Wednesday, June 22, 2005

PVR Build Log #02 (Refinements and Clarifications)

Wow. I came home from some errands yesterday to UPS-delivered hardware. I had Leon along, and I figured it would be fun to install the motherboard into the case, even if that's all we could do for the moment.

Oh, I forgot in the last post. Another part I had on hand to use in the PVR is my Gyration wireless keyboard and mouse set. With a 30 foot range, they're perfect for operating a PVR system from the couch or across the room.

I bought that Intel motherboard refurbished, and it came without an I/O backplate. That's a problem. It's possible to install a motherboard without the backplate, and it will work, but it's a bad idea for a couple of reasons.
  1. Static electricity. The main purpose of the backplate is to provide a grounding surface in close proximity to all of the various ports sticking through it. If you string a headphone cable (just supposin') back there that's carrying a serious static charge, then if you're lucky, you'll fumble around a bit and accidentally touch that backplate with the end of the jack before plugging it in. This will discharge the static to the PC chassis, saving your motherboard from having to deal with the potentially deadly surge.
  2. Fumbling mishaps. Your motherboard is sensitive. The backplate protects you from your own clumsiness by making sure that you don't accidentally poke a connector into the case and short out something sensitive. And believe me, with surface mount components all over your board, there are plenty of opportunities for this sort of mishap.
  3. Finally, this may seem more mundane than the above two answers, but it's almost as important: Having gaping holes in your case really screws up air flow and dust management. Don't shrug; this is important. Your computer hates dust, because it builds up on components, insulating them, which means that they can't shed heat anymore. The heat builds up and the next thing you know, you've let the smoke out of a chip. This is how aging electronics die. It's not the age; it's the dust and heat.
Incidentally, the above discussion of heat problems is also why all of the chips in computers these days are soldered down or, in the case of your processor, clamped down. They used to be secured in cute little brackets that held them in place by friction. But the heating/cooling cycles caused by powering on and off the system, and even just working the system hard and then giving it a break, caused the chips to work their way out of the brackets. It was dubbed "chip creep" at the time, and it was a major headache.

Anyway, I had the backplate that came with the case, and two more kicking around in my spare parts drawer, all of which were roughly the same, and none of which matched up to the motherboard's ample selection of ports and connectors. Time to break out the dremel.

I removed the factory backplate from the case (since I was going to have to anyway) and held it up to the motherboard to see where they did and didn't match. I found that with a little tweaking, all I had to do is get rid of the audio ports area and it would fit the board well enough.

I stepped outside with the backplate and the dremel once for the bulk cutting, and twice more for strategic sanding and ended up with a workable backplate. It isn't perfect, but it's far better than nothing.

I got about three screws into the motherboard, and the doorbell rang. It was FedEx with the rest of my parts! Now we could really build the whole thing.

Leon and I began stuffing the case. I meant to take photographs of the process, but once I get started building a machine, I don't stop until it's done. So I didn't take photos. Sorry. But it's just as well, because the inside isn't quite as neat as I'd like...It's a lot harder to build neatly inside a small case. Don't get me wrong, cables are not all over in there. It's just not something I'd put a case window on.

We assembled the system except for the hard drive, because the 320GB drive was for the server. The drive intended for the PVR was still in my desktop and I had files to move. But on closer inspection, I found that the new drive is SATA, and not PATA like I had thought. The drive it's meant to replace in the server is PATA and the SATA ports in DENTSERVER are already full.

So I ended up installing the new 320GB drive in the PVR anyway. That little box is full of some pretty cool parts.

Time for software. The system POSTed fine on the very first power on. Additionally, the HD and Power LEDs lit correctly on the first try, and my power LED switch works perfectly. That's a pretty bright blue LED, and I'm sure the switch will prove handy.

For the initial few boots, I used a BartPE disc that I recently created. It's a live CD that boots to Windows XP Pro without touching the hard drive, and it also has Acronis Disk Director 9, Acronis True Image, Norton Ghost 9, Nero 6, and a number of other handy utilities (all of which I have legal licenses for) installed on it. This makes tasks like backing up a borked OS and cloning hard drives much easier. BartPE is cool stuff, by the way. Check out the link above for BartPE's main site.

OS Follies

I originally intended to install RedHat Fedora Core 4 as the base Linux OS on the PVR. Fedora Core 4 is brand new--it was released on 13 June 2005--and it doesn't support SATA drives. RedHat folks...Hello? Are you at home? No SATA support? WTF?

Running the install disc simply resulted in a system hang shortly after the install searched in vain for a hard drive to mount.

I really want a full-featured Linux OS on this system, so one of the simplicity-centric distros won't do. That rules out SimplyMepis, Knoppix, and Ubuntu. I looked for a new Mandrake (make that Mandriva) set of ISOs, but it appears that Mandriva really wants money before the web site will give a download link. (By the way, I installed Ubuntu while I was waiting for Fedora ISOs to download, just to see if I could. Ubuntu worked perfectly. That's a hell of an OS.)

