Quad Tuner HD-DVR HTPC Build, Finally!

[2011-11-29] Replaced the wireless keyboard/mouse.
[2011-??-??] Replaced the wireless adapter.
[2010-09-28] Replaced the case fan and adjusted the sleep policy.


– Motivation

I have been contemplating a lot about building my own HD DVR for about a year. This was partly spurred on by the upcoming renew date for my TiVo HD (November 2010). Do I shell out another $400 for a lifetime subscription (I bought my TiVo HD when they didn’t offer a lifetime subscription) or do I build a HTPC?

[2011-12-29] Another reason was the cost of TV service. At the time, I had DirecTV, and I think I was paying about $45 every month. The thing about these service providers is that they raise rates every year like a clock work, for most of the channels that I don’t care about. I looked at my DVR recording / viewing patterns and it turned out that most of my TV programming was coming from the over-the-air digital channels (the Big Four, and a 24-hour Korean programming channel). Without cable channels, I would miss Tour de France, but that seemed a small price compared to $500 ~ $600 a year.

Initially, I was heavily into Intel Atom with nVidia ION, which had a great price point and power consumption. However, my requirements changed over time, and the following is what I ended up building.

And what’s built can and will replace three devices: TiVo HD, ReplayTV and Xbox 360 (as a Media Center Extender).

– Tuner Cards: 2 x AverMedia AverTVHD Duet OEM [$49.99 each]

My quest started out with a dual tuner since I was looking for a TiVo replacement initially. However, I realized that I often needed more than two tuners at peak hours. And this card is fairly cheap. Much cheaper than other solutions (Ceton quad tuners are $400!). And I am only interested in ATSC tuners (no CableCard needs).

This is a PCI-Express 1x card. So, this meant choosing a board that had two free PCI-Express slots. This meant I had to abandon the Atom route since it only came in the mini-ITX format which only has one expansion slot. I’ve seen something called mini-DTX which has two expansion slot, but I have yet to see one with two free slots (one is usually taken up by an nVidia ION expansion card for HD).

– Operating System: Windows 7 32-bit Home Premium OEM [$99.99]

I did consider Linux. However, the lack of driver support for tuner cards became problematic. Also, there is no free solution to TV guide data ($20/year).

Windows 7 Media Center costs somewhat, but solved the above problems. Also, it’s a familiar platform. My ongoing challenge will be to keeping it clean…

I chose the 32-bit version since I think it’s still a better supported version although the 64-bit support is getting more common. Also, it would lessen the memory requirement somewhat.

– Processor: AMD Athlon II X2 245 AM3 65W Dual-Core [$58.99]

Since the Intel Atom option is gone, I had to pick a CPU. A dual-core seems to be a good choice and it seems 65W TDP seems to be the lowest power consumption. There are Intel CPUs, but it was difficult to find a matching motherboard that had a HD-capable GPU.

AMD seems to be a good choice since I was able to find a decent motherboard with good GPU and all required ports.

– Motherboard: ASUS M4A785-M AM3/AM2+/AM2 with AMD 785G [$74.99]

After the above, the following became a list of requirements for the motherboard.

– AM3
– Two free PCI-Express 1x or better slots (micro-ATX)
– Good HD capable integrated GPU (this has ATI Radeon HD 4200)
– Optical audio out
– VGA (my old TV does not have an HDMI port, let alone DVI-D)
– HDMI for the future

With this, it was a matter of cost/shipping/reviews to come to this one.

– Hard Disk: Western Digital Caviar Green 500GB [$54.99]

I just like Western Digital… And supposedly Caviar Green uses less power. I thought 500GB was good enough. I thought about separating out the OS and the Data disks, but that seems a bit of a hassle.

500GB seems to be good enough. My TiVo HD has 250GB and I really haven’t had the storage issue, so this seems to be good enough.

– Case: hec Micro-ATX Media Center with 300W Power Supply / 7K09BBA30FNRX [$59.99]

“WAF” is something to consider, so I only looked at HTPC cases. This seems to be a good price/shipping/review on NewEgg.com.

