Andre's Blog

Personal blog of Andre Perusse

HTPC Build 2014 - Intel Haswell NUC

For several years back in the early 2000's, I had an original XBox that was modded so it could run XBMC (XBox Media Center). XBMC on the original XBox was awesome - it had a great user interface and would play every video file format known to man. But the original XBox wasn't high-def, so about 6 years ago I upgraded to a home theater PC built around an AMD Athlon 64 X2 5200 with a Radeon video card placed in an Antec NSK2480 HTPC case. Again, XBMC (on Windows) was my media player software and it has worked mostly great right up to now. I say "mostly" because XBMC has always been a little twitchy on this machine, requiring a restart every time the machine came out of sleep. But a small price to play for the amazing flexibility it offers.


My old Antec NSK2480

Well, six years is a long time for a PC and the Antec case is a little too big for the new equipment stand I recently purchased, so I decided it was time for an upgrade. I set my sights on Intel's NUC (Next Unit of Computing) machines because they have Core i3, i5, and i7 processors and are amazingly diminutive. The most recent iteration of the NUC has a few killer features that make it absolutely ideal as an HTPC:

  • The integrated GPU on Haswell Core CPU's can now output reliably at 24 fps (ideal for film material)
  • Because the NUC uses laptop-grade parts, it is amazingly power-efficient
  • It has a built-in infrared receiver

In addition to its size, the above three features were key to my decision to go with the Intel NUC. I looked briefly at a competing NUC unit from Gigabyte which includes Wi-Fi and Bluetooth for the same price as the Intel (you have to buy your own PCIe Wi-Fi card for the Intel if you want it), but foregoes an integrated IR port. I didn't need Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, and an outboard IR receiver is much less tidy. I'm also an Intel Ethernet bigot and the Gigabyte offering uses a Broadcom part instead, so the Intel NUC won out on several counts.



I ordered the i3 version of the NUC from Newegg.ca, along with 4 GB of RAM and a 120 GB SSD. Note that the RAM is a 1.35 volt SO-DIMM and the SSD is an mSATA drive - be careful when ordering these parts as the NUC doesn't use standard desktop memory and you can't fit a regular 2.5 inch SSD in this case (though Intel now has a slightly larger NUC that will accommodate 2.5 inch drives). I usually order my parts from NCIX, but in a rare instance Newegg was actually cheaper this time around and had all the parts in stock. The NUC shipped from Canada, but the RAM and SSD shipped from the States. In a happy twist of fate, both shipments arrived on the same day (3 days after I ordered, and using ground shipping, too - kudus to Newegg on this one). I should also mention that I had ordered a mini-HDMI to HDMI cable from Amazon.ca a few weeks prior, since the Intel NUC doesn't have a standard HDMI port.

  • Intel NUC Kit D34010WYK - $315
  • Crucial M500 120GB SATA mSATA Internal Solid State Drive - $95
  • G.SKILL 4GB 204-Pin DDR3 SO-DIMM DDR3 1600 - $44


One thing I found amusing about Intel's packaging for the NUC was the Intel jingle that played when I opened the box, much like those greeting cards that play a tune when you unfold them. The NUC was also much smaller than what I expected - only a little over 4 inches square, not much larger than Apple's current Apple TV box. I wasn't so impressed that I had to unscrew the four large Phillips foot-screws in order to install the RAM and SSD, but that was hardly a big deal. Once everything was installed and the NUC was reassembled, I was pleasantly surprised to see a nice GUI-based UEFI BIOS screen. It is very easy to use and I had the latest NUC BIOS upgraded in no time.

I used Microsoft's Windows USB Boot Tool to put Windows 8.1 on a bootable USB flash drive and had it installed on the SSD in less than 15 minutes. Another plus for Intel was the fact that you can download the entire set of Windows drivers in one ZIP file - a nice time-saver. I'll say this for Windows 8.1 on Intel's i3-4010 and the Crucial SSD - the machine boots wicked-fast in less than 15 seconds! This is a welcome change from my old HTPC which took well over a minute to boot.

