I don’t really write much about geek toys, mostly because i’m really not that much into that anymore. The phase in my life where I was an early adopter is behind me, been there, done that, got all the discarded and dismantled electronic corpses to proof it. I just want things to work, work well, and not require hours of fiddling. A piece of electronics nowadays has a very short time in which to proof to me they will not be a hassle.
Lately I’ve gotten a new interest in geek toys. I can’t really explain why. I think it’s because I haven’t replaced any of my toys in years and I feel it’s time to welcome the next century. In the last few weeks I’ve bought a few new items that I thought would be interesting and I feel that’s not yet the end of it. Read on for my thoughts on these items..
Logitech Harmony One
The first toy I bought is the Logitech Harmony One. It’s a universal remote that has gotten quite a few good reviews. My living room probably looks like that of most geeks, there are remotes everywhere, so I figure Id try out one of these babies. What I like about the Harmony One is that it looks and feels like a real remote. I don’t like those big tablets that look like you’re controlling the space shuttle. It’s the same size as my TV remote, so that fits in nicely with what im used to. I also like that it has a normal ‘remote control interface’, meaning its actually got buttons instead of a huge touchpad display that some of them have. There is a small touchpad display at the top of the remote, which can be used to program some additional features that you can’t find buttons for.
The website and manual for this remote claim that it takes 30 minutes to program this remote for all your A/V equipment. I found that to be overly optimistic. Sure, it’s got a huge database with hundreds of thousands of devices, and it indeed doesn’t take much time to put all your devices in because it probably knows all of them. All you have to do is just point & click to the ones you own. But I’m a nitpicker, and I did not like the way it set things up. For instance, some keys for my XBMC enabled XBOX didn’t work right, and my TV was also not perfectly simulated. Out of the box, I wasn’t happy.
So now the learning process starts. How do you actually program this thing. It isn’t that hard if you’ve done this type of thing before, but I highly doubt my mom could do this. You have to go online, find the manual, ignore it, and read the forums instead. There I found the answers to most of my questions. It took me a few days of fiddling (which is more than I would have liked, but I saw the potential for future happiness), but eventually I got it to work just right.
I’m pretty happy with this remote now. It does exactly what I wanted from it, and does it well. Thumbs up!
Julie and I almost never watch normal TV. We do watch online content, in whatever shape and form. So far we’ve been using a modified XBOX running XBOX Media Center to watch most of this content. It works fine, except it doesn’t have the capability to show HD content as all it has is a normal Video output. Since we have a HD/720p capable TV, I figured it was time to bring our player into the modern world as well.
In my circle of friends (geeks mostly) the PopcornHour has caused a bit of a buzz. Several people have bought one, and for a while it was hard to get which seems to have only added to the desirability. I decided to buy the ISTAR Mini Networked Media Tank instead. It uses the exact same chipset and software, but in a slightly more modern case. Also, it has no harddisk which limits its capabilities slightly (no bittorrent) but makes it totally silent as it has no fan. I don’t use BT anyways, so this was the better choice for me.
The box itself looks pretty enough. A lot better than my digital TV box and the XBOX. Hooking it up was quite easy as well. Just one simple HDMI connector to my TV was all it needed. My Harmony One even recognized it. This is looking good.
That is, until I turned it on. I think someone forgot to tell the people making the software of this box that we’re now actually in 2008 instead of 1998. The whole thing looks like im browsing around using Lynx. Ok, I can look past that. Beauty is on the inside and all that. But it’s got other problems as well. It’s slow, and worst of all, it keeps loosing HDMI signal to my TV. Reading the forums it seems like this is a known bug, and should be fixed soon. In the meantime im supposed to just hook it up with Video. Uhm…yeah..ok. Sorry guys, I bought this because it had HD capabilities!
I’m not yet ready to totally give up on it. I’ve boxed it again, and I’ll await the next firmware. If they fix the HDMI problems I’ll probably hook it up and use it for a bit. It may not be fair comparing it to XBMC, but on the other hand, I expect a manufacturer of this chipset to at least make some form of effort to make it look pretty. No effort is unacceptable. So far, thumbs down!
QNAP 109-II Pro
I’m not a big fan of network storage systems. I’ve had plenty of them before and most of them are collecting dust now. Instead I switched all my storage to eSATA based systems because I really need that speed for all our photo management work. So why would I look into a networked based storage system again?
We have quite a few computers at home. I have an Apple Macbook Pro, Julie has a thinkpad X60, and we have two Dell XPS720 workhorses we use for photo management (and gaming). I also used to have a Linux workstation, but I gave that one up when I got used to the MBP. We used to have all of these systems on at all times, but to save power I’ve finally gotten around to properly configure power saving on all of these systems. (which is easier said than done on Windows systems!). Back when I did have these systems on, I had dedicated one of the two windows boxes as a fileserver where I could just share media between machines.
I really missed not having a fileserver. Moving files between machines, or just downloading and sharing a movie trailer or other type of video suddenly became a hassle. So I started to look into a dedicated network storage box again. One of my geek friends is a real toy overlord, so I asked him what to get and his answer was a clear QNAP!
So QNAP it was, and I decided to buy their smallest version, a 109-II Pro. It’s a 1 disk system to which I added a 1TB seagate harddisk. I figured I could always upgrade if I liked it. Setting it up turned out to be a breeze. Actually, I would say it was one of the easiest and well made device installation wizards I’ve ever used. It even had a Mac version! Once installed you can do the rest through a web interface, which turned out to be just as easy. It’s got everything you want out of the box, and then some (I dont really need a bittorrent client or webserver). It’s got SMB, NFS, Appletalk, FTP, speaks UPnP, can stream music through iTunes and much much more. I could stop right here, give a thumbs up, and be done. This thing rocks.
But being a true geek, I didn’t stop there. This thing runs Linux, so before I had even explored the whole web UI I was already logging in with ssh and exploring the filesystem. It uses an ARM processor which isn’t the fastest but it’ll do. Unfortunately it didn’t have a development/compile environment, but there are plenty of online resources as the chipset and OS are used in lots of devices.Â It took me about a day to get a proper cross-compile setup working on my remote server (the one that runs this website), and compile my first binaries. You can even make sure these binaries fire up when you restart your device. This gives you lots of extra possibilities, like automatically syncing your device with a remote server. I’m also now running an XBMC proxy a friend of mine made that significantly improves the XBMSP (xbmc streaming protocol) to remote servers. Cool stuff.
If I had 3 thumbs, I’d stick them all up!