Sunday, September 2, 2012

Raspberry Pi OpenELEC Media Center

The last few weeks I've been experimenting using my $35 Raspberry Pi as a media center. My goal is to have my DVD collection instantly playable with the disks and cases safely stored away. The concept is very enticing because the solution is low power, low cost, and has the footprint of a credit card. I don't want a PC in my living room playing 24x7.

My first attempt is to use the OpenELEC Home Theater PC (HTPC) distribution which combines the excellent XBMC media center software with a minimal Linux kernel.The result is a tiny 70MB SD image that is simple to install and manage. Installing only took the time to burn an SD card for the Pi and minutes to configure from the GUI. I store my media on a SheevaPlug and USB hard drive. The video quality is excellent and the only downside is the time spent backing up each DVD to the server.

I'm very happy with the result.  I just added codec licenses for mpeg2 and VC-1.  I've also transcoded some DVD's into h.264/mpeg4 which work well but take hours to convert.  I plan to try more codecs in the weeks to come.

My longer-term goal is to extend the concept beyond a video library ... but that's a story for another blog post.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Excellent Adafruit Pi Box

My Adafruit Pi Box case has arrived and my Raspberry Pi  computer is now snug and safe.  I've been a growing fan of  Limor "Lady Ada" Fried and her team, and this case is no exception.  Clean, simple, and useful ... despite looking COOL.

Adafruit Pi Box - Enclosure for Raspberry Pi® Computers

Adafruit invests time and resources providing this open source design, please support Adafruit and open-source hardware by purchasing products from Adafruit!

Creative Commons Attribution, Share-Alike

Keep your Raspberry Pi® computer safe and sound in this lovely clear acrylic enclosure. We designed this case to be beautiful, easy to assemble and perfect for any use (but especially for those who want to tinker!)

The case comes as 6 pieces that snap together, made of crystal-clear acrylic. This ingenious design has no screws or standoffs and there are cute little feet cut into the sides so that it stands up above your desk. There are engraved labels on all the connector slots. You can use all of the connectors on the edges of the Pi: HDMI, Audio, Video, SD slot, micro USB power, Ethernet and the two USB ports. We also added a slot so that you can connect a 26-pin IDC cable to the GPIO breakout pins on the Pi and pass it though the case. For more advanced hacking, the enclosure is designed so that you can remove the top piece and plug any sort of cables you wish into the breakouts in the middle. The case is airy enough that no additional vents or cooling is required - we tested the enclosed Pi over a 24 hour period at full load with no significant increase in temperature.

Complete assembly instructions available at Adafruit:

All text above must be included in any redistribution

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Linux vs. VxWorks

For many years now I've been a heavy user of Wind River's real-time operating system (RTOS) VxWorks. It got the job done and was a far more cost effective than rolling your own RTOS. VxWorks also was highly configurable which let power users create wide ranging configurations to meet the unique requirements of each project from small footprint, fast reboot, low overhead, etc.

My recent experience with Wind River's (now an Intel company) has been disappointing. The cost is high, the licensing always makes installation painful, and the support has gone down hill. Worse, we have had the sales force selling products that simply don't work.  We purchased a Wind River In-Circuit Emulator (ICE) for a well known industry core running on an ASIC. Shockingly, the ICE didn't support our core for almost a year. Now you would think the sales force might extend the support contract or provide something extra as a good will gesture?  Think again.

A couple years ago, I used Linux on a Cell BE based signal processor evaluation effort. My early results were mixed and sadly the project was canceling after IBM canceled further Cell processor development and die shrinks.

VxWorks is likely out.  Time will tell what we replace it with.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Waiting for a piece of Raspberry Pi

I was one of the lucky folks who got in an order for a Raspberry Pi computer before the stock ran out and the servers melted down.  It will still be a few days before my credit card sized computer arrives so  now it's time to buy the support hardware. The websites didn't have the kits available when I put in my order. That would have been much easier and lower risk ... but way more expensive.

For the power supply, I just ordered a used BlackBerry charger for $5.98 with free Amazon Prime shipping.  That supply provides a 5VDC source at the required 700mA. Simple and cheap.

I'm going to hold off on ordering a wireless keyboard and mouse/click-pad until I understand better what will be compatible.  In the end, I intend to program with a wired keyboard and mouse but I need something wireless and smaller for the XBMC media player application I have in mind. That same is true for a Wifi dongle.  Hopefully, one from my junk drawer will work.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Completed - Learn to Solder Merit Badge

Let me start this post with a word of warning. This software geek is now armed with a soldering iron and should be considered dangerous.

The "Learn to Solder Badge" down and many more fun merit badges on my wishlist left to earn!  Truthfully, I had done a little soldering in the past but I needed to learn (or re-learn) the proper technique and I especially wanted more confidence before tackling a more complex kit. The "Elenco AmeriKit Learn to Solder Kit" I purchased for $15 was an afternoon of pure geek heaven. The LEDs blink and the sirens blares ... and I never hurt myself once.

This kit is designed for the beginner and includes a special area of the board dedicated to practice. This practice area is the key to the kit. I was able to experiment without my mistakes ruining the project. I lifted a couple pads early in the practice exercises but by the end of the test pads I had visibly improved my solder joints. Fixing a lifted pad seems non-obvious to this novice so I'll try to avoid overheating a pad in the future.

Once you feel comfortable, the rest of the board is a European siren kit with flashing LED's. For $15, I was amazed the kit includes a soldering iron and wire cutters. However, I also recommend wire strippers and a better soldering iron holder.  The same vendor sells an inexpensive but more secure holder  for less than $6. So have fun, and don't forget to buy the merit badge.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Going for the Learn to Solder Merit Badge

For my first Nerd Merit Badge, I've decided to go for the first badge created, the "Learn to Solder" patch. This seems fitting since I read somewhere that this badge was the first created in the series.

I did a tiny amount of soldering years ago and quiet frankly I was terrible. This time around I've decided to buy a couple kits, read up on good technique, and take my time to learn correctly.  The first kit I've purchased is the "Elenco AmeriKit Learn to Solder Kit". This kit is designed for the beginner and includes a special area of the board to practice. Once you feel comfortable, the rest of the board is a European siren kit with flashing LED's. The $15 kit includes a soldering iron and wire cutters. That's an amazing bargain.

Merit Badges for Geeks and Nerds

Growing up, I always found the merit badges earned very cool. From Brownies to Eagle Scouts, each accomplishment would be proudly displayed and each badge admired would encourage others to earn more badges. So I love it that nerds and geeks can now earn their own merit badges. My buddies are almost all geeks and, like most guys, bragging rights are a lot of fun.

Looking at the available badges, I've already earned a few over the years ... including the badge for blowing up hardware! I hope to earn a few more in the coming months.