While the blog was on hiatus, and using some of my newly expanded disposable income post-qualification, I completed phase 3 of the home theatre system upgrade. As I prepared to write about it, it dawned on me that I hadn’t documented Phase 2 last Christmas (or rather it was a draft that never got published). So prepare for tech overload as I tackle both below. First, on an unrelated note, Thor’s rules for touring in a band (contains unsavoury rock band language) are probably an equally good model for road trips and spending prolonged periods of time with anyone really.
Phase 2 of the upgrade comprised of a complete overhaul of the sound system. It had been on the cards for a while as I was in the strange situation where my PC’s 2.1 speaker set (the stellar Logitech Z-2200) actually sounded better than the cheap surround sound system in the living room. I was fixed on KEF 2005.3 speakers, with their excellent sound, powerhouse sub and stylish egg-shaped satellites. Plus they were British so this could be considered less a lavish expenditure and more performing my patriotic duty by supporting the economy. They demand a decent receiver and eventually I settled on the Denon AVR-1610. The combination has blown me away. My neighbours have been very accommodating.
This required a universal remote to wrangle the sprawling beast into something usable. I went with the Logitech Harmony One for a combination of ergonomics and easy software: you to select the equipment you have and then list the basic activities you perform to set up the remote in about an hour, though you can easily spend several more tweaking every single button on the device, as well as its touch-screen display. I had read people joking online about universal remotes saving their marriages but I can believe it. Anna stared in horror when she saw the new setup with four remote controls sitting on the coffee table. Now she can navigate it like a pro.
Phase 3 was a longer term plan that I hadn’t expected to occur so swiftly. The system’s limiting factor was that media was stored on the PC in my room and streamed wirelessly to the Xbox. The two-fold problems were that the PC needed to be on and wirelessly streaming HD content is doable (over wireless-N at any rate) but temperamental. The solution was to move the media to a NAS drive plugged into the router, and stream it through an HTPC sitting under the TV.
The former was fairly easy to select: Netgear’s ReadyNAS Duo was easy to setup and provided two empty drive bays. I added two 2TB WD Caviar Green drives and they automatically mirror one another, which is protection my video collection had previously foregone. I definitely recommend it as a first NAS unit for the home for ease of use, but do read the instructions and do not install a drive with data already or you’ll find yourself in serious trouble when the unit tries to create its own boot partition.
After much research, I decided to build my own HTPC using a barebones Shuttle XS35GT as the base. I became enamoured with the idea of attempting to build a PC with no moving parts, the dual benefits being low power consumption and, more importantly, total silence. The Shuttle is low powered, but packs an nvidia ION 2 GPU capable of streaming HD content. No optical drive was necessary and a Corsair 40GB SSD was relatively inexpensive (size is not an issue since the NAS takes care of data storage). The SSD would also provide a test to justify the expense of a larger one as a system drive when building my next desktop (so far, I’m convinced). The new machine was named Serenity, a nod to Firefly’s silent space shots.
I have to admit, booting up a totally silent PC is actually a little eerie at first since I subconsciously use the instant whir of the fan as feedback to know it’s working. I’m still tweaking Media Center and trying out Kylo which is a web browser designed for TVs at a distance. Control-wise the Harmony works for media center usage, but I splashed out on Logitech’s Air MX mouse (it’s gyroscopic so you can operate it by waving it in their air) and the svelte diNovo Edge keyboard, which is the only keyboard I’ve ever considered putting out on display. The finishing touch was an afterthought that only dawned on me once everything else was complete. Since I now had a PC sitting next the to the TV, I could attach my old amBX kit finally to create what amounts to a mutant Ambilight Sony BRAVIA TV.