– Memory: 2 x 1GB PC2 6400 [$37.99]

Nothing special… 2GB seems to be good enough since I am just going for a media device.

– Networking: NETGEAR RangeMax WNDA3100 Dual Band Wireless-N Adapter [$32.39]

[2011-??-??] Replaced the TP-WN722N. Well, actually, I didn’t need to, but I had to replace my wireless router, and I ended up getting a dual band N router. So, I thought I might as well get something that could utilize the new one. :p

As some of the reviews on Amazon suggests, be sure to get the V2 (not V1) of this model. To make sure, I went to a local store for this, so that the return would be much easier.

– Networking: TP-LINK TP-WN722N USB 2.0 WiFi Adapter [$19.99]

[2011-??-??] No longer used.

Wireless networking FTW! I don’t have a N system, but it might come in handy in the future (yeah, sure…).

– Keyboard/Mouse: GMYLE P1800 [$26.90] Palm-Sized Mini 2.4GHz RF Wireless Media Keyboard with Multi-Touch Gesture Touchpad Mouse/Remote Control for Windows 7/Vista/XP HTPC PC

[2011-11-29] This replaced the IOGEAR one. This thing is really nice. Basically, a large Blackberry with a trackpad as the screen.

– Keyboard/Mouse: IOGEAR GKM561R [$39.99] Wireless Keyboard with Trackball

[2011-11-29] No longer used.

Since this is a PC after all, I often found a need for a keyboard/mouse. This has a trackball on a compact keyboard. Seems useful.

– Remote: Rosewill RRC-126 Media Center IR Remote with Receiver [$24.99]

There was a cheaper alternative, but this looked nicer. :p Also, when I got it, it was discounted somewhat. I mainly needed the IR receiver. I have an MX-700 universal remote that I use for everything, so it was matter of learning the code and setting up the MX-700 layout.

TIP: If pressing the same button multiple times work just once on your universal remote, don’t blame your universal remote. The media center remote has this “debounce” feature which alternates between two codes to reduce false positive reception. You can turn this off on Windows using regedit. Just search for “debounce remote regedit”.

– Noisy!

Well, the case fan that came with the case and the CPU fan that came with the processor were not the quietest. Especially the case fan was fairly noticeable when being turned on. Also, they were not variable-speed…

So, a couple more to solve this.

– SILVERSTONE SCOOL81 80mm Case Fan [$12.99]

[2010-09-28] The Nexus wasn’t quiet enough. Since that was running at a fixed speed, there was no way to make it run quieter. SCOOL81 is a variable-speed fan with a thermal sensor. Without the sensor, it wasn’t that different, but with the sensor, the fan slows down quite a bit and it makes all the difference. I don’t think the motherboard’s variable fan speed control is either not working well or I don’t know how to use it properly, maybe.

– Nexus SP802512L-03 80mm Case Fan [$9.99]

[2010-09-28] No longer used.

– Scythe Shuriken Rev.B SCSK-1100 [$29.95]

This is a very quiet fan. However, even with its low-profile design, if I were to add an internal optical drive, I might have a difficulty with this case…

– Hardware Notes

So, the component total came to about $571.84 (+ tax + shipping – coupons). Not bad for a quad tuner HD HTPC with free TV guide data that has no problem with Flash. Especially when you consider that Ceton CableCard quad tuner costs $400 by itself…

Some assembling notes…

  • Motherboard and Back-plate: Make sure that the notches on a couple of top holes on the back-plate are not blocking the ports on the motherboard. I had to disassemble the whole thing again to get that right.
  • Hard Disk Mounting: The space for the HDD bracket is kind of blocked by the power supply. However, the front case plate comes off. Two notches on either side each and two notches in the middle. The top middle one is obscured by the case fan, but running a small screw driver along the line unlocks them. Once the front plate is removed, it’s easier to get HDD mounted.
  • Power/HDD LEDs: The connectors have polarities. It’s kind of random, so you have to play with it. Initially, the Power LED didn’t come on, but once I flipped it over, it worked.
  • TV Resolution: My old Panny plasma display is ED (480p). For some reasons, its native resolution (852×480) wasn’t syncing correctly between GPU and the display (probably some clocking issue). I had to bring another “real” monitor and set the resolution to 1072×600 manually and have the display downsample it.

