Home multimedia centers are popping up at stores but most are relatively closed boxes or are full blown PCs. Of course, engineers like myself love to get under the hood so this project is about building up a rather extensive multimedia home control center (see Figure 1) that is front-ended by Sharp’s Aquos LC-37D40U 37-in HDTV (see Figure 2).
This was an interesting project that sort of grew. It is so large that I have split it into four parts not including coverage of each of the products used in the project. This is the first of four parts.
• Part 1: Base System and Networking
• Part 2: SageTV PVR
• Part 3: Insteon Power Management
• Part 4: Elk Home Management and Security
This first part takes a look at building the main system including the Sharp HDTV. In utilizes a host of wireless products so you are not tied or have wires running in front of your TV. They system supports S-video output so it can be easily used with existing televisions instead of the new HDTVs.
One of the main features of the system is the PVR (personal video recorder) support. This is part of the package that ATI provides but, like similar packages from vendors like Hauppauge, the software is designed for use with a PC. While the system is a PC, its interface needs to a little more flexible and the resolution is not up to conventional PC LCD standards. As such, the second part of the project examines SageTV.
Sage TV is a sophisticated TV management system that supports remote PCs and devices such as Hauppauge’s MVP. This article will examine how the SageTV support is integrated with the system including with an MVP so you can start recording a TV program from any device and watch it later on the same remote device, not just main TV.
The home management aspect of the system is divided into two articles as well. The first examines different Insteon-based software solutions. The second takes a look at a more conventional wired solution from Elk. The latter addresses aspects of home security and HVAC support. Although wireless is the watchword for much of this series, wired has its place. For example, the fire alarms used with the Elk system are commercial grade, wired solutions with power being supplied from a central, battery backed up box mounted in the basement.
As you might guess, this project has been brewing for quite awhile but I have finally made it through most of the products at this point. There are a few wired devices for the Elk system that I have not finished deploying yet because it takes awhile to run the wires in the attic.
To start off, we’ll take a look at the components involved in the entire project. The detailed description of each product is available via links at the start of the article. Likewise, each of the products associated with each part of the series will appear with the appropriate article.
The main system centers around the Sharp LC-37D40U HDTV. It is the largest, most expensive, and most impressive part of the system. It is a standalone TV with high resolution inputs including HDMI and S-video. It has its own speaker system so we did not include any external components or audio although many audiophiles may plug this into their own amplifiers.
Attached to the LC-37D40U is a PC that consists of a VIA EPIA EN 15000 motherboard that uses the latest C7 processor. It has HDTV output but we didn’t have the adapter to take advantage of it so we used the S-video support instead with very good results. The motherboard is housed within a Casetronic C137 Mini-ITX case courtesy of Logic Supply, a Mini-ITX vendor. You can get most of the hardware for the system from them with the exception of the HDTV. The case has a power switch and two openings. One is for the FB-4652 Compact Flash to IDE adapter that can handle other flash formats via an adapter. The other is for a slimline DVD-recorder.
The case holds a 500Gbyte Western Digital Caviar SE16 SATA2 hard drive. We didn’t choose a large hard disk just for the fun of it although it is an impressive specimen. It was more of a requirement given the PVR status of the system. Recorded video can gobble up space faster than spam. A DVD movie is a case in point. A regular DVD is about 5GB and most movies are delivered on double layer DVD’s with twice the capacity. Even accepting a higher level of compression, hour long shows will use at least a gigabyte of storage. A couple hundred hours of video may seem like a lot until you have to decide what to burn to DVD or delete.
The PVR support was provided by ATI. I actually took a look at the ATI TV Wonder Pro ($99) and the slight more expensive ATI HDTV Wonder ($119, $199 with remote and TV antenna). Your choice will depend upon what you plan on connecting the TV capture board to.
