Leon's Weblog

May 9, 2014

Bringing New Life to an Aging HTPC

Filed under: Gadgets,Personal — Leon @ 10:20 am

SSD I last wrote about Designing an HTPC back in 2010 and 2011 so I figured that it’s time for an update. Overall, the setup is still very much functional but can benefit from some new technologies. Below are some upgrades that I have made over the years.

Boot Time
Waiting for the HTPC to boot was one of my biggest annoyances in its day-to-day use. Fortunately, due to rapidly declining prices of Solid State Drives, there is a quick and inexpensive solution. The challenge was figuring out how to add another drive into my existing Antec MicroFusion Remote 350 HTPC case which only had one 3.5″ bay. I didn’t want to replace the existing 2TB HDD which was good enough for storing media or loose the bluray drive so I looked for another place to mount a 2.5″ SSD. The easiest solution was to use one of the spare PCI slots and mount the new SSD drive to it using a bracket (several options are available on both Amazon and eBay). The drive that I picked out was the Samsung 840 EVO-Series 120GB 2.5″ SSD which I think is the perfect size for storing the OS and applications partition.

With the second drive installed, migrating the operating system to it was trivial using the free Partition Master program from EaseUS. The program has an option for OS migration with a straight forward wizard to guide the process (as well as SSD optimization). Just note to size the Windows recovery partition accordingly because Partition Master does not do it correctly (100MB for Windows 7 and 250MB for Windows 8). It took about 15 minutes to copy over the OS partition from the HDD to the SSD. So, for about $100, this upgrade reduced the HTPC boot time to under 10 seconds while making the box run slightly quieter.

Wireless Speakers (Multi-Room Audio)
The multi-room audio setup that I had relied on a patch to XBMC which allowed simultaneously outputting audio to two devices (a feature Windows had in XP that was later removed in Windows 7 and up). Unfortunately, until recently, this patch was available only for XBMC versions 10 and 11. I looked for alternatives using custom sound drivers but it just wasn’t the same. Fortunately, a new dual audio patch is now available for XMBC 12.3 so I can finally upgrade to the latest version without loosing existing functionality.

June 4, 2013

My Roomba’s Companion: Dyson DC44 Animal

Filed under: Gadgets,Personal — Leon @ 8:05 pm

DC44I love my Roomba but there are many places where it cannot reach. A full sized vacuum would be overkill for my apartment and would take up too much space. This is why think the Dyson DC44 Animal is a perfect companion to the Roomba. It is small, powerful, and conveniently hangs (and charges) inside my closet. I can use it as an upright vacuum for spots requiring more suction than the Roomba can muster and as a small hand-held to get under the bed, inside closets and bathrooms, and for the car. It holds its charge well, is light weight, and is easy to clean. I sometimes find myself walking around the apartment with the DC44 in hand looking for dust bunnies to zap. I don’t think the DC44 could serve as a whole-house vacuum on its own, but, with the Roomba at its side, I think it will suffice. Sure it is pricy but you pay for the quality and convenience (and you can sometimes find it on Amazon for 25% off retail price). It’s also cheaper than any of the Dyson full size/upright models. Neither the Roomba nor the Dyson DC44 require purchasing additions accessories such as vacuum bags or lubricants so I hope the two can live long and productive lives with minimal maintenance costs.

September 25, 2012

My First “Apple” Product

Filed under: Gadgets — Leon @ 9:00 am

Nest Thermostat No it’s not the new iThing[Phone, Pad, Pod, etc…] and it’s not really part of Apple anymore. Its the Nest, a smart thermostat designed by former Apple engineers. I was looking for a replacement thermostat for my central air system that had a bit more functionality than say a light switch and this seemed like the simplest DIY solution. Nest can be controlled remotely via WiFi (+Android app) and learns your schedule as well as temperature preferences over time. It has motion sensors to tell when you are home and does nifty calculations like determining the time until a desired temperature will be reached. Installation was straight forward and it seems to work as advertized (still need to see if it will save me any money on my winter heating bill). The closest competing product is from ecobee but it costs a bit more. Honeywell, the market leader, is completely out of the running since the company does’t want their systems to be installed by mere humans. In true Apple fashion, Nest does not integrate with any other home automation system but there are rumors of some integration features coming in next year’s model. I’m looking forward to the day when my Roomba can tell the Nest to turn the heat up when it’s wheels are cold.

