Just stuff
HTPC update part 2: software

From the beginning of the project I was clear on the software I wanted: XBMC running on top of Linux. I feel comfortable enough with the operating system. And all the information and screen captures that I saw of XBMC made the choice easier. Besides, I didn’t want to incur the extra expense of purchasing a Windows license.

So far I have tried 3 options regarding OS: Arch Linux, XBMCUbuntu and OpenELEC. I want to summarize my (short) experience with them.

I used Arch Linux when I was setting up the system and testing the setup. I’m really fond of that distro. It requires some knowledge but you’re in full control. I installed Dharma on it and after some configuration, it went well. It needs tinkering, so it won’t work out of the box. There are numerous resources about it, including how to get XBMC working properly.

After the HW part was set, I started looking for SW options. It was during the time that Eden came out. With the new version the XBMC folks also offered a revamped XBMC Live, based in Ubuntu. I was intrigued by it, specially with the option of having a desktop. The installation of XBMCUbuntu went OK, except for the part which I couldn’t see much of the text because of the font. But I ended up installing it. My problem with it is that the desktop (out of the box) is practically useless because of the layout (font and icons were really small). Also, I didn’t get 5.1 surround sound via S/PDIF. There are ways of configuring all of this, but this nuisances gave me the perfect excuse to try an alternative.

OpenELEC is even easier to install than XBMCUbuntu. Everything worked out of the box. It shouldn’t be a surprise because you have to use a version of it designed for the platform you are running (in my case ION2). I’m running 1.95.3 and I love it. Everything worked out of the box. It even has options lacking in the official Eden version (e.g. SABnzbd, Sick Beard). It’s fast and I have a SSH prompt into it, in case I need a command prompt.

I’m still on the fences about having an alternative desktop. It would open the possibility to use the system as PC, in case I wanted to (Skype comes to mind). If I ever feel like it, I might try Arch Linux again. But in the mean time, I love my new gadget. I have copied a couple of movies for the kids, and me and the wife enjoyed a couple of episodes from our favorite TV series, and I didn’t have to move from the couch. Even the subtitles, the plugin worked great and I didn’t have to spend time searching for it. The wife was impressed, and believe me, it takes some effort to impress her.

Temperature is running between 45/50° for both GPU and CPU. I can live with that. I have wanted to make this for a long time. It was worth the wait

I have tried a couple ways to interact with the HTPC (Android app, MCE remote) but so far the best way has been using this keyboard. Makes everything so much easier. And it was truly plug and play.

HTPC update

After Easter holidays I finally got the time to finish the hardware side of the HTPC (the software is another story). Just in time because I just received the remote control and HDMI cable I bought on www.dx.com

I opened a square hole on the case to allow for the 80 mm fan. It sits on top of the heatsink of the Asus board. I also connected the 40 mm fan. The big fan is pushing air in, while the smaller one removes air out. I also added a cover to the big fan. Even though this case has a lot of holes, I didn’t want more dust than necessary. I had to add some styrofoam so the dust cover will sit properly. It doesn’t look good, but at least it does the job.

During my tests I got around 40 degrees in the system, using the fans and without the cover. Now the system sits under the TV, and with the case on I get around 50 degrees, both CPU and GPU. This after watching a 40-minute TV show. I would prefer to be closer to 40 but I guess I can live with it.

Here are some pictures to show the final product.

Building an HTPC

So for a long time I wanted to build an HTPC. I wanted it to be small, silent and low-power consuming. It seems like now is a good time to embark in a project like this. So after some digging, I ended up choosing this setup:

My memory modules were not in the QVL for this board, but I just went with. It turned out fine, I guess I was lucky.

I also needed some assorted pieces to complete it (power brick, HDMI cable, S/PDIF cable, etc.)

So after everything arrived, I put it together. It is a tight fit, I have to say that. I had to make some minor modifications to get the SATA cables plugged as I wanted. After it was finished I connected it to the TV. It worked. I could see the BIOS. Cool !! Everything seems to work fine. I was very happy, all the promises of fanless computing in such a small package seemed to be coming true (oh, how naive I was …)

So I installed Arch Linux on it. I’m not sure if I’ll stick to it (there are other interesting options out there). I chose the Net installation. So after waiting for everything to download, I started configuring it.

By accident I touched the case and I felt it was a little hot. Umhh… I decided to reboot and go to the BIOS to check the temperature sensors. During the boot up process, it printed out a warning about high temperature. This doesn’t look good. When I got into the hardware sensor I couldn’t believe my eyes:

97°C !!!

I didn’t know if I was going to use it as an HTPC or as a coffee maker… Are you kidding me? Of course, I shut it down immediately and went to the web to see if someone else had the same experience. Boy, I wish I had made a more extensive search. This thread had a lot of valuable information. There was even a guy who chose to use the same case and saw the same temperature problems. Conclusion: you need to move the air somehow. My theory is that the heat-sink is doing a OK job on extracting heat but it stays there. It needs air flow.

So I got my hands on a crappy 120mm case fan and put it on top of the heat-sink. Result? 39°C steady. Couldn’t be happier. I want to do a couple of stress tests, but overall looks fine.

I got me a couple of silent fans. One 80mm and one 40mm. I’m not too sure about the small one, those little bastards make a lot of noise. But they’re not that expensive. Worst case, it remains unplugged. They’re in the mail, and should arrive any time now. I will have to cut out a whole on the case, because I don’t have the 25mm height for the 80 mm fan. Lets see how it will look at the end.

So in summary, if you decide to use the Asus AT5IONTI board, do yourself a favor and get a big enough case, and some fans.