Network Media Centre

June 19, 2014 at 1:56 pm | Posted in Computers, Hardware, Internet, Media, Online services, Security, Software, Technology | Leave a comment

In recent years, how we consume media has changed markedly. Video rentals stores have mostly died. Some have cancelled their cable service. Flat screen TV’s, then Smart TV’s (with built-in computers) have become common. On-line media sources as well. Movies now offer digital copies and so on.

If you mainly get your services from online sources like Netflix and Hulu, then you want a Smart TV or attached media box with a wireless keyboard and a smart remote like LG’s Magic Remote. (a standard TV remote is near useless for web browsing and such)

But if your main source is local digital media, like your movie, photo and music collections, you need a local storage solution. It might seem like hooking your computer up to your TV is a great idea, but that’s not likely to be convenient for how you normally use it. It will also create issues with backup sizes. Plus, I’ve found that TV media serving software tends to bog your computer and doesn’t update changes reliably.

Custom-building a PC as a media server may seem like a great idea, but the form factor and energy consumption are not as good. And PC’s need all those fricking updates.

Your better solution is a NAS (Network Attached Storage) that includes a media server. These are energy efficient boxes designed for handling large media files. They’re somewhat similar to an external hard drive except they plug into your network (typically the router) and contain a small computer that allows them to handle several drives. They’re a natural for the job.

You do need to check it will work for your setup though – will it hold drives large enough for your growing media collection? And does it have the right kind of media server for your TV? Typically a DLNS is supported by Smart TV’s but do check yours. Can your TV even connect to a network? Smart TV’s do.

In my own case, I have an LG Smart TV and their Magic remote.

Normally with a NAS, the drives are set up to appear as a single massive drive or are mirrored in pairs. A mirrored drive creates an immediate backup of everything that’s on the main drive. This is a common practice on servers. You get half the available space but a perfect backup.

Buying a NAS, they don’t typically come with drives pre-installed – you choose your own. The exception would be some home offerings like HP’s My Cloud models. They’re more limited and pricey but get good reviews. The reviews oddly seem to compare wildly different types of NAS (with huge variations in price) rather than separating out home and business systems. Ideally, you get matching drives – especially if you’re going to mirror them. But you can start with one and add the other later.

I got a Shuttle OmniNAS KD20 on sale. This is a basic model made by an established small-format computer maker. It’s not a fast NAS but is much less expensive than many and does fine at turning your TV into a media centre from local content. We’re not talking about your office data centre here. The box is well designed and I found it very straightforward to set up. They indicate it’s supported by Win XP+, Mac and Linux.

In buying drives, the OmniNAS supports 2 drives up to 4TB each for max of 8 TB. That’s a lot of media. The WD Reds get the best reviews for the purpose, but this is a budget project. I found 2x 3TB Seagate external drives that were on sale for much less than the bare drives. Removing them from the case is straightforward but this does void the warranty. Thus it’s a good idea to test the drives in their cases prior to removal, if you take such a route. It’s also a slight bit more work.

Also note that setting up the NAS will erase anything on the drives, so copy anything off them before installing in the NAS. They’re generally configured to be in an array in a NAS. That way they appear as a single drive on the network.

In my case I was disassembling Seagate Expansion drives and used the free Seatools to test the drives prior. Seatools is not restricted to Seagate drives. This video reviews both the testing and the drive removal for that model. Shims do a better job than a screwdriver to avoid breaking the clips or damaging the surface – then you have spare cases for another external drive.

The OmniNAS supports both PC and laptop-sized SATA drives. Installing the drives is straightforward. Just follow the Quickstart Guide. You screw them onto the drive tray, then slide them in. Screws provided, as was a network cable. Plug it in and turn it on, voilà!

You then install Finder software on your PC. You can get the newer version from the web site. This finds the NAS on the network, then opens a browser window to configure the device.

It will ask for an Admin password, then later wants to set up a username and password. Make sure you have strong passwords, especially if you plan to share the media through the Internet. A tool like LastPass can help you track all your passwords securely.

