Category Archives: Music

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.

Proof That the Daily Mail Ruins Everything

I’ve been mystified about how the current controversy over Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross’s comments on the radio have been blown out of all proportion. What started as an admittedly crude but funny joke that was probably always going to provoke an apology somehow escalated into an official comment from the Prime Minister, debate in Parliament, the suspension of the presenters involved, talk of police involvement, and ultimately the resignation of Russell Brand.

But it was when I read this timeline that it became apparent who was responsible: my arch-nemesis, the Daily Mail. As if we needed more proof that it ruins everything…

Daily Mail Nazis

What struck me is that when the controversial call in question was aired there were two complaints out of 400,000 listeners, and those were over the language (exact quote: “He fucked your granddaughter!”). Being that it was late on a Saturday night and also that there’s no fixed watershed for radio anyway, those complaints wouldn’t have been upheld.

But when it was reported in the Mail five days later complaints flood in, eventually reaching 27,000 at the time of writing… eleven days after it was broadcast. Clearly those people didn’t listen to it – the most they could have done is downloaded the podcast episode by choice – so why on earth are they wasting time complaining? Could it be another pile-on when the Mail smells blood in the water after someone on the BBC does something controversial? Hmm…

Daily Mail Aryans

Admittedly there’s the argument about the licence fee and people objecting to ‘their’ money being used on this stuff, but I object to my money being used for assorted BBC shows, for different reasons, to be fair, including Strictly Come Dancing, Last Choir Standing, just about any other talent/singing/music show, Songs of Praise, and more. You know what I do? I don’t watch them and I certainly don’t lodge complaints having not seen them. Crazy, I know.

I heard the prank call in question on the podcast last week and thought it was funny, if possibly a bit tasteless, but you hardly listen to Russell Brand for insightful political discourse, do you? With any luck he’ll find a slot online or on satellite radio where the technological barrier keeps out the busybodies.

Phase: A Harmonix Game for Less than $170

Phase

Anyone who downloaded the iTunes 7.5 last week probably noticed something in the change list about a new game called Phase. It’s now out on the iTunes Store (link), priced at £3.99, and it’s a rhythm game from Harmonix.

Yes, that Harmonix. And yes, it’s an iPod game.

It’s basically Amplitude in miniature, and it’s made all the more impressive by the fact that it allows you to import your own music. Hopefully this is an indication of where we’ll be going with the next Rock Band – or the next Amplitude? – because if an iPod can do that analysis of a song (actually it’s iTunes that does the analysis, but let’s not be so pedantic that I ruin my point) there’s certainly no reason that a modern console can’t do it. It’s probably the only possible feature that would make me entertain paying £170 for Rock Band.

The quality of the experience really depends on the music – dance music and anything with a prominent, repeating rhythm works well; more subtle music not so much – but when it works well it works very well and what it could represent for the future of Harmonix’s rhythm games is very exciting. I just hope that the implementation of mass DLC in Rock Band doesn’t cause dollar signs to blind them to the potential of importing one’s music collection manually.

Phase isn’t as good as Guitar Hero or Amplitude, but on this showing I see potential in bespoke iPod games that the ever-nascent mobile phone gaming market continually fails to fulfill. And Guitar Hero and Amplitude, least of all Rock Band, aren’t £3.99, are they?

Ouendan 2 Impressions

Ouendan 2

It’s finally here! The sequel to the best cult game ever has turned up, and I’ve been exercising my hot-blooded rhythm soul with it.

Think of it as Ouendan with the improvements made to Elite Beat Agents (3D map, skippable intros, better graphics, saved replay ghosts, four player support) and, most importantly, that quirky Japanese humour and music that made Ouendan so great. I always thought that EBA was very good but lacked that something.

The best that the original had to offer like Kokoro Odoru and Loop & Loop are a high benchmark, and it’s not just out of laziness (OK, it is) that the Ouendan soundtrack has been in my car’s CD player for the best part of two years. While I’m so far not sure that Ouendan 2 will be the one to displace it, it beats the pants off Madonna and Avril Lavigne. Alas, nothing as immediately memorable as I’d been hoping but far from a bad selection.

All the characters from the original turn up, either as background characters or because they’re in trouble again, and Ryuta’s cheer squad is joined by a competing team who they stare menacingly at between missions. It of course makes very little difference because much of the game is spent looking at concentric circles and trying to decipher some headscratching storylines (what’s happening isn’t always as obvious as last time), and I’m sure it wouldn’t make much sense even if I could understand it.

It wouldn’t surprise me if many of Ouendan’s fans have bought this already so I’m waiting for the new chart data to see whether all the importers will make this one register significantly – it’s a DS game so I assume it’ll be somewhere on the Japanese charts regardless – and if you liked the original, even if you weren’t as obsessive as I was back in the day, it’s worth buying. Just make sure that you have the original first. No excuses.

Burn! Hot Blooded Rhythm Soul!

Today is a good day. Elite Beat Agents may not have been quite as good, but with a touch of impenetrable Japanese weirdness and some more obscure J-rock I’m confident that iNiS will be able to capture lightning in a bottle again. If you still haven’t played Ouendan (or even EBA), shame on you. Atone!

My only fear is that they won’t come up with such a brilliant soundtrack – the original has been in my car CD player for months – but everyone who helped give this game such a massive cult following can pat themselves on the back. Whatever happens, they’ve outdone themselves with the title. Moero! Nekketsu Moero! Nekketsu Rhythm-Damashii Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan 2 roughly translates as Burn! Hot Blooded Rhythm Soul! Go! Fight! Cheer Squad 2. Superb, but Ouendan 2 would have sufficed, wouldn’t it?

Best of 2006 #8: Elite Beat Agents

Elite Beat Agents

The almighty Ouendan’s sequel/remake/bastardisation (take your pick) may not manage those heady heights, but it certainly deserves a place on here. What could easily have been a cynical rehash of a cult classic kept what made the original great and managed to forge a personality of its own.

I don’t like it as much as I did Ouendan, possibly because that game came out of nowhere without any expectations whatsoever, and to be fair I was probably predisposed to not liking this as much. Inis did a great job of keeping it faithful to the style of Ouendan but just having English text and Madonna and Avril Lavigne over impenetrable Japanese and bands you’ve never heard of takes something away from it. I maintain that all an English version needed was a menu translation, but that’s probably why they don’t let me make games for Nintendo.

Despite the shortcomings, EBA makes the list because it builds on an extremely solid base and still does a good job at something that – let’s be honest – was never going to please all of the fans who imported Ouendan. It’s still a hell of a lot of fun and well worth picking up, especially if the original was a bit too “out there” for you.