Sunday, January 26, 2014

Win7 XBMC with TV Tuner Capabilities

Aaah Microsoft.

You brought PCs to the world and then screwed yourselves over.

For a long time I've been a fan of Windows Media Center thanks to its use of Windows Media Player as the backend and the seamless integration of codecs etc.

But somewhere along the line, Microsoft pushed an update which has kicked off a problem which has not gone away and is causing lots of grief amongst many Media Center devotees.

My reasoning for putting this down to a failed update is that this problem never existed until about a year ago.

The failed update in question involves "Windows Media Center Receiver Service" which is  responsible for handling TV tuner operations (including recordings).
Since the mysterious update this process has continually killed the CPU which renders the system unusable while it is losing it's shit.

Other videos will not play back without horrible stuttering and input devices freeze up for about 5 seconds while in use.

Not acceptable at all.

So, where to now?

XBMC has been great as a front end for media playback (tv, movies, music) but has never really had a place in PVR management.

Well - there is some progress being made here.

I wouldn't say it's ready for the masses but it is more than acceptable to use for those that are technical.

My setup all resides on the one box in that it's running Win7 Home Premium with a local PCI Express tuner.

In theory with XBMC the tuner can be on a different DVB-T server (or a homerun device).

I simply followed this guide over on YouTube that basically says:

  • Install Next PVR
  • Set Next PVR settings to use tuners
  • Scan channels in Next PVR
  • Install XBMC
  • Install XBMC NextPVR client plugin
  • Point to server ( obviously if same box)
  • Give it a minute
  • Bam - it works.
I have to admit - I didn't think it was going to work - but it did!

I'm using an Avermedia 188 PCI Express Tuner and it works quite nicely.

I get the odd glitch but that's mainly due to the channels not having good enough signal strength.
My next trick is to see if Next PVR supports a threshold for signal strength in it's discovery and update the channel list.

The EPG isn't as polished as WMC but it is more than good enough.

Recording support also seems good but it might need a bit of work in terms of understanding re-scheduled time etc.

This all does look very promising however given that WMC seems to be abandonware from Microsoft...

ESXi Free with Free Backup - Trilead VM Explorer to the Rescue

Aaaah virtualisation.
A blessing and a curse all in one.

So, you've got your ESXi free version up and running and are thinking that it's all pretty sweet.

But, just to be safe, you need to put in some level of redundancy without going to the expense of purchasing an essentials license which enables VM protection features.

I'll save you some time re "free" backup solutions for ESXi free edition.
Most of them don't work and have some limitations.

Veeam Backup and Replication (up to ESXi Free 5.1)

Head and shoulders above the rest is Veeam Backup and Replication.

This is a great bit of software that lets you backup up to 8 (I think) guests with compression all in a super fast fashion compared to datastore copies.

Great, you think. Well - here's the catch.
Veeam free works with ESXi free v5.1 only.

Running ESXi free 5.5?

Sorry - sucks to be you (in the eyes of VMWare).

So, what do you do?

Well Veeam is really quite good and if you have plans to grow to more ESXi hosts and want basic vCenter capabilities without the price tag, VMWare Essentials (non-plus version) used with Veeam might just be your best bet.

If you're not quite there yet however and just want VM image to disk backup, then Trilead VM Explorer is your next stop.

Trilead VM Explorer (ESXi 5.5)

Trilead VM Explorer took a while to find but was totally worth it.

This product works in a very similar manner to Veeam (installs on a windows guest) and is nice and straight forward to use (and is a comparatively tiny download compared to most others).

This free product supports compression (if VMWare guest tools are installed on respective guest), supports scheduled backups and copies nice and fast.

Basically this is your go-to app for cheap (free) and cheerful ESXi free 5.5 backups where you have a single stand-alone ESXi free host.

One thing you'll want to tweak is backup compression which significantly reduces the size of the backup image (if your guest isn't using much of its allocated storage).

