home build can be cheaper than the competition, you can upgrade it as you wish and you can do it slowly. With unRAID you can scale it up or down as you need it and it can be powerful enough to run VIrtual Machines. Unlike FreeNAS or others, unRAID is easier to setup than the competition. unRAID however is not a true RAID NAS. unRAID has an array of disks that can be of varying sizes provided the parity drive is as large or larger than the largest disk in the array. If more than one disk fail in the array the data on said disks is lost, but only data on the disks that failed.

With systems like QNAP and Synology they are ready out of the box, provided you insert some disk in them. These NAS systems are not as easily scalable, however some of them do offer expansions. They can provide greater fault tolerance. These systems can cost more than a mid range computer depending on the amount of bays that you require. The cost can be as much as $1000 for a 5 bay solution. Applications are very easy to install and configure you don’t need to be a tech wizard. These systems are small, quiet, and don’t draw a lot of power. You can hide one of these under your bed if you desire.

Both are good options however I’m here to guide you through some of the hurdles involved in getting an unRAID system off the ground.

Next: Part 2 – The Setup

Harmony Smart Control, Touch, and Ultimate.

Mid way through 2013 Logitech introduced a new line of smart remotes. Harmony Touch, Harmony Smart Control, and Harmony Ultimate.

The harmony ultimate is a mixture of the Touch and Smart Control system. The Harmony Touch is an Infrared(IR) remote, with a 2.4″ LCD screen that can use gestures to change channels and control your devices. Then you have the Smart Control system, which includes a hard button remote that interacts with a hub via Radio Frequency(RF). The hub then blasts IR, and Bluetooth signals to devices. RF is only used for the remotes communication between them and the hub. Bluetooth is used for gaming systems such as the Wii U, PS3, and PS4. The hub also uses WiFi to connect to your home network and can be controlled with a smartphone by downloading the Harmony app from Google Play or iTunes. The hub is common between the Smart Control and Ultimate system. Also note worthy is that the Smart Control system can be upgraded with the Touch remote, giving you similar features to that of the Ultimate system. There are however subtle differences between the Touch remote and the one that comes with the Ultimate system. For instance, the touch remote is lacking haptic feedback, a tilt sensor, and it’s ergonomics and materials are slightly different. What does this mean, well the tilt sensor is used to wake the LCD up when you pick the remote up, and the lack of haptic feedback on the touch remote means that you will not get confirmation on your presses. Other than that the ergonomics and materlial on the back of the remote might just be preference.

Upgrade

If you decide to upgrade you Harmony Smart Control with the Harmony Touch it all has to be done online via http://www.myharmony.com. Harmony no longer includes a software application. Programming your activities is done via the website or the Harmony smartphone app. Activities is how you control your devices, for instance an Xbox activity might turn your TV to aspecific input, your receiver to a specific input, and finally turn on your Xbox. Also in the Xbox activity the directional button might be used to navigate the Xbox menus. Where as a Blu Ray activity, might turn on your TV to the same input as the Xbox activity, turn your receiver to a different input, and finally turn on your Blue Ray player. And in your Blu Ray activity the directional pad on the Harmony remote will control your player navigation instead. It’s all customizable, and after the automatic setup can be changed to your preferences.

To use the website you need either a Windows or OSx computer, as the site uses Microsoft Silverlight to get the interface going. Also when you decide to update the Smart Control system with the Touch remote, you will increase the device count form 8 to 15. By updating to the touch remote you will also gain the ability to control the devices via RF from the remote directly, that and you will also be able to access your AV device menus and low level features. Otherwise with Smart Control you will need to leverage the Harmony app and its touch interface to have the level of control you gain with the Touch or Ultimate systems.

www.MyHarmony.com

I found using the app to setup the hub very frustrating, everything I did I had to do twice, seems that the app had some connection issues. Eventually I did manage to connect the hub to the WiFi, update the firmware, and setup all the devices and activities through the app. The connection problems were only apparent when setting it up, creating the activities went rather smoothly. I would recommend connecting the hub to your PC and setting everything up via the myharmony.com website. You will save yourself a lot of trouble and aggravation. To do so you will need to create an account on the website.