I soon had XBMC installed and was ready for some testing. First, I wanted to check the power draw of this feisty little NUC. Man, this thing barely uses any juice. While playing a 1080P video file with DTS-HD Master Audio, it barely hits 15 watts. I measured idle power draw at around 9 watts, and it sips a measly 2 watts while in sleep mode. I was absolutely floored by these numbers. I also had some concerns that the integrated graphics in the Core i3 chip wouldn't be able to handle Blu-Ray quality 1080P video and high-def audio (I seriously considered spending an extra $100 for the i5 version of the NUC), but the machine barely breaks a sweat. Well under 20% CPU time while playing such a clip - amazing.

The last thing to mention is the fan noise. This is the one quibble I have with the NUC as the fan is clearly audible even from several feet away. It isn't necessarily loud, but if you had to listen to it that close for an extended period of time I think it could get very annoying. Thankfully I sit about 12 feet away from it which makes it barely audible, and you certainly can't hear it when watching something. Even a whisper is enough to drown it out.

Not directly related to the NUC itself but still pertinent to the HTPC experience as a whole is how I control the unit from way across the living room. I have a Logitech K400 wireless keyboard with an integrated track pad that works smashingly. But I hate to haul it out just to select a movie to play so instead I've programmed my Logitech Harmony Ultimate remote to work with Windows 8 and XBMC. It works really well, especially after making a few tweaks to the remote configuration to add some important functions. I'll write about those in a separate post.

Overall, I am immensely pleased with the Intel Haswell NUC. It's blazingly fast, amazingly energy-efficient, performs magnificently, and is nice and tiny. In fact, this would make a great general-purpose PC for anyone who didn't need an optical drive or required any expansion room. And while Intel's integrated graphics have come a long way and are well-suited for video tasks like this, their performance in today's top-tier games is underwhelming so gamers should look elsewhere. For an HTPC it's a tad pricey, true, but its tiny footprint makes it incredibly flexible. It even comes with a VESA mounting plate to attach it to the back of a monitor for a truly out of sight configuration. All in all, this is a great little device and I expect it will serve my HTPC needs for years to come. Highly recommended.


Making The Jump To LightSpeed - Bell Aliant FibreOP

Ever since Bell Aliant began their rollout of FibreOP in New Brunswick two years ago, I've been anxiously awaiting its arrival in the Halifax area. Early this year, it was announced they would be rolling out the service in HRM over the summer months. Summer came and went, and while FibreOP was deployed in my neighbourhood in August, my cul-de-sac street was passed over. Well, ultimately in mid-October it became available to my address and I made the appointment. A week and a half later, I finally had my 70/30 internet connection and the FibreOP TV package.

I've always been an eager beaver when it comes to faster internet speeds. Back in 1998 I was torturing the phone company (then called MT&T) on a regular basis to bring their ADSL offering to my town so I could get off dial-up. That eventually happened, of course, and while the DSL speed was increased over the years, it finally topped out at about 6.5 Mbps downstream, and only 0.5 Mbps upstream. It was serviceable, but way behind the times especially with Eastlink offering a 40 Mbps service. Still, I had my Sympatico email address that I didn't want to give up, so I stuck it out with Bell Aliant.

Installation

On the day of the appointment, I got up bright and early to await the arrival of the FibreOP tech, who would be here "between 8am and 6pm". After much hand-wringing all morning thinking the appointment might be cancelled, the techs (2 of them) arrived at about 1:30. They got right to work stringing a fiber-optic cable from the telephone pole to my house, and preparing the ONT (Optical Network Terminal) inside my house. About 3 hours later, they were all done and I had 70/30 internet and FibreOP TV.

Connecting the fibre optic line.
Hooray! He's here!


