The joys of a networked HDTV Multi-Media Computer (Spy on your kids, record Lost in HDTV, and yes, watch EWTN without cable)

I recently (well 6 months ago) set up a multi-media computer on the cheap and it’s working great. It allows me to do the following:

  1. Watch EWTN for Free, with near crystal clear, smooth video in 4:3 format (this particularly impresses me since EWTN use to stream very poorly, but the Real video stream is apparently upgraded which now allows good quality full screen video)
  2. Watch any other internet streamed video for free usually in full screen 4:3 or 16:9 format, including Heroes, Lost, Cspan, Youtube, etc. any other video available on the net, video quality varies depending on service, but major tv network streams are excellent
  3. Using VLC/Videolan, stream video from my computer to any networked computer in the house, including recorded tv, and archived video (hint, instead of using the web interface as suggested in the engadget article, on the remote computer on which I want to watch the video, I login to the HDTV computer using RealVNC, and click on a shortcut that starts up VLC in streaming mode. I have 2 shortcuts, one which plays the video both on the HDTV PC and on the remote computer I’m watching the video on, and one that plays only on the remote (this also allows streaming of TS_Video (DVD) directories on the HDTV’s PC’s hard drive, whereas the VLC gui doesn’t allow this):

    For no local playback, playback only on the remote computer having the ip address of set up a shortcut with the following command line:
    “C:\Program Files\VideoLAN\VLC\vlc.exe” –sout=#duplicate{dst=std
    {access=udp,mux=ts,dst=}} –file-caching=4000

    For local playback and simultaneous playback on the remote computer so you can watch the video in 2 different rooms simultaneously, playback only on the remote computer having the ip address of set up a shortcut with the following command line:
    “C:\Program Files\VideoLAN\VLC\vlc.exe” –sout=#duplicate{dst=display,dst=std
    dst=}} –file-caching=4000

  4. Record High Definition 720p/1080i broadcast TV using DVR software BeyondTV
  5. Store my home videos and photos for browsing and display
  6. Archive DVD’s to hard drive (using dvd shrink (easy) or dvd decryptor (more involved but more reliable), of DVDS I own, allowing better organization and faster access [and yes I respect copyright, archiving only DVDS i have rights to]) Check out DVDPlay which I use to make this a little prettier.
  7. Video conference using a cheap video cam and skype. This is useful not only to call people outside of your home, but also to communicate within the home. For instance, I can set my multimedia computer to automatically answer skype calls, and if somebody is watching a video on the computer, I can call them from my computer in the other room, and announce over the TV “Ok, Time to turn the TV OFF!!”. I can also use it for intra-room video conferencing and video monitoring. Very cool.

  8. Remotely control the computer from another room using Windows Remote Desktop, or simpler, in my opinion the free Real VNC. This is great fun, since you can turn on/off movies, turn down/up videos, etc. all from another room.

  9. Listen to music with visualizations (viewed in Windows’ Media Player this is pretty awesome on a 37″ LCD), mp3’s, audio podcasts, etc.
  10. And of course, browse the internet, send email, compose documents, etc. in 37″ wide screen glory from my easy chair using a wireless keyboard and mouse
  11. In addition, the computer, which I call “Edison” (it’s really Edison II since Edison I was my linux server which died but had served as my primary smba file server and linux development server) also doubles as:

    1. File and Print Server for other computers in the house (simply by sharing out the printer and driver using windows sharing – I used to use a separate linux based computer to serve as a file server using samba which I far preferred, but when that computer burned out after many years of service, I decided to combine the file server with my multimedia pc. The file server is MUCH slower given the other loads on the computer and given it’s not linux, but it’s been bearable.
    2. Personal wordpress blog, which I use as personal knowledgebase, logging technical tips and notes, usually from another computer using the firefox add-in Deepest Sender.
    3. Cygwin server (although a poor replacement for a full blown linux server that was Edison I, an okay linux solution that operates in a windows environment, giving me access to such very useful things as cron and linux scripts). I primarily use this to record AM talk radio programs that stream audio to MP3 on a daily basis – a somewhat obscure and somewhat awkward (but worth the effort) process which I for now will leave undocumented, but suffice it to say that at the end of each day I have a nice collection of MP3’s of Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Prairie Home Companion, Dave Ramsey, Matt Drudge, or almost any other popular radio show out there that I wish to record)