The website provides you with a nice level of control, creating and editing activities, changing button assignments, adding granular setting to the activities, etc. A nice level of control which you might want to avoid on the touch interfaces.

Also to note that if you have a previous version of a Harmony remote, the activities from that remote can be transferred to your Smart Control, Touch or Ultimate devices. However if you have never had a harmony remote previously, with a library of 225,000+ devices it’s a breeze setting up your activities. I was able to add things such as a Samsung HD DVD player, and a Zune HD AV dock. This surprised me, but I guess the database of devices is growing bigger and bigger by the day. No codes for your device, no problem you can teach these systems your devices codes and button assignments. As previously stated the Smart Control remote uses RF to communicate with the hub, and the hub is doing all the IR blasting and communicating with the devices. That is for the Smart Control system only though as the Touch remote relies solely on IR when communicating with your devices, unless paired with a hub. Smart Control comes with one extra IR blaster where the Ultimate is equipped with two extras. IR is line of sight and sometimes can bounce off walls. For the Xbox One I found that it really does need to be line of sight otherwise it does not work. It all depends on your room and your surfaces.

IMG_20140119_143004

The remote that comes with Smart Control can only control six Activities. The 3 buttons on the top have two functions, short and long press. Upgrading to the Touch or Ultimate allows you an unlimited number of activities. This is where the touch screen really shines. Switching from one activity to the next switches off your active devices and turns on the devices you just selected. The remote buttons can also be customized to perform different tasks for specific activities, that is if you wish to get into the a more detailed setup. Again this is where the touch screen remote is far superior because you can access individual functions on each device with it.That’s not to say that you can not do this with the Smart Control system, but you will need a smartphone or tablet and the Harmony app to accomplish the same level of control as you would with Touch and Ultimate. With the app or touch screen remotes you also have gesture based browsing. Swiping, tapping, pressing, and a combination of the three gestures, all yield different results based on your activity and your activity device settings. For example you could swipe up and tap to change the channel, swipe to the right to fast forward, or swipe to the right and hold to skip forward… I think you get my drift.

As far as hub and IR blaster placement, you will have to play around with that. Some locations might work for you, others may not. Since IR is mostly line of sight, but can be bounced off walls with in reasonable distance, you might want to place it somewhere where it can see all the devices. Having said that the hub has 4 blasters inside it pointing in all 4 directions, and in addition to this you can plug in two extra blasters into the hub. Also this device is designed to work in cabinets with closed doors. Nice thing too is you can assign where the IR signal is coming from for each device via the Harmony website.

HubAssignments

Bluetooth can penetrate cabinets and walls to it really doesn’t matter where you place the hub for Bluetooth devices. Each time you make changes to the site/settings you need to sync your hub with the pc/site.

Logitech has created a very nice universal remote system. Fully featured and very comprehensive. Controlling everything is quite nice and convenient. If you’re somewhat technically inclined you should have no difficulty setting this up, if not you can always head over to their forums and ask a few questions or give their harmony support a call. Logitech has a dedicated line just for Harmony support I would suggest you leverage it to your benefit.

Happy couch surfing.

HTPC? Go with Linux, try and avoid Windows based HTPCs.

A year and a half ago I switched my media server from Windows to Linux, this opened my eyes. A lot of people are afraid of Linux, people are afraid of what they don’t understand. I was a bit skeptical at first, but having made the switch I would never go back to a Windows based machine. Also I wanted to state that this article is not put here to start a flame war. I’m a heavy Windows user, these are just some observations of mine.

