Monday, September 24, 2012

Quick Solution to Some HTPC and Macmini display issues

Last weekend I took the brave, some may say reckless step, of updating my Plex based home theater macmini to Mountain Lion. The last few releases of Plex had introduced significant stuttering for me on HD content and I was forced to watch it outside of the Plex media Client. Not an option for the rest of my family.

I had been following the various threads on the Plex Forums diligently and there seemed to be a growing group of people who were getting much better performance and being able to play even higher definition video than I could previously on exactly the same mini as mine.

So I took the plunge and upgraded. At first everything was great. Instantly the problem was resolved and I had perfectly flawless HD playback at 1080p.

It wasn't until the next day when I get a text from my wife. The macmini is displaying only snow. What should they do?

I may have fixed my Plex issues but Mountain Lion had regressed its display support and was no longer doing proper EDID synching after the display was switched.

I was faced with 2 options. Downgrade and live with the HD playback issues or wait till Apple addressed in a Mountain Lion update. The latter option may not happen for weeks, months or even at all.

That is when I was pointed to an expensive but foolproof solution. The Gefen HDMI Detective Plus. It literally took my 2 minutes to install and never even needed the power supply to be attached. It basically stores the EDID information and pretends to be your device, in this case my macmini, after switching. It worked immediately and as a plus it improved the switching time.

$89 it was a little expensive but one thing that swung it for me was that we would occasionally have the no signal/snow issue even on the previous Mac OS versions and although it was easily fixed by switching to another source and back again, it was more than my family or friends should have to deal with. For that reason alone is was an easy purchase. I highly recommend it!


Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Create Not Consume

I have been pushing a personal philosophy recently which it turns out after much googling is not all that original, which is a good thing.

Whether we realize it or not we are raising a generation of consumers, kids who prefer to consume what others have produced and create nothing new themselves. In some cases we know it is bad and try to have them maintain a balance. Television, movies, video games can all be incredible education tools and I am a big proponent of them. In some cases we irrationally place higher value on older technology. Reading is unquestionably good for us and most people don't read enough. But being proud of your child because they read all day, every day, is also misplaced. Playing sports is also essential but lets not confuse that with being creative. Lets face it, we all know balance is good.

Unfortunately many parents focus on balance between different means of consuming. Creating needs to be a part of that same healthy balance. We were forced to create more as kids as we had less to consume. I had to write my own video games or at least type them in from a magazine and then debug and fix them due to printing and typing mistakes. I made things in the garage. I played in a band. I made models. I painted. I created.

The harsh reality is that one day your kids will have to pick a career path and hopefully get a job. You get paid to create, you pay to consume.

Summer is a great opportunity to start encouraging your kids to create, especially with the trend in California to continually shorten the school year. Add to that the fact that every smartphone is now a serious content creation tool.

  • Write don't just Read
  • Compose don't just Listen
  • Film don't just Watch
  • Coach don't just Play
A few ideas to get you started. Most of these reference Mac or iOS apps but similar apps are available for other platforms:
           ....or simply just take some pictures the old fashioned way


And don't just think this only applies to your kids. Even Facebook can be used for creation and not just consumption.You are never too old to learn something new. Remember, an imagination is a terrible thing to waste.


Monday, October 31, 2011

What Siri wants to be when she grows up.....

The blogosphere has been heaping praise on Siri with most of the coverage going to the humorous responses built into the AI engine. All very interesting but none of it gets to the heart of why Siri is there in the first place. Some people in the media seem to spend every waking hour trying to predict what Apple might do next and where they might go. Interestingly in hindsight most things seem pretty obvious. Features are added for a bigger purpose and it takes us all a while to see what that might be.

In the case of Siri I think we are seeing a real glimpse into the future of iOS. Firstly and most obviously Siri provides voice control. It does it first where it is most needed, a phone. It is a touch device that we have a very real need to use when we cannot touch it or even see it. But there are other devices that fit into that category too. Most critically the ones that are not or will ever be touch screen enabled. The Mac mini and the MacBook (or more simply desktops and laptops) for example. Or how about the most rumored of all devices, the TV. more on that later.

