Friday, January 1, 2010


I have evolved.  Well, not me personally, but the technology in my house has definitely undergone an evolution over the past few months.  Or at least a refresh.  It was a long time coming, and there’s still a way left to go, but here’s where I started from, where I am now, and where I think I still need to upgrade.

Last year at this time I had the following:

  • Home Computer:  Dell XPS 410 pretty much a standard ship from the factory (without the TV card) running Vista Ultimate bought in 2005
  • My Laptop:  Toshiba U405-2854 running Vista Ultimate bought in 2008
  • My Wife’s Laptop:  Dell Latitude 550  running Windows XP bought in 2004
  • Phones:  Qwest RAZR with limited texting (2 phones bought in 2005 appx $70/month charges)
  • Internet Connection:  Qwest DSL 1.5 MB Download, .3 MB Upload ($30 / month)
  • TV Connection:  Comcast Basic Cable ($78/month with DVR and 2 cable boxes)
  • Game System:  Standard XBox circa 2004
  • Backup Strategy:  Used Windows Live Mesh for my writing and personal docs, plus a Maxtor 300 GB US Backup drive with Norton Backup (Never worked right)

A number of factors came together over the past year to cause me to spend a bunch of time and a bunch of money upgrading various technical aspects of my life

1. We upgraded from the basic Qwest Phones to Apple IPhone 3GS with unlimited data from AT&T last spring.  I was happy with the phone I had, but Qwest was discontinuing wireless in our area, and we had to choose a new plan.  I left it up to my wife to pick a new plan / phone for us.  I’ve been fairly satisfied with the IPhone on the whole.  I use the phone every day, for far more than I thought I ever would (who needs web / email on their phone, I used to say), but I actually regret having email on my phone.  I have it linked into my work email, and at times I feel obliged to answer emails at odd hours of the night.  There is nothing worse than getting home on a Friday night, ready for a good, relaxing weekend, only to see an emergency email pop into your box at 6:00 PM.  A year ago, that email would have waited there just fine until Monday morning, and no one would have cared.  I may not work two jobs like some people I know, but I have one job that takes up twice the time it used to.

I am not happy with ITunes, but that is a whole other story.

2.  My wife’s computer, the Dell 550, is a beast, both in weight and in the heat it puts out.  It would literally burn your legs if you left it on your lap for too long.  In November, she finally ordered a new laptop, an HP.  That was the same week I went to Microsoft PDC, and received a new ACER 1420P laptop running Windows 7 courtesy of Microsoft.  We promptly returned the HP unopened, and swapped / upgraded laptops.  She got my Toshiba (just over a year old) and I got the Acer.  If you’ve read my blog, you know what I think of the ACER.  I got the raw end of the deal, and would switch with my wife if it wasn’t such a pain to move ITunes from one machine to another.  Unless I can find a glare reducer for the ACER, I’ll probably replace it before 2010 is done.

We upgraded my wife’s Toshiba to Windows 7, and the Dell XPS 410 to Windows 7 as well.

3.  With the money we originally had budgeted for the new Laptop, we bought an HP-490 MediaSmart Home Server.  I love this box.  Easy to do the initial setup, looks good, runs quiet.  I added an extra 1.5 TB of disk into it so it could spread the load over multiple disks.

4.  I then splurged on a new XBox 360 Elite with the 120 GB hard drive, with the idea that I could use it an a media extender for my home server.  I also got the idea that with a little planning, I could drop the $78/month Comcast bill, and make back the money I spent on the XBox in less than 6 months.  This is where my plan started to run into some trouble, and also where the story gets interesting.

First off, I wanted to put my media server and XBox 360 in my Home Entertainment center, hard wire them to my wireless router and DSL line, then run my desktop off a wireless USB receiver.  A few problems cropped up.

a)  Running a desktop PC off a USB Wireless G (Linksys WUSB54GC) when you are frequently remote desktopped into you work PC from there is a complete disaster waiting to happen.  Of course the morning after I set this all up, I had to be up at 4:00 AM to talk to someone in India, and my connection kept getting dropped, and I had to go pull the router back out of the entertainment center and put it back into my office just to finish the chat.

b) 1.5 MB download over Qwest DSL is not fast enough to watch movies on Netflix or TV shows on Hulu.  I thought initially I’d be able to upgrade to 7 or 12 MB on Qwest, but that level is not available in my neighborhood.  Time to call Comcast.

c) In order to watch internet TV on the XBox 360 from the HP Homeserver, you need to install a product like PlayOn Media Server.  The product works pretty well, though the install on WHS is not straightforward.  Follow the special directions as best you can, and do lots of Google searches. The HP 490 does have one critical flaw for those of you who want to run PlayOn to stream Internet TV.  The CPU is a little slow.  In hindsight, upgrading to the 495 with the Dual Core CPU would have been a better deal.

I also went out and bought the XBox N Wireless antenna, and had Comcast Upgrade my router to N as well.

Once I confirmed that Comcast could give me the service level I needed, I was able to drop my TV cable plan from the $78/month to $13.50 a month by going with their very basic plan, and getting rid of the Comcast DVR.  I bought a Hauppauge 1850 Win-TV-HVR PCI-E card and popped that into the last PCI-E slot on the Dell XPS 410 to act as my TV guide / tuner.  That brought up another issue though with the Dell 410.  Drive space.  The Dell is supposed to have dual 175 GB drives set up in a Raid 1 configuration.  When I upgraded the machine to Windows 7, it appears that I lost the Raid Configuration, and now I have 175GB C: drive, and 48 GB on the D: drive.  If you try to set up the DVR on the D drive on the digital tuner, you can only record about 4 hours of TV.  If you set it up on the analog channel, you can get about 30 Hours of shows (due HD vs std output.).

