Category Archives: Gadgets

Building a £200 HTPC with OpenELEC

Zbox NanoTiny PCs like the Intel NUC are limited as replacements for the desktop, but they’ve come into their own in harnessing the media-decoding prowess of new chipsets to drive an HTPC. Coupled with free media centre software, it’s become possible to put together a powerful little set-top box that can compete with the behemoths of only a few years ago.

It’s actually feasible to do it even cheaper than that if you use a Raspberry Pi flavour of your chosen software, or even adapt an older PC that’s set for retirement, but my desired integration with my existing setup and a handful of esoteric requirements made this an appealing route.

  • Lossless HD audio over HDMI was a must, and many motherboards are finicky about this
  • Built-in wi-fi, SD card reader and IR saves a lot of messing with peripherals and USB hubs
  • I aim to rip Blu-rays to this thing without recompression, and I don’t fancy a £30 computer to handle those
The hardware

I spent £170 on a Zotac Zbox Nano AQ01, which nets you the box without RAM or internal storage. I recycled a 2GB RAM stick from when I upgraded my laptop – somewhat anaemic, but fine if media playback is all you’re planning – and dug out the old 60GB HDD that used to inhabit my PS3, which is more than capacious enough for the OS if you’re using external media storage. The box has seven USB ports (2x USB 3.0 and 5x 2.0), so you have plenty of scope to add capacity later.

If you don’t have the skeletons of various computers around to raid, you could plump for the more expensive Plus model, which includes 4GB RAM and a 500GB HDD. An even cheaper storage option if you’re relying on external or network storage and want a pure XBMC machine is a low-profile USB flash drive like a SanDisk Cruzer Fit, which can slot into the back and never have to be seen again. You’ll want at least 8GB as even though XBMC isn’t very large, the library of high-quality artwork it caches for your movies can be.

The Zbox AQ01 runs on AMD’s A4-5000 platform. That’s based on the same Jaguar architecture found inside the PS4 and Xbox One and has GPU-accelerated video decoding, ensuring smooth playback of high-quality video. It’s more than capable of general computing tasks if you install a full OS like Windows or Linux on it, but I’m not interested in that.

It has HDMI (also DisplayPort), optical audio, Wi-Fi (802.11ac), Bluetooth, gigabit Ethernet, a 7-in-1 memory card reader and, pleasingly, a built-in IR receiver. In short, it’s incredibly well-equipped considering the compromises I was looking at making in building my own, much physically bigger and more expensive, HTPC.

The software

For this project I’m sticking with what I know, which is XBMC. I first used it circa 2004 when it was Xbox Media Center, a staple of the modded Xbox scene, and since then it’s expanded to other platforms. I’ve opted for its OpenELEC form, a stripped down version of Linux bearing only what it needs to run XBMC. It’s fast, light on resources, and takes up very little space. A similar option is XBMCbuntu, which leans slightly more towards flexibility at the expense of hardware requirements.

XBMC also runs atop Windows and the Zbox will happily run it, but a licence costs almost half as much as the machine, so forget that.

The process of ripping DVDs and Blu-rays is handled on my main computer, using MakeMKV to generate a lossless rip and HandBrake to compress the DVDs. Using this, I can get a DVD movie into around 1.5GB with little quality loss. BDs are staying in all their 30GB+ glory, HD audio and all. I started with a 1TB USB drive that didn’t last me through a tenth of my collection before I had to move to bigger, more expensive network storage (a Synology DS214se with 2x 4TB HDDs), but it should suit most users.

Installation

With the Zbox all working and the OpenELEC installer on a flash drive, all that needs doing is popping that into a USB slot, turning it on, and running through the five-minute installation. I couldn’t get the Mac script to correctly create a bootable USB drive, but I ran the Windows version instead without issue. That’s really all there was to the setup, as things are basically ready to go from the start; run through the settings to get things configured how you want them, point XBMC at where your movies and TV shows are stored, and you’re off.

Skins and add-ons

I’ve frequently found that UI design isn’t a strong point of open source software, and the majority of XBMC skins I tried did indeed look like they were designed by teenage boys. The default skin, Confluence, is a solid choice, though. My only major complaint was that it lacked a library view that fulfilled my dual aims of putting the lovely artwork and metadata to good use and being usable with my large library. The ‘fanart’ view wastes a lot of space.

