DVD players as cheap home media centers

I thought the steady stream of Thomas the Tank Engine, Dora, Bob the Builder, Thomas, Thomas, Thomas, Elmo, Thomas, and Thomas had finally done in our DVD player after almost 8 years.

It turned out the VCR I was running the video through was actually the problem, but what I learned in shopping for a potential replacement suggests I may want to think about replacing it anyway.Modern DVD players will upscale your old DVDs to make them almost hi-def, and have HDMI ports for digital connection to HDTVs. But they do more than that.

Mid-range ($50 and up) players include a USB port, so you can plug a flash drive or hard drive into them, and they’ll play MP3 audio or DIVX video off them.

Due to the United States’ anti-fair-use laws, I won’t tell you how to do it, but what you’ll want to do is rip your DVDs to a USB hard drive, convert them to DIVX, then plug them into your DVD player. Ask Google how. Then you have a library of movies in a 5-inch box and don’t have to mess with discs. That’s a big plus when you have small kids like I do. Plug in the box, turn it on, and pick your movie or show from the on-screen menu.

For ages, I’ve been planning to build a media center PC for just this purpose.

But I think I’d really rather just buy a $50 DVD player and plug a USB hard drive into it. Even though our 32″ CRT TV can’t really take advantage of a modern player’s video capability, the convenience of not fiddling with discs (and no risk of scratching them) makes it worth the 50 bucks. And once LED-lit LCD TVs get affordable, the DVD player will be ready for it when I upgrade.

Update: Rather than buy a pricier DVD player, you might want to consider a $35 DVR, which can double as a media player.

Installing Windows off USB

I sure wish I’d seen Wintoflash a few weeks ago.

It’s simple. Insert a Windows CD or DVD (anything from XP to Windows 7). Plug in a blank USB flash drive (or one you don’t mind erasing). Answer a couple of questions, and after a few minutes, you have a bootable USB stick that installs Windows. It will be much faster than CD or DVD because flash media has much faster seek times.

So what could be better? Well, slipstreamed and customized Windows of course.First, go get ctupdate and run it to get all the current hotfixes and service packs for whatever version of Windows you use.

Next, use Nlite to easily slipstream in all those service packs and hotfixes. While you’re at it, you can remove whatever non-optional inessentials you want. All the games, Media Player, Movie Maker, Outlook Express, and stuff like that are fair game. If you feel brave, you can even (horrors!) remove Internet Explorer.

Rebuilding a PC used to take most of a weekend to do, but with an up-to-date installation on a USB stick, I think the task could take an afternoon, as long as the target computer is new enough to support booting off USB.

And to a tinkerer, it could be very nice. Speeding up installation and modification would allow a tinkerer to be more aggressive with Nlite in terms of changes. Make a fatal change, and it’s no big deal–just back out of the change and reinstall, and in about 15 minutes you’re up and running with a new configuration.

A big time test for Nlite

I saw an XP Myths page this weekend, and although I don’t agree with its assessment of XP’s security, most of it seemed credible. It said XP can do fine on as little as a 233 MHz Pentium with 128 MB of RAM.

I whipped out a P2-266 with 192 MB of RAM to see.The specs are humble, to say the least: P2-266, 192 MB RAM (upgraded from 96 because XP kicks into some kind of "reduced functionality" mode with less than 128), and a very old Seagate 1.2 GB hard drive.

I installed XP with lots of pieces, like Media Player and the Internet Connection Wizard, removed, although I did leave in Internet Explorer.

Initially I formatted the drive FAT, since FAT does perform about 20% better than NTFS on limited hardware. The problem was the cluster size got me. Formatted FAT, I had about 100 MB free when the installation was complete, which is dangerously low. Converting to NTFS brought that up to 170 MB, and gives the option to compress some items to get some more space.

Performance wise, it’s not as bad as it sounds. Windows boots in 1 minute, 15 seconds after defragmenting the drive. Considering this 1.2 GB drive probably dates to 1996 at the latest, that’s awfully good. Memory usage was 96 MB, so you’d be able to run an application or two on it, although a modern web browser would feel claustrophobic after a while.

