Of all the hardware that can break…

… it has to be the one that’s most difficult to replace.

Today, my Gefen HDMI over Cat5 adapter died. Well. It didn’t die completely, it just lost its ability to produce a stable image. What is transmitted is very intermittent and in the few seconds the image is available, it’s heavily distorted.

Also, it’s not the obvious issue (faulty cabling) as the problems did not go away after using two very short (1m) cat 5 cables to test.

Now this is really bad for a variety of reasons:

  • Only just last Saturday I bought Star Ocean and Tales of Vesperia for my 360, giving me a total play time of 1.5 hours so far.
  • Yesterday I noticed that Worms: Armageddon was released for Xbox arcade and I have already invited Ebi after the huge success that was our earlier Worms evening on the 360.
  • My setup is totally dependent on the two extenders as I am covering more than 20 meters of distance between receiver and projector. No extender, no Xbox, no Wii, no projector.
  • Last time I waited around six weeks for the extender to arrive

Of all the hardware I’m having at home, the HDMI extender is the worst to break. Not only is it very hard to replace (see above), it’s so deeply integrated into my home cinema setup that just debugging what was going on took a ladder, a screwdriver, a hex-wrench and unwinding an ungodly heap of cables.

All of that in an apartment whose temperature is currently at 30°C (86 °F) and with a hell of a headache.

I’d take anything else going down. Anything but that Gefen extender. My XBox? Sure. Shion? It’d suck, but sure if it has to be, go ahead. My reciever? That would hurt as it was very expensive, but at least it’s easily replaced.

Why did it have to be that Gefen extender? Why??

802.11n, Powerline and Sonos

I decided to have a look into the networking setup for my bedroom as lately, I was getting really bad bandwidth.

Earlier, while unable to stream 1080p into my bedrom, I was able to watch 720p, but lately even that has become choppy at best.

In my bedroom, I was using a Sonos Zone Player 100 connected via Ethernet to a Devolo A/V 200MBit power line adapter.

I have been using the switch integrated into the zone player to connect the bedrom MacMini media center and the PS3 to the network. The idea was that powerline will provide better bandwidth than WiFi, which it initially seemed to do, but as I said, lately, this system became really painful to use.

Naturally I had enough and wanted to look into other options.

Here’s a quick list of my findings:

  • The Sonos ZonePlayer actually acts as a bridge. If one player is connected via Ethernet, it’ll use its mesh network to wirelessly bridge that Ethernet connection to the switch inside the Sonos. I’m actually deeply astonished that I even got working networking with my configuration.
  • Either my Devolo adaptor is defective or something strange is going on in my power line network – a test using FTP never yielded more than 1 MB/s throughput which explains why 720p didn’t work.
  • While still not a ratified standard, 802.11n, at least as implemented by Apple works really well and delivers constant 4 MB/s throughput in my configuration.
  • Not wanting to risk cross-vendor incompatibilities (802.11n is not ratified after all), I went the Apple Airport route, even though there probably would have been cheaper solutions.
  • Knowing that bandwidth rapidly decreases with range, I bought one AirPort Extreme Base Station and three AirPort Expresses which I’m using to do nothing but extend the 5Ghz n network.
  • All the AirPort products have a nasty constantly lit LED which I had to cover up – this is my bedroom after all, but I still wanted line of sight to optimize bandwidth. There is a configuration option for the LED, but it only provides two options: Constantly on (annoying) and blinking on traffic (very annoying).
  • While the large AirPort Extreme can create both a 2.4 GHz and a 5 GHz network, the Express ones can only extend either one of them!

This involved a lot of trying out, changing around configurations and a bit of research, but going from 0.7 MB/s to 4 MB/s in throughput certainly was worth the time spent.

Also, yes, these numbers are in Megabytes unless I’m writing MBits in which case it’s Megabits.

Broken by design

The concept sounds nice: To control all the various remote controllable devices you accumulate in your home cinema, why not just use one programmable remote? With enough intelligence, I would even be able to do much more than provide some way of switching personality.