Keep in mind that over the air HDTV will be a requirement in 2007 and that is not too far away. That was also when analog TV broadcast signals were going to stop but that is likely to be more like 2010-2015. Analog TV signals and the ATI TV Wonder Pro can still be used with a converter or with set top boxes from cable and satellite TV but you will need the ATI HDTV Wonder to handle HDTV support. Of course, the ATI HDTV Wonder will also handle analog TV signals so it is well worth the added price.
The ATI boards and the Sharp HDTV have their own remotes. The former are RF. The latter IR (infrared). For the keyboard I went with the Logitech diNovo Media Desktop Laser. This stylish three piece unit consists of a Bluetooth mouse, keyboard and keypad. The latter is a bit larger than a remote but provides much of the same functionality with a two-way interface via a built-in LCD display.
I don’t know about you but I have my house wired for sound and networking (Arcnet, coax Ethernet and CAT5). Unfortunately, one place I don’t have properly wired is the room for the TV. It was definitely time to go wireless here as well. The VIA motherboard has built-in Ethernet but a Belkin 802.11g USB adapter linked to a Belkin 802.11g Access Point provided the necessary connection to the Internet and the rest of the PCs in the house.
USB support remains critical but a front panel USB socket was one thing missing from the system case. Instead, I used a Belkin F5U237v1 Hi-Speed USB 2.0 7-Port Hub. This stylish unit as a pair of connections on the top that are ideal for memory sticks and connecting transient devices like cameras and iPods.
Still, having the system in one area where the Sharp HDTV dominates means things like scanners and printers are out of place. Connecting over the network is possible but you need either a PC with shared peripherals or a network-enabled device like a network printer for remote use with our central system. I have both types of devices but most people will not. Luckily there is an alternative like the Lantronix Ubox USB/Ethernet Bridge. This little device plugs into the Ethernet network. USB devices plugged into the Ubox appears to the application software on the multimedia PC as if they were connected locally. Better yet. The links are dynamic so you can have a USB printer that can be sequentially accessed by different PCs on the network. More on this device later.
That wraps up the system side of things. The assembly of these components is covered later in this article but first a quick overview of the components that will be in parts 3 and 4. Part 2 deals only with the SageTV software.
The Insteon hardware support was covered in “Insteon Now” (ED Online 11782). This includes the range of Insteon switches and power control blocks that you can use all over the house. What is added this time around is the USB PowerLinc controller and two different home control software packages. The PowerLinc is plugged into the multimedia PC so I can now view the power status of the house from the TV. It can also be managed directly or on a scheduled basis in addition to implementing macros that can control multiple devices from a single button press.
The Insteon products are available from SmartHome. SmartHome also provided two security cameras that will be covered in this article. One is the 7545IR Day/Night Wireless Camera & Receiver. The receiver plugs into the ATI TV capture board that also has a composite video input. The Smarthome Vidi Security Camera is an Ethernet network attached device. Unlike the other camera, this one can be reoriented using built-in servos.
Finally there is the Elk M1G Home Control System that is covered in part 4. This home control system centers around Elk’s control box that is normally located in a basement or an out of the way storage room. It has its own battery backed up power supply and is designed to connect to wired devices like smoke detectors, motion detectors and so on. Its like to the multimedia system is through the Insteaon PowerLinc. This allows the control program to run on the multimedia PC providing control and status information. The M1G is available from SmartHome.
As you may have guessed by now, the setup and configuration of this system takes a bit of time. The end result is almost a completely wired house with impressive central control. There are some things I have yet to attempt such as voice control but that is for another article. Also, I have not completely switched over the HVAC support that the Elk it capable of handling but this is more a time consideration for me right now since I want to make sure I can still backup to the dedicated system if things don’t work when I patch in the centralized system. The rest is running merrily although the Sharp HDTV has moved onto another reviewer.
For now we move onto building the system. Once this is complete we have our PVR system. In addition, we have a PC that has access to the Internet and remote USB peripherals. Definitely check out the individual product overviews because I mention construction or use specific features I encountered while building the system.
