Harmony 600 Replacement

Due to a clash with a toddler and my Harmony 555 all-in-one remote I bought a Harmony 600 in September last year. In the last month it’s been repeatedly rebooting/restarting. A new set of batteries sorts the issue out, but only for a couple of weeks, and then it starts happening again. There’s a thread on Logitech’s support site which talks about the problem, so it’s not an isolated issue.

The good thing is, that after raising a support ticket on Sunday, it only took a couple of message exchanges before they said it was faulty & shipped a new remote. They don’t even ask for the old one back, since they can de-activate it on their servers so that it can never be updated online.. pretty much rendering it useless, because there’s no way to update it without using their online app.

Kudos to Logitech for sorting this out so quickly! Really impressive.

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Building a Zotac ION-based HTPC

I’ve been looking to replace my ageing Xbox which has reliably run XBMC for over 7 years with a box that can handle HD content, as well as acting as a NAS & download server. The Zotac ION box caught my eye, since the latest media center apps now support hardware acceleration for video playback & the nVidia ION GPU is supported.

Components

I bought the kit as a bundle from Mini-ITX.com and fitted a 32Gb SSD for the operating system, and a 1TB Western Digital Essentials HDD which would be attached via USB & powers down when not in use. The shopping list looks like this;

– Zotac ION-ITX-A Motherboard with Dual Core 1.6GHz Atom N330
– 2GB or 4GB DDR2 800 RAM included
– M350 Universal Mini-ITX Enclosure
(bundle costing £233 from Mini-ITX)

– OCZ Onyx 32GB SATA II 2.5in Solid State Disk
(about £50 from Amazon)

– 1TB Western Digital Essentials
(about £45 from Amazon)

OS

For the OS I wanted to use Windows 7; that’s what I’m most comfortable writing scripts + code for. The Linux distros for XBMC Live look pretty good, but there was too much of a learning curve involved for adding in the extra features I wanted.

Installing OS From USB

Since there’s no optical drive, I opted to install Windows 7 from a USB key. I actually used a 4Gb SD card from my camera & a SD card reader, and followed these instructions to make it bootable & have the Windows 7 installation on it. Installation went without a hitch.

Media Player

After installing the OS, I updated with the latest nVidia drivers, and started installing apps like XBMC. The latest Dharma release of XBMC supports hardware acceleration using DXVA2, however I was unable to get it working with 1080p content & gave up after a couple of hours. I then tried Media Portal which worked perfectly with whatever I threw at it. There’s a brilliant guide on how to configure Windows 7 and MediaPortal by Rhys Jones, which is useful to follow if you want to optimise your HTPC setup.

Remote Control

Next up was getting the remote control working correctly. I had a cheapo CyberLink remote, plus a Harmony 600.. I used the Cyberlink IR Reciever & mapped up keys into the Harmony 600. Some of the buttons worked, some didn’t. I ended up re-mapping the numeric keys to certain MediaPortal features using one of the plugins. I also re-mapped the MCE Green Button so that it runs MediaPortal (see this guide.. scroll to the Green Button heading).

Scripts

The HTPC also acts as a NAS + handles any downloads, so I’ve written a bunch of scripts to handle certain situtations.

– Timed execution of certain download tasks using Windows Scheduler. Making sure that the tasks don’t bring the HTPC out of sleep.
– Execution of scripts when the HTPC is brought out of sleep (like making sure MediaPortal is running)

Keyboard + Mouse Control

For times when I need a keyboard, I’m running Unified Remote on the HTPC and the client on my Android phone. This allows me to control most aspects of the HTPC via my phone, without having to buy extra hardware like a wireless mouse/keyboard.

Using Wireshark and MITM to explore a STB

I’ve recently bought a new Freeview HD box from 3view. It has a whole host of features and can be considered a “connected” device. As with most high-end set-top-boxes (STB) it pulls software firmware updates from the web, and I was interested to see where it went to get these updates & how it knew they were available.

I know about using tools to sniff network traffic, but have only done this to sniff traffic coming directly out of the PC I’m running the capture software on. Buying this 3view box gave me more of an inventive to expand my knowledge & figure out how to capture the traffic from other devices.