XBMC Confluence skin

I eventually settled on Aeon Nox. The more granular control over the main menu is nice, allowing me to drop options like sets, which I’m never likely to use, and create my own shortcuts to unwatched movies and similar filtered lists. A classy set of background images reins in the main menu − that open source design again − and the ‘infoview’ option allows me to see more movies at once without sacrificing the poster art and metadata:

XBMC Aeon Nox skin

An honourable mention goes to Quartz, which convincingly imitates the Apple TV interface. Very slick and would have been a contender for my skin of choice were it not for the lack of anything as good as the above view.

Issues

A niggle more than anything would be that programming my Harmony remote to perform anything but the most basic functions – anything not on a generic Windows Media Center remote – is a world of XML files and key listings that I frankly can’t be bothered to get into. I also can’t turn on the Zbox with the remote, though I sense that’s going to be a common limitation unless I fancy leaving the thing in hibernation 24/7. Shutting down that way works fine.

I’d also suggest Intel or Nvidia graphics hardware if bitstreaming HD audio is your intention. AMD’s Linux drivers are a bit naff, and although it’s not impossible to get it working, it’s a daunting process. For now I’m letting XBMC handle TrueHD and converting DTS-HD to FLAC during the ripping process. If a future OpenELEC update enables proper HD audio support, brilliant; if not, no big deal.

Should you be less finicky about such things, though, you’ll have no problems with this setup. It’s going to take me a good while to get everything ripped – 284 down, approximately 500 to go at the time of writing, not counting TV shows – but when it’s done I look forward to reclaiming some shelf space and having an on-demand box that, unlike Netflix and friends, actually has a library I’m interested in.

Converting Blu-ray HD audio to FLAC

As I mentioned in my first look at ripping Blu-rays, converting uncompressed PCM and lossless Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio to FLAC for use in XBMC carries a number of benefits.

  • It’s also lossless, so no quality difference.
  • FLAC is an open, well-documented format and so you’re not reliant on reverse-engineered implementations.
  • XBMC can decode FLAC to PCM and output it over HDMI, whereas it currently can’t for DTS-HD.
  • Hard drive space savings can be significant, especially for PCM soundtracks.

There’s little penalty in terms of the time taken to rip the disc either, as it’s unlikely that your BD drive can copy data from the disc fast enough for the conversion process to become a bottleneck.

What you need

This process still uses MakeMKV, with the feature enabled in by checking the advanced options box in the settings. TrueHD decoding is built in, but you’ll need to find a separate DTS module and point MakeMKV to that.

MakeMKV

All you then need to do it choose the ‘FLAC’ preset when ripping a disc. Otherwise the process is identical.

File sizes

I picked three movies representing the three HD audio formats supported on BD. All were ripped to an MKV file containing only the main video, the lossless main audio track, and no subtitles; file size recorded; then passed through MakeMKV again to convert the audio to FLAC. After conversion, MediaInfo was used to verify that the number of channels, sampling rate and bit depth (some versions of the DTS decoder have a bug that will change 24-bit audio to 16-bit, hence the use of 24-bit audio tracks below) were unaffected.

Movie Audio Original size New size Delta
2001: A Space Odyssey PCM 5.1 (48kHz, 24-bit) 20.10GB 16.38GB 3.72GB (18.5%)
Blade Runner Dolby TrueHD 5.1 (48kHz, 24-bit) 18.22GB 18.08GB 0.14GB (0.8%)
The Bourne Identity DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 (48kHz, 24-bit) 25.96GB 25.42GB 0.54GB (2.1%)

I noted a few more, with all the data recorded in this spreadsheet. The range of formats reflects the predominance of DTS-HD on Blu-ray these days, but there’s a clear 2-3% gain on substituting FLAC there. It doesn’t sound like much, but it’s half a gig when you’re talking about files of 20GB and up.

Conclusion

According to my unscientific tests, then, converting to FLAC delivers a saving in file size over the untouched original track across the board, with a minimal reduction for TrueHD and a handy half-gig saved on DTS-HD. Obviously, since the others are already losslessly compressed, the biggest gains come over PCM, where FLAC can shave 3.72GB off the size of the 2001 MKV – enough for another couple of DVD rips on my HTPC’s hard drive.

Some notes on ripping Blu-rays

Owing to my current HTPC project, about which a more comprehensive post is on the way, I’ve spent many hours over the last week delving into the murky, unexplored realm of ripping Blu-rays. This being a more niche format, requiring more unusual hardware and scads of hard drive space, the tools required aren’t quite as polished and straightforward as ripping a DVD, but a bit of trial and error has taught me a few tricks.