– Software Notes

  • Automatic Login: This box is supposedly an appliance, so this was crucial.
  • BIOS Power Failure Setting: Set it to restore to the last state. This is so that when the box was on, it will turn it back on. [2010-09-28] However, this doesn’t seem to work well…
  • Hulu and Boxee: There are ways to launch Hulu or Boxee from Windows Media Center. Jeromy Lukenbaugh has a good article on it.
  • Sleep / Wake up: The Media Center remote has a power button that can put the box to sleep and wake it up. I tried to turn off “hybrid sleep” because I thought that would take more time to come up, but for some reason, the box did not come up (black screen, frozen). When I turned “hybrid sleep” back on, it worked without a problem. [2010-09-28] This became a reliability concern for me, so I am not putting it into sleep anymore.

Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle by Daniel L. Everett

Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes

I’ve always been interested in learning languages. That’s why I was interested in this Dr. Everett‘s book when I saw his talk on FORA.tv.

The linguistic details on this obscure Amazonian language was a bit too much for me, but the whole process of how he tried to learn the language and the culture was very interesting. It’s actually amazing what he and his family can endure and adapt to when a loftier goal is in place.

The book also talks about Dr. Everett losing his Christian faith in the process (he was sent there to learn the language to translate the Bible). That portion wasn’t as interesting and I wasn’t sure if it mattered that much.

Anyway, if anyone is interested in how one goes about learning a language when there is hardly a common language to start from, this is a very engaging account of one such process.

Google I/O 2010: Google TV and Update on Android x86

Besides the Froyo update to the Android OS, the other big announcement for the Thursday keynote of the Google IO 2010 is Google TV. From the demo, this is what I learned about it.

  • It’s a software muxer. That is, Google TV itself does not have TV tuners or DVR, nor Google manufactures any of the devices. It just muxes the signal from an existing set-top box (or an integrated tuner/DVR components if Google TV is integrated into a device) with the display/Internet contents from Google TV. It communicates with the tuner/DVR system using a new protocol to send commands (play, pause, schedule recordings, etc.).
  • It’s running Android. This is a good choice since I think Google Chrome OS should just die. It’s wasteful to invest in two flavors of Linux systems. Android has an existing and growing third-party dev support (through Android Market), and to prove that point, they showed some existing apps from Android Market running on a Google TV device.
  • On the other hand, it is running Google Chrome browser. This makes sense since the screen size is quite different and the way you interact with the system (keyboard/mouse instead of touch) is also different.
  • It’s running on Intel Atom. We don’t know which one, but looking at the timing, it could be a Moorestown (Z6xx) [UPDATE: According to this Engadget article, it’s Intel CE4100, an SOC version of Atom they announced last year]. What this means is that Google has been working on a x86 port of Android (not just Intel)! This will tie well with the Intel’s smartphone strategy with Atom/Android.

And, as for my initial thoughts on Google TV…

  • Compared to Apple TV… Google TV does way more than Apple TV. It interacts with Web and TV. So, I think it has a better prospect of being successful than Apple TV.
  • Compared to Microsoft Windows Media Center… Microsoft has had WMC for a long time that does the same thing basically: tuner, DVR, internet-access, etc. The difference is that it can drop most of the Desktop PC legacies and get more tighter integration with the devices. However, I’d like to see a version of Google TV that we can download and run on any OS (Windows, Mac OS, Linux, etc.).
  • Compared to TiVo… Google TV is not a DVR, so it won’t directly compete with it. However, it’s interesting that Dish Network (who has been in patent disputes with TiVo forever) was partnering with Google on this project. TiVo’s internal search thing looks quite outdated though… I think TiVo can be enhanced greatly with Google TV together. Maybe?
  • Compared to Boxee… Actually this is a product that’s most similar to Google TV in a way. And we don’t know how Google TV deals with your existing local media sources (for example, home videos and pictures stored locally, not in the Cloud), but if they deal with it well, I think Boxee’s of the World is in trouble.
  • Compared to Xbox 360, PS3, etc… Well, Google TV is not in direct competition, but there is a possibility of it including games. I mean, Android Market already has some games and I assume they should just run in Google TV. So, initially, it could be a great conduit for casual games, but it could evolve into a serious gaming console as well…

