Sunday, March 29, 2009

Home Theater 2.0

Ever since I did my first living room upgrade, I've been meaning to get a surround sound system. After six months, I felt like I've waited long enough. I went with the Onkyo HT-S5100 7.1 home theater in a box system because it was pretty inexpensive. More pictures here.

Both my HTPC and XBOX360 output 5.1, which the receiver can expand into 7.1. The only gripe I have with the receiver is that the HDMI inputs are pass-through only, meaning they can't be used for audio input. So whereas with my TV, I was able to connect one HDMI cable from my XBOX360 for both audio and video, now I need to connect one HDMI cable for video, and one optical S/PDIF cable for audio. Onkyo's higher end models do support audio over HDMI, but I wasn't going to pay an extra $200 or so for this extra convenience.

I hate visible wires about as much as Steve Jobs hates buttons (just look the latest shuffle), so I tried very hard to balance wire management with optimal speaker placement. The center speaker is on a wall shelf that is just above the TV. The front speakers are wall mounted with wires mostly hidden behind the TV. The surround speakers are on speaker stands with wires hidden under the thing that runs along the bottom of the wall (I have no idea what it's called). The surround back speakers are also on speakers stands with the wires hidden under the floor in the crawlspace (I hope I never have to go down there again).

Some movies that really show off the audio system:
  • Transformers
  • Cloverfield
  • Children of Men
  • Independence Day
  • Terminator 2
  • Iron Man

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Building a Home Theater PC

For the past few months, I've been using my Dell Inspiron 9300 laptop to steam video to my home theater. It works well for 720p videos and below, but totally chokes on 1080p. Also, it only outputs stereo audio, and I wanted to output 5.1 channel surround sound.

That's why I decided to build a HTPC. Ii needed to decode 1080p video, so a fast CPU was a must. The video card was less of a concern. I also wanted it to fit nicely in my TV stand, so I went with the smaller microATX form factor motherboard and case. The case is also shorter than normal, which means only low-profile cards will fit in the expansion slots (not a problem since I'm not using any expansion slots). Loudness was also a concern, but not a major factor.

Update: More pretty pictures! (with comments inline)

The components that I bought (total cost around $500):
  • Intel Core 2 Duo E8400 @ 3GHz
  • GIGABYTE motherboard with NVIDIA GeForce9400 graphics
  • hec microATX case with 270W power supply (has HDMI and optical S/PDIF outputs)
  • Seagate 1.5 TB hard drive
  • USB wireless adapter
The components that I had lying around:
  • 2 x 1GB memory
  • 250GB hard drive
  • Optical drive (borrowed to install Windows XP)
After getting it up and running, I found that it's able to decode 1080p video just alright (high action or noisy parts still result in some chopiness). The integrated GeForce9400 graphics kind of sucks. While I haven't tried playing any games, the new iTunes visualizer (which is very GPU intensive) doesn't seem as smooth as on my laptop's GeForce6800 (mobile version). And my laptop is almost 4 years old now.

I was hoping to get better performance by overclocking the CPU (Intel Core 2 CPUs are nicely overclockable), however I ran into some problems that I think are caused by the integrated GeForce9400 not being able to keep up with the faster FSB. The end result is that the system failed even a minor overclock from 3GHz to 3.2GHz. Compared to building my first computer, which I was able to overclock from 2.4GHz to 3.3GHz, this is terrible.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Coke Can Dating

I was exploring my house's crawlspace (the shallow, unfinished space beneath the living space used for visual inspection and access to pipes and ducts), and found this old coke can lying there. There's no date on the can, but assuming it was left there when the house was constructed, I'd say it's from the late 1970's. The list of ingredients corroborate this: it has sugar instead of high fructose corn syrup, which means it's from before 1985, when Coke made the switch.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Doorbell Hacking

What's the first thing a thief does when he's casing a house? Ring the doorbell to see if anyone's at home, right? If someone answers, he can play it off like he's a door-to-door camera peddler or some kind of religious fanatic. If nobody answers, it's a good sign that the house is empty and ripe for the picking. The burglar proceeds to break in and steal everything that catches his fancy, including the ancient Chinese sword, the antique Italian restaurant menu, and the highly-valuable anime pencil-sketches. Meanwhile, the owner comes home to find all his shit missing, but there's nothing he can do because the perp is long gone.

Well, it's a different story when it comes to my house. Shortly after the thief rings my doorbell, I get an SMS message on my phone. I then rush home as fast as I can, where I find him struggling to lift the TV. I quietly grab my can of mace, sneak up behind him, yell "Surprise Motherfucker!", and get him good in the eyes (which are the testicles of the face). I am called a hero by my friends and neighbors.

This is how it works: My house has an oldschool mechanical doorbell. Normally, pressing the doorbell closes a circuit that activates an electromagnet which slams the chime against the tone bar. I bought a 12V reed relay from Radio Shack and hooked it up in parallel so that pressing the doorbell also activates the relay. This sends a signal to my computer (I'm glossing over this part because it's a bit complicated and involves a Phidget, not to be confused with a midget).

There's a program running on the computer that listens for the signal and makes a status update to Twitter user baic_house using Twitter's REST API. My main Twitter account follows baic_house and is set up to recieve an SMS message whenever baic_house makes an update. The whole process from pressing the doorbell to SMS message recieved on phone only takes a few seconds.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Red Elephant

Is it just me, or does the cutout on the pull-tab of cans of Red Bull look like an elephant?