Tag Archives: Hardware

HTPC update

It’s been a couple of years since I moved my wall of discs to a NAS/Kodi setup and it’s worked admirably, growing as I added storage capacity to its current peak at 16TB. The onward march of technology, however, has uncovered a few cut corners that I’ve taken the opportunity to fix.

New hardware

Intel D34010WYKThe first is a simple lack of horsepower. HEVC is here and I’d like to use it, but my Zbox drops frames even at DVD resolutions. What’s more, the old AMD chipset is no longer really supported, so the recently lost ability to play VC-1 smoothly looks unlikely to come back. I wanted HEVC and I wanted good Linux driver support, which means I wanted an Intel chip.

Add to my list of problems to solve the inability to turn on my HTPC with my Harmony remote and the lack of hardware support for bitstreaming HD audio to my receiver (those pesky AMD Linux drivers again), both of which would handily be fixed by switching to Intel. I therefore picked up an Intel D34010WYK NUC used on eBay for only £142 shipped. It came ready to go and the Haswell (2013) Core i3 CPU was more than capable of meeting my needs. It even came with Windows 10 installed.

I’ve recently acquired a Raspberry Pi 3 and tested that out to see whether a £30 computer was up to the task, something I dismissed out of hand during my original build. Perhaps the fact that I went on to buy a NUC answers that question. The Pi’s media playback performance is impeccable, handling my 1:1 Blu-ray rips without a single dropped frame. It chugged massively when browsing my library, however, with dozens of high-res movie posters on-screen at once being a big ask for a device with only 1GB of RAM. And, frankly, once you’ve added a nice case, a messy external IR adaptor, power cables, codec licences, etc, the price difference starts to shrink.

Updated software

LibreELEC logoFirst task, of course, was wiping out Windows 10, saving the key for future use. Massive overkill and much more effort to maintain than a purpose-built media centre OS. My software of choice, XBMC, is now Kodi, and OpenELEC has been supplanted by its better-supported fork, LibreELEC, which works in exactly the same way. I don’t want this to do anything but act as a media centre, so a Linux-based JeOS suits perfectly. If you wanted a bit more flexibility without Windows, Kodibuntu is another option – it’s worked well in my testing, allowing you to quit Kodi for a standard Linux desktop.

I’d only recently become aware of the LibreELEC fork, when trying to find out why OpenELEC was lagging behind standalone Kodi – it hasn’t had a stable release since February and hasn’t yet updated to Kodi 16, even as version 17 nears release. Most of your developers jumping ship will do that, I guess. LibreELEC is getting more regular updates and isn’t constantly trying to sell you crappy embedded boxes. Double win.

Problems solved?

The NUC’s performance has really impressed me. It boots within seconds and turns on and off with a command from my Harmony hub. Navigating the menus is much snappier than the Zbox, thanks to the boost in horsepower and the move from an old HDD salvaged from a launch PS3 to a shiny new mSATA drive. And, most importantly of all for my purposes, it’s able to run everything I’ve thrown at it, up to and including Blu-ray quality HEVC samples and those VC-1 rips that the old AMD chipset stopped liking. This should keep me well into the 4K generation.

What’s more, it’s able to bitstream HD audio to my receiver, lighting up that lovely DTS-HD or Dolby TrueHD light and saving the trouble of converting my rips to FLAC. The whole thing feels more like a purpose-built media centre than a repurposed PC.

It’s still perfectly possible to build a media centre that will meet the requirements of 99% of users with cheaper hardware. Indeed, those who only want to digitise their modest DVD collection and aren’t fussed about perfect quality from their Blu-ray rips will be more than happy with a Raspberry Pi 3, which is probably only a couple of generations away from matching my NUC in multimedia performance. What this has shown me is that it’s not a huge investment to reproduce the experience of a dedicated set-top box with only middling hardware and free software.

My Pi, meanwhile, is to become a retro emulation box with RetroPie. More on that soon!

Thoughts on the PS4

Although their commercial performance has been heartening amid reports of the slow death of the console market, the long-overdue launch of a new hardware generation has been greeted with a lukewarm critical response. I can understand the disappointment that the days of launching a system alongside a bone fide classic seems to have died in the years since Halo, but I’m shallow, damn it, and I wanted a new toy. It’s been eight years. I’m only human.


This round of launches has brought two firsts: the first Xbox launch at which I haven’t jumped in, and the first PlayStation launch where I have. Past habit would have put it the other way round, but anyone who’s been following the two consoles will understand. The Xbox One has been woefully mismanaged, and even after numerous 180s, it’s still facing an uphill battle to win me over. I’ll get one eventually, but I’m past giving Microsoft the benefit of the doubt. The downright scummy F2P business model in full-price games shows that it might not be a bad idea.

The PS4, on the other hand, while the most technically impressive is also the most pleasantly nostalgic. I like that it’s a games console first and foremost. It’s not a trojan horse for a new media format and it’s not diverting large chunks of its processing power to things I don’t want. It’s got a great controller – so good, in fact, that hardcore Sony fans now feel comfortable admitting how bad the Dual Shock 3 was. It has a premium online service that actually gives you something for your money. It’s been built to avoid the kludgy, obnoxious amount of time spent watching progress bars on the PS3. It’s svelte and looks nice – another first for a launch model PlayStation in my book.

Maybe I’m being optimistic here, but I hope that a console designed by the newly humbled Sony, likely to be a clear market leader this generation with the best third-party ports and the lion’s share of newly resurgent (please?) Japanese support, can be a kind of benevolent dictator. Think of the PS2 coupled with the hardware advantage of the original Xbox and the superlative first-party line-up that Sony pulled out of somewhere in the PS3 generation. Let Nintendo and Microsoft learn from their mistakes this time around and come back stronger, like Sony has after suffering through its own third console curse.

