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2022: Best Windows Media Center Replacement?

Back in the XP days, Microsoft launched the excellent XP Media Center Edition (MCE), which was a slightly customised version of the bog standard XP Professional Edition, geared up to be a unified media solution to sit under your television.  Arguably launched before its time, as most TVs at the time had SCART and Component inputs, and most PCs had VGA only outputs.

Media Center  – then Windows Media Center (WMC) – became a core part of most Vista editions, and was further enhanced by a major update during Vista’s life.  By this time, large LCD TVs were commonplace, and allowed native PC connections via VGA, DVI and HDMI.

Sadly, after this major update, Microsoft lost the plot and tried to compete with Apple on their home turf, and they disbanded the Media Center team, but continued to include the software in most editions of Windows 7.

Windows 8 did not include Media Center, but did offer it as a low cost upgrade to Windows 8 Pro.  It was still, essentially, the same Media Center released during the life of Vista.

Windows 8.1 is the last version of Windows that still officially runs WMC, although there are enthusiasts who have managed to make it work on Windows 10 (though its far from a “set it and forget it” as MS updates frequently break it).

 

So, as of early 2022, what are the alternatives?

 

Well, that depends on your needs.

 

If you want a unified system that sits under you TV that can be controlled with low cost remote controls, and that can record/timeshift/play Live TV, you are only left with 1 option – Windows 8.1 and WMC.  WMC remains the king of such systems, is mostly “set it and forget it” (in many parts of the world, including the UK, you will need a 3rd party EPG solution, as Microsoft have abandoned providing a guide). It’s interface is clean, consistent, works great with common low cost MCE remotes, and is supremely reliable, even with power saving options enabled. It also has minimal requirements from the CPU/Memory, making it ideal for quiet PCs.

Despite no development in nearly 15 years, for this purpose, it remains head and shoulders above:

Media Portal 2: Media Portal 2 is probably the closest to MCE/WMC.  Originally based on XBMC/Kodi, it suffers those same drawbacks of Kodi ‘s Backend/Frontend architecture, namely high system requirements and unreliability when using standby on the Backend.  MP2 also has inconsistencies on the UI, as some functions only work with certain skins.  MP2 lacks any kind of remote scheduling, either native or 3rd party (Media Portal 1 does have some limited functionality in this regard though, via 3rd party, community projects). I have suffered a fair number of application glitches on the Frontend interface, especially the x64 version.  MP2 is open source and free to use, and out of the box, supports the standard MCE type remote controls on a usable 10′ interface.  The TV Server lacks a 10’ interface, so if you run the Backend and Frontend on the same PC under your TV, it’s going to need you to plug a keyboard and mouse in, and sit near, whilst you configure it, and believe me, configuring the guide is fiddly (use the WebEPG plugin they supply, but in the UK you have to adjust every channel).  Development seems slow.

Kodi: A hugely popular open source project, mostly known for the various plugins that allow illegal streaming of content.  However, as a unified system, its definitely lacking, based on the backend/frontend architecture, with everything from the backend being streamed to the frontend, even if on the same PC.  The result is high system requirements.  DVR and Live TV are afterthoughts, and poorly developed and rarely improved.  Reliability isn’t that great, particularly DVR functionality, although the robustness of the application has improved dramatically over the years.  Like other skinnable options, different skins can cause the loss of some functionality, meaning the default Confluence skin is probably the most reliable, if somewhat dull.

Plex: To enable any DVR/TV functionality, you have to buy a Plex Pass, which is either recurring monthly fee, or a one off of around £100/$120.  To be perfectly blunt, if wanting to use as an under TV solution, save your money.  It only supports a tiny subset of Hauppauge TV cards and nothing else.  There are some “community supported” cards, but in my experience, you will always be tweaking and messing around to get things working briefly.  Even if you do use a supported Hauppauge card, you will find recordings frequently fail, and the guide (only option is a really slow download from Plex) is really unreliable.  In addition, the interfaces available are dreadful, and really require the use of a keyboard and mouse – totally unsuitable as a media device for you living room.  System requirements are high, and on Windows inconsistent – The Backend server is 32bit only, but the 2 offered frontends are x64 only.  One of those offered frontends is effectively abandoned, and it looks like the other will be replaced in the future.  Its rare for code to be that bad that it needs to be abandoned.  And to do it twice….

MythTV: A Linux only option.  Whilst Linux has come a long way in terms of user friendliness, for most, it would be as familiar as Windows.  That, and the reduced tuner support, makes it a slightly more geeky solution, although premade distributions are available.  It feels less polished that other solutions mentioned, and I only have 1 tuner that will work with it, so didn’t use it for that long.

 

Obviously, if you are simply after a streaming box, rather than an all-in-one solution, that will change the dynamics.  But for a pure streaming device, I’d be more inclined to see what apps your Smart TV has, or look at non PC based solutions like Firestick or Roku.  As soon as you need a DVR solution though, its either a dedicated TV recorder or Microsoft Media Center. End of.

Posted by admin in Experiences

Converting an HPE gen8 Common Slot PSU into a 12/24V supply

One of my hobbies is Radio Control Models, and for that, I often need a high current 12V or 24V power supply for the battery chargers I use.

There is a ready source of various HPE server PSUs that are ideal, and plenty of guides on the net for converting them.  However, for the ones I had (HPE gen8 common slot, part numbers HSTNS-PL28 (460w) and HSTNS-PD29 (750w)) , these guides did not work. Hence this guide.

