Welcome to Home Automoton

Want in on the ground floor? This is probably the article you should start with.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Silencing hard drives

As one of the few remaining parts within your computer that utilizes moving pieces, the hard drive can frequently be a source of clicks, whirs, and other vibration noises. Various solutions exist to attempt to solve this, but this is the first one I've seen that looks like it keeps the drive quiet, doesn't compromise the drive's cooling, all while keeping the drive mounted in a manor that keeps it safe from the occasional bump.

Basically, the drive is held in place in a 5.25" drive bay by nylon ropes. These ropes keep the drive safe, all while negating any vibrations the drive may cause and air is still able to flow unencumbered over the drive.

More information available here. Found via LifeHacker

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Savant Experience in NYC

The Unofficial Apple Weblog has an interesting look at Savant's 100% Apple (and quite extreme) home automation set up. It's quite jaw dropping, and certainly inspirational.


Friday, April 09, 2010

Apple TV review - Part 1 of 3 - Setting the stage

I've been on a never ending quest for the perfect media setup for a mac user. I'm looking for a simple solution to do 3 things.

1. Play my local videos as easy and as high quality as possible.

2. DVR shows over cable as well as Tivo does.

3. Rent/buy/stream movies from online sources. I love action and sci-fi movies, my wife loves drama and comedies.

4. Needs to be kid friendly. This means parental controls, and access to good kids movies and tv shows.

It would be great if I could do this all in HD. I have kids, so I'm not a huge audiophile, just because when I watch an action movie that needs cranking, I can't because my kids are asleep. So surround sound isn't a big deal to me (ask again in 10 years). I don't want to have to use a mouse, or switch a complicated input setup. I also don't need a bunch of unnecessary social features. I guess tv watching isn't something I really need opinions on.

I decided about a year ago to look into the Apple TV It looked like it could fill some of those roles nicely although it doesn't do DVR, and I'm assuming it never will since apple sells movies and tv shows instead through itunes.

I picked up the 40 gig model, and connected it to my 1080p 38" Vizio.


Apple describes installation pretty well in this pdf, so I won't cover the details, but its extremely simple. There's also a nice page on apple's support site for beginners here.

Installation is a snap, just one HDMI cable to the TV and a power cable from the ATV.

You'll first be guided onscreen to connect to your wireless network.

Then you'll need to wirelessly pair the ATV to your desktop machine's itunes, it will begin automatically syncing (copying) all movies and TV shows you have in itunes to your ATV. Occasionally there's issues finding the ATV in itunes, so if you run into that, this page can help fix it.

I wanted a bit of control, so I chose to update manually, which lets you check and uncheck which tv shows and movies you add. You can also add custom music playlists, photo libraries in the same fashion.

The apple store is where I got most of my movies. But if encoded correctly, It also is a great way to view movies from alternate sources. But movie ripping is bad, m'kay?

If you have a few gigs worth of movies, it will take an evening or so before all your movies will show up. So keep that in mind on your first evening.

Look for part 2 of 3 in the next few days where we look at how it works on a daily basis.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Introduction to MagicJack

Here's something I'm looking forward to playing with in the future. It doesn't seem to take much, and could easily run off our HTPC, but a friend recommended paring this up with a Linksys PAP2 if you wanted it to be free of a PC.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Logitech Harmony remotes for Windows control (Part 3: Activities!)

Now comes the productive part: creating activities. In this example, we'll be setting up an activity to launch and control Hulu Desktop on your PC, using the Harmony remote.

In order to continue, be sure you have your devices added to the Logitech Harmony Remote Software. Primarily, you'll need your TV and the "Media Center PC" that we added in Part 2.

