Archive for the ‘Media Center’ Category

Tranquil T7-MP2 review

Monday, June 14th, 2010

Tranquil have just released a new media center PC, the T7-MP2. For those of you not familiar with Tranquil, they are a British company specializing in making low energy PCs. They have a fantastic line in Home Servers, and have turned their expertise to making a near silent media center PC.

The T7-MP2 is based on Tranquil’s popular T7 chassis, which is a fanless case, achieving it’s cooling by having a black aluminium case which is basically one big heatsink. An external power supply like on a laptop also helps them to get rid of the heat silently. The compact design does allow for 2 hard drives inside if you like, but doesn’t have space for an internal DVD driver or TV tuner. Both can of course be added using external USB devices, but Tranquil wanted to do better than that, and wanted to make it a proper media centre system out of the box. They therefore asked me if they could include TunerFreeMCE on the T7-MP2 so that people have access live and catchup TV straight away. I was already a big fan of Tranquil, not least because their PCs are all carbon neutral for 5 years use, so I was very happy to work with them – it’s a fantastic partnership of a great media center PC with excellent software.

I received a T7-MP2?as part of ?getting TunerFreeMCE pre-installed and branded, so I decided to write a review of this new entrant to the Media Centre market.

The first thing I noticed when starting the T7-MP2 is how much care Tranquil have taken to make a good out of the box build. Tthose of you used to buying boxes from the likes of Dell and HP will be familiar with spending half a day uninstalling the unwanted crapware, installing and configuring the right software, and getting everything up and running. My T7-MP2 came without the usual bloat, and booted really quickly straight in to media centre. It was all configured ready to go, and had useful software like Microsoft Security Essentials installed already instead of trying to sell you some high-profit, low value AV software. The whole experience was thoroughly refreshing, and made me appreciate the benefits of avoiding the big box brands.

My box came with the lowest spec – 2GB RAM and a 500GB hard drive. Of that 2GB RAM, 250MB is used by the graphics card, leaving just 1.75GB available. Given that it comes with 64bit Windows 7 Home Premium installed, I was concerned that the memory was just too low for the system to operate properly. I gave it a go though, and was surprised that it ran without problem. That’s really a tribute to Windows 7 – you’d never have got away with that on Vista. If you change your mind though, the case is pretty easy to open to add more memory yourself .

Other good features is the excellent number of connections at the back – it has 6 USB, eSata, Gigabit Ethernet, Wireless N, VGA, DVI and HDMI, SPDIF toslink and ?coax, audio in/out, and even an old school PS2 keyboard/mouse connector.?Unfortunately?there are no connections at the front though, so if you want to plug in a USB drive, you have to rummage round the back. That seems like a surprising omission?to me – there’s space at the edges at the front where a couple of USB connectors could go, but instead there is just a power button and an IR receiver.

That brings me to my only real gripe with this box – the IR receiver. An IR receiver is essential on a media center PC, but?unfortunately while this one works fine with a Media center remote, it is?not compatible with the Microsoft Media?centre?keyboard. That means that if you want to use the IR keyboard, you need to plug in a regular IR receiver too, making the internal one a waste of time. In fact it’s worse than a waste of time. If you do plug in a proper IR receiver, the internal one and the external one interfere, registering double clicks. Needing to use the external IR receiver, I tried and failed to find a software way of disabling the internal IR receiver. In the end I put some black?electricians?tape over the front panel to block out the internal?IR receiver. It solves the problem, but it annoyed me that what should have been a good feature was in fact a problem. My suggestion to Tranquil would be to ditch the internal IR, replace it with 2 front facing USB ports, and ship with a regular external IR receiver, which has the advantage of being positionable somewhere convenient for those folks who want to hide all of their kit.

Moving on from that complaint though, and back to the coolness. The greatest feature of this PC is that it is quiet. Really quiet. A claimed 17dB makes it hundreds of times quieter than your average PC. The only noise comes from the hard drive, and the 2.5″ Samsung laptop drives that they have used ?are nice and quiet. I previously had a Shuttle SFF PC, which claimed to be quiet, but in retrospect really wasn’t. Swapping that out for the T7-MP2 actually made me aware of other noise sources in the room that I hadn’t even heard before (and so now I have a new quieter fish tank pump, but that’s a different story).

So, 17dB is very quiet, but it’s not quite silent. However, if you want a truly silent experience (0dB), there is also a solid state drive option. Of course, SSHD’s aren’t massive for storing all of your recordings on, but when combined with Windows Home Server, that is becoming a realistic option for many people.

Finally, given that it has an Atom 330 processor, how does it perform as a media centre PC? The answer is flawlessly. It played everything I had on my local network (recorded TV, high def videos, DVDs) without a stutter. It handles streaming video from the internet with the same ease. ?Music and pictures are handled just as easily, and that’s everything you need. Clearly this isn’t a gaming rig in terms of power, but that’s kind of the point – ?Tranquil have done a great job of putting the right machine together for the job it is meant to do.