By default this is disabled.

To enable, when setting your backup settings for a guest, under the Connection tab check Compress data during transfer and Keep data compressed at destination. File level restore will NOT be available.

Also, make sure you've got SSH enabled on your ESXi server as this will allow the Trilead agent to install which will speed up file copies significantly.

The only thing that's lacking in Trilead is scheduled backups (locked out in free version).

If only you could make GUI mouse-based Macro's somehow and schedule tasks...

Other Products
Here's a quick list of other products available that I quickly tested and why I decided against using them:

Unitrends Enterprise Backup
  • Requires agent install on every guest (annoying and clunky)
  • Runs as a Linux distro VM guest (i.e. you can't just run it on an existing support vm guest).

Thinware vBackup

  • Very verbose to implement a simple backup.
  • Requires download and pointers to VMWare add-ons with very little guidance as to how or why these are required.
  • Requires user to specify what method of copy is used for backup even though two are invalid against ESXi free.
  • Seems to fail a lot.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

USB Security Dongles and ESX

Ahhh - 90's technology.
Who doesn't love it?
Me. That's who.

Apart from the fact I have to work with it all day at work (Cisco), I've just finished my fight with trying to get a USB dongle to work with an ESX guest when connected directly to the host.

All the guides make it sound super easy.
Add a USB controller to the guest, add the USB device and done.

You follow that guide and it looks ok (picks up device etc.) but when you actually go to use an application that needs that USB security dongle it spits.

So - you do some more research and find that you can pass the USB hub on the host directly through to the guest which will then have exclusive access to the hub.

Great - that might get you out of trouble except for the fact something important inside your server might actually hang off the USB hub that you weren't aware of.

Or maybe one day in the future you might want to be able to hang something else off that hub.

So - then you'll end up USB over IP devices.
Good stuff - you're getting close.

Then you'll see the most recommended model is an "anywhereUSB" device.
That all sounds great until you see the price tag for a four port model is roughly $500 AU.
For a four port hub with an IP address.

Enter the AstroTek AT-UGSERV.

This little champ sells for all of about $50 and supports 4 USB devices,  DHCP, static IP assignemnt and has application and driver support for every known version of Windows.

Now - while the manufacturers website and the CD that ship with the device carry a fair number of drivers, they don't carry all drivers for all OS's.

A bit of looking around reveals that the OEM for this device is Elite Silicon Technology who have drives for every OS over at their website.

So - not a bad little saving of about $450 and your dongle woes will be no more :)

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Adobe CS2 Including Photoshop is Free!

Well it appears Adobe have decided to give away Adobe CS2.
This includes Photoshop V9.
It's like 7 years old but who cares?
For what most of us need to do it's still awesome!

The direct link for Photoshop 9 and serial is over at Techspot.

If you want the whole Creative Suite, head over to Adobe, Register (*cough* bugmenot *cough*) and you'll have access to all applications and serials.


Note - got a NEX 3N and want to be able edit those sweet sweet RAW files in Photoshop CS2?
Well - you can't.
But you can do something that is just as good :)

Download the Adobe RAW to DNG converter and you'll be able to save the files in a format compatible with CS2 (with no quality loss during the conversion).

Note - make sure you set compatibility mode under preferences within the conversion tool to Camera RAW 4.1 and later for the converted image to be compatible with Photoshop CS2.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

The Sony NEX 3N and why it should be your next Digital Camera

I still remember my first digital compact camera.
It was a Canon IXUS 2MP and I thought it was the best thing ever.
How times have changed.

For most people, the compact digital camera seems to rarely leave the house thanks to the rise in (perceived) better quality smartphone cameras.

I recently found myself in the situation where my third or fourth (whatever the hell it is I'm up to now) IXUS has started to fall apart and was really struggling with purchasing another compact digital camera.

Enter the Mirrorless Interchangeable Lens Camera (MILC).
Yes - that acronym sucks.