Note: The following directions were written for Logitech Harmony Remote Software 7.7
  1. On the 'Activities' tab of the Harmony software, click the 'Add Activity' button.
  2. Choose to manually add the activity.
  3. Type of activity is 'Utility'
  4. Chose Chose 'Generic Activity (Create a custom Activity)
  5. Chose Next
  6. Add your TV, as well as the 'Media Center PC'. If you're using some type of sound processor or receiver, you'll want to add it as well (I will not be using one for this example). Chose Save.
  7. Chose the proper input for your TV (Input RGB on my Vizio)
  8. Chose 'I don't need to set the input on my Microsoft Media Center PC)
  9. Verify that in the report your TV is on, set to the proper input, and that no unnecessary devices are powered on. Hit Done.
Now you'll find yourself back at the Harmony Activities page. In the 'Generic Activity' box, click Customize Buttons. Now you'll have to go through and specify what each button on the Harmony is going to do for this activity. Each button must have the device, as well as the command programmed. Keep in mind that you only need to program the buttons you want to use, but that any button you leave unmapped will have no function. My button map looks like the following:

Click to enlarge.

We're almost done. Click the 'Additional Buttons' tab. This is where you can program the screen buttons to perform particular functions. Remember the Ctrl+Alt+A functions that we taught the Harmony earlier? Here is where we'll use those.

Label one Start Hulu, specify the Device to be Media Center PC, and the Command to be Ctrl+Alt+A

Note: Whatever you list as the 'Label' is what text will be displayed on the remote's screen. It's recommended that you keep this screen fairly simple to keep you from having to cycle between screens frequently.

Click DONE. Now you're almost ready to program the remote. In the Generic Activity box, click Settings. Choose Rename Generic Activity, and give it something more appropriate, like 'Watch Hulu'. Hit Done, then you find yourself back at the Remote Software's main screen. Make sure your Harmony is connected via USB, and click 'Update Remote'. Go ahead and minimize the Remote Software while it programs your Harmony.

Now you'll want to download and install Hulu Desktop if you haven't already. Once it's installed, make a shortcut to the application. The install process likely put a shortcut on your desktop, so we'll use that one.

Right click the icon and choose Properties. Click in the 'Shortcut key' field, and press the A key on your keyboard. Windows will automatically append Ctrl+Alt+ in front of it. Click OK.

Click to enlarge.

Now that you're remote is likely programmed, make sure your USB IR Receiver is plugged in, and give it a whirl. Launching your activity should now power on your TV, and set it to the proper input. From there you can launch Hulu by pressing the 'Start Hulu' screen button.

It's possible to combine the 'Start Hulu' function with the rest of everything else when you start the Activity, but as I use my HTPC for more than just Hulu, I like to have them separated.

Any problems, questions, or suggestions, use the comments!

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Logitech Harmony remotes for Windows control (Part 2: Command Teaching)

So, by now you've got your Logitech Harmony remote, as well as the remote you'll be using to teach the Harmony how to control your PC.

(See Part 1 if you're lost)

2) Add a new Device in the Harmony Remote Software. Give it the following information:

Device: Computer > Media Center PC

Manufacturer: Microsoft

Model: A90-00007

This is the model number of a generic Microsoft Media Center Edition remote control. For our purposes, it doesn't matter what you put in here, but loading in the profile of a Media Center remote control requires the least amount of clean-up later, and makes it simple to keep the mapping of the functions between the DealExtreme (DE) remote and the Harmony logical.

If you purchased an actual Windows Media Center remote, you'll want to put in your remote's actual model number. If you're having trouble with that, call Logitech for support. You will probably also not need to follow the rest of this guide.

3) Chose 'Learn IR' under the Media Center PC

Plug the Harmony in to the computer running the Harmony software via USB. You can program ANY button on the DE remote to ANY command listed here. You can even create additional commands if you want to use one that's not listed here (we will do that, too).

You don't have to do them all, in fact for my purposes, I only mapped the following commands:

DirectionRight (6 on the DE Remote)
DirectionLeft (4 on the DE Remote)
DirectionUp (2 on the DE Remote)
DirectionDown (8 on the DE Remote)
Back (Backspace on the DE Remote)
Enter (5 on the DE Remote)

Now for the custom commands, I made 5 of them (Why? Because these Ctl+Alt key commands are great for launching applications!) :

Name: Ctrl+Alt+A
Map to: Blue-green 'A/Music' button on DE Remote

Name: Ctrl+Alt+B
Map to: Orange 'B/Movie' button on DE Remote

Name: Ctrl+Alt+C
Map to: Blue 'C/Photo' button on DE Remote

Name: Ctrl+Alt+D
Map to: Yellow 'D/TV' button on DE Remote

Name: Left Click
Map to: 'L' button on DE Remote

Note: The reason for these names is because these are the key combinations that those buttons on the DE remote are permanently mapped to.