Summary

At ?563, the T7-MP2 is a reasonably priced computer. Combined with it’s near silent operation, it makes a fantastic media center PC. The lack of front USB and the non-standard IR receiver are an annoyance for some people, but are overcome with little difficulty if it bothers you. With HDMI and SPDIF both built in, it’s ready to plug straight in to your TV and surround sound box if you like, and off you go.

Specifications

Size 387 (w) x 356 (d) x 66 (h) mm
CPU 64 bit ready Dual Core Intel Atom 330 (2 x 1.6GHz)
Chipset Nvidia ION
Graphics Nvidia GeForce 9xxx (up to 1920 x 1440)
Memory 2x DDR2 667/800MHz (up to 4GB)
HDDs 1x or 2x 2.5″ SATA
Rear panel connections 12V DC power in / 6x USB2.0 / 10.100.1000 LAN / Audio In / Audio Out / Mic In / COAX SPDIF / TOSLINK SPDIF / PS2 / HDMI / DVI / VGA / eSATA / WiFi / Power in
Weight Base unit (nett) 4Kg
Mounting options Desk, Wall or Vesta bracket (optional)
Power consumption from 21W
Acoustics 17dBA (incl 1x HDD) or 0dBA with SSHDD
OS Windows 7 Home Premium 64bit

Code based dialogs in media center

Wednesday, March 10th, 2010

I’ve written a few posts on how to implement dialog boxes in media center (Adding a version checker and Simpler popup dialog). They are both great examples of how to trigger a dialog box in mcml. Suppose though you want to do it all from within code, not within mcml. Why would you want to do that? Well, for one it means not having any AddIn calls in your mcml, and AddIn calls mean you can’t use the mcml preview tool – which significantly hampers development. For this example, I’m going to repeat the Adding a version checker example, but all in code.

So, to trigger a dialog from your code, the first thing you need to do is to build some buttons;

ArrayListDataSet dialogButtons = new ArrayListDataSet();
dialogButtons.Add("Download Now");
dialogButtons.Add("Remind me later");
dialogButtons.Add("Ignore");

This adds 3 buttons to the dialog. Obviously add as many or as few as you like. The next thing you need to do is to add the call to open the dialog;

String dialogText="There is a new version available";
String dialogTitle="New Version";
Microsoft.MediaCenter.Hosting.AddInHost.Current
.MediaCenterEnvironment.Dialog(dialogText
, "dialogTitle, dialogButtons, 30, true, null
, new Microsoft.MediaCenter.DialogClosedCallback(versionCallback));

This will open a dialog as a modal dialog with a timeout of 30 seconds. When it is closed, the method?versionCallback will be called, so now we need to write that method;

public void versionCallback(Microsoft.MediaCenter.DialogResult result)
{
    if (result.ToString() == "100")
    {
        InstallNewVersion();
    }
    if (result.ToString() == "101")
    {
        RemindLater();
    }
    if (result.ToString() == "102")
    {
        IgnoreNewVersion();
    }
}

And obviously fill in the appropriate actions for each method.

Finally, you may want to block this dialog from triggering when you are in the debugger (since it won’t work), so put an if statement round it to stop it running in debug mode;

#if(!DEBUG)
   String dialogText="There is a new version available";
   String dialogTitle="New Version";
   Microsoft.MediaCenter.Hosting.AddInHost.Current
.MediaCenterEnvironment.Dialog(dialogText
  , "dialogTitle, dialogButtons, 30, true, null
  , new Microsoft.MediaCenter.DialogClosedCallback(versionCallback));
#endif

And that’s it – an mcml dialog operated entirely from your code.

SeeSaw launched

Friday, January 29th, 2010

After Project Kangaroo was shut down, the technology was bought up by Arqiva and re-branded as SeeSaw. Since then they have been working on content agreements with various providers, and now have agreements with 4oD, Five and BBC Worldwide, and are working on more agreements with other providers. (more…)

Flash in Media Center

Monday, November 30th, 2009

Microsoft?made use of Flash in Media Center for it’s integration with MSN Player. That was a startling announcement one month ago since it was assumed that Microsoft wanted to promote Silverlight over Flash, and would never allow Flash in Media Center. So, in the past month what has happened about that??Unfortunately?it seems to have moved backwards again. First of all, the UK integration with MSN Player has?disappeared, only to be replaced by the Sky subscription service. I think that is a major mistake by Microsoft, because I don’t think anyone will pay for a very cut down version of Sky on their PC, and it would have been better to have a working internet TV solution available.

Secondly, I have been trying to find out how independent developers such as myself can make use of Flash in Media Center. A friend of a friend managed to get this unofficial response;

As far as I know, the Platform/APIs are only available for internal use. We don?t have any plan to release public documentation on that at this moment.