Let’s just hope the success doesn’t go to their heads like last time…

Building My Games Room

When I moved house back in March, the opportunity came up to forgo one large bedroom in exchange for two smaller ones, and given that most gamers would love a dedicated room for their televisual pursuits, I went for it. I didn’t actually own any furniture of my own, though, least of all storage for my large collection of games and DVDs, so there was some necessary investment there.

First order of business was a TV stand, and I went for this glass model from Levv. I actually paid a little less than what it’s going for now – just under £60, if I remember correctly – but it’s still excellent value and is a nice stand. Just don’t expect any help when it comes to assembly, because the instructions aren’t great.

Games Room TV

I’ve recently added a dedicated Blu-ray player, a Samsung BD-P3600, to the mix, mainly to reduce wear on the PS3’s drive but also to give me access to region B stuff in these times when it’s suddenly more expensive to import films for my US PS3. It’s also faster and quieter than a PS3 and shares many of its media features, which is nice. I took the opportunity to jettison my faithful old Logitech sound system for an Onkyo TX-SR507, which has four HDMIs and handles all the new HD audio formats, and a set of Tannoy SFX 5.1 speakers. I’d been wanting to upgrade that for a while now and this seemed like a good time. With the Blu-ray player I was fast running out of HDMI inputs on the TV anyway, so it saves me finding a bigger HDMI switch as well.

I’m seated on a two-seater cream leather sofa, which I paid a whole £20 for from a friend. Certainly not the most comfortable I’ve ever sat on, but more than workable and fits nicely into the room. And just to tie it all together I’ve got a framed BioShock lithograph on the wall.

Games Room Overview

Probably the biggest problem that needed fixing was disc storage. Previously my games and films had been either three deep in a repurposed bookcase, three high on a shelf above my TV, or in a modified cupboard with shelves that had literally collapsed under the weight of the old games and systems. I’m only keeping games that are playable on current systems immediately accessible in addition to my DVDs and Blu-rays, and if I’m allowing room to grow it meant that I needed space for around 1,000 discs. It’s pretty hard to find anything of that size, and buying a few of Ikea’s finest would quickly get expensive. Continue reading Building My Games Room

Among the Elite

Xbox 360 EliteI think most 360 owners have the experience of owning more than one machine, albeit rarely by choice, but when my premium machine started to show those ominous signs of imminent death – random crashes, usually the herald of the red ring of death – I decided to be proactive. I wasn’t going to risk having GTA IV sat here while my 360 was in the repair centre, no doubt with a backlog of plenty of others who experienced similar quirks of bad timing.

A trip to Gamestation and £259.99 later, I had a shiny new 360 Elite and free copy of PGR4. Why an Elite? Well HDMI was an attraction, and while new premiums boast the same output, the Elite has the £35 official HDMI cable (needed for optical audio) in the box. And it also had that 120GB hard drive, which is almost certainly overkill (I’m not even close to filling my PS3’s 60GB drive, even with several movies, a few installs and countless demos on the hard drive), but costs a ridiculous £130 on its own, and if the GTA IV DLC is really on the scale that they’ve been talking, the 5GB of free space that I have on my 20GB drive might start to pinch. Plus, you know, it’s black.

Of course, a secondary benefit to avoiding the 360 service centre roulette is that you pretty much ensure yourself one of the newer, quieter, less failure-prone, 65nm ‘Falcon’ units. Using the highly scientific ‘check the wattage of your power brick’ test – old machines have 203W supplies; the less power-hungry Falcons are only 175W – and the fact that the idling 360 now runs at a volume comparable to a PS3 at full pelt, it seems I’m now well-equipped in that department.

Presumably because Microsoft doesn’t anticipate too many people to spend another £280 on a second machine, the biggest oversight of the Elite package becomes apparent when you’re trading up: out of the box, there’s no way to transfer your data from an old hard drive to the lovely black 120GB model. The solus hard drive comes with the necessary adaptor, but getting one for the Elite requires a phone call to Microsoft and a wait that, assuming friends who have done it are typical, could be anywhere up to ten weeks. It’s free, but that’s a long time to actually have to make space for demos.

Thankfully I could borrow the transfer kit from a friend, and it was nice and easy: 20GB drive on the 360, 120GB drive attached via USB, insert disc and away you go. It formatted the 120GB drive (except it doesn’t, because after transferral mine had sprouted several demos and Live Arcade trial games that I didn’t download) and transferred 13GB of my data across in a bit over an hour, which seemed like a long time considering that I can back up my 120GB laptop drive in about 25 minutes. Regardless, it worked and I was ready to go, now showing almost 100GB of free space.

Overall I’d say that the Elite is an improvement. It certainly seems quieter, although the main culprit – the disc drive – still sounds like a jet engine when it’s spinning a disc up to full speed. Would I prefer shorter load times or quieter operation? Somewhere in the middle would be good, I think. The D-pad on the sexy black controller seems to be improved on my launch day controller, feeling a bit less spongy. I’m going to blame my atrophied Call of Duty 4 skills on having a new pad that hasn’t been worn in yet – that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it.

One point that I do want to make that I haven’t seen anywhere else, though, is that while the console is quieter the smaller power brick has a fan (did they always?), which now makes up most of the system volume. A side-effect of this is that turning off the console during a download so that it goes into its low-power mode now makes little appreciable difference to the system volume, whereas before it was like flipping a switch. That’s a bit annoying, but it’s not enough to stop me saying that while the Elite probably isn’t going to be worth trashing your old machine for the upgrade, it should be the version that new 360 buyers look at.

That or wait for the Blu-ray version. Now that I’ve bought a new machine it’ll be announced in a matter of days. Mark my words.