It was actually relatively easy. I decided to do a Machine in the Middle (MITM) ‘attack’ which was documented over at the Wireshark wiki.

In my case I didn’t have 2 network cards, but did have a laptop with one network card, and a wireless card. In Windows XP I bridged the NIC to the Wireless adapter, then plugged in a cross-over cable that linked the 3view box to my laptop. Then, after a bit of messing about with IP addresses it started working.. my 3view box was accessing my wireless router via my laptop.

Now that all the traffic from the 3view box was going via my laptop, all I then needed to do was fire up Wireshark & take a look at the packets.

Intercepting the traffic allowed me to see where the box was going for it’s updates, and the User Agent. That’s been documented over at the 3viewer community website I set up for 3view owners.

http://3viewer.elementfx.com/

3view Community Website – Forums and News

Last week I put in my order for a new Freeview HD box from 3view.. the box is due to be shipped on the 27th May 2010. Apart from the official 3view Facebook group, there were no forums or news sites to speak of, so I’ve set up a site called 3viewer which is hosted on some free space with x10hosting.

http://3viewer.elementfx.com/

Site performance isn’t going to blow anyone away (it seems especially poor when the US is awake), but it’s got full PHP support, MySQL databases and everything I needed to set up Joomla and phpBB. Other free hosting (such as Zymic) runs into problems with Joomla extensions because it doesn’t support unzipping of files, which is a bit rubbish.

If you’re in the market for a new Freeview HD box then check out the coverage of the 3view box over at 3viewer.. it looks as though it’ll be a decent box with some interesting Internet-connected features. I’ll be posting independent reviews and videos as time permits.

3view Q&A – Freeview HD

This year Freeview goes HD.. but as yet there isn’t any hardware available to consumers. I’ve been keeping my eye on 2 boxes, the Humax DVB-T2 HD and one by a new British company called 3view.

3view has peeked my interest because of some of the more innovative features they’re including, like the support for VOD, apps (e.g. Facebook), and web-browser that allows you to view sites like Channel 4’s 4oD.

There’s a feature list on their site, but I also emailed them to clarify a few things. What I asked may be of interest to others, so here’s what they said;


Q: Now that the BBC intends to restrict the EPG data, is that something that won’t be available on the 3view box?

A: We are currently in discussions with BBC about this. There shouldn’t be any problems and the EPG data will be available on the 3view box.


Q: Is the box able to play back DivX/Xvid?

A: DivX5 or higher – no problem but the older version codec hasn’t been tested. We have tested Xvid and that’s fine too.


Q: With the H264 support, I’m assuming these can be in an MKV container? Will it play back 1080p video without a problem? And how about support for pass-through on DTS soundtracks? Oh, and embedded subtitles?

A: There won’t be any problems with playing back 1080p videos. Embedded subtitles tracks will not work in the current version, once recorded. We may add that in the future.


Q: Is there any way for users to customise the software on the box? I love the Topfield TF5800 because you can add user-written apps to plug gaps in functionality and generally make the box so much better.

A: Not yet- once we have a solid code base we may allow some customer tinkering – but not from launch, as bug tracking will become too complex for a V1.0.


Q: Is the remote control IR, or Wireless?

A: It is IR – BUT we have zwave installed and may offer zwave remotes in the future for extra web interoperability


Q: Are you able to record 2 programs, and watch 1 other (as long as it’s on the same multiplex as one of the recorded programs)?

A: Not at the moment – it’s record one and watch one. We will be adding that in a future upgrade.


Q: Do you think the box will be firmware upgradable to include support for the BBC’s Canvas project when that starts to get finalised & implemented?

A: We anticipate a YES but we cannot be sure as it is not a reality yet.

Flat Cat 6

128381306-40 This year I’m moving to HD at home, but streaming HD over a wireless connection is far from ideal. The next step up from that is to use the Ethernet over power adapters (like Homeplug) which are supposed to be pretty decent, yet expensive. However, I’ve gone for a wired connection using some really flat Cat 6 gigabit Ethernet cable.

Usually it’s a really hassle running cable from your router to the device, but because this cable is so flat it’ll go easily under most doors and you can then run it under the carpet.

At about £14 from CPC (for 15 meters) it’s not a bad price compared to buying wireless or power adapter kits.

