Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Why I Started this Site - My (almost an HTPC) WDTV story...

For those of you who care :) - Here is the (oh so exciting) story about why I started this website....

I debated over building an HTPC (Home Theater PC) for a long time but the $$ was just never there. I "window shop" on Newegg quite frequently and building wish lists has become an enjoyable pass time. When it comes to my tech hobby it seems that I am eternally broke, so I am always trying to figure out what the best bang for my buck is in terms of price vs. power. This is one of the reasons I am a big fan of AMD. However, I could never get something within my "nearly broke" budget regardless of how much bargain hunting and item switching I did on my Newegg wish list. The only reason I could afford to have the PC I am working with now is because my work paid for it, so the idea of having a computer strictly for the living room TV was a bit of a pipe dream.

The first time I came across the Western Digital TV was in a Best Buy. I picked up the box and was rather intrigued by the concept. I had read and considered purchasing similar products online but usually the price was too high, the company was something odd, and the customer reviews had some glaring negatives. The WDTV, however, was from a respectable company and was being sold at an electronics chain store. Reading the box, I quickly realized it didn't fully meet my needs. It was cool in the sense that it could read just about any kind of file format you threw at it and that it had the ability to pump out hi-def video and surround sound audio. Not to mention the thing was tiny and silent. But there was a glaring issue, no network connectivity, no internet, and no bittorrent access. While it was impressive for its price, I didn't want to compromise....

Then my wife's HP laptop VGA out port stopped working... Why is this significant you ask? Because up until this point we had been watching videos by connecting her laptop to our TV via a VGA cable. It was cumbersome and a bit of headache to hook the thing up every time, but it worked and we were broke (a common theme in my writing :)...) so we were content with using it.

----------------------------------------------------- Rabbit Trail
It is at this point I will throw in my 2 cents about HP. They have come a long way since the days when they saved a buck by hard wiring almost everything in their PC's to the motherboard and requiring proprietary parts for everything else. However they are still a "budget" builder and for the past several years their laptops have been absolutely atrocious. In her particular model of laptop they used a heatsink made of what looks like pot metal and the heat pipe only runs to the CPU and not to the video chip (GPU) as well. Furthermore the GPU is on its own piece of silicon which is soldered to the mobo and there is a sizable gap between it and the heatsink which is filled in by what I am assuming is some kind of thermal pad. For those of you who are lost, all of this means that the cooling system looks like it was designed by someone who thought it better to keep the heat in rather than out. I will write another article on how her whole laptop had crashed and she lost all video (no signal to her LCD)and how I was able to find a rather interesting way to repair it involving a blanket and some copper...
-----------------------------------------------------End Rabbit Trail

So with Sarah's (my wife) laptop VGA connection down we had no way to get videos from our PC's to the TV. This brought the WDTV back to mind. It was about 1/3 - 1/4 of the price of what it would cost me to build a low-end HTPC and it could play every file format under the sun, including really demanding hi-def H.264 stuff, without breaking a sweat (or breaking out into flames like my wife's laptop...). It was somewhat of a "desperation" move but it certainly wasn't an unattractive option.

I ordered my WDTV from Newegg and received it a few days later. I plugged in my hard drive via USB, the WDTV scanned it, and voila' I had beautiful hi-def video from this incredibly tiny player on my living room TV. The interface was simple and straightforward so everyone in the house could use it without having to speak 'geek.' And so I was happy for a few weeks.

Then I discovered the online community that is devoted to this small wonder of a box and oh the hours that I have wasted since. You see, the WDTV, and many devices similar to it, runs its own brand of Linux under the hood. Some adventurous and highly intelligent souls developed their own hacked version of firmware for the box which adds network connectivity, wireless support, bittorrent, and the ability to telnet in and add all manner of software. With an investment of time and a heck of a lot of patience I was able to turn this tiny box into (almost) an HTPC. I can't quite surf the internet on it, but it truly is now a small computer.

I am no Linux buff, however, and I spent hours and hours getting the thing up and running. If I had had a clue what I was doing I could have gotten it running well within an hour or two. There are already a lot of resources on the net surrounding this topic. However it has been my experience that most of these resources assume that the reader has a clue about Linux. I had enough of a clue that I could Google my way through... but I wish to save anyone else who reads this blog the headache by making some of the information that I had a hard time finding easily available.


PS - Have you had horrific (and perhaps humorous) experiences with your HP laptop? If so, please share with the group in the comments section. Let's all laugh at our collective misfortune!


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