Sunday, November 25, 2007

Dear Santa,

So, I’ve been working on my Christmas list the past few weeks. Now, I don’t want to get duplicates of some of the items on the list, so we need to coordinate here. Once you’ve picked something from the list that you want to get me, email me to make sure someone else hasn’t already selected it. I think if we all work together, this can be a very nice Christmas for all of us….Especially me.

I’ve been looking more at my options for bringing The Petch house in to the 21st Century. I want something that will work, but I also want to avoid what I call the Ma & Pa Kettle syndrome, and I don’t want this to cost more than the kitchen remodel. It’s a balancing act.

If you’re not familiar with Ma & Pa Kettle, they made several movies in the late 40s and early 50s. They were dim-witted hicks with more kids than they had teeth. They always seemed to get stuck in these ridiculous situations because they were just so stupid. (Google Ma & Pa Kettle Math to give you some idea.) The one movie I remember was “The Further Adventures of Ma and Pa Kettle”. They win a 1950s House of The Future where everything is automated, push button, and ridiculously overly complicated. Match that with the Kettle Clan and hilarity ensued.

I’ve been getting some comments from people that have been very helpful, but some of them really over shoot the mark on what I’m want. That doesn’t mean that I want the comments to stop. The Myth TV link is very nice, but way too complicated. If I need to fish through menus to watch a TV show, it seems to complicated to me. Part of this comes down to the fact that I’m not a big TV watcher. It’s not that I don’t watch more than my fair share of TV, I do. It is more that I think the vast majority of it is so crappy that I have no intention of ever recording something for playback later unless it is a one time shot.

I don’t need 500 gigabytes of storage to store TV shows that are crap. I can’t see ever subscribing to a service like TiVo because nothing on TV is really worth that much money or effort, and what ever is worth watching will be playing again within 6 months. They just don’t write as many TV episodes as they used to. You get 12 to 15 new episodes a year of a popular TV show. Every episode will get played several times over a 52 week period, and sometimes even twice in the same week.

I’m a geek but I get easily frustrated with complicated interfaces. I think some of this comes from the fact that I write software and I pride myself on interface design. There is this need among a lot of developers to throw the kitchen sink at the software. It gets to the point that it becomes exhausting to use when you just want to do something simple. Not everything needs to be developed for the super geek. It is OK to sometimes dumb things down and give them ease of use and basic functionality.

{Four paragraph technology rant deleted here}

To get a better idea of what I’m thinking about here, think of the DVD players on a computer. You can watch a full length DVD movie on just about any computer you buy today. The old laptop I’m using even has a set of buttons on the face designed just for playing DVD movies. I’ve never used those buttons. I’ve never watched a 2 hour movie on my laptop. I’m willing to bet few people have ever sat in there home and watched a full-length movie on their computer. Why would you when you have a nice comfy couch, with a nice big TV, with a DVD player, with a remote control.

The DVD player on computers enhances the computer experience, it does not replace the TV/DVD player in the living room. What I think would be nice is to enhance the TV experience with basic computing abilities like browsing the internet. And since I’m going to be running a home network, why not throw in music that can be played in any room off the network. That is pretty much it. I have no intention of getting rid of my computer, nor do I have any intention of sitting on the couch to work on spreadsheets. Its not conducive to that sort of thing, just as the computer is not conducive to watching full length movies.

So the options are to have a TV that acts like a computer a small part of the time. Or have a computer that acts like a TV the majority of the time. I still haven’t figured out which is best, and I don’t think there is one answer to this question. More on that later….

So, here is a few of the goodies I found on-line. Some were through comments left after some of my other rants…er, I mean blog entries, and others I found by surfing. Remember, the goal is TV, Music, Internet on one screen. It needs to reasonably simple to use and not cost a lot.

Gigabyte’s HDMI & HDCP Graphics Card – It has several video output types. This would be used to get the computer video signal out to a TV, if the TV does not have VGA support. HDMI is the newest if Hi-Def sound and video technology for TVs and DVD players. I’m not sure how much this one is, but others start at around $100.

MVP Media - This gets video and music on to the TV over a LAN connection. It comes with a remote control and costs about $100. It is interesting, but I’m not sure if this is the way I would go.

Squeeze Box - I liked this idea. For around $300 you get a music player that plays streaming music over TCP/IP from the server. It has a remote, server software, and some nice features. I can't see putting one in every room, but I can see some applications for it.