If I were actually going to try to use this computer, I’d put a decent hard drive in it–the newer the better, of course.

I would also want to upgrade the memory to 384 MB, which is the maximum this one supports. A cut-down XP seems to do just fine in 192 MB of RAM, but it wouldn’t do so fine with antivirus software loaded.

I still think a cut-down Windows 2000 is a better choice for this type of machine, but it’s certainly possible to run XP on it. With either OS, though, I would use Nlite to remove as much of the fluff as possible, to give yourself some space for whatever it is you really want to do with the machine. I think it would make a good PC to run educational software for kids, for example. And it’s nice to have a choice of something other than Windows 98 for that.

Nlite and Windows XP

Well, I had my first major experience with Nlite and Windows XP tonight. I installed a new 160 GB Seagate hard drive into Mom’s Compaq Evo 510 and I used Nlite to slipstream SP2 into Windows XP, since SP2 is necessary to properly use a drive that big.

The resulting image was far too big to fit on a CD, so I started pulling stuff out.Mainly I pulled out stuff like Outlook Express, MSN Explorer, and Media Player. I thought about removing Internet Explorer, but since Mom is going to use MS Office, I thought twice about that. Office uses IE for some things. If I’d been building the system for me, I’d pull that too.

I also removed most of the international support. I saw no need for anything other than US English and maybe Spanish, so I pulled the rest.

Installation went fast. Really fast. I laid down Windows XP, Office 2000, and Firefox in less than an hour. I used the Nlite CD to install the OS, and I installed Office and Firefox from a USB flash drive. All I need now is antivirus software and the system would be usable.

It boots lightning fast–we’re talking 20 seconds from POST to a desktop with no hourglass. Installing antivirus software will slow that down, but it’s impressive. Part of that is due to the new hard drive, but it’s a Seagate 7200.10. It’s newer and faster than the five-year-old Western Digital drive the system came with, but the 7200.10 isn’t exactly new technology anymore.

Memory usage isn’t bad either–100 megs at boot. That’ll double or triple once I install antivirus software, but at least I’m starting lower than usual.

I didn’t check disk usage, but I’m sure it’s much lower than the typical 1.5 GB.

I’m a believer. The results make me wonder just how old and slow of a computer I could get away with XP on.

Optimizing a brand-new PC

Dell offering PCs free of bloatware and crapware reminds me of the ultimate optimization tip, the thing you should do on Day 1 immediately after unboxing your PC.

Reformat the hard drive and start over.Most PCs get shipped with lots of garbage you don’t want or need. It used to primarily be signups for online services, but there are plenty of applications you’ll never use, trial applications that aren’t fully functional unless you pay for them, and who knows what else.

The reason this stuff gets bundled generally comes down to money. The manufactuer loads this stuff, and the company who made it pays a small fee. The software company is hoping you’ll sign up; the computer maker uses the money to subsidize the cost of the hardware (computer hardware is a very low-margin business).

Software that you install but don’t use slows your computer down, because it chews up disk space, bloats the registry, and it may keep some components loaded at all times. Get rid of that garbage, and the computer speeds up.

When I started working in desktop support way back in 1995, this was standard procedure. We squeezed far more life out of computers than anyone could reasonably expect us to do. But we had to do it–we had virtually no budget to work with.

So, assuming your PC comes with a real Windows CD (not just a system restore CD that reloads the factory image, junk and all), insert that CD when you power on, format the hard drive and install fresh. Better yet, use another computer to set up Nlite so you can install Windows with exactly the components you want. That way, if you don’t want or need, say, Media Player, you don’t have to have it. (Personally, I like to watch videos and listen to MP3s on my servers, especially seeing as they don’t have sound cards.)

If you haven’t ordered your new PC yet, be sure to ask when you buy whether it comes with a system restore CD or a real Windows CD.

If a new PC doesn’t come with a real, bootable Windows CD and I don’t have any other means to get one, I wouldn’t buy the PC. Period. That’s how important this is.

So, do you still think having Internet Explorer on your server is a good idea?

Microsoft is making its updates to IE only available for Windows XP.