If you're feeling adventurous, you can try to capture the mouse movements from the DE Remote. However, the DE Remote's mouse controlling feature is the worst part about the remote, as it's very difficult to capture absolute directions from it. Even still, using a digital remote to control a mouse is frustrating and slow--even when it works perfectly.

Keep in mind that the command's name is what the Harmony software will use to reference that command, it has no bearing on what the command actually does. For the sake of simplicity, you'll want to map them as directly as you can (DE Power button to the PowerToggle command, DE 0 button to 0 command, etc).

Also, it's a good idea to not have the USB IR receiver plugged in during this process. You don't want the DE remote accidentally telling your computer to shut down while you're teaching the Logitech its commands.

Now that the commands have been taught to the Harmony, we'll have to move on to configuring the Harmony's "Activities", which we'll continue in Part 3.

Monday, April 05, 2010

Logitech Harmony remotes for Windows control (Part 1: Introduction)

Anyone who has used a Logitech Harmony remote knows that while the programming interface is simple, it's no small task to get the remote configured 'just right'. You can fully expect to be in the application a lot for the first few weeks, always mapping a button, or tweaking an 'activity'. Making the remote control a PC is quite a bit more of a headache than I expected, but the end results are quite satisfying.

What you need to make this happen is a bit confusing, as the Logitech Harmony series of remotes are not 'Universal Remotes' so much as they are 'Remote Aggregators'. Chances are unless you've used a Harmony, you're wondering what a 'Remote Aggregator' is. Honestly, I just made it up, but it fits.

With a normal universal remote, you provide some Manufacturer's codes and in a few minutes you're able to power on your DVD player, cable box, and TV within a few seconds of each other.

Harmony remotes work a little differently. It's an "activity" based remote, which means you set up "Activities" (duh) involving multiple pieces of equipment using Logitech's programming interface. Usually you can just tell it the make and model of the device you wish the remote to replicate, and away it goes.

Unfortunately, even though Logitech is a company that is almost entirely based around PC peripherals, you cannot just punch in "Windows Computer" and watch it blow your mind. You have to make it replicate an existing Windows remote. Doing this is not time efficient, but is not too painful.

1) Acquire a PC remote control (yes, you must actually buy a remote to make your Harmony remote work). This is why the $9 DealExtreme remote stands out as such a good deal; you need both a USB IR Receiver, and a Remote to copy commands from. The remote is junk from a quality standpoint, but has a number of nice features, requires zero configuration to work on most computers, and being you only need to use it for maybe an hour, has a nice pricetag. You should be able to use the following guide for ANY remote to teach the Harmony, but an official MCE remote would take the least amount of work (I think, anyway).

2) Wait for the remote to be delivered. Once it shows up, continue on to part 2!

Friday, April 02, 2010

I can eliminate my cable bill? Where do I sign up?!

Most non-geeks' ears only perk up when I finally get to the 'cost' of our setup. In a world with 'triple-play packages', most people find themselves paying well over $100 a month to their cable/phone company. While our current setup doesn't have any phone capabilities, nor quite competes with TIVO's level of functionality, it covers the basics. Still, it's not for everyone.

What's the easiest way to see if it's for you? Simple. Take it for a test drive.

Assuming you've got an HDTV and a computer (a laptop would work well), taking a system like this for a test spin is simple.

First, get the right video cable. Check your TV's manual (or just take a look at the back, if you know what you're looking for) and see what types of inputs it accepts. Most LCDs these days have either VGA or DVI, and almost all of them have HDMI. Adapters are available if your TV has VGA, but your computer has DVI. A local computer store should be able to sell you one inexpensively. HDMI to VGA (or DVI) conversion is also possible, but it gets a little tricky. Don't get fooled into buying some pricey fancy HDMI cable. Cheap cables work just as well as expensive. I promise you.