May 9, 2012

Multi-Room Audio from an HTPC

Filed under: Gadgets,Personal — Leon @ 1:22 pm

One of the design goals for my media center was to include multi-room audio so that I can play the same music in both my living room and the terrace when guests come over. I had already setup an HTPC which contained all of my media and configured XBMC to play it nicely. The next stage in the project was to have a way to stream the music outdoors without adopting an entirely new system.


February 19, 2012

Hacking Power Cords

Filed under: Gadgets — Leon @ 1:06 pm

This topic may be obvious to electrical engineers but I though it would nice to share a personal DIY success story. A few days ago the power brick to one of my Logitech devices failed. The device was several years old and I couldn’t find a replacement power brick anywhere. The power specification for the device is 5V DC at 500mA and it takes a 3.5mm barrel jack as input. This characteristics are very similar to those of USB powered devices so I set out to find a USB to 3.5mm barrel jack adapter. Amazon sold one for $1.50 and I decided to try it out. The cable worked but was very short and flimsy (I didn’t expect much for that price anyway). Also, the barrel jack from the cheap cable didn’t fit snugly in the device.

The solution was to take the cord that came with the device (it was the right length and had a power jack that fit perfectly) and splice in a male USB jack at the other end. The cables inside a USB wire are color coded (Red is power, Black is ground) so once I matched those up to the barrel jack, the wire was good to go. A little solder and electrical tape to tidy up the splice and cheap 500mA USB power adapter for the outlet rounded out the project. (more…)

May 20, 2011

Designing an HTPC (part 2)

Filed under: Gadgets,Personal — Leon @ 11:18 am

This is the second part of the article on designing an HTPC. In part one, I described the hardware components and assembly steps that I used to build the device. Without the proper software and media, however, all you have is a pretty box that consumes power. In this part, I will revisit some of the design requirements that were discussed in part one and review the software that will make the magic happen. Although many of the tools listed are available for both Windows and Linux systems, I will describe the Windows editions (simply because getting the drives setup for all the hardware selected in part one can be a pain under Linux). Also, while the built in Windows Media Center may have some of the desired functionality it is often not the best choice available. (more…)

May 13, 2011

My Roomba

Filed under: Gadgets — Leon @ 1:46 pm

I have been using the Roomba 560 model for the past year and am generally pleased with its performance in my apartment. It took a few tweaks and adjustments at first but my Roomba and I have learned to get along quite nicely. The initial problems were solved by simply removing some obstacles on the floor and closing closet doors where the Roomba may enter and get stuck. The other solutions involved a bit more tinkering.

Cliff Sensors
I have a small dark area rug in the living room and the Roomba simply refused to clean it. It turns out that this is a common problem. The cliff sensors which are designed to prevent the vacuum from falling down the stairs are triggers by dark surfaces. I had to disable the sensors to fix this problem (this wasn’t a problem for me because I don’t have stairs). The options for disabling the sensors range from the elaborate but elegant solution of taking the sensor apart to turn it off to simply covering/taping up the 4 sensor externally with glossy white paper. I preferred the latter approach.

After a few months, the lighthouses (virtual wall) stoped working properly. Sometimes a lighthouse would unexpectedly turn into a virtual wall (stopping the Roomba from going into some rooms) and other times the lighthouse wouldn’t turn on or block the Roomba at all. I tried resetting all the virtual walls by taking out their batteries and turning off the Roomba (holding down the “Spot” and “Dock” button for at least 15 seconds) but that didn’t fix it. It turns out, the virtual walls like having fresh batteries to operate properly…

Battery Life
After about 6 months, the Roomba started acting a bit sluggish. It would need to go back to the base to re-charge before finishing cleaning the entire apartment. At one point a full charge would only last it about 30 minutes of operation. None of the resetting tricks worked so I called iRobot and was told that this is a known problem for this series. They sent me a new battery and a kit to upgrade the Roomba’s battery charging logic to prevent the problem from occurring again. So far so good. I was also told by customer service that this problem tended to happen when the Roomba was not used often enough (so the battery would overcharge).

