Custom Firmware on the Humax HDR-Fox T2

After the untimely death of my Topfield box, and less than stellar performance of the 3view box, I ended up sending that back & buying the Humax HDR-Fox T2. Since I bought it over a year ago there’s been a huge amount of progress on a custom firmware which enables you to install ‘packages‘ that add a whole bunch of new features, including;

– Web-based interface for controlling the box, searching the EPG, etc.
– Smartphone optimised web interface
– Auto-filing script for placing series linked programs in designated sub-folders
– Remote scheduling interface for setting timers on the box remotely
– Recording trimming to cut off unwanted segments of recordings
– Custom TV portal (offering Sky Player support)
– And loads more!

There are some videos on YouTube that show a lot of these features in action, together with a guide showing exactly how to install it onto your box. It’s a simple, and reversible process & the guys that have worked on it have helped improve the features on the box no end!

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Breathing new life into a Motorola Milestone

I’ve owned a Motorola Milestone for some time now.. but it’s never been the slickest of experiences and since the 2.2 Froyo update things have been a bit laggy. I’d started to look at custom ROMs, but the problem I see with custom ROMs is the risk of bricking the device, and there are a fair number of bugs in the custom ROMs which may mean I’d need to keep on top of the latest releases.

Instead of going all the way & installing a custom ROM, I went part way & rooted the phone using SuperOneClick, carefully reading all the instructions beforehand. I still messed up & didn’t run the app as Admin.. killing the app & re-running it fortunately didn’t have any nasty side-effects :)

Once the phone was rooted, I did very little else until I spotted this nice list of apps on Lifehacker. The one that peaked my interest was SetCPU, but when I ran that it topped out at 550 Mhz, which led me to find Milestone Overclock which allows you to overclock the phone without having to install a ROM that supports higher frequencies (like the official 2.2 update from Motorola).

I’m now running the phone comfortably at 800 Mhz.. but only when it needs it.. SetCPU will scale back the performance depending on what the phone is doing, which really helps with battery life.

NZB-to-Server Automation

The HTPC I’m using is also my download box. It started to get really tedious to VNC onto it & surf for NZB files, and manage things that way. Now I do it all from my laptop and use a relatively simple batch script to get the NZB files onto the server.

Here’s what’s involved;

Automatic Save Folder – Firefox Add-On

This useful Firefox add-on is used to save the NZB files to a specific folder without even prompting me where to put it. Saves a few clicks and having to re-select the same folder all the time.

Batch Script

One I’m done with the NZB files I then use this simple batch script to map a network drive to the server & move them into a specific folder. This script is then pinned into my Windows 7 Programs folder so that it’s simple to run with a few keystrokes.

Rem EXTRACT ALL ZIP FILES

c:\progra~1\7-zip\7z x "C:\Users\blah\Documents\_altbinz\nzbs\*.zip" -o"C:\Users\blah\Documents\_altbinz\nzbs"

Rem DELETE ZIP FILES

del "C:\Users\blah\Documents\_altbinz\nzbs\*.zip"
del "C:\Users\blah\Documents\_altbinz\nzbs\*.nfo"

Rem MAP NETWORK DRIVE (TEMPORARY)

NET USE T: \\192.168.1.10\htpc /Persistent:No

Rem MOVE ALL FILES TO SERVER

move "C:\Users\blah\Documents\_altbinz\nzbs\*.nzb" "t:\usenet\nzbs-import\"

Rem UNMAP NETWORK DRIVE

NET USE T: /DELETE

pause

Alt.Binz Auto-Import Feature

The alt.binz client allows you to automatically import NZB files from a speified folder. It does this automatically & can delete the NZBs after it’s done. This is perfect for what I’m attempting to do here.

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.

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.

Slow Cooker Power Consumption

When I was looking to buy a slow cooker I didn’t find much on specific power usage. I guess it depends on your model, but even general figures were hard to find. Now I’ve got one, here’s the deal;

Morphy Richards 3.6 litre crockpot (bought from Argos in Sept 2010)

High 160w
Low 118w
Warm 37w

The readings I took for cooking a full meal for 10.5 hours (high at the start, the low for most of it, then warm for a while), used 1.23kw of electricity. There’s no thermostat so it idles along at whatever power setting you’ve chosen. At today’s UK energy prices you might be looking at 12p per kw of energy, and therefore about 15p to slow cook a meal.

It’d be interesting to know how much energy it would take to cook this purely on the hob, in some ways I’m guessing it might be cheaper, but the convenience of the slow cooker for some meals is what appeals.. plus 15p isn’t exactly expensive.