Internet

First off, the internet speed is a world of difference from the High-Speed Ultra DSL service I had been using. I wasn't sure if regular web browsing would be much different, but it is noticeably more responsive. Of course, it depends on the site you're using, but most popular sites now completely load in sub 1-second speed. Some even feel nearly instantaneous. Since I never used Eastlink's internet offering, I can't compare the experience with them, but it is a much better experience than DSL. As for file transfer rates, as you might expect, it is an order-of-magnitude difference. With DSL, my downloads would max out at around 0.8 MB per second (800 KB/s). When I can find a server with big enough pipes, my FibreOP downloads will sometimes reach 8 MB/s, though 5 MB/s seems to be more common. This makes a tremendous difference with usability, since as a Microsoft developer I am often downloading large installers from MSDN which I previously had to let run overnight, but can now run pretty much on-demand, as even a 1.5 GB download will take only 15 minutes. Oh, and my wife's web-browsing experience is unaffected when I'm downloading large files, which wasn't the case on High-Speed Ultra.

Upload speeds are also in a completely different class. This is extremely important with the advent of "cloud computing" and the internet-based backing-up of files. If you upload files regularly (such as using Carbonite or Mozy for backup, or even say uploading images to blog posts), you'll definitely appreciate the 30 Mpbs upstream capability of FibreOP.

The new "modem" is an ActionTEC R1000H (bottom) that dwarfs my old DSL modem (top).

FibreOP TV

Moving on the TV service, well, I had my reservations about moving off Eastlink to FibreOP TV. My thinking was that Eastlink has been doing TV for decades, and Bell Aliant has only recently gotten into that game. I like the "phone company" for my telephone, and the "cable company" for my TV (I have too many trees around my property for satellite service to be an option). Of course, both companies now offer pretty much the exact same services, and their pricing structure is such that, financially, it makes little sense to divide your services between the two. The "bundle" pricing from both companies is designed to ensure you are very motivated to keep all your services with that one provider, and FibreOP is no different. Even with the $15/month upgrade to 70 Mbps downstream, and opting for the "Best" bundle offering which includes the movie channels and HBO, I'll be saving somewhere in the neighbourhood of $75 a month (after the 3-month promotional price of $99 per month) versus having my cable service separately with Eastlink. So I decided to take a leap of faith and switch my TV to FibreOP and cancel my Eastlink account.

I've only had FibreOP for five days, but the TV service actually does seem to be adequate. Some individuals on internet forums had been reporting that the picture quality with FibreOP TV was a bit "soft" or less sharp than Eastlink. This may be true, but if it is the difference is very subtle. And it would surely be noticeable to me, as my "TV" is actually a 120-inch front-projector (smaller TV sizes are better at hiding signal flaws). And while the picture may not be as sharp (I haven't really decided yet if it is or isn't), what does seem to be gone, or at least much less prevalent, is the "macro blocking" on high-definition stations that was so frequent on Eastlink. Macro blocking is the pixilation effect you see on a video image when there is a lot of motion on the screen, and the video compression is turned up rather high by the provider. If my research is correct, this may be because Eastlink uses MPEG-2 compression while FibreOP uses MPEG-4 (H.264). MPEG-2 is good (it's the compression used on Blu-ray discs) but requires almost twice the bandwidth that MPEG-4 needs for similar image quality. So, perhaps FibreOP doesn't have to compress the signal as much due to the lower bandwidth requirements, but I'm really just guessing and I'm not very sure of my facts here. One thing that I am sure of, however, is the irritating lack of proper lip-synchronization on at least one channel (CityTV) with FibreOP. I'm not sure what the root cause of this is and I haven't spent any time trying to fix it yet, but it's a problem I didn't have with CityTV on Eastlink.

The ONT (Optical Network Terminal) attached to a joist in my basement.

The PVR that FibreOP uses is the Motorola VIP1216 running Mircosoft's MediaRoom IPTV software. It's a much smaller unit than Eastlink's Motorola DCX3400 unit and while the features are similar, the user interface looks completely different. Instead of the colourful, opaque UI on the Eastlink box, MediaRoom uses a translucent overlay on top of the video that's currently playing. I don't find either interface to be inherently better, but the MediaRoom fonts are much more smooth (no jaggies) and the TV listings show a 2-hour window instead of Eastlink's 90-minute window. Also, the FibreOP unit is nearly silent compared to the constant hard-drive spinning and clicking you hear from the Eastlink unit. In fact, I had to double-check that the FibreOP box even came with a hard drive because I couldn't hear it at all! The recording options are slightly more impressive than the Eastlink PVR I was using, too. The FibreOP unit can record up to four programs at once, although only two of those can be high-def. FibreOP's PVR is also "whole-home" capable, essentially acting as a kind of media server for all the TVs in your house. Eastlink also has a "whole-home" PVR option, though I've never tried either service - I only have one TV.