To which I say, what about all of those servers out there?Surely they include Server 2003 in this. But that’s a problem. Upgrading to Server 2003 isn’t always an option. Some applications only run on Windows NT 4.0, or on Windows 2000.

Unfortunately, sometimes you have to have a web browser installed on a server to get updates, either from your vendor or from MS. Windows Update, of course, only works with Internet Explorer.

One option is to uninstall Internet Explorer using the tools from litepc.com. A potentially more conservative option is to keep IE installed, use it exclusively for Windows Update, and install another lightweight browser for searching knowledge bases and downloading patches from vendors. Offbyone is a good choice. It has no Java or Javascript, so in theory it should be very secure. It’s standalone, so it won’t add more muck to your system. To install it, copy the executable somewhere. To uninstall it, delete the executable.

An even better option is just to run as few servers on Windows as possible, since they insist on installing unnecessary and potentially exploitable software on servers–Windows Media Player and DirectX are other glaring examples of this–but I seem to hold the minority opinion on that. Maybe now that they wilfully and deliberately install security holes on servers and refuse to patch them unless you run the very newest versions, that will change.

But I’m not holding my breath.

The problem with online streaming video

I think we may have lost a project at work today: a project to do streaming video. It’s not really our fault; our offering looked just like everyone else’s streaming video.

The problem is that our competition isn’t everyone else’s streaming video.First let’s look at the hurdles. No matter which option you pick, some percentage of your audience is going to have to download or install something. That all but eliminates Real, since I don’t think even Woodward and Bernstein could successfully track down the link to their free player every time.

Windows Media Player is easier, but won’t necessarily run on some older versions of Windows. An overwhelming number of people have Windows XP now, but not everyone does. How many hundreds of millions of copies of Windows 98 did Microsoft sell? Do you think all of those people have thrown them away yet? No. Those people will have to download and install something.

But Media Player will leave some Macintoshes in the cold. Do you want to do that if your target audience might include schools?

QuickTime is the best cross-platform solution, but again, Windows users will have to download and install something.

OK, so you got it installed. Prepare thyself for thrilling, 15 frame-per-second 160×120 video!

Translation: Video the size of a postage stamp that moves about as fast as your mailman.

Theoretically you can stream bigger and faster video, but it’s going to be jerkier if you do. There’ll be dropped frames, artifacts, and the audio may drop out. And what’s it look like when you send DVD-sized 720×480 video? Well, considering a lot of people run their monitors at 1024×768, it makes letterboxing look good. It’s not full-screen like it is when you pop a DVD into your DVD drive.

And that’s precisely the problem. The competition isn’t other people who stream video. The competition is DVDs. Computers are digital, right? So why does its video look worse than the oldest, most worn-out VHS tape at the video rental place? And why do I have to jump through so many hoops in order to play it? On a DVD, I hit the "menu" button and then I hit "enter" or "play." (Also keep in mind that some people can’t even figure out how to do that. I’m serious. I dated a girl once whose parents couldn’t figure out a DVD player, so they had to get their 15-year-old son to come hit the buttons for them.)

And that, I think, is the reason you still don’t see tons and tons of streaming video on the Web, in spite of the high availability of DSL and cable modems in the United States, the abundance of cheap bandwidth, and the cheapness of the server software (free, in the case of QuickTime, and included with Windows Server in the case of Media Player).

Shrinking Windows 2000 and XP

Seeing as this used to be my big topic, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that it’s now possible to remove Internet Explorer, Windows Media Player, and other components from Windows 2000 and XP using software from litepc.com.
I haven’t tested it, so I don’t know how much difference it makes, performance-wise. It made a large difference in Windows 98–removing IE caused system speedups of anywhere from 10 to 25 percent, which is more than you gain by upgrading your CPU a speed grade or two. This was mostly due to two factors: reduced memory consumption and inefficiencies in the FAT/FAT32 file systems. It’s been known for about 20 years that performance starts to degrade dramatically once you have more than 100 files in a program or operating system’s subdirectory (Microsoft even said as much in the DOS 5.0 manual).