So I resorted to a slightly older install set that I already have of Mandrake 9.1. I got as far as localizing the keyboard (to American English), and the install program would not recognize my USB mouse, no matter what I tried. This was Mandriva's second chance. On to the next distro. (
And I won't be linking to Mandriva. You can Google it if you care that much.)

And let me mention here that I'm not happy with where Linux distribution is going. All of the big names in Linux (except Fedora) want me to buy a support license before they hand over the damned ISOs.
This is not ok. I'm your potential customer, and you're pissing me off. I may buy support for a Linux OS at some point in the future, but I will not buy from a company that hides the free OS from me until I pay them. Never.

Thank goodness for, the online clearinghouse for Torrents of darned near any distro you could hope for. I selected five or so for download and went to bed.

Our new 7MB downstream connection has already proven extremely handy; I had all the torrents I had selected when I woke up five hours later, except for
both of the Mandriva distros I had selected. That's right; I gave Mandriva a third and fourth chance. You blew it, guys. You can't even seed a torrent right. It'll be a long time before I try Mandriva again.

Of the many times I've installed Linux at home, none of those installs have been SUSE Linux. I keep hearing good things about SUSE, but I've never tried it. This morning I burned the single DVD ISO (~3GB) for the SUSE install and popped it into the PVR.

Nice! SUSE's installer is graphical and elegant, and worked out how to properly use my USB keyboard and mouse without any interaction from me at all. They just worked, as they should. Unfortunately, I didn't have time to finish the install process because I had to go to work and open the lab. When I get home, I'm going to start the SUSE install from scratch again, just to see how pretty.

And now that I've thought about it for a while, I think I'm going to dual-boot this system with Windows XP. It occurred to me that it would be nice to have this machine available for Half-Life and MCM2, and any emulators that might be Linux Impaired. So I'll have to install XP before I run the SUSE disc again.

I sure hope that SUSE continues to impress me.

Monday, June 20, 2005

PVR Build Log #01 (Parts List)

I'm building a PVR. I've had Tivo envy for too long, and I'm tired of missing shows that I like when I could really do something about it if I tried.

So I'm going to try now.

I've thought for a long time now that I'd probably build a Windows Media Center PC. I'm a small OEM, so buying parts and an OEM copy of Media Center legally is no problem for me. But I really hate the idea of Microsoft having the power to bomb functionality out of my PVR with future updates. And I think this is well within the realm of possibility; DirecTV and Tivo have already had this happen.

I'm not all hung up on the price of Media Center. $130 isn't bad for what you get, and as long as I could be certain that it would stay at least as good as what I bought, I'd buy it. But no. Microsoft is courting Hollywood and is not to be trusted.

So I'm building a MythTV. This is essentially PVR software running on top of a Linux foundation.

This is a daunting task for me, because it involves Linux in such a way that if I don't use Linux correctly, I won't get what I want. I've installed Linux on my own machines maybe eight or nine times and monkeyed around with it. But I've never actually put Linux to work on something I cared about. Yet.

So I want to document the whole process here. First, because this is going to be a lot of work, and I'd like to be able to track what I've done. Second, I want anyone who's curious to be able to stop by and copy what I've done. If this is intimidating for me, it will be scary for others too, and it really helps to have a walk through.

Finally, and most importantly, I want to document this because I've long been screaming about the PC industry's cluelessness when it comes to craftsmanship. A computer really can and should be a work of art, particularly on the inside.

Grace, form and neatness all matter very much on the inside of a PC case. The process of choosing parts should take time. The builder should visualize how everything will fit together long before the odds and ends that will be PC guts are ever ordered. Future upgrades should be accommodated for. Air flow should be a point of attention. Quality parts should be seen as a critical safeguard against failure.

So while I'm on it, let's start with parts:

  • Motherboard - Intel D865PERL-E - 800 Mhz FSB, Onboard Gigabit, AGP 8x, USB 2.0 x8, Firewire x3, DDR 400 x4, SATA 150, PATA 133, 6 Channel Audio with Optical Out, PCI x5. This is a great multimedia board. I've had it on hand waiting for Leon for six months or so now. It's starting to age, and Leon will probably want to put more graphics muscle into his new system than an AGP interface will allow. So I'm going to use this board, and when the time comes, we'll get him something with PCI-E.
  • Vid Card - Radeon 7000 64 MB TV Out - Not a video card that has big rippling muscles, but this is a pretty simple application, and it will have plenty of power to display TV Video, DVDs, and whatever else Linux will throw at it. We're not talking millions of polygons here, and there will be almost zero on-card math to be done. This is Jeff's old vid card. I asked him for it when he bought my Radeon 9200 Pro 128 DDR from me, and he kindly agreed to give it to me.
  • DVD Burner - Lite-On LDW-411S - This is an 8x single layer burner that I used for a while. It started behaving strangely, so I pulled it and later reloaded Windows. So I'm not sure if the drive actually has problems or if it was that Windows install. I guess I'll find out. It doesn't really matter if it is bad; this system doesn't need an optical drive except for installing the OS initially. I'll be doing all the burning on my main desktop instead.
  • Floppy - Samsung Black Floppy Drive - I've had this on hand ever since I pulled it from my main desktop, and I'm still debating whether to put it in the PVR or not. My machines have been floppyless for about two years now, and I can't say that I've regretted it. At all. If anything, floppies were a pain in the butt, and I'm glad to be rid of them. Still, it's black, and I'm not using it for anything else, and I do like to lean toward functionality. I'm torn. If there's a space crunch in the box, the floppy will be the first to go.
  • Mod Switch - I've noticed that sometimes it's nice to have those shiny blue LEDs on your case shining, and sometimes they're just annoying. Antec expects you to either give them power (via a Molex cable) or don't, and if you change your mind, you'll have to open up the case and change it manually. This is one of the few things that I really have found fault with Antec on. So I've taken regular PCI slot covers, cut a square hole in them with my dremel, and glued in old power supply switches with epoxy. I then wire the switch up to the LEDs in a very simple On/Off configuration. This is nice, because if I'm sick of the lights, I can just flip the switch on the back of the machine. If I want them back, the same process applies. It's an elegant solution to Antec's rare lack of elegance.