Error 9
After about a year, the Roomba finally had to go on disability. It would erratically stop working and announce the dreaded “Error 9.” Roomba support documentation mentions that this error indicates that one of the bumper sensors is stuck or dirty. Unfortunately it can also indicate that the sensor burned out (as it was in my case). Luckily this is a common enough problem that some DIY engineers took to fixing it and one of them was nice enough to post a guide. This is a $2 fix if you do it yourself. (It looks like the guide no longer shows where to get the parts… I used Sparkfun.com)

Overall, I still think that maintaining the Roomba beats manually vacuuming and recommend it to anyone lazy enough to try.

Update 06/04/2013
After about 4 years of use, my Roomba has died once again. I called tech support, it was determined that the problem was again with the battery. Based on other user comments it seems like 2 years is the average lifespan of the Roomba battery so I guess this was to be expected. I ordered a new battery from iRobot and got a 15% discount as this was my first order of an iRobot accessory. I thought this was a good deal until I found a generic Roomba battery on Amazon for 1/3 of the OEM price. I would expect the generic battery to be of a lower capacity and quality (you get what you pay for) but it still makes more sense to replace a cheap generic battery every year than the expensive OEM model every 2 years.

The tech support guy tried to get me to upgrade to a newer model (at a slight discount) but I didn’t think it was worth it. Especially when you can upgrade the dust bin to the latest AeroVac model (with new brushes and filters) for only $70. I think it makes a big difference in the amount of dust that the Roomba picks up and make cleaning the vacuum a bit easier (single compartment bin). For some reason, this upgrade kit was only available in white in the iRobot store but I found the same 500 Series Upgrade Kit available in black on Amazon for the same price (with free shipping).

Finally, after messing around with glossy paper for a few months to cover up the cliff sensors (see above), I finally decided to take the cliff sensors apart to permanently disable them (see link above). Yes, this does void the warranty but the method demonstrated in the guide can always be undone and it really is much neater. After a while the paper taped over the sensors gets dirty and falls off requiring additional maintenance that I decided to avoid.

Update 06/05/2013
The Roomba had another operation today. After charging the Roomba directly from the external connecter (to charge a new battery), I noticed that the Roomba stopped charging when placed back on the base (with the external connector unplugged of course). It turns out that this charge connector on the Roomba has a tendency to break. The problem and fix is demonstrated here and here.

The problem is that the charge connector has a switch in it to detect when the Roomba is plugged in and this switch prevents charging from both the external connector and the home base at the same time. In fact, the Roomba won’t even return to the base station (i.e. dock) because it “thinks” that it is plugged in. Before going through the extreme measure of drilling the connector open to fix the switch (as illustrated in the fix above), simply try to use a thin screw driver and pull the flat metal lead towards the center pin of the connector (externally… opening no dis-assembly required). This may work for a while until the lead gets loose from vibration (at which point you may have to resort to the drastic measures illustrated… or order a replacement part on digikey.com for under a $1)

December 5, 2010

Designing an HTPC

Filed under: Gadgets,Personal — Leon @ 6:25 pm

I was hoping that 2010 would be the year of “Internet TV.” That, with the aid of set-top boxes. consumers would be able to integrate the functionality and content of a home office into the home theater. Several vendors proposed promising products including Google TV, Apple TV, Boxee Box, and Roku that would make this paradigm shift both easy and affordable. Unfortunately, the year is almost over and the promise was not to be. The promised products were released in time for the holiday season but are all plagued with limited functionality, lack of expandability, and proprietary content. For example, while the Boxee Box is great at streaming free Internet content from sites like YouTube, it has very limited functionality for organizing your personal media library and no storage space to keep it. Another daunting problem is that TV networks and on-line content providers like Hulu have blocked the devices’ access to their sites in anticipation of forming contracts similar to those that they have with Cable Networks. Ultimately it is the consumers that loose out on these long overdue features. This is why I decided to take matters into my own hands and build a Home Theater PC (HTPC) that would overcome the problems of the products available on the market today. (more…)

December 23, 2009

T-Mobile’s Touch Pro 2

Filed under: Gadgets — Leon @ 10:50 am

Touch Pro 2It’s been several years since I got a new phone. My old Eten M700 was starting to look a bit dated and the battery would only last for several minutes of talk time. T-Mobile’s Touch Pro 2 looked like the perfect replacement since I was already a customer. The TP2 immediately felt like a huge upgrade with a large bright screen, a battery that lasted several days with casual usage, and a 3G Internet connection. Also, unlike with earlier Windows Mobile phones, not much tweaking was required to get started.

