Happiness. Short-term, stupid, self-interest.

Media Center PC (How to Build an HTPC) – Part 1

Originally, when my home theater was to move into the High-Def (HDTV) world, a media center PC (a.k.a. HTPC – Home Theater Personal Computer) was high on my priority list. I wanted to be able to record anything on cable, or over the air, in high-definition. It was to replace my original DVR. There were also some other things I wanted to do with it, but they were secondary. However, upon getting my HDTV and increasing my cable service, which included the DVR service, I realized that the DVR not only covered my primary goal, but it also did it quite well.

The Time Warner DVR by Scientific Atlantic (Cisco) is the latest model offered, the 8300HD. It can record multiple channels at once in high definition. It has a fairly nice program guide, though I’d like better search capability. The remote works very good. Most importantly, it lets me fast forward through commercials.

There are a couple of things that the DVR doesn’t do. The biggest problem is that it only records 20 hours of high-definition programming. (50 hours of standard). 20 hours may seem like a lot, but it’s not. We tend to watch TV in spurts and we almost never watch live TV – everything is recorded. Sometimes, weeks go by before we sit down for an evening and catch up on our shows. Plus, I like to keep a variety of shows available for different audiences. For instance, let’s say our shows are “Terminator”, “Lost”, “Desperate Housewives” & “CSI”. If three weeks go by, that’s 12 out of 20 hours used up. Add in a couple FoodTV cake challenges, a PBS documentary, and a handful of “Good Eats” and I’m out of space.

The DVR also doesn’t do more than record. It can’t act as a media extender (i.e. play media that exists somewhere else in my home), it can’t store media other than TV programming, nor can it be the source for streaming content elsewhere. There are products out there that do some of these functions, like the PlayStation 3, xBox 360, LinkSys Media Extender, and Sling Box, and many more, but none of them do it all, not even a media center PC. However, a media center PC teamed up with some of Sling Media’s products seems to be the most powerful and flexible setup.

Check out Sling’s advertising, funny stuff….

There are cheaper stop gaps, like an external hard drive (eSATA) that plugs into the Time Warner DVR. That would run about $180 – $400, but it only adds space for TV programming. There is also the PlayStation 3, at about $500, it would be less expensive and it is a close runner up, but it still doesn’t do everything a media center PC does. In particular, it doesn’t have a lot of hard drive space, is not very flexible, and lacks upgradability. (basically, it’s limited to what Sony decides to provide)

The flexibility of an HTPC is huge. I can pick and choose parts based on price, performance, and expand in the future as needed. Before Blu-Ray won the battle against HD-DVD, I was planning on waiting it out to see which drive I would install. I will probably still wait until the Blu-Ray drive prices come down. In the meantime, I can just put in a $30 DVD drive.

The only thing bigger than flexibility is the power of an HTPC; it can do almost anything. Nothing is as accomodating and as vast as the array of Windows software available to do anything I want, much of which is free. Anything that runs in a browser will work and would have actual full browser support, not some slimmed down browser with limitations. (playing media types, viewing files types like Acrobat, plug-ins, etc) Heck, I can run iTunes, Quicken, Google Earth, and VPN into work from a media center PC. We can do online shopping, Webkinz, update the NetFlix queue, pay bills, add Wii points, book a vacation, Skype, video conferencing, backup DVD’s and make them available for instant playback… gaming… we can do anything! We could design rockets in AutoCAD if we knew how.

(If you were wondering why I am writing so much about this, I’m just practicing how to justify this to the finance committee.)

Speaking of NetFlix, we can watch unlimited streaming NetFlix movies. It is currently only DVD-like quality, but HD is coming and the need for a disc in the mail will be going away. (though, NetFlix has teamed up with LG to supply “NetFlix” boxes; I hope it doesn’t preclude PCs)

I could just buy a pre-built HTPC which would give me the ability to use a Cable Labs Cable Card and eliminate the Time Warner DVR altogether. (to use a cable card, your HTPC needs to be certified by Cable Labs, which eliminates the do-it-yourselfer) Like this $3200 Niveus Rainier, for example. (yeah! and it goes up from there) … I don’t think so.


