Wednesday, September 11, 2013

How to combine Chromecast & other audio / video devices into a single HDMI TV input

After a long wait I finally received my Google $35 Chromecast HDMI Dongle that I had ordered from Amazon 8 weeks earlier,
Google Chromecast Dongle
(click image to order on Amazon with free shipping)
How Useful is Chromecast? 
For years I had been watching Netflix and local HDTV stations on my dedicated Windows Media Center PC, so I wasn't sure how useful Chromecast would be for me, but I quickly became enamored by its ability to "cast" YouTube videos, Chrome browser tabs, and my desktop apps from my laptop onto my large screen TV (see: 
I am finally able to view all my Flickr and Picasa photo albums that I keep on my laptop directly on my large screen TV; and I am able to sit on my sofa and use my Nexus 7 tablet and Android phone as my "remote".

Why do I really need an HDMI switcher?

[Note: If you own a recent model TV with HDMI version 1.3 or higher, there is a good chance that it incorporates some of the "smart" HDMI-CEC features described above, in which case the following info may not apply to you.]
 I first plugged the Chromecast dongle into my TV's second HDMI Input-2, and its +5V USB power cable into the USB port on my TV. But then every time I wanted to watch live TV on the Media Center using my Xbox Remote, I found myself hunting around for my other seldom-used TV remote control in order to to switch the TV's  input source away from Chromecast's dedicated HDMI input-2 over to the Media Center's Input. Or alternatively, I had to switch sources from Input-1 to Input-2 in order to watch something on Chromecast. Wasn't there another way to automate this process? 

Are there any "Smart HDMI Switching" solutions?
 Searching the web about the HDMI video standard I found out that there is an optional Consumer Electronic Control (CEC) feature of the HDMI specification that enables manufacturers of consumer electronic equipment to incorporate "smart HDMI" switching features into their audio / video products. Philips markets the HDMI-CEC feature under the proprietary name ‘EasyLink’ However, manufacturers have been slow to adopt smart input switching capabilities into their devices, and unfortunately my 47" Philips HDTV did not offer this feature when I purchased it in 2007.

What can CEC do for me? 

CEC can automatically power-on the appropriate products, route the DVD player's audio output through the A/V receiver to attached speakers, and route the player's motion picture to the Digital TV. Likewise, selecting a channel on the set-top box will cause television audio to replace movie audio on the speakers and a television picture to replace the movie picture on the Digital TV. 
Refer to the following links for more information on HDMI-CEC: 

Portta PET0301S 3x1 HDMI Switcher

(click image to order from Amazon)

An Inexpensive Alternative: 
I found an 3X1 HDMI Video Switcher on Amazon for less than $10. It claimed to offer the CEC automatic video switching capability. According to the manufacturers description: 
"The Portta PET0301S 3x1 HDMI Switcher routes high definition video (in multiple resolutions up to 1080p) and digital audio from any one of the three sources to display unit. The output sends the high definition audio/video signals to a high definition display. This kind of the HDMI Amplifier Switcher not only has the key-press-switching function, but also has the IR remote control and intelligent function. No power need for this item with HDMI standard device, so it does not include the power adapter"

Hooking up the Portta 3X1 Switcher
  • Step 1: I connected one end of an HDMI cable into my TV's HDMI Input 1, and the other end into the HDMI output of the Portta switcher. I then attached the Chromecast dongle to the Switcher's HDMI Input #1 and the Windows Media Center PC to the Switcher's HDMI Input #2. In my case, the Portta Switcher was shipped without an AC power adapter, and because of the manufacturer's description above I assumed that I didn't need one. However, when I powered up the TV nothing happened! This implied that my older Philips 47" TV does not meet the CEC criteria of being able to supply power to peripherals via its HDMI connectors. 
  • Step 2: Since the Chromecast dongle was shipped with an optional AC power supply as well as a USB power cable, and since my 47" TV has a USB port on the side, I decided to plug the Chromecast's USB cable into the USB port on my TV. As soon as I turned on my TV - voila! - I got a Chromecast display on the screen.
  • From the above I concluded that without a separate AC adapter, the Portta switcher is also capable of drawing its power from any of the HDMI devices plugged into it, providing those devices can supply +5VDC to the switcher via pin 19 of their HDMI connectors. It also proves that my older TV set does not have this capability.
  • Chromecast Dongle to the rescue: In my case my only option was to get power for the switcher from the Chromecast dongle - either by connecting the dongle's USB cable to my TV's USB port, or by plugging the same cable into its AC power module. Since I did not want the Chromecast to stay on when the TV was off, l chose the first approach. Now, power is supplied to the dongle only when the TV is on. 
See the picture below to see how I hooked it all together: 
Switcher hookup for Chromecast