Not everything is rosy with the FibreOP machine, though. Eastlink's is definitely more responsive - I've found the FibreOP box hesitates more often, frequently requiring an extra second or two before it will process a command from the remote. Not a big difference, but noticeable. Also, Eastlink's PVR allowed me to plug in an external 1GB eSATA hard drive to obtain a vastly increased storage capacity. The FibreOP PVR only has a USB port but it currently serves no function. I'm not even sure if USB 2 can support the speed necessary for real-time recording of high-def video anyway. The hard drive in the FibreOP unit is a measly 160 GB (using a quaint IDE interface instead of SATA), but the MPEG-4 efficiency allows it to store just about the same amount as the bigger Eastlink drive. Still, not being able to expand the storage capacity of the unit is a definite disadvantage. Also, on occasion I've used the Firewire port on the Eastlink machine to record material to my computer for longer-term storage. No such ability exists with the FibreOP unit.

FibreOP TV has a robust offering of "video on-demand" (VOD) services, and so did Eastlink. I haven't bothered much with either, but I'm completely aghast at FibreOP's $7 price-tag for "rented" movies using VOD. Sorry, but that's way too much to charge for a movie rental. I'll be giving this feature a big miss.

Lastly, there are some differences in the channel line-up, both in available packages and stations. Moving from Eastlink, I've lost AMC, History HD and MovieTime HD (FibreOP doesn't offer AMC at all, History is in standard-def only and MovieTime is only available in standard-def in a $5/month theme pack) but FibreOP's movie package includes MPix, which was an additional charge with Eastlink. There are likely other differences (say, with Sports programming, but I'm not much of a sports fan anyway) but by and large, I'm satisfied with the FibreOP channel offerings.

Conclusion

Overall, I am extremely happy with my move to Bell Aliant's FibreOP services. I mostly made the move for the high-speed internet service, and opted to include the TV service only for the cost savings over a separate Eastlink account. Naturally, the internet offering blows pretty much everything else out of the water, while the TV option isn't bad at all. If you can live without AMC or some of the other channels only available on Eastlink, I would definitely suggest you consider FibreOP TV. As a bundled service, I would highly recommend it.

XBox 360 Fun

I had been holding off buying an XBox 360 since I'm really not that much of a gamer and when I do play I totally suck anyway. For us non-gamer types, the XBox Live Marketplace sounds interesting since it offers high-definition movies, but alas as a Canadian I am deprived of such a useful feature (though Microsoft has said this will be available in Canada by the end of 2007). However, with last week's release of Halo 3, I really had no choice but to break down and get myself one. Halo is just about the only video game I've played in, oh, ten years so once again I bought an expensive piece of hardware just so I could play this damn intoxicating game.

I decided to get an XBox Elite primary for the larger hard drive, since outside of Halo I expect my only primary use of the machine will be for buying and watching high-def content. I ordered my machine through Dell Canada and got a deal where Halo 3 was included for free (I also got $30 off an extra controller with the play and charge kit). For a company that almost exclusively sells their stuff through an on-line web site, their on-line order tracking is really poor. I placed my order 2 weeks before Halo 3 was scheduled to ship. I got an email stating an "expected ship date" of September 21st (the Friday before Halo's release). However, when I clicked on the order number to go directly to Dell's site for an update, it said the order (or more presicely a single line-item on the order) wouldn't ship until the 27th. The other line item had no details for the ship date, so was the first line item's ship date also for the entire order?

Naturally, being the instant gratification freak that is typical of my generation, I checked the site for updates several times a day. I even called Dell in an attempt to gain clarification. I was told that this deal was extremely popular, but that it probably wouldn't ship until a day or two AFTER Halo's release. Grrrr.....  But then, on the 21st (this was the original "expected ship date") something went haywire on Dell's order tracking site and it now said an "expected DELIVERY date" of the 24th! Woo-hoo! Hours later, however, and it was back to a SHIP date of the 27th. Boo. I checked again on the morning of the 25th to find that it had actually shipped the day before (though no notification email was sent to me). They shipped it by air, and it actually arrived on the 25th! So, good marks for execution but an F for a rather useless order tracking system.

