Saturday, July 16, 2011

My HTPC Setup

Well, I’ve been in Toronto a month and a half now and though I’ve outfitted my apartment with a decent TV and sound system, I don’t have cable and my PS3 is still sitting back home in Saskatoon, thanks to the postal strike, so for the past month, I’ve had my huge gaming PC sitting on my coffee table. A few friends are staying over in a couple weeks and I figured I should try something new. I saw a neat mini PC in a flyer and decided to make a home theatre PC. I wanted something relatively cheap, but something that could handle 1080p video and some light server duty.
The heart of my system is the Zotac ZBOX HD-ID41, a diminutive mini-PC powered by an Intel Atom D525 dual-core 1.8 GHz chip and NVIDIA ION graphics. It’s a pretty sleek-looking thing; piano black plastic (that attracts fingerprints like nobody’s business) on top adorned with a glowing blue ring in the centre that can be switched on or off in the BIOS. The bottom panel has slots for air intake and slides off to allow access to the motherboard. The front sports analogue audio jacks, a media card reader, a USB 2.0 port, HDD and wireless activity lights, and the power switch. A single USB 2.0 port sits on the right side, protected by a rubber cap for some reason, and accompanied by the fan exhaust port. Speaking of fans, they’re pretty loud for something of this size; similar to an original PS3. The left side is occupied by a mounting slot that accommodates either a vertical stand, or a very nifty VESA-compatible mount, allowing attachment of the computer to the back of a display. Most connections are done on the back of the box: HDMI and DVI-I ports, optical audio out, 4 USB 2.0 ports, 2 USB 3.0 ports, gigabit ethernet, an eSATA port, and the DC power connector to which the rather diminutive power adaptor is attached. Unfortunately, the back panel ports are where most of my troubles arose. I don’t know if the problem is common to all units or a problem with mine alone but the eSATA port seems to be recessed within the case a bit too much. As 2.5” HDDs are still a bit small, my intention was to use a 3.5” drive in an enclosure connected with eSATA, but the first time I connected it, I thought the port was completely broken. I later found that if you push it right in, it will actually make a connection, but if you jiggle the cable even a bit it will disconnect. The other big issue I had was with connecting the box to my surround sound receiver. The way sound is handled on this thing is that there is an Intel HDA-compatible chip driving the analogue jacks and the optical out, and the ION chip driving digital audio through the HDMI port. Sadly, there doesn’t seem to be any support for sending audio over the DVI port, unlike most standalone NVIDIA cards. I just wish I had figured that out before I wasted two days hacking at ALSA and Pulseaudio.
Which brings me to installation and software. I tossed in a 2 GB DDR3 SODIMM and an old 160 GB 2.5” HDD with no trouble and without needing tools. An external 1 TB drive via eSATA would hold media files and I plugged into my gigabit ethernet network for internet and file serving, though the box supports 802.11n (2.4 GHz only) too. Audio and video to my surround sound and 1080p TV were done with HDMI. As there is no DVD drive, I transferred an Ubuntu 11.04 x86_64 liveCD to a USB drive and did a standard install from there. The OS install was pretty straightforward, but there were some issues turning it into a proper media centre. I ran into problems choosing audio devices, installing XBMC, as well as eliminating tearing issues and getting GPU video acceleration working. For the most part, I’ve solved these and I will detail what I did in another post. [Update: Step-by-step install]
Performance-wise, the Atom chip isn’t all that powerful, but gets most jobs done in good time. Ubuntu’s classic interface is snappy, though there is noticeable lag when trying to do multiple things at once, such as browse the web while installing updates. With only the CPU, only mplayer gives decent playback performance of HD video and at very high CPU usage, however, this is where the ION chip comes in. By enabling vdpau, smooth playback of 1080p video in VLC, mplayer, and XBMC is no problem, at less than10% cpu. Unfortunately, as usual, Flash sucks in Linux. Apparently, with compiz on, there is no GPU acceleration of Flash videos and indeed, I couldn’t watch Zero Punctuation from The Escapist in fullscreen, at acceptable quality. On the other hand, using the box to transcode video on the fly for my iPad with Air Video Server was not an issue. The CPU and GPU power comes at the price of heat. The exhaust air is noticeably hot and I would recommend giving the unit proper clearance on the sides with fan ports.
At this point, I had a great media player setup but for one niggling detail: I had no way of controlling it. I tried a web interface add-on called wTouch Remote that is a neat idea designed to allow one to use an iOS device as a remote control using multitouch gestures. The neat idea, like so many things in life, doesn’t quite live up to expectations. There’s considerable lag before actions register and it stopped responding completely at times. I tried some actual apps for controlling XBMC, but it was clear I needed a real remote. I remembered that some friends back home with a media pc used a wireless keyboard/touchpad combo that was pretty slick. However, a full size keyboard is rather unwieldy for the coffee table so I opted for something a bit smaller. Browsing through Canada Computers’ website, I stumbled upon the VisionTek Candyboard.
The Candyboard is a Bluetooth keyboard/trackpad combo that, as the name implies, is about the size of a candy bar; just the perfect size for a remote control. The keys are reminiscent of a cell phone; short travel, a full qwerty layout with symbols and numbers, and backlighting (very handy during a dark movie session). The battery is a rechargeable lithium cell, charged with a mini-USB connector. It also has some neat extras such as a laser pointer and a tiny USB Bluetooth dongle that fits inside the device. I fell in love with the thing when I saw it, but the infatuation lasted only up until the point at which I tried to use it. I’m not sure if my wifi devices or the apartment itself are interfering with the Bluetooth transmission, but I had some serious problems with range. Using the included USB extension cable, I was able to get decent reception at the couch (about 2 m away) by raising the dongle to the height of the TV, but not far beyond that. When you move out of range of the receiver, button presses are kept and transmitted when back in range. Also, albeit infrequently, the dongle seems to completely stop working in Linux, requiring a reboot. It cost me $69.99 before tax, and I think I have a pretty good setup, but I expected better range for the price. It really annoys me because the thing is otherwise a perfect HTPC remote.
In summary, the ZBOX is a really great machine; relatively cheap, compact, can handle full HD, and looks good under a TV too. It has some small annoyances, but nothing major and it pairs pretty well with Ubuntu 11.04 and XBMC. It cost me $229.99, plus $17.99 for a 2 GB RAM stick at Canada Computers.

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