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/

Moving ISP – Not so difficult

This post will probably end up sounding like an ad, but that’s not the point of this post. Basically, I had to move ISPs because O2 were wanting heavier users off their network & don’t care if any downloads are limited to the early hours of the morning.

The hunt was on for a new ISP and BT looked half decent with a cap of 100Gb (at 80Gb they start sending you emails to warn you). Then a mate of mine said he was with IDnet; I took a look at their website & it was a breath of fresh air.. they actually publish their usage limits! If only more ISPs were as transparent as this!!

Migration only took 5 working days, and the new ADSL2+ service is really speedy.. I don’t get any problems watching iPlayer at peak times like I did with O2. Fantastic stuff!

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.

Google Maps Navigation – Data Usage

Google unlocked the GPS navigation feature in the UK last week & one thing I wondered is how much data it used up as you drive the route it’s suggested… this is of interest to anyone on a metered tariff from their mobile provider. In my case I’m on an O2 business tariff that lets you download 200mb a month.

Google Navigate - Image from Mashable

To see how much data it used I first installed 3G Watchdog from the Android Market. Then I planned a route from work to home and headed off. From my unscientific tests it downloaded around 1mb of data in my 8 mile journey. Whether the duration of the journey makes a difference I’m not sure.. i.e. if you’re suck in traffic does it still pull/push data at the same rate as when you’re travelling? I’m assuming it won’t transfer as much, but it’ll still transfer something.

UPDATE: The actual per-mile download rate can’t be found by the method above. When you first plan the route, it’ll download and cache the data, then download small updates as you drive along. If you therefore plan your route at home whilst on a Wifi connection, then drive away (with route updates coming over 3G), you’ll get different results to what I documented above.

Ethernet Camera Review – Edimax IC-1310

Last week I bought one of these cameras to keep an eye on the house. After initially thinking I wanted the old D-Link DCS-900 I stumbled across the Edimax range of cameras. Here’s a summary of what they have available:

  • Edimax IC-1500 – Older model
  • Edimax IC-1510 – Updated version of the IC-1500 – ~£40
  • Edimax IC-1510wg – As per IC-1510 but adds wireless – ~£65
  • Edimax IC-1310 – Same as the IC-1510 but adds audio – ~£48
  • Edimax IC-1310wg – As per IC-1310 but adds wireless – ~£78

I went for the IC-1310 because I thought the audio might be useful, even if I didn’t use it at first. I also couldn’t justify the more expensive wireless model when I’ve got a couple of Belkin wireless APs in the loft that could be hooked up to add wireless at zero cost to me.

One week on, this camera is great, especially for the price! In low light the images are pretty decent, and in daylight they’re great. Some of the features require that you use Internet Explorer; e.g. getting audio as well as video requires their ActiveX control, as does the initial setup of the motion detection. However, most other features work through other web browsers like Firefox (I don’t think some people read all the documentation!) it’s all in the ‘CGI Commands’ manual on the Edimax website. You can get straight to the MJPG video stream or individual JPG images through whatever browser you like. However, I’ve not yet been able to get the audio and video stream mixed together on other browsers. The ActiveX control also doesn’t seem to work through corporate proxies.

Network setup is relatively trivial for anyone who knows their way around port forwarding in a router. It took me about 10 minutes to set everything up & make it available using a DynDNS host name for external viewing.

It hooked up to my Android phone without any problems, streaming the video over 3G using apps like ‘Tiny DVR‘ (which I’d recommend) or ‘IP Cam Viewer Lite‘. Over 3G the frame rate was about 1-2fps.. enough for a quick check on the house. Edimax have their own app for those with iPhones.

If you don’t need audio then go for the cheaper Edimax IC-1510 (which is currently about £40). I’ve had mine wired through a ethernet cable so can’t comment on the wireless side of things; if you want wireless then you need to see whether it’s worth the extra £30 to go from the IC-3010 to the IC-3010wg.

URLs that work through most non-IE web browsers are:

Single-image, not logged in (you define the file name to use);
http://IP:web_port/loginfree.jpg

MJPG Stream
http://IP:web_port/mjpg/video.mjpg

MJPG Stream with authentication
http://admin:password@IP:web_port/mjpg/video.mjpg

QR Code Bookmarklet

QR Codes are a useful way of getting data to your mobile phone using it’s built-in camera. They’re basically 2D barcodes that can carry things like URLs and contact details. On Android I’d recommend using the app called Barcode Scanner to read QR Codes.

