Thursday, April 26, 2012

5. Enhancements & Other Resources

Add-Ons: Once you have completed your new WMC (Windows Media Center) and have become familiar with its use, you may want to consider adding other features and enhancements.
The slideshow to the right ---------------------------------->
illustrates how to customize Windows Media Center by adding some very cool enhancements. Full credit for this list goes to rwpritchettHere are some of the individual components he has added to Media Center:                                     
Streaming TV: There is a goldmine of streaming video programs available over the internet! There are free download programs such as BoxeeHuluKylo and iTunes allowing you to organize and view hundreds of TV programs, all on demand. Apple's iTunes allows you to download and watch 1000s of podcasts  free or you can also add a relatively low-cost monthly Netflix account for watching a large collection of movies online as well as on DVDs. Many people already have a broadband DSL service which just sits there unused when not browsing the web or doing email, so why not put it to use?   
    Online Forums: If you have caught the "WMC Bug" and want to increase your understanding about Media Center, then take a look at the following online resources:

    Additional Help: For those of you who have never built anything like this before and could use further help and/or clarification, email me, or post your question in the comment box below. 

    Purchase a Complete Unit: You can purchase a Media Center similar to the one described in this article, fully assembled, tested and pre-loaded with a licensed copy of Windows 7 Home Premium. An Xbox Universal Remote Control with a RC-6 IR Receiver is included. Contact me for further information.

      Wednesday, April 25, 2012

      6. Watch TV with iTunes on your Media Center

      • In my ongoing quest to find an alternative to cable TV, Apple iTunes has turned out to be an excellent source for downloading TV shows and audio/video podcasts and watching them on our large-screen TV. 
      • In spite of its name, iTunes is not just about downloading music, you can also find plenty of free and paid-for audio and video programming there. 
      • Best of all there are literally thousands of Podcasts to choose from, and you can subscribe to most of them free. Once the latest one appears on iTunes it will download to your PC automatically. 
      • As long as they are not DRM protected (and most podcasts are not) you can link Media Center's Media Library to point to the appropriate folders where iTunes downloads its TV shows, Podcasts, and music. Now sit back and watch or listen to your favorite shows at your convenience.
      • In order to subscribe to free iTunes podcasts you will need an itunes account. If you don't already have one, there is a way to set up a free account without the need for a credit card. To find out how, go to this link:

      The following series of images will give you a better idea:

      You can download iTunes software from: 

      You May already have an Itunes account, or you can create a free account without the need for a credit card. To find out how, go to this link: 

      In spite of its name, iTunes is not just about downloading music, you can also find lots of free audio and video programming there. You can find a diverse selection of TV show episodes, many are sneak previews, but full length features are available. 

      Best of all, there are literally 1000s of free Podcasts available from all over the world on a variety of subjects. 

      Subscribe to Podcasts of your choice by clicking on the Subscribe Free button. The latest podcast in that series will download automatically as it becomes available. You can then watch or listen to it at your convenience.

      Be aware that iTunes videos are not in streaming form - you have to wait for each download to complete before you can watch it.

      iTunes Videos and Podcasts are downloaded to the folders shown in the path above. Note that TV shows are frequently (but not always) DRM (Digital Rights Management) protected and must be played within the iTunes application. However, Podcasts are generally not DRM protected and can be played within Windows Media Center (see below).

      To add iTunes Podcasts and TV Shows to Media Center, you must first point to the folders where iTunes downloads videos and podcasts. In order to do this go to Media Center's Media Library and select the appropriate folders using the directory structure shown in the above two images.  

      Once your chosen iTunes programs finish downloading, they will automatically appear in the "TV Shows" listing within Media Center Videos. Note: iTunes downloads will play in Windows Media Center only if they are not DRM (copyright) protected; otherwise you will need to open the iTunes application to run them.

      Tuesday, April 24, 2012

      Windows 7 64 bit Vs 32 bit - which is best?

      • Which version of Windows 7, 64-bit or 32-bit?  32-bit processors are limited to 4 GB of memory, and typically can't use the full amount. The newer Intel 64-bit processors are theoretically capable of referencing 2^64 locations in memory, or 16 exabytes, however, all 64-bit versions of Microsoft operating systems currently impose a 16 TB limit on address space and allow no more than 128 GB of physical memory. 
      • I have installed  the 64-bit version of Windows 7 in my recent Media Center HTPCs builds. I can't see a huge difference in performance, but I have noticed increased reliability and fewer crashes as compared to previous 32-bit builds. If you have at least 4GB of SDRAM, or are looking at the larger 8GB versions, then be aware that 64-bit Windows 7 is designed to make use of all that RAM efficiently. Make sure first that all your hardware (i.e., tuner or graphics cards) have the necessary 64-bit compatible drivers available.