Main_logo_3DMy server serves up all the media from 7 Hard Drives totalling about 14 Terabytes of storage. I use XBMC to view all that media in my home. For those of you not familiar with XBMC, first I must ask, “Where have you been?”. XBMC is an award-winning free and open source (GPL) software media player and entertainment hub that can be installed on Linux, OSX, Windows, iOS, and Android, featuring a 10-foot user interface for use with televisions and remote controls. It allows users to play and view most videos, music, podcasts, and other digital media files from local and network storage media and the internet. That bit is straight from the horses mouth. It is probably one of the most popular media players for home theatre enthusiasts. If you have multiple televisions in your home you can point XBMC to an SQL database and sync content across rooms. If you are half way into a movie and you decide to stop it, you can continue where you left off in another room. It’s a very feature filled and rich media centre environment.

In my main living room where I have my home theatre setup, I’ve been running XBMC on top of a Windows machine for quite some time now. It has been very unstable, and more often than not if I brought the PC out of suspended mode XBMC would crash to desktop. My main reason for running this on top of Windows was that I also wanted to browse the web while in the living room. Finally I got annoyed at all the crashes and hangups with Windows. I could have ran in on top of Ubuntu, but instead I opted for an embedded XBMC solution. I had a choice either XBMCbuntu or OpenElec. I decided to go with OpenElec, to me it seemed like to more logical choice of the two. OpenElec is XBMC built from the ground up, on top of a Linux kernel. It is designed for light and small embedded media players. XBMCbuntu is an XBMC distro built on top of the Ubuntu kernel. I wanted the one with less bloatware. OpenElec stands for open embedded Linux entertainment center.

openelec_logoOnce I installed OpenElec and setup all my sources in XBMC I moved on to the testing phase. I wanted to test a couple movies. I ran a test on a movie i recently watched on my Windows based XBMC. Same hardware but different software. I played the movie and immediately I noticed the sound was a little louder, so i dropped the volume a couple notches, and continued watching. Meanwhile this is all playing through a 5.1 surround sound setup, and DTS is being decoded on the receiver. While listening I noticed something nice but not that surprising. The dynamic ranges in the movie were clearer and being reproduced a little better. The new XBMC Frodo (v12) Audio Engine (AE) and the linux audio stack was handling the audio a lot better than the Windows equivalent. Then I immediately recalled an article I read about 6 months ago where an audio engineer discusses the merits and accuracy of the Linux audio stack over the competition such as Windows. I wish I could link to the article, it was an interesting read. I also recalled that Windows audio stack or API as of the Vista version was no longer controlled by the hardware manufacturers but by the kernel of the OS. Some say that since Vista you don’t have true hardware DirectSound, instead you have software WASAPI which does mandatory resampling and frequency cutoff, and doesn’t allow any hardware effects such as CMSS-3D. This lead to some back lash from a lot of people back then, both hardware manufacturers and end users. In the end the audio experience is just as important to me as the video experience. I still buy Blue Rays because of the uncompressed video and audio quality, after all a movie should be an audio visual experience.

linux-wallpaperIn the end I’m glad I switched the HTPC to Linux. There is a noticeable performance increase on the audio side and just a general performance increase due to the smaller OS overhead from Linux and OpenElec. As for the web browsing part on my HTPC that I mentioned earlier, I found a third party Opera Browser plugin for OpenElec. Also as a side note, if you’re using a Raspberry Pi for XBMC, there is a huge performance increase with OpenElec over Raspbmc.

Here is a little clarification of the Windows audio subsystem taken from the XBMC Wiki:

Since Vista SP1, Windows has two primary audio interfaces, DirectSound and Wasapi (Windows Audio Session Application Programming Interface). The latter was a replacement for XP’s Kernal Streaming mode.

DirectSound acts as a program-friendly middle layer between the program and the audio driver, which in turn speaks to the audio hardware. With DS, Windows controls the sample rate, channel layout and other details of the audio stream. Every program using sound passes it’s data to DS, which then resamples as required so it can mix audio streams from any program together with system sounds.