Anyway, MILC's are awesome - and from a value perspective, none is more awesome than the Sony Nex 3N.

A MILC is much like a compact digital in that it is (relatively) small and portable.
The difference however is that it packs most of the features of a full-blown SLR into a package less than half the size.

The key elements that set a MILC apart from your tired old digital compact are:

  • Big Sensor - More Light and Bigger Angles
Inside every digital photography device is a little shimmering square window called a sensor.
This is the interface between your camera and the real world that is essentially the digital equivalent of a frame on a roll of film.

Generally speaking, the sensors inside most compact digital cameras are tiny.
This isn't a problem really during the day but when it comes to dusk or night-time  photography, they simply can't hack it.

Move up to a MILC or SLR and the body now has the room to cram in a sensor of varying sizes.
I'm not a pro photographer by any means but the simple rule is bigger is better when it comes to sensor size and quality.

A great little diagram that shows this exists over at Wikipedia.

While researching MILC's, I found that the Sony NEX line of cameras (whether it be the entry level NEX 3N or the featured-out NEX 6) use an APS-C sensor which for me addresses the main gripe I had with my old IXUS in that it used to take absolutely horrible night time and dusk photos that were more noise than photo.

The bigger sensor also means that you can put a bigger angle lens on your camera and get much more in every shot when zoomed out.

I demonstrated this to one of my co-workers (Dave - the king of SAP) at work the other day in a NEX3 vs Galaxy S4 test and he really was surprised at the difference in the two resulting photos (the Galaxy S4 picture started at least two whole metres further back than the NEX 3N).

  • Most of the Goodness of an SLR without the Weight and Bulk

Well, after carrying this thing around my neck for 5 1/2 weeks, I think I'm 

  • Interchangeable Compact High-Quality Lenses
One big difference you'll notice straight away looking at the camera is that you can change lenses.

That means you can use lenses with fantastic glass for any situation, whether it be a prime (non zoom) for ultra clear portraits, a 15-50 for day to day shots or a 50-250 for high zoom work.

No more being limited by the tiny fixed lens with crap aperture and horrible angles.

    • RAW Image Format
    RAW is the file format used to store your images in pure untouched "what the sensor sees" quality.

    The file sizes are huge - but for good reason.
    Typically cheap compact digital cameras force you into saving files as JPG.
    This sorta sucks as JPG is compressed to start with so you immediately lose some quality.

    JPEG also has a limitation into the gradients of brightness so you really do cop big jumps which actually become noticeable when saving in this format.

    Shooting as RAW leaves you with a photo you will want to retouch.

    If only someone posted an article about how to pickup Adobe Photoshop CS2 for free...

    • Why I chose the 3N over 5R, 6 etc.
    For my needs, the 3N was the best choice as it was cheap and practical (and my first step into proper camera land).

    Sony really does a fine balancing act with the features across their Nex line.

    They really did excel at being able to make sure each model except the very top end was missing a feature (which keeps the price down).

    I was seriously leaning towards the 5R for a short period of time (as it included WiFi and remote control support through an IR remote or a smartphone app over WiFi) however the 3N had an advantage (in terms of convenience anyway) that it has a built in pop-up flash (the 5 requires an add-on using the hot-shoe adapter - which the 3N doesn't have).

    The 5R also had the disadvantage that when you can't use the flash when you flick the screen up in self portrait mode (as it physically gets in the way of the screen).

    Also, the 3N was basically half the cost of the 5R clearance discount price.

    External Reviews

    Engadget - Sony Nex 3N - Superior Shooting on the Cheap

    Photography Blog

    Wrapping Up

    Without getting into too much detail, MILC cameras have slotted themselves into a price bracket that essentially makes them a far smarter choice over a compact digital.

    The lenses are re-usable which is fantastic news as essentially you can just replace the body over time as higher resolution sensors come to market without wasting a perfectly good lens everytime you upgrade.