I highly recommend you install the Firmware upgrade through the browser interface. (see the Downloads tab) The problems I saw reported with the unit when I researched it prior are addressed with this update. If you loose access to it on the network prior to updating, shut it down and then restart.

Be sure to edit the Workgroup name to match your LAN if it’s not the default “Workgroup”. (on your computer, right-click My Computer and select Properties. Scroll down to see the Workgroup name)

In my case I set up mirrored drives as the backup was more useful than all that drive space. I can easily change that later if I need more space.

Share Box sets your NAS up to serve media onto the Internet as your own “private cloud”, accessible from your Internet connected devices. Basically your own Dropbox service. This is done through an Omninas domain portal. You can skip that and set it up later if your main desire is for your local network and TV.

The box has a Twonky DLNS media server included free, which the LG TV happily and easily supported. Anything added to the “disc” folder is available to the TV. I added a lot of files – this took a bit of time to copy over on my non-Gigabit network – but the NAS had no trouble serving it all. In contrast, the LG PC software choked on a fraction of it and didn’t update reliably.

It also has an iTunes server, if you’re in Mac world or like serving your media that way. If not, turn it off.

And it has a print server to share your USB printer on the network. And an SD card reader and USB ports if you want to add or copy media that way.

It even has a torrent server, although you have to disable the media server for that. Several reviews criticised that but it may be a security measure.

The OmniNAS also comes with a copy of Acronis imaging software if you wish to use the NAS for your backups as well. It will work fine with recent editions of Microsoft Backup and Mac Time Machine as well – in fact any software that will backup to network locations.

If you want your backup to also serve as a remote access store, use a tool like Cobain Gravity that copies files rather than images them. Imaging software is ideal for the operating system and programs but copy software is better for your files to ensure immediate access in the event of trouble.

If you Map the network drive, then the NAS shows up as a drive in Windows Explorer and such making file transfer easier.

For simplicity, I set up the free Microsoft SyncToy to echo to the NAS some of the media folders like Photos. I like copies of those on my computer, so when I update them, Synctoy will match all the changes to the NAS.

Then you can have slide shows, music playlists, and more on your TV. It becomes today’s stereo. If you have surround speakers, it’s better even than an old Quad system. Any other devices on your network also have access to all the content now too.

And if you also want to access that media on your tablet, smartphone (Android or iPhone  apps in the Stores) or laptop on the road, Share Box to the rescue. No worries about storing your stuff on someone else’s servers. If you’re a small business person, you can backup your documents to the NAS, ensuring both a backup and that you always have access. No worries about remote access to your PC. (note the comments about backup types above if you want document access – don’t image those files)

I’ve been much happier with the OmniNAS than serving from my laptop. It’s been more reliable, frees up computer resources, and provides another layer of backup.
Have fun!
David

Hardware Commons

June 10, 2014 at 10:30 am | Posted in Design, Economoney, Hardware, History, Internet, Media, Science, Technology | Leave a comment

Just as software has it’s open source and licensing has Creative Commons, open knowledge of hardware is crucial for us to grow as a society in healthy ways. I recently wrote a similar article on network infrastructure – an open Internet.

Why is this even an issue? Current laws concentrate knowledge into property rights for economic control rather than the common good. Corporate structures, treated legally as a person and thus given the same rights, are concentrating economic activity into monopolies. The result is the concentration of knowledge and wealth in a progressively smaller group, the so-called 1%. (although that’s overstating it now) This has historically destabilized and destroyed civilizations.

If we’re going to learn the lessons of history, we need more balance and a more diversified economy. We need opportunity in the commons and that is best served by accessible knowledge.