Since most people run XP and 2000 with NTFS, and since systems with half a gig of memory or more are becoming commonplace, I don’t know if removing IE will make as much difference in this day and age. It certainly makes sense from a security standpoint though–rip out IE, Media Player and Outlook Express and replace them with third-party apps, and you’ve just eliminated most of the programs whose security holes affect desktop PCs. It comes at the expense of compatibility though. Some programs utilize Outlook Express and IE components–although some programs will install the missing DLLs.

But for special-purpose PCs, or other PCs that aren’t running any software that uses those programs, or PCs that are strapped for disk space, it makes sense to give it a shot.

Maybe someone in the music industry is starting to get it

I remember just a couple of weeks ago, I was driving home from work and a song caught my attention on the radio. I was pretty sure I’d never heard it before, and given the nature of my two favorite radio stations, there was every possibility I’d never hear it again either. And the DJ never told me who it was.
And I had a thought. If more stations would play something other than the same 50 or 60 songs over and over, and the DJ would actually tell you what each song was, and you could run home and buy it for 75 cents,
I reasoned, then the music industry would be in a whole lot better shape. They might not sell what they wanted, but they’d be able to sell something. Which, if you listen to them, doesn’t exactly describe their present situation.

Now in the age of the Internet, if I’d been able to remember or jot down a couple of lines of the song, I’d be able to search Google for it and probably come up with an artist and title. The RIAA hates it when people post song lyrics on the Web or on Usenet, and while technically it is a copyright violation, I know I’ve bought tons and tons and tons of records that way. I hear a song or remember a song from the past, search for it, find out what it was, and then I buy it. Case in point: One of the first songs I remember hearing on the radio was “Steppin’ Out” by Joe Jackson. I think the last time I heard it on the radio was sometime in 1983. I remembered the tune and one line: “We’ll leave the TV and the radio behind.” One day I couldn’t stand it anymore, searched, was shocked to hear it was Joe Jackson, went to CDNow, listened to the sample, and bought his Greatest Hits album on the spot.

Now I would later find out that I can pretty safely buy a Joe Jackson record for one song and there’ll be at least one other song on it that I like a lot and one or two others that I like. I found out through experience that’s not usually the case. My CD rack is full of discs I bought for one or two songs and weren’t worth the price of admission.

There’s an Offspring song called “Gone Away” that I really like. But I don’t like Offspring. Similarly, I can’t stand Sugar Ray because all of their songs are about either getting sloshed or getting laid, and I don’t care for that lifestyle or music that celebrates it. There’s so much more to life than that. But somewhere along the way, that band recorded one song that I like and would like to own.

I don’t care much for Matchbox Twenty because all of their songs pretty much sound alike and the lyrics are almost all about shallow and empty relationships that started in bars or ended in bars and how lonely and empty they leave Rob Thomas feeling. If I want mope rock, I’ll listen to The Cure because at least they’ve found more than one thing to be depressed about and found ways to make it sound different over the years. But I’ve heard one or two Matchbox 20 songs that I like and wouldn’t mind owning.

Listen.com offers downloadable tracks for under a buck but it’s a subscription service. Apple’s iTunes has the right idea, with a fair price and no subscription, but of course it’s Mac-only at least for the moment. And now there’s Buymusic.com, which is completely Windows Media Player-centric. I tried visiting the site with Mozilla and it told me to download Internet Explorer. When I visited with Internet Exploiter, it gave me a popup saying I needed a newer version of Windows Media Player. I closed the window and it let me browse.

I’ve looked at both Listen.com and Buymusic.com, and they both have holes in their catalogs. I know some bands don’t want to be listed because they want to sell albums, not singles. To which I say record great albums and I’ll buy them. When I put in U2’s The Joshua Tree, more often than not I skip past the first four or five tracks that contained all of the album’s hits. There wasn’t a single hit on the second half of the album, but the songs are better. “One Tree Hill” and “Red Hill Mining Town” are two of the best songs they’ve ever recorded, and most people have probably never heard them.

I’ll almost always listen to Disintegration by The Cure and Straight Up by Badfinger and Whatever by Aimee Mann all the way through. But the last great album I bought was All That You Can’t Leave Behind by U2, and that was two years ago. I can’t tell you the last great one I bought before that.