Most LCD monitors allow you to remove the cable from the back of them, so you can typically just use the cable between your desktop and its monitor. If you're using a laptop, first make sure it has a VGA output (or HDMI output if it's new enough), then find a local computer store (avoid BestBuy/Target type stores if possible, they charge too much for these) and buy the cable you need. If you're using VGA you'll also need a 3.5mm stereo audio cable. HDMI will carry both your audio and video signal. Make sure the cables are male on both ends and 6 feet should be plenty for each of these cables, assuming you've got room around your TV for your computer.

Once you've got the cables connected to your monitor, make sure your inputs and resolutions are set properly, and you should be seeing your computer's desktop on your TV screen. You'll need to make sure your PC has a network connection, either wired or wireless. This may be ugly, but it's just for a short period.

Once you're online, congratulations, you're done!

From here, simply launch/view whatever media you wish. Using a keyboard and mouse may not be terribly convenient, but remember that you're just testing the waters here to see if the media selection available will mesh with your desires before you begin to sink money in fancy remote controls and/or wireless mice.

Below are the websites that we frequent when watching content:


Want to take it up a notch? Disconnect your cable or satellite box from the TV. Now you're actually simulating what it would be like if you didn't have cable (except the bill still shows up). Not having the ability to just 'switch over to watch the game' will really force you to feel out the setup's limitations.

If you're like us, you will also very quickly find one of the biggest bonuses of this type of setup: no more zombie-like "I'm just going to watch whatever is on." style of watching TV. Now you're watching a show because you want to watch THIS show, not just because you're bored and can't think of anything else to do. In the beginning, being forced to get up and try to find another show I wanted to watch was usually enough motivation to do something else entirely.

I encourage you to stick with this "test setup" for at least two weeks, to give you a chance to get over the honeymoon period, and to really begin to cope with what the system both offers and lacks. If you wind up hating it you can disconnect it all and put the computer back in the den. If you love it, you can then start thinking about what kinds of functionality you want to add, as well as begin working on a more permanent (and easier on the eyes) setup.

Page launch, and the current setup.

I've been finding myself enjoying playing with this type of tech lately, and a lot of it can be pretty overwhelming if you're not sure what you're doing. I also wanted to kind of 'give back', and help other people pull off what we're currently enjoying.

Our goal was to eliminate as much of our monthly home entertainment bill while making the smallest amount of 'content sacrifice' possible. While our setup isn't perfect, it certainly gets the job done, and doesn't leave us missing out on too many 'must haves'. Our current monthly bill for all this sits at $33: $8 for Netflix, and $25 for 1.5Mbps 'Dry Loop' DSL (means no phone service is required).

Our current setup:

- Vizio 42" 120hz TV
- Custom-built Windows XP computer (it's least 5 years old) connected via VGA.
- Terk HDTVa amplified digital antenna
- Logitech Harmony 520 Remote

The computer provides us with access to media sites like Hulu, QuickSilverScreen, and Netflix. The antenna gives us HD access to important live-events like the Olympics, and standard local channels for sports/news/weather/shows we can't catch on Hulu, like American Idol (my wife watches it... not me. Really!)

Everything is controlled with that Logitech Harmony 520 remote. The 520 is an older model, but almost all of the now-discontinued models are widely available on eBay. The cool thing about Harmony remotes is that they are all literally capable of the same stuff, it's just a matter of form factor, screen, rechargeable battery, etc. The one exception is if you want to use RF for some of your equipment, that is only available with the higher-end remotes. As an extra-frugal bonus, Logitech's configuration support is tied to when your user profile is created, not the purchase date of the remote. This means that even buying a used remote will give you 90 days of free phone support from Logitech.

I purchased that $9 remote almost exclusively for its IR Receiver, but the remote also proved useful for 'teaching' the Logitech the proper signals to control our PC.

Our computer currently doesn't support recording but I'm hoping to upgrade it soon so we can run full HD on it, and record shows off of the digital antenna. We could also use a bump in the bandwidth department, if only because it's just about impossible to download anything without causing the TV to begin pausing to rebuffer, even with QoS running on the router.

I would also like to tie the system in to some basic home automation, including light control, door notification (mostly to make sure we don't leave our garage doors open overnight, as we've done quite a bit before). The ability to put cameras on the house to monitor things like cars parked in our driveway over night would be a nice security addition, as well.

Throughout this blog I'll cover how we configured everything above to work together, as well as document the changes and evolution of our setup.