TVBox 9 – This will turn an LCD computer monitor in to a TV. It is basically tuner with a remote. I runs about $200. This same company makes a plethora of TV/Computer type products with prices that are sub $100 to well over a $1000.

VideoLAN – This is an open source video streaming (server) and VLC media player (client). This one I need to read up on a lot more, but it looks like it has promise, but it does have an awful lot of bells and whistles.

MythTV – This is another open source PC Based TV system. It is just jammed packed full of features. This would be for viewing a TV signal through a PC. I can’t see doing that at this time. When the TV is so easy to use, the last thing I want to do is make it more complicated.

PCTV HD Ultimate Stick – This one I thought was interesting. It is a TV tuner on one of those USB memory sticks. You plug it in to a USB port on your computer and then hook up the coaxial cable. The stick can record up to 2 hours of video from the TV signal and it comes with a remote. $129.00

ClarkConnect – This is a Linux based, open source server software. I think it was $375 for a one-time 10 user license, or you can pay $75 a year for regular upgrades. I need to do more reading on this, but already I like it better than having to buy Windows Server 2003.

Home Network Supply – This is an Ebay store that has what seems to be – to my untrained eye, anyway – a good selection of basic hardware stuff for home telecom.

Thin Clients – This is sort of a throwback to the old main frame days when you had a drone on your desk and pulled everything from a main frame computer. I really like these. These are small computers (about the size of a 4 port router) with no hard dive. They often show them mounted on the back of the monitor. Basically it is a processor, ram, network interface card, and some ports for video and what have you. The HP ones start around $200 and go up to $500.

LCD Monitors – You can get a 19-inch one for around $200 these days. Not much more to talk about there.

Wireless Keyboard and Mouse – Take your pick. Maybe $50.


Jackie said...

Wow, it is a helpful list for me. Thanks for sharing. You've got a nice blog. Have a nice day! ^v^ said...

my house is 140 years old and my computer is coal-fired (not really but...)
usually i love your blog and can relate to what youre doing but i dont understand anything you wrote today after the part about ma and pa kettle. good luck though.
ps the mudroom looks great

Alicia said...

yeah but with the LCD monitor you need the sound. What's that make the price up to? (And does it look 'neat' in a room).

Thanks for the list. I have looked at the USB stick. It has intuitive simplicity to it.

Triton said...

hi, first comment here for me, have read the WHOLE blog tho! personally VLC media player is a great choice for watching movies and streaming them, if you do like you planned and have a dedicated server with basically dumb terminals (low end pcs or possibly the thin clients you mentioned) and just use a VNC then it shouldnt be too hard, i planned on setting up something like that so i didnt have to have a full PC in my bedroom if i wanted to watch a show i downloaded.

Greg said...


Yea, I had bookmarked the VLC media player. Have you tried it? Does it work well?

Eva said...

What did you end up deciding on? At our house we have a flat screen TV (yea... probably not the most responsible use of our money *sigh*) and we can just hook it up as an auxiliary monitor for the computer when we want to. So it's a TV and a computer, but it doesn't really have to be both. ;)

It's hooked to the Vista machine my husband bought for games through our normal audio/video system and it also has a normal monitor cable I can use to hook it to either of our laptops if I want to, although that's usually way more flexibility than I need, my laptop is my primary machine, so occasionally I do want to see it on the big screen.

Greg said...


I ended up going with none of the above from that list. I do put a TV card in my PC and played around with some of the TV software, but wasn't happy with any of it.

What I did end up with is an HP Media Vault. It is a bare-boned, Linux based system that is essentially server hooked up to the router. Any PC in the house can accesses and it has a web based interface for set up and modification. I store data, music, and video on it, but at this point it only sends data to a PC. Nothing is hooked up to a TV - yet.

slateberry said...

Love Karen's comment, but really, most victorians would have been interested in very little that Greg is doing to the house (that would be for hired help to do) and all over the latest techno whiz-bang. I consider this post to be for the steampunk section of the blog.
As for me, I have neither the wealth nor the ability to find the quality of hired help needed to sustain such a pure victorian personality, so I'm going the hybrid approach, trying to find time to feed the artistic and curious side of me while getting things for the house done with my hands. Oddly enough, in restoring a victorian home, the two pursuits often merge.