Tuesday 1 December 2015

The Pursuit of Happiness

It’s been a long and winding road but I’m finally getting to a point where I have a software and hardware infrastructure that’s robust flexible and meets my main requirements.

Principally, I’m after a whole-house a/v solution that facilitates multi-room viewing and listening with a simple interface that supports the following;
  • Live TV viewing with PVR capabilities
  • Centralised media storage & database (maintain one library centrally)
  • Multi-device & OS client support – mixed Windows & OSX environment

Not too difficult, surely? Well, I’ve been through a bunch of front ends and back ends and middleware and have ended up with what’s for me a fine and usable system, albeit with a few minor niggles.

KODI – The Heart of It All

I’ve had a love/hate relationship with Kodi over the years. Until recently, the main factor preventing me using it was the inferior video quality – especially noticeable on LiveTV showing sports. For this reason, I’ve been using MediaPortal which had an infinitely better video image.

Somewhere in recent releases, however, this has been fixed and video quality is now on a par with anything else I’ve tried.

Plus it’s just great software. Very configurable, a bunch of skins and UI variants, constant updates and a great support community. Plus it runs on Windows, OSX, Linux and pretty much anything you want and has LiveTV and Optical Disc support. It ticks a lot of boxes for me.

The one issue I have with it though is the local database infrastructure. Each client needs to configure it’s own library and there’s no sharing of watched status etc. (it is possible to set up a shared central database bit it’s messy, poorly documented and not fully supported).

Step Up Emby

Emby is a super centralised media management server with DLNA serving, a multitude of clients and, critically, a great Kodi plug-in.

I use the central Emby server to manage my media and install the plug-in on Kodi clients. There’s a bit of configuring with paths and settings to get it all working but once up and running, it’s pretty transparent in that it just integrates right into the Kodi media libraries.

Streaming Services?
Support for Spotify is provided in Kodi via the Spotlight plug-in. It’s limited in features (very little management, but does the job of providing access to pre-configured playlists and allows Spotify music to be streamed through the Kodi UI.

But what about TV?

So Kodi clients all around and centralised, easily managed media management. But what about PVR? I haven’t quite cut the cord fully yet and we watch a good deal of TV in our house, both digital terrestrial and satellite.

For tuning and management, I’ve set up ArgusTV on a server and use the PVR capabilities in Kodi to provide a front end meaning I’ve got access to all my local music, movies and Live TV in a single unified interface with great image quality and configurable UI.

And Control?

Well, most of my clients support IR control and a standard MCE profile on a Logitech remote provides basic functionality. I also run the official Kodi remote app on iOS and that provides a nice UI to all of the above.

There’s got to be a catch, right?

Well, yes, a few things are sub-optimal;

The main bugbear is that while ArgusTV supports series recording, access to this is not officially supported in Koid front-end. It’s possible to set up a timer to record an individual show but to configure ArgusTV to record the full show, this must be done through it’s own Web UI or on the server. A bit of an inconvenience.

There’s also an issue with music album cover art in the Emby Plugin. All my tracks are tagged with art and a lot of albums show up with art in the Emby plugin, though some don’t and I can’t figure out why, even though all the tracks on the album show covers when I drill down. A puzzle for sure.

Netflix is a pain in that it doesn’t integrate well with kodi and the windows App doesn’t support remot controls so either keyboard control is required r use of the embedded version in TVs or players is required.

Apart from that, there’s not a lot I have to complain about. Just this week my 11 year old – used to the ‘TV’ changing on a regular basis, came to me and said ‘this one works well’. Success, of a sort!

A note on Hardware

This system is enabled by a beefy unRAID server which looks after all the media storage and runs a few Virtual Machines;

Windows 7 ‘TVServer’ VM
A headless Windiws 7 VM that runs ArgusTV and Emby servers. There’s 6x Digital Devices tuners passed through that provide all the TV inputs.

Widows 8 HTPCs
Two Win 8.1 VMs run Kodi and have GPUs passed through. These connect via HDMI to two of my TVs

Additionally, I have a couple of Gigabyte Brix system that are hooked up to TVs in places where I can’t run cHDMI able from the server. These are also configured with Kodi clients.

I also have an OPPO 103 Blu-Ray player that can access all the media on the network and a couple of Macs with Kodi.

Wednesday 10 June 2015

Cat5TV does unRAID

A few years ago, I watched a good bit of Category5 Technology TV (around the time I was building my first unRAID system), but for some reason stopped watching

They've just done a show on unRAID 6 and it reminded me how much I enjoyed it;

Looking forward to unRAID 6 release next week.