Topfield TF5800 – a hacker’s PVR :)

The Netgem iPlayer I’ve had for watching Freeview doesn’t provide any PVR functionality, so I’ve been looking for a replacement that does everything I want. It was between the Humax 9600 and the Topfield TF5800. After a lot of research I went for the Topfield.

The thing that swung it for is that the Toppy is extremely configurable due to 1) the custom firmwares 2) the user-built applications (TAPs) that are available.

Between the firmwares and the TAPs you can customise almost anything! For example, on the standard box the display on the front will show the time when in standby, and the channel number when it’s switched on. That’s not something I care for.. I can see the channel I’m watching and the time is more useful to me. Someone else obviously thought the same, and they’ve created a TAP (TF5000Display) to completely customise the display to your needs, doing way more than what I needed.

First Things First

Setting the box up wasn’t as arduous as I thought it was going to be. After rigging it up to the TV and making sure everything worked, I fired up my laptop and installed the Topfield Tools suite, together with the USB Driver for Windows XP. Easy so far.

Firmware

Next I downloaded the firmware I wanted to install. This was from Toppy.org.uk and required me to sign up for their forums, and that gave me a login for the main site that brings up a new menu where you can download new (and beta) firmwares. I chose the 5.13.65 release which was recommended by the site.

The firmware can then be (optionally) patched with extra fixes which have been community-written. To work out which ones I wanted to integrate into the firmware I read this topic and downloaded FWPatcher & PatchPackV2 which contained everything I needed.

The patches I chose were:

  • [C0] NoCYR
  • [Cy] NotCYR_02
  • [H] HDDPatch_03
  • [I] PBSiS
  • [P] PowerRestore_05
  • [R] RecRoundel
  • [S] StartupPatch_03
  • [T2] TimerPatchT2b
  • [Ts] TimerSetting_02
  • [T] TimerPatch_04b
  • [Wf] WindFaster_02
  • [Xp] PlayNoCYR_04
  • [Xw] WatchNoCYR_03
  • [Z] Disable0AspectSwitching

After integrating the patches the next step was to blow it onto the Toppy using the firmware utility in Topfield Tools.

The process was surprisingly easy and the online documentation is good if you get lost.

TAPs

There’s only so much you can stuff into 1.5mb of firmware, and Topfield were considerate enough to allow people to program applications, a bit like plug-ins, which have access to an API provided by the company. That allows these programs to access things like EPG data or write out to the screen.

The standard EPG that ships with the box isn’t great.. but add the MyStuff TAP and the unit is completely transformed with a highly customisable, and skinnable EPG. There’s even a 71-page PDF manual for MyStuff! Here are 3 things you can customise (out of a list of maybe a hundred):

  • Show/hide channel logos
  • Choose how many hours to display in the EPG window (3hrs seems sensible)
  • How many channels to display per EPG page (8 suits me!)

The TAPs I added on day 1 were:

  • MyStuff (which adds a few of it’s own, including one that scrapes EPG data)
  • Display
  • PowerDown
  • TAPCommander

Conclusion

The standard Topfield box is okay. And it’ll probably be a lot better with the new firmware that will be released shortly that features in the new TF5810 and conforms to the Freeplay standard. However, with the custom firmware and TAPs (especially MyStuff) the box is awesome and I’m having a great time configuring it to be exactly what I want from a Freeview PVR box. Kudos to the user-community who put so much time into developing the patches and TAPs!! And thanks to Topfield for being forward-thinking enough to open it up enough to allow these mods to be written.. if only more manufacturers did this!!!

Quick Video Demo

This is a demo showing what the Topfield PVR looks like once the MyStuff application has replaced the standard UI.

At the start of the video you’ll see the default Toppy UI, then I fire up MyStuff where you’ll see the difference straight away.

After viewing the EPG I navigate around a bit, then show a MyStuff settings page to give you an idea of how many things you can configure.

I go on to show a few more things including setting series link (via a Search), and a some of the standard Topfield things like pausing live TV, PiP, etc.

Near the end I dip into TAPCommander which helps you configure any user-written apps you’ve got loaded into memory.

This covers only a small portion of what the box is capable of and is only meant as a taster :)