Building the System
If you have built a Mini-ITX system before then this part of the project is straightforward. If you have built a PC before then be prepared for some tight fittings. Everything has a distinct place within the Casetronic C137 case (see Figure 3). The first thing is to open the case and remove everything except the fan and the front panel electronics (see Figure 4). This includes unscrewing the power supply board and the brackets that hold the optical drive. This makes mounting the VIA EPIA EN 15000 motherboard (see Figure 5) easier as well as simplifying the cabling.
Start by putting the VIA supplied backplate in and then insert the EN 15000 motherboard. It is held down using four screws. The motherboard comes with the processor installed so the only thing that needs to be added is the memory and the PCI riser card with extender. These are parts are included with the case when purchased from Logic Supply (see Figure 6). Only a single slot is used on the riser because the 3.5-in Western Digital hard drive sits where the second slot is located. You can fit two PCI cards in the system if you use a 2.5-in hard disk.
The next part to add is the Western Digital Caviar SE16 hard disk. This is first bolted into the drive tray that was removed earlier from the case. The tray is then bolted to the case using a single screw. The tray’s tabs hold down the other side. Attached the SATA cable and the power cable to the hard drive (see Figure 7).
The FB-4652 Compact Flash to IDE adapter (see Figure 8) from Logic Supply is optional. The case has a thin slot in front for inserting a Compact Flash device. The adapter mounts to the base of the case exposing the Compact Flash socket through the slot. The power supply is mounted on top of the adapter (see Figure 9). It is simply a matter if stacking and screwing everything in. You will probably want to connect the IDE cable to the adapter first because it is harder to do once everything is bolted down.
I attached the motherboard power cable at this time. This was followed by the installation of the thinline, slot loading DVD writer I obtained from Logic Supply. Don’t forget to order the IDE to slimline adapter. This bolts onto the back of the DVD writer (see Figure 10). Install the adapter before mounting the drive on the bracket that holds the drive and connects to the front and back panels for system stability. Don’t bolt down this bracket until first attaching the IDE and SATA cables. The EN 15000 has two IDE connectors that make it much easier to cable the DVD writer and Compact Flash adapter to their own connector. It is possible to use a single cable and adapter but make sure the cable it long enough.
Also make sure you have connected the cables from the front panel electronics for things like the power switch. This can be done with patience and small hands after the bracket is installed but it is much easier to do before the bracket is installed. Finally, bolt down the bracket once everything is connected to the motherboard.
The final piece to the puzzle is the ATI TV cards. I tried each but only one will fit in the case at a time (see Figure 11). Make sure the riser card adapter slides into a notch on the optical drive bracket (see Figure 12).
Note: although it is only possible to fit one expansion card in at a time it is possible to use the second slot on the back of the case for other things such as a second serial, a USB or 1394 port. Headers are on the motherboard and the cable/brackets are available from a number of sources such as Logic Supply.
It was now time to connect the system to the Logitech diNovo Media Desktop Laser (see Figure 13) system via its USB dongle and to the Sharp LC-37D40U HDTV. You can also use a conventional VGA monitor and wired keyboard/mouse depending upon your preference.
Configuring the System
There were no surprises booting the system for the first time. I started with the Windows XP Pro installation CD in the DVD drive and started with a 100Gbyte partition on the hard drive. The multimedia edition would have been more interesting but that is currently an OEM product and most of the features are provided through the applications we are going to add.
I planned on a dual boot system with Xandros Linux and another large partition for data files such as PVR generated video files.
The Windows installation was uneventful but long as most initial installations are. It required installation of the DVD support applications, ATI TV Wonder Pro applications and SetPoint for the Logitech input devices. After a sufficient number of reboots the installation was complete.
I then installed Xandros Desktop Home Edition Premium leaving about 300Gbytes for the shared partition. Xandros handled the dual boot support nicely. I plan on trying Linux out with both the open source MythTV support and SageTV. For now I concentrate on ATI’s standard Windows support.