The above parts and a few various cables are the grand total of parts already on hand. Everything else must be bought. I've bought parts, and what I've bought will have to do because Crystal has taken away my credit card. Smart girl.

Parts purchased:

  • Case - Antec Overture Version II Quiet Media Case (Piano Black) with 450 Watt Antec SmartPower power supply - (That "Version II" part is important. It's had a major redesign and runs cooler than the first. I could have bought a V.1 much cheaper, but it wasn't worth it.) The case was the hardest part to buy for this system. I struggled and struggled with it. Would a new Dell PC be ok? No. The desktops are too big, and the SFF's require half-height cards. Would a Shuttle shoebox do? Maybe, but only if I was ok with the system running hot and buying a special motherboard small enough for the case. Then I finally thought to look at what my long-time favorite case maker, Antec, had to offer. I very nearly bought a Minuet, but it had some serious shortcomings, such as a diminutive 200W power supply and the requirement for Mini-ATX everything. But then I stumbled upon the Overture; sleek, quiet, small, and it fits a Full-ATX board. It's tight, but it fits. Sold. I love Antec. They understand artistry.
  • RAM - Kingston KVR400x64C3A 512 MB Single Stick - This was just the cheapest stick of DDR 400 512MB I could find. Most MythTV sites recommend 256MB, but I've made it policy not to build with less than 512MB for over 1.5 years now.
  • Hard Drive - WD Caviar SE 7200 RPM 8MB Buffer, 320GB - This drive won't actually go in the will replace one of the 120GB drives in my server. That 120GB drive will go in my desktop, and the 160GB SATA drive that's currently in my desktop will go in the PVR. That will boost my server to 940GB (250+250+320+120). I can't wait to replace that other 120 and break 1TB.
  • Media Card Reader - Transcend Internal Multi-Card Reader - I'm a little concerned about this, because it's got a high probability of being junk. And that's why a few days later, I bought...
  • Media Card Reader - PCUSA 12 in 1 USB 2.0 Internal Card Reader - A slightly better deal on what looks to be a slightly better product. One of these will almost certainly end up in my desktop. It could use an SD slot.
  • TV Tuner Card - Hauppage WinTV PVR-250 - All of the MythTV sites I've read stress how much nicer it is to have hardware MPEG 2 encoding on your TV card than to have your processor do all that work. So I made sure to get a card with hardware MPEG 2, and one that's highly rated by the MythTV community. This is the highest-specced card that isn't still having driver problems in Linux. I wanted to buy two so that I can watch one channel and record another...or record two at a time...but that will have to wait a bit. Besides, I want my next card to be HDTV ready.
  • Processor - Celeron D 315 533 FSB, 2.26 Ghz - I got a hell of a deal on this chip...$60. I was planning on putting something like a P4 1.8 Ghz in there, but the P4s are damned expensive, and this processor is way more than this system needs. If I use hardware encoding on all cards, I could probably record five simultaneous streams with this processor, board, and SATA hard drive. It boggles the mind. Anyway, I'm still not clear on whether this CPU includes a heat sink and fan, but if it doesn't, I've got them on hand. No problem.
  • Display - Balance CM2019 19" LCD - I wasn't willing to go with less than a 19" LCD, so I figured I'd have to make a substantial sacrifice in quality and features. I was wrong. I spotted this monitor at WalMart for $300. It's 19", has VGA and DVI, and an impressive 10ms response time. It's an off-brand, but if it walks like it talks, I don't care. I tested it out for a bit tonight, and so far I'm impressed.
So that's the parts list so far (you can see what was bought where by the links above).

Here are the costs:

Provantage: $203.41
Zipzoomfly: $343.32
WalMart: $318.14
PCMicroStore: $ 18.00

Total: $882.87.

And that doesn't include the parts already on hand. No wonder she took my card away. Even I've got sticker shock.

I'm thinking the next post will be about MythTV and choosing a distro. We'll see.