Wednesday, February 27, 2013

How to Drop Cable (Generally Speaking)

It's been almost 2 years since I dropped cable from my household and I've never regretted the decision. I don't think it's the right decision for everyone, it does take a bit of effort and you have to get used to a different entertainment lifestyle, but once you're in the zone I think it's fully worth it. For anyone thinking of doing the same here is the system I currently use.

I've been using a media centre for this purpose for a number of years in conjunction with cable and have gone through a few different systems, the sum total of my knowledge is this: you don't need a powerhouse for your media centre. My first media centre was a Dell P3 running 512MB of RAM with an upgraded video card, this would suffice today if I so chose; the only thing you need is to make sure your video will handle the task. Old notebooks work great for this, the built in graphics are generally up to video demands and it's great to have a built in keyboard and mouse on-board for troubleshooting.

To put it simply, I started using a full time media centre to stream content to my tv's, this content consisting of Netflix, Hulu, downloaded video, and other streaming content. In preparation for the change I also got picked up a new router with a 1GB switch, a 2TB external hard drive, and purchased a subscription for a DNS service to bypass regional restrictions that, as a Canadian, I am subject to, and upgraded my internet connection to 10Mb/s. I also still torrent, although less frequently, for those harder to find items and store them on the network via external HDD.

Specifically speaking, I purchased a Zotac mini-pc; if you clicked the link you'll see that this machine has no optical drive. This was a concious decision made due to the fact my Xbox 360 has a DVD and my PS3 has a Blu-Ray and are both an integral part of my entertainment centre, therefore a 3rd optical drive would have been redundant. Zotac includes HDMI outputs, taking care of as much HD as your TV will handle and the audio; if you need more of either, knock yourself out, this machine will handle it, but I didn't require it. Another note, this is a bare bones PC, no HDD, RAM, or OS included, not a problem for me as I have spare parts around and access to licensing, but something to keep in mind as buying these will increase the price. Finally, any mouse/keyboard system will work, obviously wireless is preferred, but I quickly got sick of having a keyboard kicking around the living room, and although remote systems work and are readily available I chose to go with a all in one solution, this one to be exact. Not perfect, but it works as both a tracpad and traditional mouse and has a built in keyboard all in the palm of your hand in a Blackberry style interface.

My networking is taken care of by a Netgear WNR3500L router. This isn't top of the line, but it was picked due to it's price and the inclusion of a USB port; these are both important points because 1. If you're serious about streaming media, local or internet, you should be wired in, you can't depend on wireless for that kind of traffic, and 2. I plugged my 2TB HDD into the USB port of the router to serve as a media share for the household. Like most people I do have multiple TV's around the house and I quickly decided it was going to be too much trouble to shuttle media around the house and require larger storage locally. The USB plug on my router allows me to download media on any computer, transfer it to my drive, then stream it flawlessly to any point on my network; I also store music and pictures here. I also bought a 1Gb switch which is used for the devices in the living room (Media PC, Xbox, PS3, and Wii); depending on your house layout and number of devices this may not be needed, but between running cables and number of devices in my house, this was the only decision I could make.

The final part of the equation was software. I'm using Windows 8 for my Media OS, a great choice for this purpose, XBMC for my media requirements, along with the NAVI-X plug-in (allowing movie and TV streaming instead of downloading), the Netflix and Hulu Plus apps (I'd recommend Plus, the free version works, but Plus is a much better solution), a DNS service (I use Unblock-US) to spoof your computer into an American IP (again, important if you're Canadian) and your pick of music services (I use Pandora, but whatever works for you). There is a setup and networking portion to this as well, but that would be handled better in a different post.

As for savings, I took my cable bill form around 100.00/month to roughly 20.00/month plus another 10.00/month for the upgraded internet. These savings aren't extreme, but I'd rather put that 70.00 back in my pocket and encourage internet entertainment as opposed to an outdated network system that is continually driving up costs and delivering less worth watching.

Watch what you want, when you want! That's my motto.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

A Good Use for Windows 8

In the past I've embraced new Windows operating systems; I started using computers with Windows 98 and moved to XP, even on my old P3 processor it was a night and day difference in usability; from XP I went to Vista, it wasn't perfect, but it advanced the system to a whole new level, and I never truly understood all the hate for it, it wasn't perfect, but it did a good job; from Vista I went to Windows 7 and found myself perfectly at home, all the features and advancement I'd expect, with better performance and usability than Vista offered. Then Windows 8 hit the market.

I've made no secret of my distaste for Windows 8, it left out useful tools (Virtual PC anyone?) and hid many of the more powerful features under a layer of UI that should have never been considered for an enterprise OS. From the start I've seen the purpose of having a touch interface, and I see that's where the future is heading, but a desktop/notebook environment is the wrong place for it, Windows made a mistake by leaving desktop functionality off its menu system, plain and simple.

Having said that I found a good environment for Windows 8, proving the functionality of the OS in the correct purpose, my media center. About a year and a half ago I dropped cable in my house, upgraded my internet pipe and went strictly online with my entertainment needs; great choice by the way, I watch what I want, when I want. Between Netflix, Hulu, and a bit of downloading I have everything me and my family need on hand at all times.

When I started this I installed Windows 7 as my host OS with XBMC as my media manager, using a couple of plug ins like Navi-X, worked great, no problems. About a month ago my machine suffered a hard drive failure so when I replaced the drive and did the OS rebuild I decided to give Win 8 a shot. I've been using 8 at work for the last 6 months and once I got the Classic Shell app I was happy; it allowed me my desktop functionality that I need to do my job efficiently, while still taking advantage of the benefits of Windows 8 so I thought this would be worth a shot.