Siri is also a close relative of the Star Trek computer. Ask her a question and she tries to get you the answer. We have had  the ugly stepsister for quite a long time. It is called Google search. That company in Mountain View has built an advertising business around that ability but its weakness is the front end. Android has Voice Actions but how many late night talk shows did you see cover that?

This brings me back to TV and something Google already knows. TV is no longer about live broadcast networks. The TV is the thing that hangs on my wall. It is capable of showing many kinds of media, TV being just one of them. When we say we love TV we don't mean the physical device, we mean the content and that content now includes youtube, streaming video, games, apps, photos and everything else that needs a screen.
That amount of content faces serious discovery problems and so for next generation TV, search is the killer feature.

All this then suggests that to revolutionize TV will require access to any kind of content with simple voice control from any device, not just that big screen in your living room. Siri has a little bit of growing up to do but the potential is clear.

As an aside, most predictions for Apple's TV play seem to focus on how it will integrate cable, broadcast TV, and physical disks. Simply it won't and it has no need to. Have you checked the App Store recently?

Monday, May 16, 2011

Android@Home

How the Tech Giant Wants to "Androidify" Your Home | Wall Street Daily

Google announces Android@Home framework for home automation


As a huge fan of home automation and smart homes I was excited by Googles announcement last week of Android@Home. The potential is huge and with all the proliferation of different standards in this space we have all been waiting for someone big to step in. Android is perfect for this space, especially with it's roots in Java and Linux. Java took a few runs at bringing together devices (remember JXTA and Jini?) but Sun lacked the industry presence and relied on slow standards processes. Google with Android can simply target this space and standardize later.

I for one am very excited to see how this develops. With Android being an open platform I would ideally love to see a small home automation server in a box that allows me to mix and match Insteon, ZigBee, Z-Wave, RFID, new devices based on Google owns standards, and anything else you care to think of.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The CEA Tech Enthusiast Member of the Week

The CEA Tech Enthusiast Member of the Week

I got named CEA Tech Enthusiast of the week and somehow missed it. Very cool.

The Demise Of Social Media And The Return Of Mass Media


The Demise Of Social Media And The Return Of Mass Media

Interesting article on the failed promise of social media. There is a major change here and I am not sure i agree with the author. Old media was about getting all your news from a single source, maybe a couple. You read a specific newspaper, watched a certain evening news show. Those Mass media outlets had you as a captive customer. What has changed is that they are still the sources but we are all getting a little bit from each of them, the bits they are better at. Social Media plays the part of the editor and aggregator. I am much more interested in knowing what my network think is interesting news than what the editor of the new york times thinks I should be looking at. This is all goodness as the mass media outlets are forced to work a little bit harder for our attention. And the promise of social media itself is not completely dead. I read a lot of material from individual writers and bloggers who are not part of the mass media outlets. But to say that the majority of our media was going to come to us that way was always far fetched.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Getting Started With Insteon and Home Automation


I already loved the htguys and their excellent HDTV and Home Theater Podcast, but it recently only got better when they finally got the Insteon and home automation bug. It reminded me that I have not shared any starter tips or blogged my current setup for quite some time.

I got into Insteon seriously back in 2006. Since then I have slowly added more and more devices and now have most of my home automated:



7 x KeypadLincs (8 button)
10 x SwitchLincs (Relays for the Fans and Dimmers for the lights)
8 x LampLincs
1 x Garage door sensor
1 x USB IR emitter for Home Theater control

When I started I was a windows guy and so used a PC as my main controller running PowerHome (http://www.myx10.com/). The software is great, great community support and very stable. Since then I have gone all Apple and will probably eventually switch to Indigo.

You don't need a computer for Insteon to work. You can link switches and modules, even your thermostat, to each other and all works great. The big value of a computer software based controller is that it records all the links you make and allows you to make links and write them to the devices. This is a huge timesaver especially when a device fails or needs resetting. You can simply rewrite it from the computer. If you don't want a computer on all the time then you can just buy the PLC controller and download some things such as timers to it directly and it will run them when the computer is off.

At one point I added a 7" touch screen controller which I documented here.

Unfortunately the screen broke and so I was forced to rethink. About the same time the iPhone and iPod Touch came out and made portable touch screens cheap. I decided to move to the iPhone for my music remote control and started to try and retarget my home automation to it too.