 

So this is the PSU we are using for this guide:

First you need to add a link wire between pin 33 and the large GND pad, and also a resistor between pins 36 and 37 as show in this image:

The resistor needs to be around the 3k mark, but not absolutely critical. Note the use of heatshrink over it to prevent any shorts.

 

Power on the PSU, and the green LED near the fan should come on within a second, and once this is lit, 12V is available on the larger pads:

The wires to the charger can go from these pads, and a cover printed as per the one I uploaded to Thingiverse – https://www.thingiverse.com/thing:3116013

 

24V Conversion.

Caution, there are lethal voltages inside these PSUs, so before dismantling, disconnect from the mains, and leave overnight for internal components to discharge.  Only attempt this procedure if you are competent and confident of what you are doing, and read all the instructions to understand them first. Incorrect connections can be lethal. I take no responsibility under any circumstance.

We need 2 supplies modified as above. However, as the case is connected to the 0V and Earth, on the second one, we need to disconnect the connection between the case and the 0V (and keep earth in place, for safety reasons, obviously! Beware, I’ve seen guides for other PSUs disconnect Earth, which could potentially be lethal).

So on the PSU destined to be the 12v-24v step up, follow this procedure.

Undo the top 4 screws:

Remove the 4 fan screws, and push the LED back in towards the case:

Undo the earth tag

There is a screw just to right of power socket in image above that is not photgraphable, but its location can be ascertained from the pressed in nuts on underside of case. Remove this screw (there is just room for screwdriver to right of power socket, else move power socket which should be free now.

 

There is a small tab that needs gently lifting behind the fan, seen clearer on this dismantled picture:

Keep the plastic bit that fits over the tab safe ready for refit.

Near the edge connector are 2 screws (that screw into the studs we are going to grind down later), which need removing.

With a bit of a wiggle – the power socket can be stuck in quite hard, you should be able to remove the PSU from the rest of the case.

The plan now is to modify the mounts to electrically isolate them from the 0v of the PSU board. These mounts make contact with the PCB.

My method is to grind them down to about 1mm high (hopefully just enough to still be able to have enough screw thread left in the pressed nut), place some plastic M3 nuts between them and the PCB, and use plastic M3 screws.  I’m sure there are plenty of other options, but the key is that the 0v on the PCB must not make contact with the PSU case any more. The red arrows are when the M3 plastic nuts are, and blue showing the M3 plastic screws (I also had to use a plastic washer here). These screw into the existing threads that were partially ground down earlier.

Rebuild is reverse of strip down. The small plastic piece that goes over the lug also secures the PCB, so ensure PCB fits in the slot on rebuild.

 

After rebuild, with a meter, ensure that the mains earth is connected to the PSU case, and that the 0V is not.

 

Run a cable from the 12V of the 0-12V PSU to the “0V” of the 12-24V PSU. 24V is now available via the 0V of the 12V PSU and the 12V of the 12-24V PSU.

Voila!

And fully built using some 3D printed parts to cover the back and hold them together (parts uploaded to Thingiverse – https://www.thingiverse.com/thing:3116013 )

Posted by admin in Information and Guides

RJ-45 Cables

This articles explains how to make a wire up RJ45 patch cables.​
Straight Cables
As the name suggests, a straight cable is wired pin 1 to 1, 2 to 2, 3 to 3 etc. These are the most common cables, used between computers and hubs.  cat5-straight
Crossover Cables
This cable is similar to a straight cable, but with pins 1 and 3 crossed, and pins 2 and 6 crossed. This cable can be used to link 2 computers without a hub.  cat5-xover
Posted by admin in Information and Guides

How to create a bootable NT CD

This articles explains how to make a bootable installation CD.

The NT4/W2K CDs are bootable. However, you may want to modify the CD for some reason, such as slipstream a service pack onto it or add additional utilities to the CD. How do you make the CD bootable again? This article will reveal all. This article assumes you are familar with Nero and CDRWin burning software.

Get the cd bootsector files.

  • Start CDRWin (demo).
  • Place bootable NT4 or W2K CD in CD-ROM drive.
  • Select “Extract disk/sectors”.
  • Select “Select Sectors” option at the top of the screen.
  • Enter image filename (eg C:\w2kcdboot.bin)
  • Under “Sector Selection” set “Start” to 20, “End” to 20, and “Datatype” to Data Mode1(2048).
  • Without adjusting any other settings, click Start.

Burn the CD!

  • Using Nero (demo) select “CD-ROM (Boot)”.
  • Under “Source of boot image data” select “Image File” then enter the name of the cd bootsector file created earlier. Tick “Enable expert settings” and select “No Emulation” for Kind of Emulation. Change boot message to “Microsoft Corporation”, change Load Segment of Sectors to 07C0, and change Number of loaded sectors to 4. Click the Label tab, and change the Volume label to the label of the original CD (these labels vary, even for same versions of the OS!), and all others fields to blank. Click New.
  • Now select the files and folders to burn. The installation folder (eg i386) must be off the root (like the original bootable CD). Also, in the root you require the CD identifier files (which start CDROM*.*) for the original NT4/W2K CD, and for any service packs. These identifiers can be found in the root of the NT4/W2K CDs, and the service pack ones are found on the service pack CDs, or in the extracted service pack.
  • Burn it!

 

Posted by admin in Information and Guides