Turns out it was a great choice for a media center. Using a mouse to control a TV interface is great and the way Windows 8 is laid out makes it relatively painless. This is largely due to the limited work I'm doing on the system, as I said before, if you're not working it's a major difference. Add in to that the apps from the Windows App store, like Netflix and Hulu Plus (You need a Hulu Plus account for the Windows 8 app, but I was wanting to go plus anyway) my computer is becoming a true media center with no extra configuration. Consider me sold on Windows 8 when I don't need to work with it, possibly even to the point that I'd consider a surface with it, although I still think the surface hardware is oversized, overpowered, and overpriced for what you're getting from it.

Bottom line, if you're building a media computer I'd recommend Windows 8, I was pleasantly surprised with how well it functions.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

A Review of "Killing Them Softly"

The wife had her company Christmas party last night and she and her co-workers wanted to make a girls night out of it so I convinced my good buddy Rob to come out for a drink and take in a guy movie. We decided on Killing Them Softly. One of the critics whose opinion I use to trust, Movie Bob,  gave it an okay review plus usually a gangster movie is a safe bet. Sadly, I haven't experienced such a long boring 97 minutes in quite some time.

Once upon a time I had dreams of working in the Film Industry and use to be a Film Major. As a result, I made my share of avant-garde short films and attended the screening of many classics. Film is an art and can be a powerful effective medium for making a statement. However, if you are making a feature length film  story and character development should not be reduced to background noise for your statement and that is were Killing Them Softly failed. 

In the days of Orson Wells and Hitchcock, movies often made all sorts of hidden subtle statements while still  ensuring the characters were flushed up and story was well told. The key word there is 'subtle'. Killing Them Softly was not subtle and its social statement was in your face to the point that the story and characters become fluff. I can't help but wonder if that's a reflection of our current society and growing lack of any attention span were nothing can be subtle and everything has to be shocking. Hey maybe that was the subtle messages but I doubt it.

Now having trashed the movie I will say I desperately wanted to like it. Brad Pitt was excellent as usual: he's one of those actors I want to dislike because of the media attention and Jolie factor but he proves his value in most movies. In addition, there sparks of great dialogue and had some unique well executed visual elements. Alas it just wasn't enough and I found myself bored and relieved when the movie can to a close. 

I have to comment on the James Gandolfini character, Mickey. This character without a doubt had the most character development in the movie and could have been interesting  Unfortunately, his character lent nothing to the story and he just disappeared mid movie and I was pissed to realize Mickey was there for no reason other than making a tragic statement and had nothing to do with the story progression. Even this would have been fine if the character hadn't gotten the bulk of screen time. 

In short, everyone in the audience seemed disappointed where one post movie comment was if that had more than a $20k budget it was to much. With that in mind I would give it may be 2 star out of 5 stars at best.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Review: Lenovo IdeaPad(130422U)

I've been on the market for a tablet for quite sometime now, but what I've encountered has either been overpriced (iPad), under-powered (Cruz T301), and in one bizarre case, overpowered (Asus eee Slate). That came to a screeching halt yesterday when I ran across a new product being offered by Lenovo, the IdeaPad.

If you're not familiar with Lenovo suffuce to say, they're a Chinese hardware firm who bought the ThinkPad name from IBM a few years back and has been doing an excellent job with it; to be honest I think they dropped the ball a bit with their newest model, the W520, but that doesn't change the years of solid work they've put on the market (and don't get me wrong, the W520 is a powerhouse, it just needs a little more TLC than most Think products due to some driver issues).

The IdeaPad is a bit of a divergence for Lenovo, a consumer product built for home use, but they did a great job. Running Android 3.1 (Honeycomb) with a 10 inch screen and weighing at a little over a quarter of a kilogram it's a great fit for your hand and comfortable to hold on to; the screen is bright and crisp and every bit as responsive as any iPad I've worked with; front and back facing cameras, 5MB back 2 front, it takes decent pictures and has the screen to display them. The standard model is a 32GB wifi (no 3G) and an expansion slot for another 64GB of Micro SD storage. Lenovo also made the decision to minimally tweak Android, it's essentially a stock build of 3.1, and gives you immediate access to the complete Android Marketplace. Best of all, the price, coming in at 349.99 (Canadian) at Best Buy and Future Shop (compare that to the iPad2).

I only played with it a few hours before boxing it up (it's destined as a gift), but before boxing it, I placed an order for a second one for myself. I literally cannot say anything bad about this machine, if you're at all interested in a tablet, do yourself a favor and check the IdeaPad out; I'd could say it's a great product considering it's price, but I won't because it's a great product with an amazing price, this could be an iPad killer if it was marketed right.

Monday, October 17, 2011

The Walking Dead Season 2 Review

In a word: AWESOME!

Only one episode in, but it's safe to say I''ll be watching for the next couple episodes at the very least; there was some solid stuff going on last night that I want more of. The absence of Frank Darabont, whose work I largely enjoy, doesn't seem to have been problematic, in fact I would say the first episode was stronger than anything we saw in the entire first season. My only real complaint, the zombies look more like living people pretending to be zombies, but there's only so much you can do with that aspect.

In my opinion, the entire first season was looking for it's place; the show was a little too gory to appeal to the people who want drama and stories, and the the drama was a little to over the top for the people looking for gore and horror. I think there will be some negative reviews about this episode, but this will be based on a model that doesn't apply to the walking dead. The Walking Dead is something of a misunderstood show. Most people see it as a horror show, but that's not really where it's head is at, or, more importantly, it's heart.

The number one and most important thing you have to understand about The Walking Dead is this: the show is about survivors not zombies. The zombies are a plot device to move the story along, the show is about the people; in fact, the title is talking about the survivors, not the undead (I implore you to read the comic book, it's all explained there). Watch some of the show, I mean really watch it, and you'll understand.

There it is, watch the show, it's good, real good, I think the best thing you'll see this year.