A New Desktop Build

A few months back, my desktop PC died. I had a birthday not too far away and I was struggling with present ideas, so I figured I could make do with a cobbled-together machine until then. Truth be told, I had been thinking about a new machine for a while, mainly because the old one kept hitting a brick wall, I think because of my obsession with keeping a lot of tabs open. So the collapse of the old one presented an opportunity.

My old mini-ITX build was doing the job other than that though. So I was looking at more RAM (my suspicion for the occasional hang-ups) and I also wanted it quieter. The old mini-machine was a little noisy.

Requirements

I tried to sum up my requirements and I came up with:

  • Quiet
  • Plenty of RAM
  • New SSD
  • Able to drive my 2560×1600 screen and a 1900×1080 second screen, with scope for 4K support in the future
  • Small form factor

I decided I could lose the optical drive.

My experience with my HTPC has taught me two things when it comes to noise:

  • The only silent things have no moving parts
  • A large enough (120mm) fan spinning slow enough may not be silent, but is largely inaudible

So I wanted passive if possible, with maybe a couple of case fans if necessary. Continue reading…

Introducing HA-Pen

In a previous post I wrote about my search for a cheaper home automation solution, where I explained how I used a Raspberry Pi and a cheap 433Mhz transmitter to control some RF sockets. I mentioned in that article how I was spurred to try again after reading about using the Pi-mote from a company called Energenie.

I wasn’t convinced I could get my simple transmitter working so, for the princely sum of £19.99, I ordered a Pi-mote starter kit as a backup. The kit comes with the Pi-mote (which you can buy separately) and a pair of RF sockets (which, again, you can buy separately).

Using the documentation on the Energenie site, and leaning on the work of the Pi Foundation’s Amy Mather, I was able to knock up a bit of Python to allow you to switch sockets on and off using the command line.

My existing home automation solution used a Telldus TellStick with a PHP web interface, which simply called a command line tool to toggle sockets on and off.

For reasons that are now lost to me, I decided to re-write that setup in Python, switch over to using the Pi-mote and integrate the calls into the app itself. I also improved the interface so you no longer needed to edit tables to add timers or sockets, moving everything into JSON config files for ease of reading and to lighten the overhead. It proved to be quite a journey, but finally HA-Pen was born.

HA-Pen web interface

The main interface of HA-Pen

Continue reading…

Yet Another HTPC Rebuild

I’ve had my HTPC for a while, without doing much apart from the occasional upgrade to add a disk or what-not. The original was built back in 2010. It was still doing the job perfectly fine, but it was always a little heavy on power, too much so to leave on permanently. LAst year, the new Celeron systems caught my eye (the J1800 and J1900), offering low power and silent running.

I did some digging and compared them against their AMD equivalent: the AM1 platform. The latter had some advantages, notably in graphics. It also had a socket, so the CPU could be upgraded. Power consumption, although worse on paper, looked to be on a par. The price was right for a punt, so I placed an order.

(This was mostly done back in July 2014, but I only bought the case recently to complete the build.)

The Decisions

The problem with both of the platforms I was looking at was SATA ports. My media centre machine houses the hard drive storage locally, so it needed six ports. I did (briefly) consider splitting it into two machines, but I was never going to get low power consumption that way.

Thankfully, the AM1 platform offered a Micro-ATX board that gave me more PCI-e slots (I needed one for the TV tuner), so I could add a SATA expansion card (I already used one of these on my HTPC, but only a two-port card, I needed four).

I also dragged my heels on the case. The previous machine had been housed in a Fractal Design Define R2, which is awesome, but massive. I wanted something a bit smaller, but kept struggling to find the right combination of dimensions with sufficient 3.5″ disk space.

With those out of the way, I got on with ordering. Continue reading…

A Cheaper Home Automation Solution

A while back I set up a little home automation using a USB 433Mhz transmitter to control some RF sockets I had lying around. The primary aim was to replace the timer I used to run my lamps, which needed constant changing throughout the year.

Byron Remote SocketIt worked, and I even made a couple of tweaks to update the timer so that it automatically came on around sunset, thereby switching itself on at an appropriate (ish) time without any interaction from me.

The project wasn’t particularly expensive, using a Telldus TellStick that cost about £55. I also needed a computer to trigger it, which I already had. The two combined make it quite expensive if you wanted to start from scratch, and the TellSticks aren’t easy to find (in the UK at least). Other alternative USB transmitters are dearer still.

With the arrival of the Raspberry Pi I could solve the issue of an expensive computer, plus reduce the power required. I started looking around and thought I could use a cheap 433Mhz transmitter and use the Pi’s GPIO pins to drive it. And so my quest began.

Initial Failure

As I said, I had done my research. Google and the Pi forums proved my friend and I soon decided to grab a small 433Mhz transmitter from Amazon, this one in fact. Which cost a rather pricey £5.59 (for this sort of transmitter anyway, see below).

433Mhz transmitterI also picked up some jumper wires, figuring I could simply attach them onto the GPIO pins and the pins on the transmitter. That didn’t go so well. I eventually gave up and purchased a GPIO starter kit off eBay (doesn’t look like it’s on eBay any more, but you can still buy direct from Smart-Elex, plenty of others are available too).

For £9.50, the kit provided me with a some LEDs, switches, resistors, a heap of jumper cables and, more importantly, an 830 point breadboard, a cable and a GPIO breakout kit (like the Cobbler). This made working on things much easier.

I tried a lot of different libraries (rf-bitbanger, RCSwitch-pi, and others) but couldn’t get it work, so gave up and figured I would some back to it later, hoping someone would develop an easier solution.

In hindsight, I had two problems:

  1. It appears I didn’t have my transmitter wired up correctly (there isn’t anything on the pins to indicate what does what aside from the antenna).
  2. I didn’t have a receiver to allow me to capture the signals from my handset, so I had to rely on what others had found.

A Second Go

It came back around to me thinking about the project again (thanks to this post) and I started yet more research. I liked the look of pilight (although I found it hard to install, with apt-get failing on me, got there with a git clone). Around this time I figured out my transmitter had been hooked up wrong so was excited to try this new option. Continue reading…

My Media Centre Overhaul

Since installing my HD card, live TV (HD channels) has never really worked. After a period of time the sound would begin to stutter and eventually disappear altogether. Stopping and restarting the channel would solve it, but only for a while.

I’ve looked for solutions before, such as increasing the size of the buffer pool (assuming it was when the buffer was full and it needed to start overwriting that the problem occurred). Nothing fixed it, so recently I decided on a complete rebuild, switching to Windows 8 at the same time.

Continue reading…