Tools

The most important tool is MakeMKV, which is free while it’s in beta. It’s a great app that does one thing and does it very well: rips DVDs and Blu-rays from the disc to an MKV file. No conversion or compression – except for one exception, which I’ll come to shortly. DVDs get run through HandBrake since a heavily compressed source isn’t going to suffer too much and the file size can be cut by ~60%, but I want my BDs in their full glory.

MakeMKV

File sizes that this approach result in range wildly, but a single file with one HD audio track results in a 20-40GB file. Hope you have a lot of HDD space.

As far as Blu-ray hardware goes, I spent £39 on a Panasonic UJ-260 on eBay, which is a USB drive that can read and write Blu-rays all the way up to the 100GB BD-R XL discs. It can rip most movies in 40 minutes or so. A very decent no-frills BD drive that works fine on both my Mac and the HTPC.

Handling HD audio

One minefield in putting together an HTPC is that the capabilities of HDMI hardware vary wildly depending on hardware and driver support. A particular difficulty comes in the ability (or not) to output Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio as a bitstream, which allows an AV receiver to handle the decoding and processing. Most HTPC software can decode internally to some extent, however, but my choice uses a reverse-engineered open-source implementation, and I can’t help but suspect that it’s not going to do as good a job as my Denon.

As it happens, bitstreaming HD audio on AMD hardware in Linux is a new addition and doesn’t yet work reliably on my setup. TrueHD can be decoded to uncompressed PCM in XBMC, but DTS-HD leaves me only with the compressed DTS ‘core’, which is barely better than DVD. That won’t do.

Thankfully MakeMKV has the ability to convert the HD formats to the open-source FLAC, which is open and far better documented. What’s more, it actually creates smaller files, while still remaining lossless. And it’s a handy option for those releases with only PCM audio, as that can account for 8GB of audio alone.

There’s a separate post coming on this issue, complete with file size comparisons.

Subtitles

BD handles these slightly differently to DVD. Whereas DVD would have a separate, hidden subtitles for ‘forced’ subs (e.g. scenes in a foreign language in otherwise English movies), BD simply marks the appropriate lines in the main subtitle track as forced, meaning they should be shown even if subtitles are turned off.

MakeMKV has the ability to only add these forced subs to the output, but you still need to work out which track is the correct one – a movie can have separate English subtitle tracks for closed captions, commentaries, dubs vs original tracks (e.g. a direct transcription of the English dub and a more literal translation of the original audio, as on some anime releases), trivia, and more.

Handily, the community as AVS Forum has put together a spreadsheet that lists the correct subtitle tracks for various releases. It’s not comprehensive, but it has a lot of common movies. Worth bookmarking if you’re going to be doing a lot of this. Simply tick the ‘forced only’ box for the one you need.

More to come…

These are the results of my early experimentations. I’ve got a spreadsheet – when I say I’m experimenting, I mean it – on the go with the compression rates achieved by the above FLAC conversions and will share that data when I’ve converted my initial batch. Also, once this whole HTPC project is in a stable state, I’ll put together my tips on how one can be assembled for around £200. In the meantime, get a load of this…

XBMC movie library

Isn’t it beautiful?

Me and my Kindle

Kindle

Despite my assurances in my last post that I’ve been gaming as much as ever, there’s one area where I’ve been letting the side down, and it’s in portables. I love my 3DS and Vita – aka Persona 4: The Console – but my omnipresent-electronic-companion-that-isn’t-my-phone has been a simple Kindle. I love the little thing.

What I like about the basic Kindle is that it’s cheap, it has a long battery life, and it focuses on doing one thing very well. In other words, it’s the complete opposite of modern portable hardware. It’s the original Game Boy reborn, minus games.

Every function of the thing is available on just about any phone or tablet, but they don’t match the experience of reading on paper like an E Ink screen, and just being on for a day will drain their battery, whereas this can last me a month. That’s why this will be going with me on holiday – it can survive a long-haul flight and a few days away from a power outlet, whereas my Vita certainly couldn’t.

Mostly, though, I like that it’s rekindled – seriously, no pun intended – a love of reading that’s been latent since I hit my teens. I cleared 46 books in 2013, my first full year with a Kindle, which is probably more than I managed in the previous decade. I’ve sworn off reading at that pace again, simply because it turns it into less a hobby and more a production line, but I’m already on my tenth book of 2014.

Unfortunately, it seems like ebook reader sales in general have been falling. The market has spoken and shown that people prefer one device that does everything – tablets, in other words. It’s not a surprise, since we’ve seen how many use their console as their primary Blu-ray player, or who prefer the ‘good enough’ phone camera to a dedicated unit. And thankfully Amazon has never required Kindles to be profitable, as they’re really a vector to sell ebooks, so falling sales aren’t the disaster they can be for a console.