      A solution to my "Random wake from sleep problem"!

      I had been bothered for months by my family room's Windows 7 Media Center HTPC randomly waking from "S3 Sleep Mode" and staying on throughout the day - even when no recordings were actively scheduled. Even more mysterious was the fact that only one of the two Media Center PC's in our house exhibited this problem. The two PCs are identical - the only difference being that the problem PC is connected to my central DSL router via Ethernet cable; the other "good" unit is connected via WiFi. 

      I started suspecting that some sort of network activity, or "polling" was turning on this particular PC randomly. After much head scratching and web searching I came across the following solution posted on the web:

      According to this article, the problem is caused by a local area network adaptor setting called “Wake on pattern match“ being enabled. After disabling this setting my random wake from sleep problem is gone!

      To try this for yourself do the following:
      Under StartControl Panel find the entry for Network and Sharing Center > Change adapter settings > Local Area Connection.
      In the "Local Area Connection Status" pop up window, click the Properties button followed by the Configure button. Next open the Advanced tab and scroll down to find the "Wake on pattern match" Property. If the Value is set to Enabled, change that to Disabled and click OK

      Hopefully this will solve your Random Wake from Sleep problem as well.

      Wednesday, April 4, 2012

      Saving wasted "Phantom Power " drawn by idle devices

      What is "phantom" power consumption? What is "sleep mode"??

      • Most Apple and Windows PCs can be put to "sleep" or "standby" mode while not in use rather than shutting them down completely. This mode has the advantage that when they wake from sleep via keyboard or mouse activation, the operating system restores all previous work sessions within seconds. There is no need to restart the computer and then reopen the files being worked on.

      • Sleep or "standby" mode is a useful feature on my Windows Media Center, which uses a dedicated Windows PC. It turns on and off automatically for scheduled TV program recordings, or for downloading the daily program guide. I also use its Media Center remote control to turn the PC and TV on or off from a comfortable watching distance.

      • Sleep or Standby mode requires that peripheral devices (TV, monitors, speakers, printers, etc.) attached to the PC continue to draw standby or "phantom" power. The disadvantages of standby power relate to the wasted energy used. As standby power is reduced, the disadvantages become less. With the adoption of the One Watt Initiative by many countries, standby energy use is being reduced on new equipment, but there are still millions of older appliances and peripherals out there that often use ten watts or more while idle. 

      How can I measure the phantom power wasted by these idle devices?

      I had been curious about the power consumed by various household electronic devices and appliances while they sit idle. So I bought a Kill-A-Watt meter from Amazon for $20.31 including shipping. Read what Consumer Reports has to say about this device. Using this simple device I took power measurements on various "dormant" appliances and computer setups around the house with surprising results. For example, I found that PC peripherals like speakers, printers and other accessories draw a not insignificant amount of idle power when not in use

      Kill A Watt photo
      Kill-a-Watt Meter
      Using the Kill-A-Watt Meter: 
      Simply connect appliances to the Kill A WattTM, The LCD display shows consumption by the Kilowatt-hour, and also displays voltage (V), line current (Hz), current (I).
      The first measurements I ran were on my Media Center setup which includes the following components: 
      • PC: My primary HTPC is built around Windows 7 Home Premium with Media Center. The hardware consists of a Biostar TH61-ITX Motherboard with Intel Core i3-2100 3.1GHz Processor, 8 MB of DDR3 RAM and 2 TB Western Digital Caviar Green Desktop Hard Drive. 
      • The TV is a Philips 47" LCD
      • Speaker: Kenwood Sub-Woofer
      • Normal Power-on Measurements (driving a full HDMI 1080P output at comfortable listening volume):
        • HTPC           = 54 Watts
        • TV                 = 295 Watts
        • Subwoofer    = 76 Watts
      • Sleep or "Standby" Mode Power Down measurements:
        • HTPC           = 3.4 Watts
        • TV               = 9 Watts
        • Subwoofer    = 16 Watts
      The above results show that even during "Sleep Mode", the TV and the Subwoofer continue to draw 25 Watts of wasted "Phantom Power" when not in use! How much does this add up to in one year? The average cost of power is 7 cents per KWH in my region, so:

      .025 KWH x (24 hours/day x 365 days/year) x $.07/KWH = $15 per year

      All together the "sleep power" consumed by all 4 PC's around the house which have peripherals such as speakers, printers and or monitors connected to them, adds up to a fairly substantial waste of energy and money!

      What can I do about this?