But hey, at least now I’ve got a way to buy some singles with a clear conscience. I kind of like the idea of being able to buy all the big-label music that’s caught my attention the past five or six years for about 20 bucks. And I do want to buy it legitimately. I’ve spent some time writing songs and I know a lot of work goes into it. And even more work goes into recording songs. I’ve spent some time in a recording studio too, and all I know is that I don’t know half the time and effort that goes into recording a song. Most of the people you hear on the radio work longer and weirder hours than I do and yet make only slightly more money than I do. So I really don’t want to steal from them.

Now I need to go find some good indie stuff. I’m pretty sure that’s where I’m going to have to look if I want great albums or something that sounds a little different.

If I had my own Linux distribution

I found an interesting editorial called If I had my own Linux Distro. He’s got some good ideas but I wish he’d known what he was talking about on some others.
He says it should be based on FreeBSD because it boots faster than Linux. I thought everyone knew that Unix boot time has very little to do with the kernel? A kernel will boot more slowly if it’s trying to detect too much hardware, but the big factor in boot time is init, not the kernel. BSD’s init is much faster than SysV-style init. Linux distros that use BSD-style inits (Slackware, and optionally, Debian, and, as far as I understand, Gentoo) boot much faster than systems that use a traditional System V-style init. I recently converted a Debian box to use runit, and the decrease in boot time and increase in available memory at boot was noticeable. Unfortunately now the system doesn’t shut down properly. But it proves the concept.

He talks about installing every possible library to eliminate dependency problems. Better idea: Scrap RPM and use apt (like Debian and its derivatives) or a ports-style system like Gentoo. The only time I’ve seen dependency issues crop up in Debian was on a system that had an out of date glibc installed, in which case you solve the issue by either keeping the distribution up to date, or updating glibc prior to installing the package that fails. These problems are exceedingly rare, by the way. In systems like Gentoo, they don’t happen because the installation script downloads and compiles everything necessary.

Debian’s and Gentoo’s solution is far more elegant than his proposal: Installing everything possible isn’t going to solve your issue when glibc is the problem. Blindly replacing glibc was a problem in the past. The problems that caused that are hopefully solved now, but they’re beyond the control of any single distribution, and given the choice between having a new install stomp on glibc and break something old or an error message, I’ll take the error message. Especially since I can clear the issue with an apt-get install glibc. (Then when an old application breaks, it’s my fault, not the operating system’s.)

In all fairness, dependency issues crop up in Windows all the time: When people talk about DLL Hell, they’re talking about dependency problems. It’s a different name for the same problem. On Macintoshes, the equivalent problem was extensions conflicts. For some reason, people don’t hold Linux to the same standard they hold Windows and Macs to. People complain, but when was the last time you heard someone say Windows or Mac OS wasn’t ready for the desktop, or the server room, or the enterprise, or your widowed great aunt?

He also talks about not worrying about bloat. I take issue with that. When it’s possible to make a graphical Linux distribution that fits on a handful of floppies, there’s no reason not to make a system smooth and fast. That means you do a lot of things. Compile for an advanced architecture and use the -O3 options. Use an advanced compiler like CGG 3.2 or Intel’s ICC 7.0 while you’re at it. Prelink the binaries. Use a fast-booting init and a high-performance system logger. Mount filesystems with the highest-performing options by default. Partition off /var and /tmp so those directories don’t fragment the rest of your filesystem. Linux can outperform other operating systems on like hardware, so it should.

But when you do those things, then it necessarily follows that people are going to want to run your distribution on marginal hardware, and you can’t count on marginal hardware having a 20-gig hard drive. It’s possible to give people the basic utilities, XFree86, a reasonably slick window manager or environment, and the apps everyone wants (word processing, e-mail, personal finance, a web browser, instant messaging, a media player, a graphics viewer, a few card games, and–I’ll say it–file sharing) in a few hundred megabytes. So why not give it to them?

I guess all of this brings up the nicest thing about Linux. All the source code to anything desirable and all the tools are out there, so a person with vision can take them and build the ultimate distribution with it.

Yes, the idea is tempting.

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