With Google TV, Google now has all three screens (mobile, TV and PC) out of (Microsoft’s) three-screen strategy. But there could be a fourth screen as Apple has shown. So, where is Google Pad (running Android of course)?

Thoughts on Intel Atom Z6xx…

Recently, Intel announced Intel Atom Z6xx (codename Moorestown) for the smartphone/MID devices. Anandtech has an excellent article on it. This is not the first power-conscious offering from Intel, but it is their first effort into the ever-expanding smartphone (and MID with iPad) market.

– ARM the Reigning King of the Smartphone World

Currently, the smartphone CPU market is dominated by ARM, which just designs and licenses their CPU cores instead of manufacturing actual chips unlike Intel (which also doesn’t like licensing their CPU core designs).

By just being a designer/licensee, ARM has created a very vibrant ecosystem around their CPU core and became a de-facto standard in the mobile device market. Many large and knowledgeable semiconductor companies (Samsung, Motorola, Qualcomm, nVidia, Apple etc.) as well as many small ones are building ARM-based CPUs contributing their expertise (GPU, memory interfaces, crypto subsystems, etc.) and diversifying the product offerings. And the variety and availability of compatible ARM-based CPUs offers abundance of competitive choices for the device manufacturers.

ARM has always been power-conscious coming from the embedded device / micro-controller world. They have been improving their architectures for more compute-intensive applications and soon we will see dual-core versions of ARM CPUs and with out-of-order execution (as opposed to with in-order execution). They were replacing 6800-based microcontrollers for the past decade and growing steadily. However, their visibility and popularity exploded with the introduction and huge growth of Apple’s iPhone and iPod Touch.

ARM is also trying to move into a server market where it is increasing getting costly to provide electricity to thousands of racks of servers and to cooling systems. The recent news about ARM and the recent purchase of Agnilux by Google confirm their direction, which is their move into the Intel’s territory.

– Intel Inside in Smartphones?

Interestingly, Intel used to make ARM-based CPUs called XScale. However, they sold that division to Marvell (probably they began to think about their smartphone strategy at the same time).

On the power-conscious mobile side, Intel has been working on the Intel Atom lines of CPUs. The first generation products (codename Silverthorne) were designed for miniature PCs (or MIDs), not really for smartphones. It was underpowered for what it was mostly running on (i.e., Windows), wasn’t as power efficient as ARM, and can’t be made smaller due to its size and the number of components.

So, would this new Intel Atom Z6xx (codename Moorestown) make any difference in the smartphone market? In summary, I don’t think so. But it’s a stepping stone to the 2011 part (codename Medfield) which might make a difference.

Z6xx seems to have improved vastly over its previous generation when it comes to the power consumption. On the paper, it could be even competitive with Snapdragon-class ARM CPUs power-wise, but we would know for sure when someone actually tests and verifies the claim when a working product ships.

However, there are at two problems that I can see with Z6xxx.

First, There are too many components. Z6xx still carries Intel’s PC lineage: it has a separate southbridge and a separate RAM module. With ARM, taking Apple’s A4 for example, it has all that (CPU, southbridge and RAM) included in one chip. This impacts mostly the size and cost of the devices, and somewhat the power/performance efficiencies.

Second, It’s x86-based, and there is no compelling, consumer-oriented, smartphone OS for it. They can’t use Microsoft Windows, which isn’t designed for smartphones. There isn’t an x86 version of Windows Mobile (although Microsoft could decide to port it). It’s not like Apple will port their iPhone OS to x86.

