Tuesday, 13 May 2008

Out with the old

I moved house pretty much spot on 6 months ago now and we're still settling into the new house. Aside from decorating, emptying boxes and all the other things you have to do at the time, it's also an opportunity for re-thinking some of the technology used in our previous house. To that end, one of the things I want to update is my audio solution. I shy away from saying media centre as that seems to brew up ideas of full on PVR systems for most people which would include recording television; something I don't care about as I have a commercial hard disk recorder I'm very happy with.

My current solution was documented at the time on Eight Bar as a description using an IBM Thinkpad built as a media centre with more details of the process, also on Eight Bar. This solution worked extremely well while having its problems at the same time. My requirements for putting the solution together were cost (it was experimental and needed a good wife acceptance factor so price was all important), fast start-up, easy and remotely controllable, and integrated with my current home stereo and speaker arrangement. I think I achieved this, it cost about 20 quid for the cables and keyboard, the Thinkpad was borrowed from work, I used the Amarok music player which made things very easy, hooked up my stereo remote control to the Thinkpad and integrated it nicely. See the no-expense-spared diagram below...

diagram Click to enlarge.
It's running Fedora Linux on the Thinkpad, with a KDE desktop and Amarok as I mentioned. I don't have a huge music collection so all my mp3s fit on the Thinkpad hard disk. I configured Linux to suspend to RAM and thus boot extremely quickly with auto-login to the KDE desktop and auto-start of various programs including the music player should a cold boot be required. The thinkpad has a serial port so I was able to hook up a serial IR receiver using LIRC to receive signals, with the audio cables going to my stereo using the minidisk port. With no minidisk attached I had spare keys on the remote control (such as play/pause/stop/next/previous) that had no effect when pointed at the stereo while other controls (such as volume) function as expected. This means I can program the spare keys to be picked up by the laptop IR receiver instead, in order to operate Amarok, and with no interference with normal operation of my stereo (so only one remote control needed for the whole solution). A nice bonus of this set up was the ability to display the screen on the television via the thinkpad s-video port. With a radio controlled keyboard and built-in mouse it's easy to sit on your sofa browsing the Internet or e-mailing with the convenience of your TV and wireless broadband.

This is all sounding marvelous and when described like that I wonder why I think about replacing it, but it does have issues. Browsing the web on your TV is great, but it's not particularly convenient when someone else wants to use the TV for its main purpose in life. Niether is it convenient browsing the Internet in 800x600 which is the highest resolution my CRT TV can cope with, then there's the wireless keyboard which is slightly fiddly but I'm just being picky now. The next major problem is a bug with the thinkpad firmware that causes the wireless to stay disconnected after a certain amount of uptime, which is unresolvable and requires a full reboot to temporarily fix until the next time it goes down. Another slight usability issue is user feedback. Browsing songs, playlists, podcasts and all in Amarok is stupidly easy, but controlling from a remote control when you can't see the screen (that was another idea for putting it on the TV) is not easy. It's great you've got the secondary screen you can use if necessary, but if you're trying to do something else or not in the same room it becomes much more difficult.

So, all these little niggles to what is in theory quite a nice setup have got me thinking of a better way to solve my requirements.

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