There were instances where I wanted to open up a webpage with a long URL on my phone & didn’t want to go through the hassle of copying and pasting it into one of those online QR Code generators.

This bookmarklet for Firefox and newer versions of IE lets you create a QR Code for the page you’re on.. it’ll default to the current page, but you can also override this with something else (like a URL from your clipboard, or whatever).

Add a new bookmark to your toolbar, and set the URL to the code below (I’d have put the proper link on here but WordPress disables the Javascript);

javascript:var%20sCode=prompt('Enter%20URL%20to%20encode',window.location);void(window.open('http://chart.apis.google.com/chart?cht=qr&chs=300x300&chl='+encodeURIComponent(sCode),'Qr%20code','top=100,left=200,width=350,height=350,status=yes'));

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.

Android Apps – Pick of the best stuff – Jan 2010

Here’s my pick from the thousands of Android apps that are available as of Jan 2010.. all of these are free!

Media

  • Listen – Google’s podcast subscription & listening app
  • beebPlayer – Stream content from the BBC’s iPlayer
  • Rev3Remote – Stream video content from Revision3

Screen Candy

  • chompSMS – View SMS conversations like the iPhone
  • SMS Popup – Nice pop-up notification of SMS messages
  • Endless Walls Wallpapers Lite – Wallpapers
  • Backgrounds – Wallpapers
  • Retro Clock Widget – Nice clock + date widget
  • The Weather Channel – has a nice widget

Developer / Techie / Advanced stuff

  • Quick Settings – Quick access to settings, e.g. turn off wifi
  • ASTRO File Manager – Access files on your SD card
  • AppsInstaller – Install apps from your SD card
  • Free Advanced Task Manager – Task management & app uninstaller
  • Wifi Analyser – Wifi graphing (like Netstumbler)
  • GPS Status – Detailed GPS info
  • android-vnc-viewer – VNC Viewer

Barcodes / Shopping

  • ShopSavvy – Read barcodes and it’ll find the product online
  • Barcode Scanner – Recommended for reading (and creating) QR Codes

Augmented Reality

  • Google Sky Map
  • Reality Browser 3.0

Misc Useful Stuff

  • RealCalc Scientific Calculator
  • Voice Recorder
  • Text Edit
  • Compass
  • DrawNoteK – Draw notes on the screen
  • Bubble – Spirit level

App Versions of Websites

  • Quickpedia – Mobile optimised Wikipedia
  • Seesmic – Twitter client
  • Facebook for Android – Official Facebook app
  • Bloo – Unofficial Facebook app that includes notifications

Games

  • Labyrinth Lite
  • Phit Droid
  • Frozen Bubble
  • Coloroid
  • Bebbled

iPhone and Android development with Titanium

Over the past few months I’ve worked on a couple of mobile applications for the iPhone and Android platforms. I’d looked at Phonegap some time before that, but determined that it wasn’t up to the job, but more recently I stumbled across Titanium from Appcelerator. The idea is that you code up your apps using HTML and Javascript. The Javascript calls the Titanium API to create things like lists, dialog boxes, and phone features such as geolocation.

Some of the advantages of using Titanium are:

– No need to learn Objective-C (iPhone) or Java (Android)
– Leverage existing HTML + Javascript skills
– Write one version of the code that can be deployed to both platforms
– Code is compiled up into native applications which are accepted in the App Store
– Potential to deploy to other platforms in the future (e.g. Blackberry, Symbian)

The level of support provided by the Appcelerator staff on the official forums is brilliant, and the tutorial videos are good for those who want to get an overview of creating apps without wading through documentation.

You’ll still need a Mac if you want to develop for the iPhone, because Titanium makes use of the iPhone SDK. But if you just want to do Android development then you can use Window or Linux as well.

Although you’ll be developing 1 set of code for both the iPhone and Android, you’ll probably want to customise the UI slightly differently for each platform. For example, Android apps often hide away items such as ‘Settings’ and ‘Help’ under the Menu button. It’s simple to code this kind of thing up:

	if (Titanium.Platform.name == 'android') {
		var menu = Titanium.UI.createMenu();
		menu.addItem("Help/About", function() {
			displayWindow('Help / About', 'window_about.html');
		}, Titanium.UI.Android.SystemIcon.HELP);
		Titanium.UI.setMenu(menu);
	} else {
		data.push({title:'Help / About',image:'tabicon_help.png', color:'#ffffff'});
	}

That code will create the Help/About option under a menu on Android, and add it to the home screen’s list on the iPhone. Simple.

Titanium is an awesome framework so if you’re considering developing for the iPhone and/or Android then I’d highly recommend you take a look.