So that means that until Microsoft change their minds or someone manages to?dissect?the?delivered?code to work out how to use the libraries in an unsupported way, we are stuck without Flash support for independent developer.

BBC iPlayer on the Xbox

Monday, November 30th, 2009

bbx_xboxThere was an interesting article in The Telegraph over the weekend which claimed that the BBC will not be bringing the iPlayer to the Xbox 360, unlike the PS3 and Wii which already have excellent integration. It is claimed that this is because Microsoft are demanding that it only be made available to Xbox Gold subscribers, and the BBC are saying that that is unreasonable. As you will see from my post about Sky integration, I’m really down on requiring Xbox gold membership to access services like that. Gold membership should be about getting you access to servers that run online gaming. It should not be about bringing you access to third party software that is free elsewhere. Well done BBC for sticking up to Microsoft, and I hope Sky see sense too.

Of course if you want to watch iPlayer on the Xbox 360, just install TunerFreeMCE on your PC and access it via Media Center. The latest version of TunerFreeMCE includes wmv streaming of BBC programs, so works great on extenders like the Xbox 360 too.

Sky and Flash in media center

Thursday, October 22nd, 2009

With the public release of Windows 7, there have been some interesting developments;

1) Here in the UK, the Internet TV Beta 2 link has?disappeared?from our menus. I suspect that is because it was really buggy (I often got errors that my video library was unavailable). Hopefully it just means that a new better version is on the way

2) An advert for Sky Player has appeared in the menus;
sky

(more…)

Auto Play DVDs in Media Center in Windows 7

Monday, September 7th, 2009

autoplay7

One of my great annoyances with Windows 7 is that you don’t have the option to auto-play DVDs with Media Center. I logged it as a bug during the testing phase, and was informed that it was intentional – something along the lines of if you wanted to use Media Center, it would be open already, so auto-play wasn’t appropriate.

Anyway, I disagree, and fortunatly someone has come up with a fix for the problem. Mikinho over at Seven Forums has produced a simple registry change to get Media Center added to the DVD movie auto play options. I tested it out, and it all works great; (more…)

WebTelek Media Center Add-In

Sunday, June 28th, 2009

WebTelekSome of you might have noticed that there hasn’t been much going on with TunerFree for a few months. I can now reveal why that was. For the past 2 months I have been working with Russian internet television provider, WebTelek, on a Media Center interface. WebTelek specialize in providing television and radio programs over the internet for the Russian market, both at home and abroad with the ex-pat market. Today they have Live TV from almost 70 channels, 20 days complete coverage of Catchup TV for over 50 of those channels, and thousands of movies, with growing content all of the time.

WebTelek approached me with the request to create a top of the range Media Center interface for their internet television service. They already had a web interface and a Media Portal interface, but wanted to expand in to Media Center. One of their biggest concerns was that it look great so that they could confidently have a superior interface to their competitors. That was a challenge that I was happy to take on, especially with the prospect of developing new library components that I could use in TunerFree.

I won’t be publishing the full code for this project for obvious reasons, but wanted to share some of the key things I learnt from this project.

(more…)

Wanted: Plugin developers for TunerFreeMCE

Tuesday, June 9th, 2009

I am currently working on a plugin feature for?TunerFreeMCE to allow other people to produce plugins for TV content from any source. The idea is that you specify some metadata about the channels (e.g. channel names, logos, details of how to get the program list), and the TunerFree code takes care of reading it and producing a list of programs.

At the moment I am looking for people who would like to work on a plugin to test this. Ideally you need;

1) A channel that you want to add
2) html and xml skills to be able to produce the metadata

If you are interested in producing a plugin, e-mail me at martin@milliesoft.co.uk

Thanks

Martin

Simpler popup dialog

Sunday, April 19th, 2009

In a previous post on adding a version checker to media center, I gave an example of how to write a popup dialog box for media center. There is also a simpler version of the Dialog if you don’t need to know anything about the response, e.g. if you are simply showing an information message. This simpler version doesn’t require a callback to be defined, or any complex button definitions. It just needs a title, some text, a button name, a timeout and whether or not it is modal. Here’s an example;

      <Condition Source="[Preferences.TwitDialog]" SourceValue="true" ConditionOp="ChangedTo">
        <Actions>
          <Set Target="[Preferences.TwitDialog]" Value="false"/>
          <Invoke Target="[AddInHost.MediaCenterEnvironment.Dialog]"
                  caption="Authorize Twitter"
                  text="Please authorize twitter."
                  buttons="Ok"
                  timeout="15"
                  isModal="true"/>

        </Actions>
      </Condition>

The buttons can only be ones from the list described in the documentation. A modal window requires either the user or a timeout to close it before any other actions can be done, whereas a modeless window allows the user to continue with other things in the meanwhile.

The dialog is fired in this example by a property which is set in the code to true, and then set back to false when it is read. The condition only fires when the value is set to true in the first place by using the ConditionOp.