To do this on a pc or mac can be a lot of work involving screen design, etc.

Then just last week I bought the 2412N Controller module and its simplicity blew me away. It is not as flexible as a pc but it instantly gave me access to all my lights and thermostat from my iPhone or any browser and from anywhere in the world. Huge spouse approval factor. We can turn up the AC on the way home and it is cool by the time we get there. Go this route and you don't even need a computer.

Here are a few tips on things that I found out as I went along:

(1) Insteon communication is incredibly reliable. Unlike X-10 you get close to 100% response rate. However its big enemies are UPSs, Computers and Receivers. They suck the signal out the line and reduce the effectiveness, in some cases killing it completely. The result is a dead zone within your house. The solution is simple. You can buy filters, similar to the Insteon modules, called FilterLincs, that you plug between the offending devices and the power socket. As they go up to 10 amps you can put a bunch of devices on a single filter. If you are worried about blowing it you can use a Kill-a-watt to measure the current drawn by your devices or UPS when on.

(2) Smarthome does regular specials and sales. Often worth waiting for these. I have also gotten a few things via their auction site at a good discount.

(3) If you want to get serious with a computer software controller then you will need a spare insteon device to use as a trigger device (Indigo may work without this). Keypad buttons have to be linked to something to generate a trigger. You can then listen for these events on the computer and act on them. For instance I have a button that tells the computer the house is vacant. A cheap Lamplinc is great and you can use it for all your keypad triggers.

(4) You will keep finding new things to control. Powered speakers are great for control from a keypad. Holiday lights too. My favorite, my PC pings a couple of websites every 30 minutes such as google and if it cannot get a response it reboots the router. I also have a button that lights up every tuesday to remind me to take out the trash. I also have halogen closet lights that I don't want to be left on by accident. When they are turned on the computer sets up a turn off command for 10 minutes later.

(5) The Keypads used to come with clear buttons that you could print out custom labels for. They replaced these with solid white ones which cannot be customized. They want you to buy custom etched ones but until your system is stable you won't know what they should say and if you leave them as A,B,C etc your family will hate you. However you can still order the clear button kit for just under $6. I also use the color change kit to make them all soft blue and the red ones are perfect for alert buttons such as Garage Door Open or Take Out The Garbage.

(6) By default your switches and lamplincs will just turn the lights on and off. Change the ramp rate and you will get a nice gradual dim up and down. Surprising what a difference this makes and people really notice. Plus you can easily override when needed by double tapping the switch.

If you are just starting out then I recommend getting one of the Insteon starter kits initially. Many of them come with the RemoteLinc remote control but personally I don't use mine, find it a little ugly and it eats batteries even when it is not used. An iPhone or universal remote make a much better control.

My only warning? Once you start you won't be able to stop and this could prove to be an expensive hobby........

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Dummies Guide To Whole House Audio On A Budget

Yesterday I came home to a small package I had ordered off eBay and smiled with the satisfaction of knowing I had finally finished my whole house audio project. More on that final piece later.

In my last blog on home theater I explained how you could get a high end Kaleidescape like experience for a fraction of the cost. This time I am going to focus on whole house audio. If you are an audiophile stop reading now. What I am going to explain is a budget conscious setup with a few restrictions. That said I think the audio quality if more than adequate for every day listening. If you are interested in getting music in every room in your house without spending your kids inheritance on a Sonos system then read on.

Let me first cover the capabilities of the system and what is missing compared to a high end system.
  • You will need some form of amped or powered speakers in each room you want music in. You may already have this and just not realize. I found a already had a Hi-Fi, TV, iPod dock or radio in every room I wanted to cover except the kitchen.
  • You will need to be able to run cable through your house. I tried every wireless solution there is from whole house FM transmitters to the cool and simple Apple Airport Express. For me it had to be wired. Any dropouts, even infrequent or very short destroy the experience.
  • This is not a multi-zone system. The same audio goes to every room. This is a big limitation but also results in a simpler and cheaper setup. My kids will just have to like whatever I listen to.
The entire system feeds from a single point. In my family room I have a simple audio/video switch . Audio only switches are hard to find and I already had one of these from my pre-hdmi TV setup. If you have a universal remote I would look for an IR controllable one. Into that switch I feed all my sources:
  1. Mac Mini music server
  2. Turntable
  3. Cable (for cable radio stations)
  4. CD Player
I also have an iPod dock that I can switch out when friends are round so they can feed their music into the system.