The advantages are that programs don’t need resampling code or other complexities, and any program can play sounds at the same time as others, or the same time as system sounds, because they are all mixed to one format.

The disadvantages are that other programs can play at the same time, and that a program’s output gets mixed to whatever the system’s settings are. This means the program cannnot control the sampling rate, channel count, format, etc. Even more important for this thread is that you cannot pass through encoded formats, as DS will not decode them and it would otherwise bit-mangle them, and there is a loss of sonic quality involved in the mixing and resampling.

Partly to allow for cleaner, uncompromised or encoded audio, and for low-latency requirements like mixing and recording, MS re-vamped their Kernal Streaming mode from XP and came up with WASAPI.

WASAPI itself has two modes, shared and exclusive. Shared mode is in many ways similar to DS, so I won’t cover it here.

WASAPI exclusive mode bypasses the mixing/resampling layers of DS, and allows the application to negotiate directly with the audio driver what format it wishes to present the data in. This often involves some back-and-forth depending on the format specified and the device’s capabilities. Once a format is agreed upon, the application decides how it will present the data stream.

The normal manner is in push mode – a buffer is created which the audio device draws from, and the application pushes as much data in as it can to keep that buffer full. To do this it must constantly monitor the levels in the buffer, with short “sleeps” in between to allow other threads to run.

WASAPI, and most modern sound devices, also support a “pull” or “event-driven” mode. In this mode two buffers are used. The application gives the audio driver a call-back address or function, fills one buffer and starts playback, then goes off to do other processing. It can forget about the data stream for a while. Whenever one of the two buffers is empty, the audio driver “calls you back”, and gives you the address of the empty buffer. You fill this and go your way again. Between the two buffers there is a ping-pong action: one is in use and draining, the other is full and ready. As soon as the first is emptied the buffers are switched, and you are called upon to fill the empty one. So audio data is being “pulled” from the application by the audio driver, as opposed to “pushed” by the application.

WASAPI data is passed-through as-is, which is why you must negotiate capabilities with the audio driver (i.e. it must be compatible with the format you want to send it as there is no DS between to convert it), and why encoded formats like DTS can reach the receiver unchanged for decoding there.

Because WASAPI performs no mixing or resampling, it is best used in the exclusive mode, and as a result the application gets the exclusive rights to the audio buffers, to the exclusion of all other sounds or players. WASAPI shared mode does allow this, but that’s not a common mode and not what we want for an HTPC. I myself have a dislike of Window’s cutesy system sounds happening at 110db

Hope some of you found today’s primer of use. Please pick up a scorecard from the desk and drop it in the big round “collection box” on your way out

Cheers, Damian

LG LA6900, a TV viewing pleasure.

Design:

When you first take this TV out of the box you can’t help but to be impressed visually, the lack of a bezel around the television and a mere depth of 1.3” is very appealing as it should be, this is the exact reaction LG promotes with their Cinema displays. Weighing in at 44.1 lbs without stand and 50.1 lbs with stand an average sized adult can set this unit up themselves. The LG logo at the bottom of the television lights up if you want it to, it can be controlled through the televisions menu and has 3 brightness settings. The logo can be set to power on when the television is off or on, or can be disabled completely.

The stand the television comes with is also very sleek, much like it’s closest competitor LG is using a similar TV stand design. It seems that sever TV manufacturers are opting for the wrap under TV stand look these days. The screen is a glossy finish, this concerned me at first as glossy TVs tend to reflect light in a room. However generally glossy finishes have better picture quality and as is with this television the screen diffuses bright lights and bulbs in the room that are reflected on the screen. This must be a coating placed on the screen by the manufacturer.

Picture Quality:

This is a 120Hz TV and comes equipped with passive 3D.