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

3. Windows 7 Media Center Software Installation - Video

The following slide show illustrates the installation of the Duet Tuner card and Windows 7 software setup procedure.
Slideshow captions should be turned on as you sequence through the images. Turn them off temporarily if you have difficulty reading the text behind captions, or click in the center of the slide to go directly to the Picasa Web album where the full-size images for this slideshow exist.

Notes on connecting to the Internet:
I started out by using an inexpensive USB WiFi Stick plugged into the back of the Media Center to avoid stringing cable through the house. This seemed to work fine at first, but after a while I experienced random interruptions and slowdowns while watching NetFlix streaming movies. I switched over to a CAT-5 Ethernet cable, connected at the rear of the box and wired directly to my DSL Modem. I find this provides the fastest data connection for watching streaming video.

The next post describes the setup of Windows Media Center and the Xbox Universal Remote Control.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

4. Media Center Setup - Video

Missing Channels?  After your TV Tuner has been detected and Guide listings have been downloaded, verify that TV channels are mapped correctly for your area. To do this, go to the Guide and scroll down the channels. Refer to this TV Coverage Map to find Channel numbers and antenna orientation for your area. If any of the call letters and the corresponding channel numbers don't match, or you see "No data available", then these channels may be incorrectly mapped! This appears to be a random problem with Media Center. Several of the slides in the following set will show you a way to fix this problem. 

Media Center Setup: The following slideshow shows you how to start up Media Center for the first time. Captions within the following slides should be turned on as you sequence through the images. Turn them off temporarily if you have difficulty reading the text behind captions. Note: Clicking in the center of the slide will take you directly to the Picasa Album where the full-size images reside.

Universal Remote Control

Using the Microsoft Xbox Universal Remote Control with Windows Media Center.

The Xbox Universal Remote Control is one of the best remote controls I could find at reasonable price. I bought a used one from Amazon. It has 46 easy-to-see lighted pushbuttons, and fits nicely into the hand. Even though it is designed for the Xbox it has nearly all the functionality required for Windows Media Center and can be made to work with a few simple registry mods.

The last four slides of the set provide a quick overview of the registry modifications needed to use the Xbox Universal Remote Control with Windows Media Center. To modify the registry navigate to HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SYSTEM\CurrentControlSet\Services\HidIr\Remotes\745a17a0-74d3-11d0-b6fe-00a0c90f57da 
  1. Change the value of CodeSetNum0 to 0 if you wish to use the Xbox Remote exclusively, or to 8 if you wish to use both the Xbox Remote and a regular Media Center compatible remote as well.
  2. Delete the three entries CodeSetNum1, CodeSetNum2, CodeSetNum3.
  3. You need to reboot for the change to take effect.
  4. Follow the above sequence carefully - export the existing registry to a backup file if necessary! Read the following if you are unsure:
To use the remote for Media Center Only (no TV functions are enabled on the remote): By skipping the next step "To control your TV", you can prevent the TV Mode button from being activated. The Volume and Mute functions will now control the media center box only. Note that the CH up/down functions do not work in this mode.
To control your TV: If you also wish to turn your TV on/off and control its volume and mute functions with the Xbox 360 Universal Media Remote, you must program the remote control for use with the specific brand of the TV that you're using. You can manually enter the TV code, or you can perform a scan to find the TV code. To scan for the correct TV code, follow these steps:
  1. Turn on the TV, and then point the remote control toward the TV.
  2. Press and hold the TV button and the OK button at the same time for two seconds. All the buttons on the remote control will illuminate for two seconds. Then, only the numeric TV buttons (1 through 12) remain illuminated.
  3. Press the CH+ button or the CH– button to send a series of off commands to the TV. Continue to press the CH+ button or the CH– button until the TV turns off.
    Note Give enough time for the TV to respond to the off command after you press each button. Some TVs take more time to react to the off command than other TVs.
  4. Press the TV button to save the code and to exit. All the buttons on the remote control will blink three times to confirm the code.
Note If the remote control doesn't function correctly after you set the TV code, try a different code from the same TV manufacturer. Or, scan for another code. You can also go to this site and Click "Q3" to find a code you can manually enter for your particular TV.