The Music Server:

My main music source is a mac mini. It has by entire music collection on it. Some things to bear in mind when choosing a computer based music server:

Dedicated is Better:
  • I do not use the same mini that is at the heart of my home theater system and running plex. PC and Macs do support multiple sound cards but I wanted to keep things simple for a number of reasons. My home theater mini is new, fast and dedicated to watching video, outputting digital audio to my receiver. My whole house audio mini is the original mini and is set to output analog and run independently of the other system. One big advantage over an apple express or other multi-client system is that ALL audio from the mac mini is sent to every room. No need for Airfoil.
Go Headless:
  • I can use the iTunes Remote on my iPhone to control the mini and use screen sharing from another mac for maintenance. I also use Mocha VNC Lite for the iPhone to start internet radio and other audio that cannot be integrated into iTunes. This means this is truly a server. It does not have a display, a keyboard or even a mouse. The BBC Bigscreen iPlayer is especially suited to control via VNC on your iPhone.


Keeping Everything In Sync:
  • iTunes just announced a synching feature in 9 that I have not had a chance to look at. Currently I use the excellent Syncopation which allows me to keep all of my iTunes libraries across several macs in sync. I tried various setups but eventually settled on a single master which every other system syncs to. The mini is actually a client and not a master, mainly because I purchase all my music on my laptop or phone and so it makes sense for it to be the master library. Every time I connect my laptop to my home network the music, playlists, podcasts and videos all sync instantly to all my other systems. Wonderful piece of software. 
  • [Update January 2013: With the latest versions of iTunes and Home Sharing the need for Syncopation has mostly gone. You still need it if you buy music from somewhere other than iTunes and don't want to manually keep your systems in sync.]
From One Room To Whole House

So how do you feed every room. This bit might shock you but it actually works. I simply run line level audio to
every room. I don't even run it in a hub and spoke model but instead simply have a single run snaking from room to room and splitting off at each point I want audio. No additional amplification of the signal is done.

My first stop is the family room itself. It feeds my receiver which in turn powers my deck as a second zone. Next stop is an iPod dock in my office, then a cd/radio in my dining room. Penultimate stop is a Pyle amp that powers my kitchen in-ceiling speakers and then one long final stretch to the bedroom TV. The total cable length is probably in the range of 100 to 150ft and yet the quality at the end of the line in the bedroom is superb.

Planning and Purchasing

To keep your costs down you need to plan your system and measure your runs carefully, allow some slack and then order you cables from Monoprice. Their prices cannot be beat especially for long runs. I basically split at each room drop using a simple splitter. Make sure you get your male and female connections right, generally good advice, and buy some connectors if needed.

Troubleshooting

Because I didn't plan ahead and extended the system slowly, I often ended up with cable being the wrong gender or too short. As I said before, allow extra length and but extra gender reverses/connectors to be safe.

This brings me back to that final package from ebay. The only real issues I hit was when I added cable radio as an input and my bedroom TV as an output. I instantly created an unwanted cable Ground Loop hum. I ended up fixing this with a cable ground loop isolator from Jensen. Not a cheap solution but it did the job perfectly.

[Update January 2013: My ground loop came back with a vengeance when I moved my audio server to the mac mini. The isolator didn't do the trick, and several other isolators failed to help also. After much research I was pointed to the only real and permanent solution which is to create a true physical barrier via optical isolation. By using the optical out of the mac mini and this excellent low priced DAC from Fiio I was able to completely remove the interference, with the bonus of 24/96 output, and now it sounds better than ever!]

I didn't cost the whole system and your cost will really depend on what powered audio systems you have in place already. And this whole thing is really on made possible with the iTunes remote for the iPod Touch and iPhone.

That said the result is very robust, zero dropouts and you will find yourself listening to more music than ever before.

Bonus Points


If you have a Chumby then you can install this very cool widget chumbiTunes which will allow you to see what is playing in iTunes and change the volume, pause, forward and rewind.