So, the need for a media center PC is not nearly as urgent as it originally was, but that doesn’t mean I don’t still want one. What has changed is its primary mission and priorities. I will be using my blog to organize my thoughts and lay out the functions I want to be able to do, and then you can watch me pick my pieces and parts as I build it over the next year….


March 6, 2008 Posted by | Gaming, Home Improvement, Home Theater, Movies, Music, Tech, TV | 3 Comments

This is a Triumph

I’m making a note here:

Sometime late November 2006 I disappeared from my blog. The reasons are all good as I had finally made a decision on my HDTV. The TV I chose was the Sony Bravia 46” LCD KDL-W3000. More on that later…

Here are some of the steps of how it went up.








Once it was all installed and my cable service was upgraded I was glued to the TV. The Time Warner DVR is great. Originally, I was very anxious to put in a media center PC to record high definition, but not only are there technical problems with that due to restrictions by Cable Labs on Cable Cards (they can only be used in a certified system; i.e. a manufacturer like Dell would need to have the model certified which eliminates the possibility for home built PCs), I didn’t need it; the DVR is very functional and easy to use.



Then, after Christmas, I had even more reason to never leave the Barley Room… the Wii. I have been playing Wii sports, Madden 08, and watching everyone else play Super Paper Mario, Smooth Moves, and snowboarding. We have had several, very successful, Wii parties.



I’ve also been watching movies in my NetFlix queue that I have been waiting on until I got the TV. (by the way, Spiderman 3 was not very good) On top of all that, the home theater itself had just so many things to play with… calibrating the sound and picture, learning the remotes, watching my favorite movie scenes in high-def and surround sound, and lots more.

One of the greatest SuperBowls ever…


It is hard to truly describe and show how well this room works. My wife keeps saying, “what would we do without this room?”

The home theater experience really showed itself when we watched Transformers. I had already seen the movie in the theater, and I don’t know if it was because it was the second time around, or if because I watched how they made the movie, but I concluded that this movie is now one of my favoroties, ever. The sound, the comfy seating, the picture… it was just off the hook. (Did I mention the sound???)


It’s hard to overstate my satisfaction.




February 25, 2008 Posted by | Family, Gaming, Home Improvement, Home Theater, Movies, Music, Tech, TV | 5 Comments

Home Improvement – New Furniture

November 2007 

Just a quick handful of photos of the new furniture for the Barley Room. We are very happy with how nice it looks and how comfortable the sofas are. We will probably rearrange by the season, but this is how we are starting. It allows for the warmth of the stove and a cozy social sitting area around the Tavern cocktail table. The pub table has plenty of room to open up in the back. We may add other pieces in the future.






Now we are looking at blinds for the windows and starting to add in decorating touches. (oh, and that HDTV…)

November 26, 2007 Posted by | Home Improvement | Leave a comment

Don’t Pay Too Much for HD Cables

An HDTV is coming soon and so I want to make sure I have all the right cables for all of my toys. The home theater room I built has conduit in the wall so I can completely hide all of my cables but because of that, some of the cables need to be a little longer than a standard 6 foot cable.

I could just pick up the cables at the store, but buying online at the right place can save a bit of money. How much money…? Check out these two shopping carts:

Bust Buy


I first heard about MonoPrice.com on the HTGuys podcast… with that savings, I’m going to buy them a cup of coffee.

November 3, 2007 Posted by | Home Improvement, Home Theater, TV | 2 Comments

Home Improvement – Where we started

In case anyone forgot, this is where we started…


October 30, 2007 Posted by | Home Improvement | Leave a comment

Home Improvement – It’s Done!

October 30, 2007

Welcome to the Barley Room…


Word has it it will just be called the new family room…






Monopoly has the monopoly on the pub table…


The infamous carpet that finally made it…


Note the trim/threshold between carpet and tile…



And at night…




A closeup of the faux paint that looks like real wood…





Going to need some decorating in here…


And get rid of that TV!