Sunday 17 May 2015

Making Movies

I recently came across a review of the MOTU 1248 AVB external audio interface on yabb.jriver.com and figured it's the ultimate in flexibility for my needs - it would drive my home theatre sound system AND whole house audio system AND anything else I threw at it.

The only problem was the price - at over €1,600, it's somewhat pricey. (This blog has brought in the sum total of €50 over 2 years to give an indication of when I could afford it!).

However, it does have a baby brother, the Ultralite AVB which at under €900 would be a little more palatable. It would give 8x outs for the home theatre and can be expanded. Still out of range though, so I turned to eBay and found a Motu 848 MkII for a lot less that will work as in interim solution and will work as the ADAT expansion unit if I ever get the UltraLite.

I first tried the unit with a KVM Windows 8 VM in unRaid but found a lot of pops and clicks, particularly with higher resolution audio files. Additionally, when I introduced the longer FireWire cable I needed, it just wouldn't work at all. So with a tinge of sadness, I've retired one of my VMs and migrated it back to a physical HTPC that will run the home theatre.

So with that decision made, I set about re-configuring the HT A/V set-up. The biggest task was to physically move everything behind the screen. The photo above shows my current 110" 16:9 screen in position, but I can swing it up to reveal...

Monday 27 April 2015

Lost Weekend

Now that Xen is slated for total removal from unRaid, it was time to seriously look at migrating to KVM. The easiest solution would probably have been to start from scratch and re-create all my VMs under KVM but that would require reactivating windows VMs, downloading all the updates, re-installing and re-configuring software etc.

The more attractive route was finding a way to migrate existing VMs from Xen to KVM. Thanks to jonp from LimeTech who published a how-to guide, this become fairly straightforward. I even recorded myself following the guide. Having done my Windows 7 VM, I then set about two Windows 8.1 systems and a Netrunner (ArchLinux / Manjaro) VM.

The Windows 8.1 migrations were as straightforward as the Win7 one had been. However, the Linux one just wouldn’t work for me. Once I’d set it up in KVM, pointed to the disk image and booted, I was greeted with a Grub error indicating that the root disk UUID could not be found. A quick check indicated that the UUID was in fact the same and no amount of Google Fu revealed a solution. I ended up re-installing the OS and dealing with a world of hurt in the updates (lot’s of conflicting dependencies).

So, with 4x VMs migrated, it was time to start playing with my shiny new KVM flavour of UnRaid. With a full weekend of playing around under my belt, I can now report that some things worked well, some didn’t. Some things I liked, some not so much;

Saturday 25 April 2015

Converting Xen VM to KVM

In recent days, it's become clear that LimeTech plan to support only KVM virtualisation in unRAID 6 (as well as Docker). When they started out with version 6, Xen was the only virtualisation available and that's the one I went with.

I've been anxious about the learning curve required to migrate to KVM but since Xen is likely to disappear sooner rather than later, I figured it was time to bite the bullet.

LimeTech have published a 'how to' guide on migrating a Win7 VM from Xen to KVM so I decided to record myself following it;

Overall, it's a breeze with just a couple of small hiccups, one relating to not being clear on how to set up KVM support in unRAID and the other not figuring out how to ad an additional virtual disk in the UI. Apart from that, all good - though the new VM UI doesn't seem to support all PCI/PCIe devices for passthrough so I need to figure out how to do that now...

Why I'm leaving Tidal

I signed up for music streaming service Tidal a few months ago, thrilled with the quality full-resolution audio I heard on the meagre 7-day trial and excited by the way I could integrate it with my squeezebox setup via ickstream.

I'd been a Spotify user and enjoyed that service. It too integrated well with Squeezebox but as a family we were sharing an account and more times than not, I'd find the account in use when I wanted to listen. I needed either a second Spotify account or an alternative.

I've been using Tidal a lot for the past couple of months, out and about on my Sony Xperia phone in low-res mode, on my Macbook at work in HiFi mode via the desktop and occasionally home via the web interface.

During this time, the service was re-launched with much ado by a bevy of singers that I never listen to. It passed me by.

I've enjoyed using Tidal but now I'm leaving and here's why;

Sunday 1 March 2015

Bi-Amping with JRiver Media Centre

Having recently acquired a pair of long-coveted B&W 803N speakers, I've been running them from my almost-vintage Pioneer VSX-2011D receiver. This is very much old-skool analog with nary a HDMI connection in sight.  It's configured as purely a power-amp using the multi-channel inputs fed from an M-Aduio Delta 1010LT sound card. This card is connected to a MediaServer8 Win8 VM running JRiver Media Centre.