After running the picture wizard which LG provides in the menu of the television, I was ready to test the unit. The picture quality is stunning, the colours are nice and aren’t over saturated, the tones and balances are perfect and it was a treat for my eyes to watch Television and play video games on.

True motion leaves something to be desired, often times it creates a halo effect, that’s what some call it. What it is is artifacts, the television needs to process both frames and create a mid frame, this often results in errors or artifacts and creates the less than desirable effect around certain objects on screen.

The Passive 3D is a great. I have never considered owning a 3D TV set but LG changed my mind. This unit came with 6 pairs of glasses, but if you watch 3D movies in the theatre you can just take those glasses home and use them. Both the Theatre and this LG set use the same passive technology to display 3D. The glasses are passive so they do not need batteries, the ones included with the set are very light and very comfortable to wear. Downside to the Passive glasses is that it dims the picture a bit. However the 3D is very comfortable and easy on the eyes, unlike the movie theatre 3D, and the active glasses which some users report to have flicker. Test subjects “The Hobbit” and “Tron: Legacy” both look great in 3D on this television. And passive 3D accounts for 48% of total 3D TV panel shipments in 2013, up from 39% in 2011. http://goo.gl/r1RC07

LED+ means that this set is edge lit using LED and has the dimming feature, during really dark scenes I was able to notice the LEDs dim, this threw me off at first, it was a bit distracting at first. The local dimming feature can be turned down or up depending on the preference, that or disabled altogether.

Sound Quality:

This TV comes with 2.1 sound, it has a subwoofer built into it. I tested this TV with some music that I streamed from my DLNA server, the sound was rich and the low frequency reproduction was acceptable. If you’re having people over and you want to stream some music to this unit it does a decent job. Don’t expect much though.

I also ran a test of the built in sound system with a couple of Movies, here is where the sound system buckled a bit. A 5.1 Soundtrack was not meant to be this TVs forte. It wasn’t terrible, but as with any 5.1 soundtrack one should couple it with a 5.1 receiver.

The sound system has some presets and a sound optimizer. The sound optimizer depending if the television is wall mounted, or sitting on a stand, adjusts accordingly. It has three settings, Normal or disabled, Wall-Mount Type, and Stand Type.

Then you have your presets such as Movie, Music, Game, User… etc.

All in all the sound is decent for a Television set, a lot better than any other TV speakers I’ve heard.

The Remote:

The magic remote can be operated as a mouse, and it has voice search functionality.

The voice recognition software is very accurate.

Features:

Miracast is similar to Intel’s WiDi which this TV also supports, but essentially if your devices support it like an LG smart phone, one can display the screen of the phone on the television.

This technology uses wifi to send the signal from phone to the TV.

The Good:

Picture quality and the passive 3D is where this set really shines here. This years models also sport dual core processor, and side by side to the 2012 models the performance is very noticeable. The 2013 Smart TV sets are a lot more responsive to button presses and menu changes. ARC functionality.

The Bad:

The dimming can be sometimes noticeable in dark scenes. For the most part it does a good job and lets the blacks really shine on screen.

The menu layout is not very intuitive if one is not familiar with LGs Smart TV technology and the magic remote finding the input selection screen can be a little confusing for new users. An input button on the remote would be very welcomed. ARC does not pass 5.1+ sound from any device connected to the TVs other HDMI inputs, this only works for the Smart TV features embedded into the TV operating system.

Side Note:

Remember to turn on the Gaming Picture mode when playing video games on the television, it will dramatically cut down on the input lag by disabling some of the processing that goes on in the background.

Conclusion:

I’d give this TV 8 out of 10, this is a very sexy and sleek design. The picture quality is superb and one of the better screens I have experienced. Passive 3D is nice and really easy on the eyes.  Really good for gaming.

Keywords:

LG LA6900, Dual Core, Passive 3D, Cinema Screen, 120 Hz, Smart TV, Voice Search, Magic Remote, 2.1 Sound, DNLA Compliant