It’s sad that ‘good enough’ so often trumps ‘great’, as any videophile who weeps at the thought of DVD outselling Blu-ray will tell you, but the Kindle seems to be one that’s set up to survive nonetheless, able to serve its dedicated following thanks to the fortunate position of not needing to make money. If only Nintendo could crack that one…

I only went and bought a 3DS XL

Yeah, yeah, I’m going back on a promise, but hey. The XL is much nicer than the older hardware and the sexy white Mario Kart bundle coupled with a free copy of Super Mario 3D Land meant getting the hardware with arguably its two best games for a reasonable £160. The fact that I was enticed into spending money on Nintendo hardware and actually getting excited about it shows that the regrowth of my enthusiasm for gaming since taking the freedom road continues apace.

Nintendo 3DS XL

I learnt from the disappointment of getting on board early with the original DS, this time skipping the flawed initial incarnation and the wilderness months when there’s bugger all to play, this time getting the superior hardware right off the bat and having a worthy little library to pick from.

Yes, it’s still region-coded, which I maintain shouldn’t happen on a handheld console and will really hurt if I end up missing out on anything as wonderful as the Japan-only Ouendan on ye olde DS, but overall I’m impressed. I could take or leave the 3D effect and it could really do with a resolution boost on such a large screen – after three years of retina displays, it’s hard to go back – but those are my only complaints. It’s a lovely piece of hardware and the built-in features like StreetPass are impressively forward-thinking for a company as notoriously backwards when it comes to online as Nintendo. The size of this thing does make it a pain to carry in a pocket, but I still find myself making room for it and going out of my way because I want to StreetPass with people.

It’s a shame that idiotic ideas like friend codes and, on newer hardware, time limitations on when adults can buy games keep cropping up to mar Nintendo’s reputation, because the 3DS shows what kind of clever ideas the unlimited potential of networked gaming can bring when coupled with a company with a proven bent for innovation and bringing people together to play.

My next project is to get on Ocarina of Time 3D – and I’m embarrassed to admit this – and finish it for the first time. Get some SNES and GBA games on the Virtual Console as well and I’ll happily put this down as a worthy purchase.

A Gimmicky Peripheral I Can Get Behind

Motion gaming has been and gone, I hope, and it seems like the fad to see us into the next generation has been chosen, and it’s secondary touchscreen inputs. E3 2012 had its fair share of horrors, but I don’t think this is one of them and, oddly, I think Microsoft has the best implementation. The Wii U led the way and the PS3 will shortly gain the ability to use the Vita as a PS3 controller, while Microsoft unveiled a software solution in SmartGlass.

SmartGlass

Some of what SmartGlass will do will depend on what the companion apps support, but assuming it has some kind of 3D capability, it has all the upsides of the other platform holders’ efforts and none of the downsides.

First of all, it works on devices that I and many others already have. I wouldn’t have put it past Microsoft to limit it to Windows Phone or Windows 8 tablets, but putting it on iOS and Android was a masterstroke, meaning pretty much anyone with a penchant for tech already has a piece of SmartGlass-enabled hardware. The Wii U obviously requires a whole new console and the PS3 puts the functionality on an expensive handheld with a questionable future. An iPad or other tablet has a higher cost of entry, true, but they have applications far beyond games and people already own them in huge numbers. I had SmartGlass in the room three years ago without even knowing about it.

The second point applies mainly to Nintendo’s way of doing things. The Wii U GamePad has an increasingly long list of caveats – not least its negative effects on game performance – and isn’t even that technically advanced. It still uses a resistive touch screen, for instance, which was ancient tech when it appeared on the DS back in 2004, while even the cheapest Android tablet will have a multitouch display.

SmartGlass, on the other hand, suffers from none of these. We don’t yet know to what extent it’ll be able to leverage the graphical grunt of its host hardware, but the GPUs in decent tablets aren’t inconsiderable, and if SmartGlass is allowed to use them we could have similar full-fat second-screen functionality to the Wii U. It doesn’t have to be limited to glorified menus, without throttling the main hardware like driving a second screen on Nintendo’s machine seems to do. And my iPad will do this with a ten-hour or more battery life, versus the 3-5 that Nintendo’s official figures present.

Most of all, though, my enthusiasm for the idea of personal gaming screens like this is because it’s another example of how far ahead of its time a certain system was. Never forget.