I plan on purchasing a proper power-amp to drive the 803s but for now, budget doesn't allow so I wanted to see if I could bi-amp the speakers using the re ever. It's a 7-channel system and does support bi-amping, just not in multi-channel mode.

Since I'm using JRiver as a receiver, I wanted to see if is possible to configure it to bi-amp the speakers. Turns out it is. Here's how;

Sunday 22 February 2015

Launching MediaBrowser and Netflix from Mediaportal

Since the MediaBrowser plug-in for Mediaportal has stalled and is now pretty much unusable, I've been spending my weekend looking at ways to get MediaPortal to launch external applications like MediaBrowser Theater and Netflix.

The MultiShortcut plugin for MediaPortal works well for the former - you can set it up as a tile on the MediaPortal home screen that, when clicked, launches MediaBrowser Theater and hides MP, bringing MP back to life when MediaBrowser is shut down.

This gets around the issues with using the MediaBrowser plug-in and seems to work pretty well. MediaBrowser Theater also supports remote control so it feels well integrated.

Netflix, on the other hand is a bit more challenging.

It's a Windows Store App so there's no obvious way to make a shortcut or find an .exe to launch from MultiShorcut. A quick search, however, revealed this easy process to make a shortcut for an App which I was able to use to construct the MultiShortcut exefile and arguments strings required. Here's the resulting settings for my system;

There's still no way that I can find to control the Netflix App with a remote control so it'll be necessary to pick up a keyboard or mouse for that task but this is close to good overall.

Sunday 15 February 2015

The Pursuit of Quietness

Since MediaServer8 now lives in my Home Theatre, I'd like to make it as quiet as possible. The current set-up employs 3x Silverstone 120mm fans working as intakes in the base underneath the hard drive cage, (these came with the SST-GD07B Case and are very quiet),  as well as 2x Noctua NF-S12A PWM Case Fans  working as intakes on the side. These are all controlled from a NZXT Sentry Mix 2 Fan Controller.

This is reasonably quiet, but I think it could be better. I ordered some Noctua NF-R8 redux-1200 by mistake, thinking they were 120mm when in fact they were 80mm so I had to get a few more Noctua NF-S12B redux-700 as well.

 I'm very impressed with these Redux line units. Even though they're bare bones (with just the fan and 4x fan screws in the box), the packaging still has a premium feel (with not a bit of clear plastic in sight). And are they quiet!

Thursday 29 January 2015

Power Issues

I've been having significant issues with my system over recent months with hard drive stability. I've been getting regular red ball disks in UnRaid, specific SATA ports have become apparently unusable, not recognising drives attached, multiple errors arising when the do work.

I had thought it was a failing motherboard but as a last resort before replacing it, I went online to check with gigabyte to see if there was a test I could run.

They suggested bios rests, disk and cable swaps etc. all of which I’d done in any case. The final suggestion as PSU replacement - it could be a failing power supply.

My system has a Corsair RM750 installed which powers a variety of devices including 6 internal drives, 6x fans via a fan controller, misc. On my way home from work, I picked up a cheap and cheerful CX650 and dropped it in.

I was seeing the same issues, but in testing and swapping drives around, I noticed that some SATA ports would work with some drives and not with others.

This led me to think there may be differing power requirements for these drives and if the PSU was on the limit, a particular drive might be tipping it over.

The PSU is modular and I was running power from 3 or the available 4 peripheral power sockets on the unit. I thought I’d try adding the 4th line in and powering some of the drives from that. Et Voila! Everything started working on all ports.

I had obviously misunderstood how the PSU output it’s power and had thought all PSU outputs were the same. Apparently, there’s some kind of split going on and by using all 4 outputs, I’ve better tapped the power availability.

Who knew. MediaServer8 is singing again.

Building Xen 4.4.1 on NetRunner Rolling (Manjaro)

This is a post I've had in draft as I progressed through setting hop Xen in Netrunner. I managed to get it all built and running but at the end ran into a network issue in VMs that I didn't have time to solve. I'm publishing anyway for future reference and maybe it will be useful to someone. I'll update or link through to any follow-ups I do.

To jump straight to the steps and skip my invariable ramblings, click here.

MediaServer8 has been offline for about a week now as I work on something of a radical shift: a long-term stalwart of the set up is under consideration for the chop. unRAID might go.

My whole-house integrated media server has been based on unRAID for some time now, with version 6 (still in beta) providing a virtualisation platform on which I've built a TV Server and several virtual HTPCs with passthrough GPUs.

This is a great setup as it consolidates multiple machines into one, reducing running costs and space usage while in theory being easy to maintain.