OK, the new TV won’t be that big…


We are currently furniture shopping and have already bought one new piece. The TV and new credenza will also be coming sooner, rather than later, because my wife can’t wait for the new flat screen TV. (no really, she’s pushing me to just buy something!) There are other components that will also eventually be coming, like the HTPC (Home Theater PC). Last, but not least, there is the next home improvment project which I hope to break ground on in the spring of 2008.

I will post more pictures along the way!

October 30, 2007 Posted by | Home Improvement | 2 Comments

Home Improvement – Post Octoberfest

October 26, 2007

Octoberfest was a success. The room was perfect and we didn’t even stain the newly installed carpet.

There was still finish up work to be done, which despite a deadline, I made sure I kept moving forward. I needed to install the base trim, fill all the nail holes, and make a transition threshold between the tile and the carpet.

I finally finished all of that yesterday and now I’m in the process of taking some final photos. We are using the room with the old furniture and the old TV and we love it already.

So, here I am, sitting at the pub table in the Barley Room at 8:00 in the morning, stove warming the room, and now, after years of all that work, I think I can finally say it…


October 26, 2007 Posted by | Home Improvement | 1 Comment

Home Improvement – Here comes the play at the plate…

Friday, October 5, 2007

All the cleaning up was done last weekend. I had moved my saws and workbenches into the garage. My wife washed all of the windows, we swept, I cleaned the tile, I adjusted the thermostat, I adjusted the lights, and I put back in all of the screens … basically cleaned up everything.

Yesterday I tested the home theater. I had a panic attack when one of the rear speakers wasn’t working using the receiver’s sound test. Troubleshooting indcates the receiver, not the wire, which is good. (because the speaker wire is in the wall, goes under the stove and under the floor – it can’t be fixed) However, the receiver problem fixed itself at some point. I breathed a sigh of relief but I wonder about the state of my receiver.

It is currently 9:30 A.M. and the carpet installers are here, but without a carpet. My carpet made it as far as the Albany warehouse when early this morning the truck to bring it to Clifton Park broke down. The installers have started working and were promised that the carpet would be here in a couple hours. I don’t think the play at the plate can be any closer to call.

The official start of Octoberfest is just hours away… nothing will stop that from happening. I can’t make the call at this time, so stay tuned over the next week to see how this story ends.

Let the games begin!

October 5, 2007 Posted by | Home Improvement | Leave a comment

Home Improvement – T-minus 10

September 2007 (Sep 24th – 28th)

The countdown is at 10 days until Octoberfest and it wasn’t supposed to be like this. The room is a disaster, and I have no idea if my loosely contrived plan for the windows will make them look any better.

Thinking of a song from Rush’s latest album, Far Cry, “Sometimes I feel I’m on top of the world and the next it is falling in on me. I can get back on. I can get back on…”

I don’t know why it matters so much to me, but it does. With renewed determination, I was going to get this done one way or another.

My head was spinning that week. Five days to fix what previously took me weeks, if not months, to complete.

I refined the plan in my head. I just had to test it out before implementing it and hope my family doesn’t disown in the process. I re-wrote my task sheet down to the day, including what I can get done in the morning and what I can get done at night in order to stay on track and may the gods be good, I’ll have a presentable room for Octoberfest.

Third time’s a charm. I knew by heart now what wood I needed to buy. I’ve also gotten very good at the table saw, staining, and sealing gig. The trick was how to paint the windows and picking out the right color. (you know how that goes for me)


By the way, buy your paint at Lowes, they accept returns of tinted paint, Home Depot does not. I think I got the color right the second time, even though it looks like pumpkin on the chip.

I painted the casement windows in the morning, and sealed the trim at night; then did it again the next day for a second coat. The new paint will look better against the stained trim, but I’m a crazy man this week and I want to take this a step further… I’m going to attempt to faux paint it to look like wood.

I had tested this all out on scrap wood, so I knew what I was getting into. I didn’t follow a book; I just made it up as I went along. I first sealed the paint with one coat of poly. This is because if I didn’t, the next step of using an oil based stain to faux with might wreak havoc on the paint. The first coat of stain is to further tint the paint and to texturize it to give it a base grain look. I put the stain on with a sponge, let it start to dry, and then use a dry brush to feather it.

