Electronic Design

Hitting An HD HomeRun

I’ve built a number of multimedia PC systems but they employed PC-based TV tuners. These worked well but they are a pain to setup. Likewise, the PC needs to be near a cable connection.

This time around the project is based around Silicon Dust’s HD HomeRun (Fig. 1). This is a network-based HDTV tuner system. It actually has a pair of tuners with independent inputs. These can be connected to the same source via an external splitter or different sources such as an antenna and a cable system.

The HD HomeRun has its own microcontroller but no mass storage. For that we turn to VIA Technologies tiny ARTiGO 1000 box. The box is tiny but it can easily handle a half terabyte 2.5-in drive from Toshiba.

The ARTiGO and HD HomeRun are separated by an Ethernet network. This tends to be easier to contend with in my house that is wired for Ethernet. The HD HomeRun sits in the basement were that cable TV comes in and the ARTiGO is attached to an HDTV in another room.

Multiple HD HomeRun’s can be used on a network but the ARTiGO is likely to be overwhelmed by more than one depending upon whether the ARTiGO is handling playback chores as well.

Before covering system set up we take a look at the major components.

HD HomeRun
Silicon Dust’s HD HomeRun is a simple device with only four connections: power, 100BaseT Ethernet and a pair of cable connections. All configuration is done via remote management. Windows and Linux applications are provided by Silicon Dust.

HD HomeRun handles the recording chores but requires a back end server to store and play back HD video. The back end server can be the same PC as the playback device or it can be different depending upon the software employed.

HD HomeRun supports most platforms including Windows Media Center, Elgato EyeTV, MythTV, SnapStream BeyondTV, SageTV, MediaPortal, GB-PVR, VLCand TSReader. I use MythTV since I have a number of systems already set up for both recording and playback. This ranges from systems attached to TVs and HDTVs as well as PCs on the network. Multiple HD HomeRun servers can be accessed by multiple devices. This is not too bad with a gigabit Ethernet network but too many HD HomeRun systems on one network segment can max out the bandwidth of the system. A couple systems on a 100 Mbit/s Ethernet system works quite well. A good gigabit Ethernet switch does wonders for this configuration.

I run through system set up later but the HD HomeRun configuration is minimal. All the tends to be required is the ID for the device and the configuration programs provide this information.

The HD HomeRun can handle resolutions up to 1080i. It cannot handle CableCards needed for encrypted channels making it a challenge for satellite systems and fiber systems like Verizon’s FIOS. It worked well for broadcast channels on my Comcast cable but Comcast delivers different content on channels via an HD set top box or DVR versus direct connection to cable. Still, Comcast in my area provides a significant number of channels via QAM that is supported by HD HomeRun.

Toshiba Hard Drive
Toshiba’s MKxx55GSX hard drives (Fig. 2) are available in capacities from 120 Gbytes up to the half terabyte we used. This family runs at 5400 rpm while the MKxx55GSY line runs at 7200 rpm. The 5400 rpm drives tend to find a home in laptop and mobile devices.

Both support the 3 Gbit/s SATA transfer rate and 500 Gbyte capacity but most of the other specs are different. For example, the spin up power requirement is 5.5W for the faster drive but only 4.5W for the slower drive. Sleep mode sips only 0.13W. The faster drive has a 16 Kbyte cache with its slower sibling halving this amount.

The MKxx55GSX does have some advantages other than being a lower power drive. It is also quieter. The idle and seek averages are 1.8 and 2.0 bels while the MKxx55GSY is 2.5 and 2.8 bels. Of course, the MKxx55GSX is a little lighter on its feet by 0.4 oz.

The high capacity is a definite benefit when it comes to handling HD streams.

ARTiGO 1000 Take 2
I used an updated ARTiGO 1000 (see “VIA ARTiGO: Small But Powerful,” ED Online ID #19635) this time around. The latest ARTiGO incarnation (Fig. 3) looks identical to its earlier version. Both use the Pico-ITX (Fig. 4) motherboard. The Pico-ITX board has IDE and SATA interfaces but the initial version only supported IDE drives within the ARTiGO box.

The new version retains the IDE adapter but adds a SATA (Fig. 5). The cable has a right angle connection on one end. This is needed because of the tight confines of the ARTiGO box. The cable is the right length so excess cable does not have to be hidden somewhere.

The Pico-ITX makes a great server platform for the HD HomeRun. It is also a viable playback platform although the processor is underpowered if it had to display HD video on its own. Luckily hardware acceleration comes into play allowing HD streaming to its display.

I would not recommend a single ARTiGO system as a backend server and front end delivery system if it will also deliver content to other front end systems. Of course, a pair of systems would be better in this instance.

Setting Up The System
The first step is building the ARTiGO. I won’t go into great detail since the manual and the previous article did this. Essentially the hard drive has is mounted in the box along with the small power supply and all the cables are attached to the motherboard.

Operating system installation can get interesting depending upon whether you have an external DVD driver handy. Flash drive installation of Linux is common and Windows 7 can handle this as well. Earlier Windows incarnations are more easily handled with a DVD installation. Those ambitious people can take a crack at network installation. The BIOS handles network-based booting. I’ve used this approach a number of times with Ubuntu and CENTOS using other VIA motherboards.

In my case, Ubuntu was platform of choice although most may prefer to go with Mythbuntu, a custom version of Ubuntu with MythTV as its core application. Installing MythTV from a stock Ubuntu is as easy as selecting it from the Synaptic package manager.

The harder part is making sure the VIA Technologies display driver is used if the platform is handling HD playback otherwise the framerate will be unacceptably low. Configuration of a pair of ARTiGO systems is essentially the same except that the one will be set up as the back end server and the other as the front end display device. The former needs the IP address of the latter that is typically a fixed IP address. It can be a dynamic IP address if you know how to handle MAC address assigned IP addresses and have dynamic DNS configured on the system.

Linking the HD HomeRun system to the MythTV back end server is trivial. It is simply a matter of entering the ID. The rest is standard MythTV set up including scanning for available channels. The HD HomeRun comes with a short pair of coax cables but you need to supply a splitter if a single source is used.

Configuration for other PVR applications is similar. Some require a Windows platform but the Pico-ITX handles this as well. Likewise, the front end can use a couple of other features such as a wireless keyboard or an infrared remote control. The former is easy to come by including a USB Bluetooth dongle. A couple of USB IR remote control systems are also available as well. Configuration of these is product specific but usually straight forward under Windows or Linux.

Bottom line, the HD HomeRun is a very reliable platform that is easy to configure. Its modular and distributed mode of operation makes it very easy to incorporate into a home network. It can easily be linked to an 802.11n network that has enough bandwidth to handle HD playback on a number of systems.



TAGS: Toshiba
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