Intel does have a Linux distribution called Moblin/MeeGo, but it’s not really suited for the consumer markets. I think Android is the right fit for it, and Intel is working on an x86-port of Android (most Android apps are Java and run on Java Virtual Machine, so the underlying CPU does not matter as much). However, we don’t know when it will be ready (there is a community effort for x86 Android already, though).

So, I think Z6xx is going to be Intel’s best-effort product, a filler, a stepping stone, toward their eventual goal for smartphone CPU. ARM will maintain its indisputable smartphone CPU dominance for, at least, two or three more years.

– 2011 and Onward

However, Intel’s 2011 offering make things much more interesting. Codename Medfield will be building up on Moorsetown and combine the southbridge with the CPU/GPU. We don’t know if the RAM module will be combined or not yet, but it’s a possibility, even the current embedded device trends.

Also, by the time Medfield comes out, it’s very likely that the x86 Android port would be stable enough and ready. Intel would have improved on the power consumption even more also.

The only question with Medfield is how Intel is going deal with CPU core licensing. If Intel maintains their current stands, they would be the only supplier of Medfield chips and I don’t think that would scale well. They will need to come up with a CPU core licensing scheme that will let others take their design, customize it and differentiate their products.

Surely, by that time, ARM would also have improved their design. So, Intel would need to be very competitive and willing to lose money on this line of products for, at least, a couple of years.

But by 2013, if Intel executes well, they will have a competitive product against ARM although I believe it will be extremely challenging for Intel. They will have to figure out what their business model (mainly licensing CPU cores vs. doing it all themselves) is going to be.

Even with all these, Intel may not make up any significant market shares in the smartphone/MID market. But it’s probably better than not having any presence.

Google Gives Up on Web-Based Mobile Phone Sales

Today, Google officially admitted that their experiment in the mobile space to create a provider-independent, web-only handset market was a failure. Most people were predicting such since Verizon and Sprint decided against carrying Nexus One on their networks.

Ever since their initial announcement earlier this year, this web-only store were fraught with many problems, and it showed that Google wasn’t set-up (and ready) for an end-user-oriented merchandise sales model.

They have been selling unlocked, unsubsidized mobile handsets online for several years, but that was for the developers who wanted a device to test their Android apps. Probably, Google thought that they could just expand what they had and that how different this expansion could be. And hugely different it was…

First, Google is now dealing with consumers, not developers. Developers bought their devices for development and probably not for their main devices since they would be playing with it and it may not work all the time. Developers are technically savvy and they can deal with many technical problems. However, consumers lack the knowledge and patience. And Nexus One was faced with such problems (the 3G problem which Google gave up on, the touch screen problems, and etc.), and forum-based support system which probably worked well with developers failed miserably with consumers.

Second, Google skimped on traditional marketing.. Consumers can’t commit to several hundreds of dollars on devices they haven’t seen. The case for Motorola Droid shows that what a well-funded marketing could do. But Google thought the word of mouth and their reputation alone could do what it did for the search/ad dominance. It is clear that Google lacks consumer marketing expertise internally.

Third, Google picked a fight unnecessarily with Goliths, Verizons of the World. In a way, I understand what they were trying to do, but it was an unnecessarily expensive way to go about it. Google might have felt invincible, but the telephony industry is more like a monopoly, and they didn’t have a chance without a government involvement.

If the U.S. mobile market was more homogeneous like that of E.U., I think it might have had a better result. However, the U.S. mobile market is segmented by different technologies and incompatible base-band frequencies, and the provider dictates what kind of devices can be on their network. Trying to cut these monopolistic Goliths out ultimately failed.

Anyway, I am sure Google will continue to update and sell developer devices online. So, it’s back to not competing with their customers (OEM handset manufacturers), to not spending time and money on dealing with consumers, and to (hopefully) concentrating on bringing a more consistent development environment for vast variety of Android devices.

The Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One by David Kilcullen

The Accidental Guerrilla

Another book I was made aware of through “Authors@Google” talks…

This book gives a pretty good idea of what was wrong about the initial approach of the U.S. in Iraq and how and why the “Surge” worked. I think it was somewhat long since it’s a mixture of Mr. Kilcullen‘s personal accounts and field studies of his past dealings of local/global terrorist groups in several Islamic regions.

I thought the essential ideas and messages were interesting, but I thought it could have been a bit shorter.

Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert B. Cialdini


No wonder this book as been a best-seller for a long time. The book has a very good combination of academic and personal essay styles. Very easy to read and very convincing.

Dr. Robert Cialdini explains, out of curiosity from his personal experiences and his academic research, what makes people agree to the “compliance agent”, such as sales people.

It is definitely a great training material for sales people and con artists, but it also deals with how we, on the other side, can detect the tactics and avoid traps.

A very good and informative read.

Cheap Low-Power HTPC / HD-DVR Design #5

A comment pointed me to another version of the Zotac IONITX board that is a bit more expensive, but also has a few more features.

The prices are based on November 24th, 2009.

  • Case: Apex MI-008 ($39.99) – 250W is a bit overkill. I doubt this system will use more than 60W.
  • Motherboard/Memory Combo: Zotac IONITX-F-E + 2x1GB PC6400 DDR2 800MHz SO-DIMM ($214.98) – The board has a 16x PCI-e and nVidia ION (GeForce 9400M) can enable Blu-ray playback. It also has an internal WiFi card (supposedly 802.11n) to make the network connection easy.
  • Tuner: AVerTVHD Duet ($64.99) – Dual ATSC-only tuner.
  • HDD: 1GB Western Digital Caviar Green ($84.99)
  • OS: Windows 7 Home Premium 32-bit OEM ($104.99) – For Windows Media Center.
  • Keyboard/Mouse: IOGear GKM561R Wireless RF mini keyboard/trackball ($48.99)
  • Remote (optional): Anyware GP-IR01BK ($23.74)
  • Optical Drive (optional): LITE-ON BD-ROM ($67.99) – I can do without this initially.

The total is $558.93 (without optional stuff). With 2% cashback, you get about $11.18 back (or one can try to find a better deal with other sites since with NewEgg, I’d have to pay a CA sales tax).

This setup is slightly more expensive than #4 using Zotac IONITX-G-E. But IONITX-F-E has (at least) two advantages. 1) WiFi and 2) digital S/PDIF (one optical and one coaxial).

I decided I really don’t need 64-bit OS and I think I can live with 2GB. Also, I think a wireless keyboard/mouse is a better choice than a remote.

Cheap Low-Power HTPC / HD-DVR Design #4

With the announcement of Adobe Flash 10.1 Beta, the nVidia ION system seems even more attractive as an HTPC. Also, it seems NewEgg is carrying the new Zotac ION board. Also, through Bing Shopping, NewEgg is offering some (2%) moneyback.

The prices are based on November 20th, 2009.

  • Case: Apex MI-008 ($39.99) – 250W is a bit overkill. I doubt this system will use more than 60W.
  • Motherboard: Zotac IONITX-G-E ($159.99) – has a 16x PCI-e (update: actually, just a 1x PCI-e) and nVidia ION (GeForce 9400M) can enable Blu-ray playback.
  • Tuner: AVerTVHD Duet ($64.99) – Dual ATSC-only tuner.
  • Memory: 2x2GB PC6400 DDR2 800MHz SO-DIMM ($85.99) – I believe 4GB is the max for the motherboard.
  • HDD: 1GB Western Digital Caviar Green ($84.99)
  • OS: Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit OEM ($104.99) – For Windows Media Center.
  • Remote: Anyware GP-IR01BK ($23.74)
  • Optical Drive (optional): LITE-ON BD-ROM ($67.99) – I can do without this initially.

The total is $564.68 (or $632.67 with the optical drive). With 2% moneyback, it becomes $553.39.

The possible adjustable stuff is the memory and the hard disk drive. With 2GB, you can save about $45. With a 500GB drive, about $30. But I am not so sure if that’s worth it ($495 vs. $565).

The World According to Hong