This increased access to knowledge is hugely important…it acts as the foundational infrastructure on which we can start to build a whole new economy.”
– Alastair Parvin of WikiHouse

This video outlines how it can be applied to hardware:

And this page lists 10 open hardware projects. If you’ve been around long enough you’ll recognize the Access to Tools theme that was common in the old Whole Earth Catalogue. It was also a theme of R. Buckminster Fuller.
David

Solar Roadways

May 5, 2014 at 4:21 pm | Posted in Design, Economoney, Hardware, Media, Science, Technology | 1 Comment

What if your new driveway powered your house? And ran your car. And connected you to the Internet, telephone and TV. And kept itself clear of snow. And paid for itself.

It’s a real product.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SNMFKKyFU60

And they’re doing an IndieGoGo funding round to take it to the next level. It’s already had real-world testing.

It will also optionally process polluted stormwater…

Running Android on a PC

March 13, 2014 at 8:52 pm | Posted in Backup, Computers, Economoney, Games, Hardware, Software, Technology | Leave a comment
Tags: , , , ,

Say you want to mess around with Android and apps, but you’re a little nervous about experimenting on that rather expensive phone or tablet. One solution is to load Android into a virtual environment where you can play around all you like and nothing is ever broken. All you do is back up your virtual machine (VM) software folder first, then if anything goes sideways you can restore it in about a minute. Developers use this approach all the time.

Oracle’s VirtualBox (VB) is free virtualization software you can install just about any Operating System (os) into (assuming you have a legal license). I’ve been running Windows XP, Ubuntu Linux and Android this way for several years. XP, mainly to support some old software that won’t run in current OS’s, the others to explore and experiment with. No messing with my main computer or setting up a boot loader. The other systems run in a window, so no rebooting required. File sharing is much like sharing over a network.

Fred Langa has written an article with step by step instructions for installing VirtualBox and Android on a PC. Most of the steps are pretty obvious but there are a few options that are not and a couple of gotchas. Note his comments about the captured mouse (for touch-screen behaviour), for example.

For Android, you need VT-x (AMD-V on an AMD processor) enabled in the PC’s BIOS. Most modern processors have it but it may be off by default. I checked a couple of utilities to confirm I had it but it was off anyway. Just reboot into your computers BIOS and turn it on. (instructions vary by maker) If you skip that step, the instructions will tell you Android is not supported, so do take care of that first.

I also noticed that some people who also use Microsoft Virtual Machines (like XP Mode) may find VT-x not working because Hyper-V is hogging it. In that case, it’s on in the BIOS but still unavailable in VB. In Windows 7+, the Hyper-V setting is hidden. Comment 5 on this thread offers the command line for turning it off and on. If you want to get fancier, I noticed this article on Hyper-V Manager. It still requires a reboot though.

Other Choices
If you just want to play an Android game on your PC, you might like Bluestacks. It’s designed for loading apps on a PC. It says it’s free only while in beta though.

Genymotion is an Android virtualization tool to create various OS version and screen size variations to test an app in. That’s for more advanced testing.

More OS’s
The advantage of using a tool like VirtualBox is you can also play around with other OS’s. You can get other images (VMs) here, for example. A popular Linux distro, Ubuntu is here. Install the current VB Extension Pack to support it.

The 13.04 version of Ubuntu is an OVA file. OVA files are preconfigured – just double-click to load into VirtualBox. Far fewer steps than in Fred’s article above. It also comes with LibreOffice and other software pre-installed. Note the password on the download page for your first Ubuntu login. You can go into System Settings (gear top right) and add a new User of your choice once logged in.

Rather than downloading a virtual machine, you can also install an OS directly yourself. Create the container in VB (New button), then install into that. This article reviews installing a distro from Ubuntu directly.

You can install a wide range of other OS’s, including Windows and Mac, in a virtual machine – it’s a great way to test and experiment without messing anything up. Or to run old software that won’t install in a modern OS.

Given the end of Windows XP’s support in April, it will soon no longer be safe for web surfing and other Internet uses but it may still have a role for old software in a virtual machine. Fred reviews installing XP into a virtual machine and the VM backup process here. (article free for subscribers) If you have an old XP install you’re retiring and want to move it to a virtual machine, you can use the free Disk2vhd. This is especially useful if your old computer didn’t come with system install disks. VHD is a Microsoft virtualization format but VirtualBox can use it.