Trouble With Time
For me, the biggest annoyance on the phone is that the time constantly got reset (see forum thread). This happened occasionally when the phone would automatically connect to the Internet to check mail or weather etc… This problem appears to be local specific and is caused by the T-Mobile network. Turning the phone’s data connection off/on would reset the time properly but this wasn’t a good solution for me (if you are checking the phone to get the time, how do you know if it is wrong). What worked for me was disabling all automatic clock updates by going to phone settings–>time zones.

Google Sync
Around this time Google had just released Sync which simulated a Microsoft Exchange server and enabled push e-mail and synchronization of contacts between Gmail and Windows Mobile devices. I found that this service worked well for e-mail but was not usable to synchronization of contacts. Every time a changed contact entry was synchronized, the system incremented the contact’s birthday by one day. It appears that this issue has very recently been resolved.

Screen Protector
The screen protector that came with the phone got scratched up pretty quickly. I also didn’t install it carefully enough so I ended up with a few air pockets that did go away after several months. I got the ClearProtector as a replacement. At first, I didn’t like the replacement. This protector was much softer that the one that came with the phone so I wasn’t sure if it would last. Also, applying the protector required wetting the clear plastic to activate the adhesive (I thought that was a bit unorthodox since we are putting moisture on a electronic device). The worst part about it was the amount of bubbles (several large spots and many tiny dots) that resulted when I first applied the protector. However, after a few days of use, I started to appreciate this design. Because the protector was softer it gave the phone a better tactile feel. Also, the material was permeable, so after a few days, all the bubbles disappeared and the screen became crystal clear. The best part is that, after a month of use, there are no visible scratches on the protector either.

Car Navigation
There is some concern on web forums that the latest versions of TomTom don’t work on the TP2. All I can say is that it works for me just fine (and it would have been a deal breaker if it didn’t).

Useful Links
You may find the following links useful for setting up the phone:

Update 1/25/2010: I just updated the phone to Windows Mobile 6.5. The update is available free from T-mobile.

  • The biggest improvement for me was that the phone no longer forces locking the screen based on MS Exchange Server policy. The new eye-candy is nice but I appreciate WinMo 6.5’s added configuration options and back-end features for working with MS Exchange etc… much more.
  • I did notice the same memory-leak/performance issue as a number of other users (memory usage jumps to over 80% after a few hours of usage. Setting the registry key HKLM/Software/HTC/ResProxy/ShareMemSize to 0 as discussed in this thread seems to have addressed the problem.
  • I’m indifferent about WinMo 6.5’s honeycomb start menu; however, I don’t like the amount of junk application that T-mobile put there with this ROM. I deleted the extra application shortcuts from /Windows/StartMenu/Programs using Resco File Explorer. Note that most of these shortcuts were marked as system files and hidden by default so you have to enable viewing system files in the File Browser’s options to be able to do this.
  • GPS still works (Google Maps, TomTom but not Bing) but the phone seems to have a weaker GPS reception than before the update.

December 22, 2009

Designing a Bare-Bones Media Center

Filed under: Gadgets,Personal — Leon @ 12:35 am

Media CenterDesigning an entertainment center from scratch can be a daunting tasks, especially if you care about quality and aren’t looking to spend more than 5K. Here are some of the considerations that I’ve made when designing the media center in my new home.

The TV is the heart of the entertainment center. There are many specifications that you can consider when choosing the display but the most important one is whether you like the image quality. At this point, most LCD’s look very similar on paper (1080p HDTV, HDMI, 120Hz etc…) and posted specifications such as contrast ratios can be questionable at best (especially when comparing different manufacturers). New technologies such as OLED displays exist but I don’t think they have matured yet for mass market consumption. Besides, being on the cutting edge can quickly put you over budget. I went with a Sharp Aquos LCD TV. Getting a projector was another consideration but the image quality just isn’t the same.

Mounting a flat screen on the wall is nice convenience. When choosing a wall mount, make sure that it can support the size/weight of your TV and that it has a solid construction (especially if it pivots). The mounts with dual-arm constructions tend to feel much more rigid so I think they are worth the extra price.

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