Anyway, I hooked up my new toy that evening and was relieved to find the cooling fan was much more quiet than my original XBox. I used my original XBox with XBox Media Center to stream video from my PC to my television in the living room and the fan was always distracting. The DVD drive is another story - it is quite noisy when it's in use even though it's the vaunted Benq drive which is supposed to be the most quite DVD drive in the 360s. I'd hate to hear what the noisy ones sound like.

I won't bore you with a review of Halo 3 since the entire gaming community has already given it plenty of thumbs-up. I haven't even played it much yet, though it looks like Halo, feels like Halo, and sounds like Halo. That's a good thing. Since I totally suck, I play on the "easy" setting but in Halo 3 it is way TOO easy - I haven't died yet! I think I'll restart on the normal difficulty setting and see how I fare. Oh, and the new hammer weapon totally rocks!

One thing that I wasn't looking forward to about the 360 was the fact that while it can play video from a PC, it only supports WMV and MPEG video formats. My original XBox with XBMC plays just about every video format on the planet and I like it that way. Thankfully, some clever programmers developed an ingenious (and free, let's not forget free) piece of software that allows you to play just about any video format on the 360. It's called Tversity and what it basically does is "transcode" a video file on-the-fly to an XBox 360 supported format. Since I just upgraded my rig to a quad-core system, I can easily transcode high-def material without breaking too much of a sweat. This is great stuff.

So, I'm quite happy with my new Halo 3 Machine (let's call it what it really is). Hell, I might even try to do the XBox Live multi-player thing too if I can think up a decent gamer tag. My usual nicknames are all taken, so this might take a while. (UPDATE: I am now known as UnhingedBeaker.)

The Easy Way To Alternate Background Colours on a Repeater

The ASP.NET Repeater is one of my favourite controls because it provides total flexibility in the layout of your data. I'll often use it to generate a list of data similar to a DataGrid or DataList. However, if I want to alternate the background colour of each row of data, the usual prescribed method is to use the AlternatingItemTemplate. But this is a such a waste of code and can be a pain to maintain if your ItemTemplate has any kind of complexity.

There is a much easier method, though. A shortcut if you will. If you're using your Repeater to generate table rows, you can use the following code in your <tr> tag to change the CSS class for each alternating row:

<tr class="<%# IIf(Container.ItemIndex Mod 2 = 0, "rowOdd", "rowEven") %>">

Or, in C#:

<tr class="<%# Container.ItemIndex % 2 == 0 ? "rowOdd" : "rowEven" %>">

Easy peasy. This isn't really all that ingenious but every time I want to use this technique I forget the syntax (it's the "Container.ItemIndex" I can never remember) so I decided to write a blog entry so I'll have it for reference.  :-)

Telecom and Cable Companies are EVIL! (I have proof)

Like many people, I often complain about my local utility companies and either their lack of features, lack of customer support, or their attitude in general. Lately, the utility companies in my area have actually been pretty good on the features front. I now have a dual-tuner high-definition cable box (something that many American cities still don't have) and my DSL Internet is among the fastest in North America. Despite this good news, I have recently obtained definitive proof that these utility companies are pure evil.

In my last 3 dealings with my local telecom and cable providers, I have been overcharged. It seems as though anytime I change my service plan with either company, they overcharge me. And they do this for months at a time until I realize that something isn't adding up and I call them. Sometimes they are quite belligerent, too. A year or two ago, I added some channels to my cable subscription taking advantage of a "value plan". I got the channels, but the incompetent idgits didn't get the value plan set up on my account. On my first bill, the charges seemed high so I called them. The customer service rep treated me like a three-year-old saying that the charge was normal on the first month due to overlaps in billing periods and other such nonsense. I was ASSURED that everything was set up properly. The next month, my cable bill was still higher than it should have been, so I called again. I think I got the same service rep and she remembered me because she heaved a heavy sigh and said something like "let's walk you through this again" in an exasperated tone. Except this time I was able to point out that I wasn't getting their advertised value plan price. Reluctantly, she agreed and told me it was fixed now. She didn't apologize for overcharging me or for the inconvenience of having to spend 20 minutes on the phone arguing with her. She just said "It's fixed. Goodbye." If I didn't have so many tall trees around my property I would have bought a satellite service right then and there.