Operation with the Sharp HDTV was good. The resolution is not as high as say a 19-inch LCD monitor but it was more than sufficient to use most office applications as well as web browsing. The system is primarily intended for PVR use and home control so high resolution is less important than when using the system for large spreadsheets.
Likewise, the VIA C7 processor is fast but it does not compare in speed with the top-of-the-line, dual core 64-bit Intel or AMD processors. On the other hand, the C7 uses significantly less power allowing this multimedia system to be extremely quiet. The Western Digital hard disk and DVD writer are the noisiest parts of the system and they are whisper quiet already.
ATI includes support for a personal video recorder (PVR) as part of both the ATI TV Wonder Pro and ATI HDTV Wonder products. Each comes with a wireless RF remote that includes a USB-based transceiver. This means you do not have to worry about where remote’s receiver is placed as you do with an IR-based remote. I installed the Belkin F5U237v1 Hi-Speed USB 2.0 7-Port Hub (see Figure 14) at this point so I could plug in the ATI remote transceiver.
The ATI software package includes their Multimedia Center 9 and the GemStar scheduler. The multimedia support includes a TV viewer application that supports TV recording as well as TV-on-demand (HDTV-version only). The latter lets you pause, replay and restart a program. The DTV (see Figure 15) is easy to use but a little Spartan. Still, you can do neat things like create a video magazine, schedule recordings or watch TV using the adapter. In general, I wound up using the interface primarily for recording and playback and using Sharp’s HDTV directly for basic TV viewing although the TV-on-demand was fun.
Both TV boards support 125 analog channels. The HDTV product supports 70 HDTV channels. The latter also lets you select from multiple audio streams when available. The composite video inputs also allow recording from other devices such as a Smarthome Day/Night Wireless Camera. The ATI software includes basic video editing and the ability to burn CDs and DVDs. It is not on par with a full blown editing package like Adobe’s Premiere but it is more than sufficient for what most of us do with typical TV recordings.
Reception was excellent. The HDTV board comes with its own antenna (see Figure 16) but you can connect either board to cable TV or another antenna system. I happen to have a large, multiple element antenna and rotor system that worked very well with these boards as well as directly with the Sharp HDTV for analog and HDTV reception. The latter is still limited in my area.
One of ATI’s really neat features is called ThruView. It essentially overlays a translucent view of the current TV program over the currently running application. This is handy for working with another application while listening to the TV program.
Most of the setup process involves selecting the current channels to include in the view list. ATI supports multiple lists which is handy if you have cable with lots of channels. It is now an easy option to select a list and just cycle through stations you prefer.
ATI’s GemStar Guide Plus+ (see Figure 17), from Gemstar-TV Guide International, is the Internet-based TV scheduler program. The application shows the current TV channel in the upper left and the list of current television programs in the lower right. You can easily navigate and select programs using with the Logitech mouse or the ATI remote control.
The only criticism I have with Windows in general on this system is the font size settings. The Sharp screen is large and the resolution is low compared to a hi-def LCD monitor but tuning the application and system font size for comfortable viewing on the HDTV takes a little experimentation.
Wiring the Home
Actually I first built up the system in my lab where I had a wired Ethernet network but I eventually had to move the system to it final testing place where only power was available so the first thing I did was connect Belkin’s 802.11g Access Point, to my wired network and the Belkin 802.11g USB adapter (see Figure 18) to the multimedia system. The latter was plugged into the Belkin USB hub that was placed on top of the stereo rack that held the multimedia PC so the USB adapter had plenty of range. The USB adapter required drivers to be installed but the rest was essentially transparent.
The Belkin 802.11g parts were great to work with. Setup of WPA security was first on the list and I even do MAC filtering. The newer MIMO products will be of interest if distance and obstacles are an issue. Luckily for me the access point and the USB adapter were in the same large room.