There are two modes for using this remote, Media Center and TV. Once you have programmed it as above, to control your TV's On/Off, Volume, Mute and Channel +/- buttons push the TV button and it will light Red, indicating that you are in TV mode. Push the TV button once more and it lights back to Green, indicating that you are back in Media Center mode.

Go to the following site for more detailed instructions:  
To "punch in" specific channel numbers: let's say you would like to select a numeric channel number directly, such as Channel 7.2, with the Xbox Universal Remote. Here's how:
  • Punch in the desired channel number using the numeric buttons 1 to 9 and 0 on the remote. 
  • The *(100) button at the very bottom left selects the "."for the decimal place, channel "7.2" for example. 
  • As you push the channel numbers, the corresponding number should also be displayed on the screen. Once this shows correctly, press the OK button.

To add additional / missing functions to the XBOX Universal Remote: Refer to this link to undestand how to remap codes:

Infra-red USB Receiver:
RC-6 Infra-red USB Receiver
A Media Center "eHome" compatible USB RC-6 Infra-Red receiver is required to use the Xbox remote.

I found the one shown in the picture on eBay at:
If an eHome compatible IR receiver is plugged into a USB port it will be recognized and the necessary driver should load automatically.
To verify this go to: ControlPanel > Device Manager > Universal Serial Bus controllers. You should see "eHome Infrared Receiver (USBCIR)" listed there.

Tell us about your own Do-it-yourself Media Center Set-up Experiences!
Building your own Media Center is almost always a learning experience. Let others know about some of the things you may have learned or provide any hints that may be helpful to those attempting a build for the first time. Please feel free to leave your comments by clicking on the Post a Comment link below:

In the next post you can explore how to enhance your Media Center and find further resources.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

2. Assembling the HTPC - Video

The following slide show illustrates the assembly procedure for my media center box. Ordering information and specifications for most of the components I used for this build may be obtained by clicking on the product images shown on the right sidebar.
Slideshow captions should be turned on as you sequence through the images. Turn them off temporarily if you have difficulty reading the text behind captions, or click in the center of the slide to go directly to the Picasa Web album where the full-size images for this slideshow exist.

Notes on heatsink installation:
  • The stock Intel heat-sink/fan that comes packaged with the Clarkdale and Sandybridge CPUs can be tricky to install correctly. If mounted incorrectly, the CPU temperature will rise rapidly after power is applied and the entire system will shut down.
  • Make sure that the heatsink and the CPU mating surfaces are flush and making full contact after pushing down on the black plastic push pins at each of the 4 corners. The pre-applied grey thermal compound on the bottom surface of the heat sink assembly must make intimate contact with the CPU.
  •  I find it is easier to push down on the four push-pins diagonally while the motherboard is still outside the case. Note the direction of the arrow on top of the male push-pin: turn the push-pin counter-clockwise in the direction of the arrow for removal, and clockwise for installation. 
  • Support the bottom of the motherboard on a firm soft surface, being careful not twist it or apply excessive force to the surface-mount components on the underside while you are pushing down on the push-pins.
  • You should hear a "click" as you push down on each pin. After installation, examine the bottom of the motherboard to ensure that each of the four black male push pins is protruding fully through its respective hole and through the surrounding white female plastic pin.
  • To make sure that the above installation is correct, after powering up the system for the first time go to the PC Health Status page in the BIOS and verify that Current CPU Temperature is within normal limits ( between 30 - 50 degrees Centigrade).