      The obvious solution of course is to plug each item that is part of your PC setup into a common power strip with a single on/off switch. However, I wanted to find a lazy way to completely shut down the TV or monitor and other peripherals automatically and turn everything back on again using my Media Center remote control 10' away sitting on a couch. After some head-scratching and web-searching I found two commercial solutions, as well as the homebrew one described below.


      I found several "smart" power strips, all are available from Amazon that provide automatic sensing of the control outlet. When you power down your computer or stereo, these outlet strips shut down the power to your computer or entertainment center's peripherals. This unique feature not only saves you money and helps the environment, it also makes shutting down your systems fast and easy. 
      Click on the links below for further information:

      Smart Strip LCG3 Energy Saving Surge Protector 

      with Autoswitching Technology

      Globe 7815901 8-Outlet energy Saving Strip

       Belkin Conserve Socket with Energy-Saving Outlet

      ZuniDigital ZG10222B-27

       10 Outlet Digital Smart Green Surge Protector 

      Do It Yourself: 

      All three of the above commercial units look like they will do the job, but for the more technically inclined, I am also describing the Power Saver Box I built below.
      It has a single AC "control" socket for the PC, and two or more "slave" sockets for peripherals such as the TV or monitor, printer, speaker amplifier, etc. 
      In operation when the PC goes to sleep the Power Saver box automatically shuts down those slave devices that would otherwise remain on, or in standby mode. This design features an adjustable threshold adjustment that can be tailored to the standby power characteristics of your master device.  If you are technically inclined, here are further details on its operation and construction:

      TA20FL Current Transformer
      • Non-Intrusive Power Sensing: The PC serves as the control device, so it must always have power applied in order to be turned on or put to sleep via the Media Center's remote control or the PC's standby function.  At the heart of the Power Saver is a small passive Current Transformer (CT) component. This device is basically an epoxy encapsulated toroid with 2000 turns of wire that serve as the transformer's secondary windings. So only a few turns of "primary" winding are needed through its 1/2" inner core hole to produce a useful voltage at its secondary output. Feeding two turns of the AC line's HOT wire through the CT allows the small differences in current draw between sleep mode and full power to be sensed by the transformer's sensitive secondary windings as a small AC voltage. This voltage  is converted to DC and sent to a small circuit board that contains the necessary components to drive a solid state relay which controls AC power to the required peripheral devices.

      SSR-25DA Solid State Relay
      • The prototype unit (Fig. 1) is housed in a salvaged 7" x 4" x 2" Pyxis Cubie prescription box. The simple control circuitry is mounted on a 2" x 3" perf. board shown within the dotted lines in Fig. 2. I mounted the circuit board directly to the inexpensive solid state relay module via its 4 terminal screws. I removed the 4 original screws and added longer screws and 1/4" stand-offs in order to clear the wiring on the underside of the circuit board. 
      • Precautions: Since this box plugs into the AC line I was careful to follow good wiring practice in building this unit. I also added a small small surge protecter box ahead of the main unit's power cord. Approach this project with care!
      • Threshold Settings: The unit continously senses the PC's power draw. For my setup, it automatically shuts off the slave outlets when the power drops below 10 Watts - this happens when the PC is put to sleep using my remote control. When the PC turns on or resumes from sleep, power is applied to the peripherals as soon as the power draw goes above 40 Watts. An on-board potentiometer R3 allows fine adjustment of the ON/OFF power thresholds, shown in the graph of Fig. 3..
      • An optional Bypass Switch SW1 allows the slave units to be forced on independently of the Master PC. This may be required for testing purposes, or in my case after a power failure, or if I pull the plug on the main unit. In this case I need a way to turn the TV on before turning on the PC to allow the TV's HDMI port to be recognized by the Windows OS. This switch is kept OFF during normal "standby" operation.
      • The circuit diagram of the perf. board shows the current transformer's secondary output going to a voltage doubler rectifier. The resulting DC output is limited at 14 volts by zener diode D3 and then goes to the 1/3 & 2/3 threshold inputs of IC1, a TLC555C CMOS version of the common NE555 Timer chip. This device is used as a fixed hyterisis Schmidt Trigger to turn the relay control pins ON at output pin 7 when the input voltage reaches 2/3 Vcc and and OFF when input falls below 1/3 Vcc. RL1 is an inexpensive 25A solid-state relay that switches the two accessory devices. Potentiometer R3 allows vernier adjustment of the threshold detection input voltage for even lower power motherboards.
      • The graph in Fig. 3 shows the power response curve for this circuit. 

        Figure 1. Power Saver Box

          Figure 2. Schematic Diagram
          Figure 3. Power Curve