Friday, March 25, 2011

Home media platform project

I was asked to setup a home music centre for a friend, nothing too hard I thought. The requirements seemed standard, so I said yes let me at it.

3 weeks later, I found myself still trying to piece together the components, none of which I had ever used before – fun!
(This was 3 weeks fulltime)

The requirements were;

  1. Must use optical out (its connecting to high end amp)
  2. Needs to look like it fits in and around high end audio gear
  3. Headphone out
  4. Low power
  5. CD drive play/burn
  6. Internet access
  7. Auto rip function
  8. Remote control for playlists etc
  9. External touch screen
  10. Silent
  11. Small footprint
  12. Easy to use for a non technical user

Server/Base unit

I went off looking first of all for a base unit, the mini-itx platform looked like the best of what is available. And the boards are cheap enough these days to make home cinema/media PCs available to everyone.

But what I found was although the boards are cheap, its the extra bits that add up. By the time I added an external power supply, remote control, ram, hard drive it was still looking at +/- £400 with a decent case.
Add to this the problem of adding a slim line CD drive to some ITX cases, it seemed that if you did this the case got big quick.

I did find that the Acer Revo PCs were a pretty good fit, add an external CD drive and bingo, but I really wanted an all in one unit.

I found it in the form of the Asus EeeBox EB1501P Net Top PC.
It had optical out, internal CD (one of those funky soft eject ones too), Windows 7 Home Premium, WiFi, HDMI, eSata and although ebuyer didn’t mention anything, it came with USB keyboard/mouse, Media Centre remote control and a vesa bracket.

All powered by an Atom D525, Dual Core 1.8Ghz with 2Gb Ram for £270 +vat (its dropped by £30 now….)

Base unit was sorted, the screen was a little more fun, I wanted something small enough to be usable and not too big that you would notice it in the room. There are a number of 10” USB driven touch screens on the market (be careful some don’t work on 64Bit OS)  and after a chat to the guys at New IT I went for the iMo Mini Monster a 10” wide screen, single touch  monitor. It has a built in stylus that is hidden in the bezel too.

So that was the PC side of things completed sorted.

Remote controls at the ready

I wanted a tablet for the remote, but not an iPad, they were just too expensive for this project. I opted for a 10” Android ePad (10.2" Android 2.1 ZT-180a Apad/ePad 1GHZ CPU 256RAM) and threw in a 4Gb micro SD card for good measures.
I headed off the the android market place for a remote control to control the music…. I installed and uninstalled every single ‘free’ remote control literally in the market. Both iTunes and Windows variants… All were basically crap they worked most of the time or did everything except display the media library.
I did find one app that was fantastic when you had under 100 or so tracks, however as soon as we broke this level on while ripping we saw a massive drop in speed. It doesn’t cache anything on the tablet, so EVERY time you go to load an artist, genre etc it goes off and asks the server for the list, then waits until everything has been sent. We were waiting for 5 mins for a screen update… uninstalled that pretty quick.

This was when I put my IT hat on and realised that there must be a remote desktop app, there were lods of them, all were paid for and because I am tight I didn’t buy them.

What I did, which I think when looking back was a genius move and I should have done it in the first place, was to install TightVNC on the PC with the android TightVNC app on the tablet.
Instant connectivity, full screen, lag-less (pretty much) experience.

To make this better we put a wireless AP in the room that the kit lives on and only the devices in that room use that network, for an extra £40 it was worth it, the tablet and PC chatter to their hearts content without losing out to any other traffic.
The other reason for the added AP was the house we were installing in was built in the 1700’s so had walls about 1m thick of stone, which have the ability to block WiFi.

I used 3 home plugs one at the router in the 3rd floor office to run the network down to the ground floor conservatory and to the kitchen to a second AP just for the kitchen/liveing area as the BT router upstairs was dropping to under 1 bar most of the time.
The home plugs where sitting around 20Mb throughput, but this was expected as the wiring itself is a little flaky from time to time.


This was a great little project, the client is over the moon, a few minutes on how to connect the tablet to the PC and he is instantly in an environment he knows.

We ripped just over 3500 tracks in 2 days (used the Asus + 2 laptops running in parallel, ripping to the shared media folder – the whole D drive). The rip speed of the Asus is about 70% of my old HP laptop, not sure why this is, I am guessing the speed of the soft eject CD drive may be the problem.

If I was to do it again and I will for myself at least, I would throw another 2Gb of Ram in the Asus. It streamed DivX films okay over my network using Home plugs (70-80Mb) while playing on my TV via the HDMI, but for video I think the more ram you have the better.
When SSDs come down in price these boxes will be perfect for them, they use net to no power anyway, heat is minimal, but with an SSD it will just be that little bit better.

I would probably fork out for an eSata drive as well, or at least a NAS box/home server setup to work alongside this, the storage is great for MP3s, but would get eaten quickly with video storage.


So we have the 10” screen next to the tablet running TightVNC!WP_000516

The 10” screen on its own

The Asus EeeBox


Nice to do something that doesn’t involve writing code for a change!


CD Replication said...

Thanks for giving us such a nice information regarding Home Music Center, How much expenses need to launch all this?

editor said...

total cost for this setup was just over £500 + vat + time to setup.
You could plug the PC directly into a TV though and save £150 straight away