5.  We bought a Harmony 900 universal remote.  This thing is a beast, but it does work with everything we have, though not quite perfectly.  We’ve been talking about getting something like this for a very long time, but using the XBox controller as a remote for the DVR was the final straw.

So what was the cost of all this (Roughly, tax excluded)?

IPhones:  $199 each + $170 per month  (We’ll keep those out the final numbers, since my wife can’t hold those against me.)

  • HP 490:  $475
  • Extra 1.5 TB for Home Server:   $90
  • XBox 360:  $350
  • XBox 360 N Connector:  $99
  • USB G Receiver:  $50
  • Hauppauge WinTV Card:  $119
  • PlayOn Media Server:  $40
  • Windows 7 3 Pack for Toshiba and Home PC - $149
  • Microsoft Office 2007 Home edition 3 pack - $129
  • Harmony 900 – $274 ($138 by using a bunch of Christmas Gift certificates)

Total Hardware / Software Cost:  $1501

  • New: Comcast TV – 13.50 / month
  • New: Comcast Internet:  $20/month for 6 month (25MB down, 8 MB up), $45 / month after 6 months
  • New Total Cost / Month:  $33.50 / 58.50 after 6 months
  • Original Cost / Month:  $30 (Qwest) + 80 (Comcast) = $110.
  • Savings after 6 months:  450
  • Savings after 12 months: 450 + 300 = $700.

So after 1 year, I will have saved about $700, so it will take me about 2 years to break even.

But I also gained a more reliable backup system (worth quite a bit to me).

I also turned my WHS into a Web Server and Host my own website there (, which I was hosting on Windows Azure, but since they are about to start charging outrageous amounts of money, I was going to have to switch to ($4 / month).  But this way I can try more things with my web site and set up others as well.  Not a big savings in money there, but honesty, going out to when I’m at work makes me feel like I’m looking at porn on company time.

All of this was a learning experience.  I had some grandiose plans about getting rid of Comcast for good if I could get fast enough DSL speeds, and find all the TV content I wanted on-line, but alas, neither the former or the latter is completely possible, yet.

For someone about to go through all this themselves, here are a few tips.

  1. Confirm your DSL provider can give you the speed you want before you start.
  2. The HP Home Server is great, but get the 495.
  3. Don’t try all this with Windows Vista.  Wait till you have Windows 7
  4. Upgrade your wireless to N before you start
  5. Really investigate what you think you will do with you gaming system.  The PS3 might be a better choice if you want to watch BluRay.  The XBox doesn’t support it.  The number one reason I bought the XBox was because most of my friends have it and they play on line.  I haven’t yet had time to play on-line, so maybe that wasn’t the wisest decision
  6. Don’t buy a USB Wireless card for a desktop PC.  Waste of money.
  7. ITunes doesn’t play well with anything.  If you think you will be able to backup your ITunes library to your home server, then play your playlists on your stereo, you will be sadly disappointed.  ITunes playlists are a proprietary format, and not compatible with Windows Media Server.  So don’t promise your wife that this is possible.
  8. If you want to stream music from your media server to your stereo, and you have a TV like mine, you may have to leave your TV on all the time while listening to music, and you’ll have to watch those seizure inducing graphics.  My TV doesn’t pass audio through when the TV isn’t on, and I haven’t yet invested in the XBox to component out audio connector.
  9. Your life will be more complicated with this setup.  Instead of just checking your queue on Netflix and seeing what’s on TV / your DVR, you’ll have to do the following:
    1. Check your Netflix DVD queue
    2. Check your Netflix Instant Play Queue
    3. Check your PC to see what is on your DVR
    4. Copy the shows you don’t have time to watch now over to you media server so your PC doesn’t run out of space.
    5. Look through Hulu for stuff to watch
    6. See what you can watch on-line that can be streamed through the XBox.  Not everything can be.  To me, there’s a whole lot of collusion going on out there that is preventing the internet from being THE source of entertainment content, but the FTC is in the hip pocket of big business, and not going to do what is best for consumers, which would be to give everyone a choice of how to get their content.  My hope is that over time, more content will be integrated into PlayOn so that everything I want to watch is in one place.
  10. Be prepared for things to not work right the first time.  In fact, if you are doing this just to save money, forget it.  You won’t at least not right way, unless you already have most of this hardware.

What’s really weird is that since we’ve started setting this up, I’ve barely had time to watch TV, and I haven’t really missed it.

So what’s on the table for 2010?

  1. Add more disk to my Dell XPS.  Disk is cheap now, and if I added a couple of TB into it, it would go a long way to allowing my to record everything I want to.
  2. Add a second cable splitter into the line coming in to the Dell 410 so I can have both HD and analog feeds, and choose which format to watch / record.
  3. Clean up the directory structure on the Home Server to make things easier to find.
  4. Develop a Home TV guide for everything we might want to watch (how to get to it, restrictions, etc.)
  5. Figure out if I can access my Windows Media Center remotely to allow me to set up recordings while I am away.
  6. Test my backup strategy.  It’s a common saying that you don’t have true backups unless they have been tested.
  7. Replace the ACER 1420P.  We’ll see how long I can cope with this one.

Give me a few more weeks, and we’ll see if I get this all working just right, or get outsourced as the VP of technology in my own home.

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