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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

What e-mail provider do developers use?

Monday, March 22nd, 2010

As does happen from time to time, I got an e-mail today where everyone on a list’s e-mail address was visible, rather than being BCC’d. I don’t want to beat the company up about it, because it’s an unfortunate fact of life that that kind of thing does occasionally happen due to simple human error, and they sent out an apology straight away.

Anyway, the interesting thing about this mail was that it was to developers who scrobble music to last.fm. That means it is not a general public sort of list – typically one person from each organization what has some software which can scrobble, and also most importantly, these are very technical people who are almost certainly all computer experts, who’s opinions on technical things are probably quite illuminating.

Now, normally I wouldn’t have looked twice at the actual addresses, but they had actually put them in the body of the e-mail, so I had no choice but to scroll through them all to get to the text. What struck me about this list of 312 e-mail addresses was there seemed to be quite a lot of gmail addresses. So many that I decided to do some analysis. What I discovered was that 117 e-mail addresses were gmail or goolemail. That’s 37% of developers using google for their e-mail. The next highest was yahoo at 1.6%. That’s quite a commanding lead for google.

Now, I use Google Apps for my e-mail, so although my e-mail address is at milliesoft.co.uk, my mail is actually handled by Google. I wondered how many of the rest of the developers fell in to that category, so there was only one thing for it. I wrote a script to do a lookup on the MX record for each domain to see who actually ran e-mail for the rest of the addresses. The findings were that 47 domains in the list are actually google apps domains. That means that for my sample of developers, we have the following e-mail providers (anyone with <1% share is on the “Others” box).

Provider Accounts Percentage
Gmail 117 37.5%
Google Apps 47 15%
Yahoo 5 1.6%
gmx.net 4 1.2%
Hotmail 4 1.2%
Others 135 43%

Answer:

More than half? of? the developers use Google as their e-mail provider – nearly 30 times more than the next contender, Yahoo.

According to wikipedia, gmail has 146 million users, hotmail has 343 million, and yahoo mail has 266 million users, so developers certainly buck that trend.

Spotify headed for the US

Sunday, February 7th, 2010

In an interview with Billboard this week, Spotify CEO Daniel Ek confirmed that Spotify are just a month or two from launching Spotify in the US. Apparently they have got a data center set up, and are in the final stages of setting up agreements and educating US record companies about the Spotify concept. He also announces that they are in the process of expanding the capabilities and integration that Spotify has to help drive the all important purchases that they need to make their business profitable.

Personally I’m bracing myself for the mass of new Songler users when this launches in the US. I’m sure Spotify have a similar sense of dread – it’s not easy launching a popular product in the worlds largest market.

Spotify banned at Oxford University

Tuesday, January 19th, 2010

Shocking news from the worlds top university – Oxford University have banned the use of Spotify on their network. The justification is that it is a P2P bandwidth hog. There is of course something in that – it does use P2P technology, and it does need at least a 256kbit connection while it is running. If every student tried to run Spotify at once, it would undoubtedly cripple the network. That’s a very big if though.

The reason this is shocking is that for years the music industry has been chasing universities to get them to stop students from stealing music, and then along comes a legal service and the university blocks it. These students (except the PPE ones) are smart people who will find other less legal ways to get their music if the legal ones are blocked, and that doesn’t help anyone.

Update: Manchester University bans Spotify too. Could be a bad trend for fans of free legal music.

Anyway, if you are currently at Oxford missing Spotify, why not try listening to last.fm through Songler. Fantastic way to get your music, and not blocked!

Windows Home Server Cannot Even Mount Backups

Saturday, September 12th, 2009

backup

Windows Home Server has had it’s fair share of?embarrassing?issues that really shouldn’t happen to a server. First of all, it didn’t really support the sort of home power users who were buying it, because it didn’t support backing up 64bit systems for the first year after launch. Secondly, it was corrupting files (I personally lost a few photos to that when they were corrupted while rotating them). Thirdly, until recently you couldn’t back up the server itself, so it was a fairly lousy place to store files.

Now a new issue is becoming more common, which is the inability to recover backups. More and more users are reporting that when trying to mount a backup, the process gets to 81% and then gives the error “Cannot mount the backup”. This was meant to be resolved with Power Pack 3, but from personal experience, I can tell you that it is not, even in the final version. To make matters worse, the symptoms are that you can mount a backup once on each client machine, and then never again. So you get the false sense of security that everything is working fine if you check the backups, but it fails as soon as you really need it. (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…)

Fix table rendering problems in IE8

Thursday, August 6th, 2009

Those of you who do any serious web design know that using tables to define the layout of your page is so 1995. The only way to design your page is with css.

Those of you who actually really do any serious web site coding also know that you will sooner or later be asked to work on a site that makes heave use of tables, and when faced with re-coding the whole system to use css or sticking with tables, it’s often going to be stick with tables.

Unfortunatly, IE8 has a nasty habit of simply ignoring any table cell widths you specify and rendering them as whatever size it sees fit on a truly random basis (refresh the page and see a different layout!). Fortunatly I found a solution to get IE to behave nice again. You can use the?table-layout: fixed style to get it behaving well again, so just stick the following in your stylesheet (you do at least have one stylesheet don’t you?);

table{
  table-layout:fixed;
}

And there you have it – freedom to continue coding?like it’s Web 1.0 time!

Lovefilm suspiciously helpful support

Monday, May 11th, 2009

Lovefilm have started using a new style envelope. Compared to the old ones (above), they are a pain to use. I thought I would let them know, and sent them this e-mail;

I just got one of your new style envelopes. They are dreadful! The zip part shreds, the tear off bit doesn’t tear off, and there is sticky bits left on it. Bring back the old ones.

and within 10 minutes I got back the following response;

We would like to inform you that we have forwarded your concern regarding the envelopes to our relevant department and they will do this for you as soon as possible.

I know I am influential, but I didn’t expect to get a promise that the company would do a U-turn and ditch the new packaging quite so easily! I’ll have to use my powers more wisely next time.

Get TortoiseCVS working in Vista

Saturday, May 9th, 2009

tortoise

I’m sure that there are many developers completley frustrated by TortoiseCVS‘s inability to work with Vista. Tortoise is easily the best open source CVS integration too, essential for any serious developer who needs to use a proper revision control system (no, creating an occasional backup, or relying on Vista’s “Previous Versions” feature is not source control). The problem though is that it just constantly seems to crash when using Vista, giving errors like “TortoisePlink has stopped working”. After a lot of googling turning up dubious solutions about disabling UAC and other equally dubious solutions. Finally I found a good workaround though. Go to?C:\Program Files\CVS Suite\TortoiseCVS and edit the properties of TortoisePlink.exe to set it to run with Windows XP compatability mode. Now it’ll run with much more success. (more…)

Creating nice buttons

Thursday, March 12th, 2009

Buttons

I wanted to add some nice buttons to my web site, but didn’t really know how to draw them very well. After quite a bit of hunting, I found this fantastic tutorial on drawing buttons in GIMP (my favorite photoshop alternative). It’s a small number of easy steps that are excellently documented, so that even I could follow it with no problem at all to produce buttons like this;

vista-download-button