I mean: Press one button and you have a remote for your receiver, press another and it’ll be for your media center, but losing its receiver functionality.

Why not put it in “Media Mode” where it controls the volume by sending commands the receiver understands while still providing full navigation support for your media center.

Logitech’s Harmony family promises to provide that functionality.

Unfortunately, it’s broken by design as

  • it tries to be intelligent while it is completely stupid. For example, I can add a “Music Player”-Functionality, with the intention of it sending commands to a Squeezebox, but as soon as you add a media center, it insists to use that to play music without a way to change that.
  • The web based programming interface is awful. It forces you through multi step assistants, each time reloading the (ugly) pages, asking questions which could easily be placed on one screen.
  • It only works on Mac and Windows (no Linux support)

Especially the first point rendered this interesting concept completely unusable for me.

Now, Engadget just had an article about project Concordance, a free software project allowing to access the functionality (the whole functionality) from any UNIX machine using a command line tool, while also providing a library (with Perl and Python bindings) for us to write a useful GUI for.

I can’t wait to try this out as this easily circumvents the awful UI and may actually provide me with means to make Harmony work for my setup.

Also, it’s a real shame to see a very interesting project be made completely unusable by bad UI design.

HD-DVD unlocked

Earlier, it was possible to work around the AACS copy protection scheme in use for HD-DVD and Blueray on a disc-to-disc basis.

Now it’s possible to work around it for every disk.

So once more we are in the situation where the illegal media pirate is getting a superior user experience than the legal user: The “pirate” can download the movie to watch on-demand. He can store it on any storage medium he pleases (like home servers, NASes or optical discs). He can reformat the content to another format a particular output medium requires (like an iPod) without having to buy another copy. And finally, he is capable to watch the stolen media on whatever platform he chooses to watch it with.

The original media on contrast is very much limited:

The source of the content is always the disc the user bought. It’s not possible to store legally acquired HD-content on a different medium than the source disc. It’s not possible to watch it on any personal computer but the ones running operating systems from Microsoft. The disc may even force the legal user to watch advertisements or trailer in advance to the main content. There is no guarantee that a purchased disc will work with any player – despite player and disc both bearing the same compatibility label (HD-DVD or Blueray logos). It’s not possible to legally acquire the content on-demand and it’s impossible to reformat the content to different devices.

Back in the old days, the copy usually was inferior to the original.

In the digital age of DRM and user-money-milking, this has changed. Now the copy clearly provides many advantages the original currently can’t provide or the industry does not want it to provide.

I salute the incredibly smart hackers that worked around yet another “unbreakable” copy protection scheme allowing me to create my personal backup copy of any medium I buy so that I can store the content on my NAS and I have the assurance that I’m able to play it when I want and where I want.

I assure you: My happyness is not based on the fact that I can now downloaded pirated movies over bittorrent. It’s based on the fact that I can store legally purchased HD content on the harddrive of my home server and watch it on-demand without having to switch media.

Piracy, for me, is a pure usability problem.

Two speed runs

You know I’m very much into speed runnning through games.

You probably aren’t.

So, in the last few weeks, two runs where posted that may help you get going as they show perfectly how much fun watching these videos can be. Both show an immense ammount of precision and sheer speed:

  1. Xaphan did an emulated run on Mega Man Zero 2 on the GBA. Note that this game isn’t played like how a real person could be able to play it. During the creation, technical means like slowdown (or even frame-advance for frame-by-frame precision) and save states were used. Still: Enjoy the precision and speed in this one.
  2. Josh Mangini did a single segment run of Ninja Gaiden on a real XBox. This is not emulated. What ever you see is the skill of a real player playing through the game. I didn’t know Ninja Gaiden before seeing this run, but have a look at the speed and effects you are seeing when watching this run. Isn’t this just cool?

Congratulations to both players. While both runs may not be perfect and both games may not be that famous, both runs are very impressive to watch due to sheer speed.

I for one had lots of fun watching them on my home cinema setup.