    Edison consists of the following:

    1. 37″ Olevia Flat Panel TV similar to this one. Snagged it at Target for $545 on black friday special (involved waiting about 2 hours before opening, yes, i’m crazy). I’ve been impressed with its features and video quality given the price.
    2. old computer (consisting of parts left over after building a new one) consisting of:
    3. A7N8X-E Motherboard

    4. 300 gb drive (new), stores all video
    5. 160 gb drive (old, from old linux server, stores all non-video data files, file server drive, since this was partitioned using extf3 linux format, I use a utility that allows windows to read the format which so far work well).
    6. 80 gb drive used for Vista system drive
    7. Logitech S510 wireless keyboard (fairly good range, fairly inexpensive if you look on sale, and batteries last a long time, definately need wireless keyboard/mouse one for a multimedia pc)
    8. EDIMAX EW-7128G IEEE 802.11b/g PCI Wireless Card – This has been extremely reliable and beats the heck out of the usb wifi adapters I’ve used in the past. This one comes with an external antenna that is very helpful in getting a better signal.
    9. Kworld ATSC 310 HDTV USB Recorder Box Not sure if they are making these anymore, but I highly recommend them if you are okay with ditching the software and going for BeyondTV.
    10. WIndows Ultimate – Although I have Windows Vista Ultimate running, I’m really not using any of the Windows Media pc features (which comes with ultimate) because I prefer BeyondTV. In fact, XP would probably run a lot faster and with lower overhead and would probably be a better choice for a computer with these specs.
    11. BeyondTV – as mentioned above, a very good DVR program that works with tuner box and which I got for free after rebate from Frys a year or two ago
    12. What I would do to improve it:

      1. Add Dedicated video card – Right now I’m just using the integrated video in the mother board – thing are working okay, but the video stutters sometimes because of the reliance on the integrated video – BeyondTV worked great on my 17″ monitor, but it seems that the 37″ LCD is likely pushing the video to its limit. The one game I tried to install wouldn’t run properly.
      2. Add more RAM (at least 2 gigs) but then I would have to update the motherboard

      3. Get a Better CPU – at least dual core. This is particularly useful in compressing video from high definition to DIVX which BeyondTV can do but is hard pressed to do it on the system I’m using.

      4. Add More Hard drive space!!! You can never get enough with recorded video. Each hour of high definition records to 8 GB of space using TP format in BeyondTV. Preferably I would like 1 TB, and really I would like 2!!

      5. Replace wifi adapter with Powerline adapter (like this panasonic set which has great reviews on amazon) for better internet access. While my wireless adapter has worked surprising well for what I’m doing (I’m absolutely shocked how well given the problems I’ve had with WIFI in the past and that my router is about 50 feet away through several walls), it does slow down once in a while and the video streaming stutters at times. The powerline adapters have come down hugely in price, have great reviews, and seems would solve all the problems I’ve had with WIFI in the past.

      In short, I would ideally like a computer more like my new one, together with better internet access, to power Edison, but in the meantime I am fairly satisfied.

      In my opinion, hooking up an internet connected computer to your tv beats the heck out of a dedicated solution such as Mac TV, TIVO, etc. It just gives you so many options not otherwise available. Also, as an aside, I briefly contemplated doing a linux solution such as MythTV, but I’m glad I didn’t. You just can’t beat the user friendliness and flexibility of being in a windows environment. I love linux for servers, but I shudder to think what I would have had to go through in order to get this functionality and compatability with video cards, etc. using linux.