More recently, I had the same issue with the telecom company and a very similar scenario. I added a cell phone to my existing "value plan" so both me and my wife would have cell phones. Before I added the new phone, the telecom company sent me one bill. After the addition, they started sending me two. Annoyed, I called them up and asked if I could be sent one combined bill again. The service rep was checking my files and paused for a few moments, obviously confused at what he saw. He put me on hold for several minutes, then came back and said I had been overcharged $10 per month since I got the new phone because the value plan had been "inexplicably deleted" from my account. He had promised that I will be credited the overcharge on my next bill, which I'm hoping will be combined again.

So, based on this overwhelming evidence, I have no other option than to conclude that these utility companies are making a mint by overcharging customers that have signed up for packaged value plans, but are being billed more than the price of the plan because "it wasn't set up properly in the system." I find it hard to believe that the executives in charge aren't aware of this problem (remember, it's happened to me THREE times, and with different companies - it can't be very uncommon). I expect that they're happy to receive the excess revenue and only credit the likely small amount of people who regularly inspect their statements every month and catch the error, and then fight with service reps to convince them of the problem. Why, I'm sure that it would be WAY TOO EXPENSIVE to write some software that examined the features on customer accounts and verify that they're being billed the lowest price. I've written some fairly complex SQL in my day and I know that it can take, oh, sometimes 4 hours to write a complicated SELECT statement to do something like this. Yes, way too expensive.

And these companies want me to sign up for "automatic bank account debits" so they can automatically withdraw funds from my account equal to whatever they feel like charging me? Yeah, right.

Blu-Ray: First Strike!

I was in the Halifax Future Shop store yesterday for my weekly gawk at tech toys. Though I've been following some of the new format war of HD DVD vs Blu-Ray, I haven't been paying too much attention to it since a) I don't really have a budget to be looking at high-definition DVD players right now, and b) my 6 year old high-def TV doesn't have an HDMI input so I can't watch the damn things anyway (I'll save that rant for another day).

Still, I thought it was interesting to see a rather large Blu-Ray DVD rack occupying prime DVD real-estate next to the "new releases" area of Future Shop. I was quite impressed, actually. And though I didn't look very hard, I did not see any similar display for HD DVD disks. In fact, I didn't see ANY HD DVD disks, though like I said I didn't look exhaustively through the entire DVD section.

So, it would appear as though Blu Ray has drawn first blood in the format wars (in Canada, anyway). Mind you, it's still a pretty weak strike, featuring such smash hits as Stealth and Species. Who the hell decides what catalog titles get released on new formats anyway? I think it must just be a chimpanzee throwing darts at movie posters.

Funny Animated Music Video (from the 80s)

My wife had taped a music video in the 80s called "Just A Cartoon" by John Minnis. I really enjoyed this video - the song is absolutely hilarious. I could never find any reference to it on the Internet, however, so it couldn't have been too popular. Anyway, I finally digitized it off the crappy VHS tape, and while the sound quality is atrocious it's still watchable.

UPDATE (Aug 13, 2011): Seems someone else was successful in posting a better, but still less than ideal version of the video - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f5I6CLFNMkQ

I've posted it on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qJ5_KEQD8uw. Enjoy.  :-)

UPDATE (Feb 26, 2007): Seems my posted video has been pulled down by some mysterious DMCA copyright claim. Though I find it hard to believe that the original copyright holder feels they're going to lose ANY money because of this (and I'm doubtful that the copyright claim submitted to YouTube was legitimate), I am naturally powerless to do anything about it. The DMCA notice I received doesn't reveal the name of the person or company filing the claim, which seems kind of cowardly if you ask me.