And if you have some concern this is experimental technology or something, it’s been around for years. If you surf the web, you’ll have used a virtual machine. Many large web sites are run in virtual machines so they can, in moments, shift from one physical server to another when under load.
David

Promotion via Fakery

March 6, 2014 at 5:36 pm | Posted in Events, Hardware, Humor, Internet, Media, Science, Strange, Technology, Transportation | Leave a comment

A weird episode in Internet “marketing” this week. A real company, HUVr Tech, seeking funding  sought buzz. First, they faked up a Promo video for Hoverboards, complete with the famous and Back to the Future references. Note the 0 noise and that the video is named “belief” (on their web site). They apparently used the Back to the Future wire harness.

Second, an “apology” by Christopher Lloyd. He was tricked??   Then, one from Tony Hawk, the famed skateboarder. Wired comments.

Fake promotions and fake apologies? Lame. Pranks are funny only if you include the punchline. Has their home page been updated to reflect this? Nope. This is what they think of their possible customers?
David

Real Wii

February 20, 2014 at 12:43 am | Posted in Computers, Hardware, Software, Technology | Leave a comment

Recently, I explored the idea of getting a game console. I liked the Nintendo boxes as they had fun sports games and were modestly priced. However, the newer Nintendo consoles are oddly designed or overpriced. The WiiU has a large tablet-style controller. The Wii Mini has substantially reduced features over the original Wii. In fact, one site recommended you find a used Wii instead – they have more bang for the buck. Plus the earlier model Wii’s have the connections to play Gamecube games (with controllers and memory cards) too if you can find one. You may even find a new Wii around as they were just discontinued last fall.

Accessory’s are still very available as well as tons of games. The Wii games run on the new WiiU so will continue to be around. If you upgrade the TV cable to component, you get much higher quality video for modern screens – not the HD of the newer PS and Xbox consoles, but at 1/4 of the price. Plus the Wii motion controllers are a lot of fun. (waving a tablet?)

If you buy used and have no warranty to worry about, you also have the option to “homebrew” the Wii and add further abilities, like making it into a Media Centre that will not only play DVD’s but will play formats not supported by the big consoles. And you’ve got a “magic remote” already. You can play classic games you own, fully backup your Wii, and much more.

The process is a bit geeky and you have to follow the steps carefully but it’s not difficult. They suggest you review the FAQ’s and follow the instructions. All of the original Wii functionality remains.

See you at the baseball stadium. Or the bowling alley.
David

Elon Musk

May 9, 2013 at 5:31 pm | Posted in Design, Economoney, Hardware, Media, Science, Space, Technology, Transportation | 3 Comments

Ever heard of Elon Musk? TED branded him a serial entrepreneur, but that’s an understatement. He is a practical visionary:

1 – the co-founder of Paypal

2 – the CEO and product architect of Tesla Motors. Their new all-electric model S has just been named by Consumer Reports as the highest rated car ever! It’s still a luxury car but it’s phase 2. Phase 3 is a mass production model. And the company has posted it’s first profit. That will keep it going.

The CBC talks about it here.
I wrote about the Phase 1 car here

3 – he’s involved with solar power company SolarCity

4 – and he’s the chief designer at SpaceX, a reusable rocket company. They’re already doing work for NASA and the space shuttle.

His TED talk from February this year:

The XP Problem

April 17, 2013 at 3:14 pm | Posted in Computers, Economoney, Hardware, Internet, Security, Software | 2 Comments

Times change. When XP launched many years ago, it wasn’t much of an issue if people stayed with Windows 98 or DOS for a while. But now, in the Internet age, your computer needs regular updates to keep it secure while surfing. XP is web-connected, from right inside the operating system. (as the old IE debate illustrated)

Microsoft extended support for XP but that’s ending in a year (April 2014). However, between 30 and 40% of computers are still running the increasingly insecure XP. Many of those computers may not support the latest operating systems. Thus the only solution is a new computer.