The more interesting work came when installing the Lantronix Ubox USB/Ethernet Bridge (see Figure 19) that was connected to the wired network near the Belkin’s 802.11g Access Point. This little box looks like a four port Full Speed USB hub except the uplink is Ethernet. Nothing happens when the Ubox is plugged in but neat things happen when you install the device driver on the PC. It searches for the Ubox and now anything connected to the Ubox will be accessible by applications on the PC.
The Ubox interface (see Figure 20) is password protected and it supports multiple Uboxes and multiple PCs. There is even an option to auto connect/disconnect printers when print jobs become available. This makes printer sharing a snap. I was able connect a printer and scanner with no trouble. To the application, the device appeared local.
The last step in this production was the attachment of the Smarthome surveillance cameras. The Smarthome Day/Night Wireless Camera and Receiver (see Figure 21) are a matched pair. The transmission frequency is jumper selected and the camera’s receiver plugs into a composite video input like the one found on the ATI adapters. The quality was excellent and the camera has a ring of infrared LEDs that act as a invisible floodlight when the camera is operating in darkness. The image is essentially monochrome but the clarity is amazing even without moonlight.
The major limitation of this approach is the number of cameras that can be attached. It is possible to get a multimedia switch to handle multiple cameras. Another approach is to connect each camera to a power source through an Insteon (or X-10) controller. It is then simply a matter of turning on the desired camera. In this case, all the camera frequencies are the same. Problems occur if two cameras are turned on at the same time but it will not harm the camera or transceiver.
Attaching multiple Smarthome Vidi Security Cameras (see Figure 22) is an easy task since each connects to the network. I tried one of the wired version but there is a wireless version as well. These cameras have the advantage when it comes to installation but the image quality is lower than the other camera. On the other hand, the Vidi has a pair of computer controlled servos to position the camera. A camera can be mounted on the ceiling or in the corner of a room and pan around to see the entire room under user control.
The only disappointing things about the Vidi is the control application. It is a relatively simple Java applet. This is actually a big benefit since you can view and control the camera from any PC connected to the network using a web browser. Punch a hole through your firewall or setup a VPN and you can check the camera from the Internet. Of course, this is one reason I tend to aim the cameras outside. A programming interface is provided but I suspect that most people will only use the Java applet. It is too bad because this system would be ideal for a remote monitoring system that periodically panned the camera.
The Smarthome Day/Night Wireless Camera and Receiver was the only one I could setup to automatically record. This was via the ATI card so the ability to record TV is lost during that time.
The multimedia PC was easy to construct and it provides sufficient resources to handle PVR and TV support. It is also sufficient to handle basic web browsing and email tasks. The Logitech keyboard makes this relatively easy and I find myself just using the keypad for many features such as playing MP3 files. The small cursor pad on the keyboard and keypad is handy for selecting common applications without having to resort to the mouse. Of course, this still tends to clutter the overall area with remotes and keyboards but not much more than what already exists because of a DVD, VCR, and laser disc players.
The other main issue is determining what controls the display, the HDTV tuner, multimedia PC, etc. This tends to be obvious once you see what is on the screen but you still need to turn on the HDTV to see anything even if you leave the multimedia PC on all the time. Likewise, if the PC needs to display an alert then consider adding speakers to the PC instead of routing the information through the TV because you will not hear it or see a video alert if the HDTV is not setup properly.
On the software side, the lack of integration is the biggest problem. Each application area tends to be integrated nicely such as the ATI DTV support but switching to a web browser or email program usually means switching control devices and user interfaces. Still, it beats using a conventional PC and some things can be automatic. For example, plugging in a Compact Flash memory card or USB memory stick can fire up a file browser or download the contents to the hard disk.
The system has more potential and some of that will be explored in subsequent parts of this article including a look at SageTV for distributed control of the system. Right now, you need to be using the multimedia PC via one of the local input devices to do things like record a TV show.