The second pass of stain was to create a more distinct wood grain effect. It didn’t matter so much how you got the stain on, it was all in how you took it off. I found a technique with the dry brush that seemed to work and I think the final effect is pretty good. Actually, it looks really good. I surprised myself once again with what I am capable of.



The final look…

I put up the trim Friday night (thank you again, Paslode) and in five weekdays, I turned it around and did what I thought was impossible. I fixed it. I feel better.

On the weekend I can start to clean the room for Octoberfest and then take my time during week to prepare all of the other things on my list to host this party. I have calmed down and I’m at ease with how everything will work out. It was going to be great no matter what state the room was in and I just felt better about the whole thing.

Truly, while Octoberfest is obviously near and dear to me, the remaining 51 weeks of the year matter so much more. The blood, sweat and tears I’ve (…we’ve) poured into this room will all be worth it because this is the place where I know many memories will be made with my loving family. I can’t wait to share it with them. After Octoberfest, I will finish it up and start thinking about how great the Christmas tree will look in this room with the snow falling outside and the wood stove keeping us warm.

Thurday, October 4, 2007 – 9:33 A.M. (10 minutes ago)I just got a call from the carpet installer; the carpet is in currently northbound out of New Jersey.

T-minus 3, 2, 1…

October 4, 2007 Posted by | Home Improvement | Leave a comment

Home Improvement – She hated it, too

September 2007 (Sep 21st – 23rd , 2007)

I had asked my father earlier in the summer for some advice on what to do about my desire to stain the windows and use stained trim along side of the painted windows. Was that something that is ever done? My dad is a master wood worker, or as close as you can get to master without it being your profession. I was hoping he would say, “well, in this situation, what you do is … “ and I hoped there would be some clear cut procedure you follow in this situation. But, there isn’t a straight forward answer. Basically, you don’t do that. What you should do is paint all the windows and trim to match. (which, as you know, is not what we decided) What he did mention, however, is that the windows in question were the main architectural feature of the room and it is what will be drawn to everyone’s eye.

That notion has stuck with me and has been eating at me all through the week. I decided to ask my wife what she thought. I realized I was holding back on asking her because I didn’t want to hear the answer.

Yep, she hated the painted windows the same. The windows themselves looked fine, but with all of the other wood in the room, they looked silly. No, they looked stupid. Argh!!!

It was Friday night, September 21. With stupid looking windows, no carpet, and lost enthusiasm, I took the evening off. I took my son over to the neighbors so the kids could play while we adults had a couple beers. (Stone Pale Ale, I recall). It took my mind off it for a while.

But when I got back, I looked at it again. I had to find a way to fix this even if it meant Octoberfest in a room with table saws, ladders and nail guns. I was also resigned at this point that Octoberfest just doesn’t matter in the long run.

Lying in bed at 11:30 PM it was just killing me. Something had to be done. Maybe I could just paint the windows a darker color… wouldn’t even that look better? Anything would look better.

I got out of bed, put on a bathrobe, and went out on the porch. I proceeded to rip down all of the casement window trim. As I did it, I started to realize the gravity of the situation and there was no turning back now. I would have to re-purchase all the wood for these windows. Re-rip each piece, re-stain each piece, and re-seal each piece (at least twice). Then, I’d have to pick out a paint color that looked best with stained trim.

I also managed to damage the walls ripping down the trim. Not a lot, but enough that it would need drywall mud, sanding and repainting of that wall.

We left for the weekend for my sister’s 40th birthday party. It was a surprise party and well worth the trip to see everyone. She was much surprised and the party was great. The food was great. We even brought the dog, the kids got to go swimming, and I added a special trip the “candy store” to get a particular beer I could only get in New Jersey for Octoberfest.

I returned from the weekend to an extremely busy work week and a Barley Room that was taking steps backward. This isn’t how it was supposed to go.

October 3, 2007 Posted by | Home Improvement | Leave a comment