Those who put this off are now typically facing a jump to Windows 8 and a totally different interface. It could be argued it’s as big a change as from Windows 3.1 to Windows 95. And it rather sucks on a non-touch interface, though you can install third-party programs that restore the Start menu. The issue is particularly large for businesses still on XP. Evidently 64% have not completed a migration to Win7. The expense, training and loss of productivity are large obstacles. Not to mention software upgrade costs, old custom software, and the economy. But staying with XP is unsafe and will potentially create even larger problems. XP on the net will be like wearing a kick-me sign.

The issue for many is that XP does what they need. Email, Word, and web. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. My friends scenario should illustrate the problem though. He has a PowerPC G4 Mac. Until recently, it did everything he needed. But gradually, it all  stopped being supported. No system updates. Then browsers, Flash and Acrobat stopped updating. Sites like webmail are gradually changing with features that don’t work on the old browsers. He has trouble even logging in to email now.

The big difference though is it’s a Mac. There are far fewer Mac viruses. XP is on a PC and there are thousands of viruses seeking it out. When it stops being updated, it becomes a sitting duck.

Another example comes to mind. I used to have an old NT server I used for monitoring the other servers and making sure everything was up and fine. Without being aware of it, it’s AV stopped updating as it was no longer supported. (they didn’t bother notifying us) The server got infected. I quickly cleaned out the infection but it was infected again in 10 minutes. It had to be updated to a new, supported operating system or taken off-line.

This is what XP users face. Personally, I’d find a supplier who can still build Windows 7 machines and pro-actively make the migration, like a friend did last week. For old software that is not cost-effective to upgrade, seek out free versions. Or you can use that old XP licence: install XP in free Oracle Virtualbox, then install those apps in XP. The app will run in XP in a window in your current OS. Of course, we’re talking local apps. Web-connected software will remain an issue in XP.

Safe surfing!
David

Smart Glasses

January 29, 2013 at 2:25 pm | Posted in Computers, Design, Hardware, Media, Technology | 1 Comment

Computer in your glasses? I remember an old telephone company ad where they talked about a “friendly future”, showing a person walking around with heads-up display glasses and making a phone call. It was a fantasy then.

Over 10 years ago, a company demoed their heads-up display glasses to my company. They were in town looking for funding. The impressive part was being able to see large construction blueprints, unlimited by screen size.

A few years ago, I talked about the MIT “Sixth Sense” presentations. This was more a pendant than glasses.

Last year, Google demoed their new Glass project with skydivers, bikers and wall scalers during a conference using remote live video from the various wearers.

Google has recently added patents for bone conductance audio (no one can overhear your caller), a laser projector to project an interface (keyboard, number pad, etc) on a nearby surface or your hand, eyescan, a speech interface, real-time augmented imagery, and a compact see-through display. Some of this is much like MIT was experimenting with.

Google is now launching a program with developers to app out the hardware.

This illustrates a few of these potential ideas:

The demos have generated lots of parodies.
David

Windows 8 – Oh My!

November 8, 2012 at 11:51 pm | Posted in Computers, Hardware, Software | 2 Comments

Windows 8 is a big change from prior versions of Windows. There are several key things to know before making any decision about it.

1 – It’s based on a touch interface, like a smart-phone. You probably will NOT be pleased with it on a mouse-and-keyboard computer. That’s called doing it the hard way.

2 – If you buy a new computer with Windows 8, get one with a touch screen. If you get a cheap laptop without one, you’ll probably just find it annoying.

3 – The new Windows tablets out are running Windows RT. RT does NOT run prior Windows applications. RT apps are only available in a new RT store. Wait until the new year to get a Windows 8 tablet if you want to run traditional Windows applications.

4 – If you do any more typing that a little texting, you’ll want a tablet with a keyboard. A keyboard you can type comfortably on.

Chris Pirillo of Locker Gnome discusses further:

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