I wanted to implement a VU meter in an amp project I’m working on. There are several dedicated IC’s out there like the famous LM3915, but I already had an Arduino (AtMega 328p) on board for some other tasks. Why not use that! More fun and saves an IC.
There are several examples of Arduino driven VU meters floating on the net, but with respect to those fun and educational DIY projects, they don’t pass as a proper VU meter. Very jumpy, nervous, linear scale, no peak hold and only half the waveform resolution (more on that later). To get it as functional and ‘good looking’ as the LM3915, some hardware and software additions have to be made.
… is a Dutch saying. A bit cliché but true non the less. This is a quick post to acknowledge two pieces of vital equipment I acquired recently that have made my DIY life much easier.
Rigol DS2072 digital oscilloscope
My old handed down Kenwood CS-1040 scope slowly died after being in service since 1982. Contacts and switches gave up and measurements became unreliable, so an update was in order. Lots of really good second-hand gear out there, but since real estate on my desk is limited, I looked into digital scopes (not to be confused with the CRT scopes with digital functionality). They’re sometimes frowned upon when used for analog audio design, but I really don’t understand why. Especially with the newer generation with very fast screen updates, high accuracy and tons of useful added functionality.
Being an audio enthusiast, a proper power amp can be a thing of beauty. Big toroidal transformers, capacitor banks and relatively easy to understand symmetrical layout. A friend of mine donated his NAD 214 after upgrading to a 200 watt, THX certified, Parasound poweramp.
The NAD wasn’t without fault. It sporadically started producing some noise and hiss. A bit of googling showed some common issues with the 214 (and his bigger brother, the 216). Issues that could be the cause of the noise:
- Bad solder joints
- Oxidized print connectors
- Fried speaker relay
- Undersized/ dried up main PSU capacitors
- Offset idle current
In part 2 of my ‘Mediadevices power reduction quest’ I examined the amount power used by my always-on PopcornHour C200 mediatank. The original power supply died after two years of continues use, so I replaced it with an ATX supply from a donor PC. The amount of current drawn by the C200 was way more than I expected, but I suspected the not-so-standard supply might be to blame.
Although replaced by my brand new Mac Mini, I ordered a new and orignal power supply. Mainly because the C200 would have no resale value in its DIY state, but I was also curious what the difference in power usage would be. It came in today, so time to measure some more to see what difference the new supply makes.
Out came my trusted Fluke 87, I plugged it in and immediately I saw a drop in current compared to my DIY donor power supply; 42 mA vs. 57 mA. That’s a significant 26% drop. Once turned on, the differences became even more apparent. Measurements showed the orignal power supply used an average of 75 mA, that’s 17,6 watts, less during normal operation. Another thing I noticed comparing the ‘before and after’ values was the difference between the various states the C200 can be in. With the non-original power supply, the difference between e.g. the hard disk spinning or spinned down was only about 10 mA, while with the new original supply, the difference is 22(!) mA.
These measurements show different power supplies can make a significant change in overall power consumption. My knowledge of ATX power supply is only limited, but it looks like the original PSU only provides the current as needed, while the non-original PSU, with higher power rating I might add, is always at some kind of a base energy level in order to quickly deliver higher demands of power. Something not necessary for a relative low-power device like the PopcornHour C200.
Would knowing this have affected my decision to buy a MacMini to replace the C200? No. Although power consumption was what made me think again about all my media equipment, there were a lot of other factors that pointed me in that direction. More functionality and flexibility being among them. If I didn’t want to sell the C200, I wouldn’t have ordered a new PSU in the first place and would’ve continued on with the power hungry power supply for many… well… months to come.
Another thing to mention is the specified power consumption at popcornhour.com. It’s rated, and I quote: typical: 13 W (no additional device installed/attached). In its ‘typical’, white-ring power state without doing anything else, the C200 uses 19,5 watts of power. That’s almost a third more! Orange-ring state only uses 0.5 watts less. The only time it uses less is when it’s completely powered off (9,4 watts), but that’s not ‘typical’ use. False advertising perhaps? Something PopcornHour is not shy of (network speed anyone?)
For those who are interested, here are the actual measured values. Mains is 235 volts where I live. I will use the powerbuttons color for the different power states:
- Standby: Red
- Idle, no picture: orange
- Idle, picture: white
|State||Donor PSU mA
||Orig. PSU mA
|Standby (red)||57 (13,4W)||40 (9,4W)|
|Boot with HDD||190 (44,7W)||115 (27W)|
|Boot without HDD||175 (41,1W)||86 (20,2W)|
|Orange HDD spin up||182 (42,8W)||108 (25,4W)|
|Ornage HDD spin down||172 (40,4W)||83 (19,5W)|
|Orange without HDD||168 (39,5W)||81 (19W)|
|White HDD spin up||183 (43W)||108 (25,4W)|
|White HDD spin down||173 (40,7W)||86 (20,2W)|
|White without HDD||169 (39,7W)||83 (19,5W)|
|Orange, SMB access||?||108 (25,4W)|
|White, SMB access||175(41,1W)||114 (26,8W)|
This short article will describe the challenges and their solutions I faced when installing and configuring a BlackmagicDesign UltraStudio 3D with Thunderbolt connection on a Mac Mini with Boot camped Windows 7. First a little introduction to the UltraStudio 3D. It’s an awesome do-it-all video interface box packed in an Apple like aluminum housing. Double SDI in/outputs, HDMI in/out and a breakout cable equipped with every imaginable analog video format, complemented with balanced stereo in- and outputs. It’s possible to use it for live conversion as well. For example to connect a composite source to a SDI monitor. The double SDI inputs enable you to record stereoscopic video. Fun, but I’m not a big fan of 3D. It’s a nice ‘effect’ but takes away from the crisp, smooth and sharp images we’ve gotten used to with progressive 1080 video. But that’s another story. The analog video capture quality, compared with a Canopus ADVC-110, is excellent and digital capture is perfect. I’m a big fan!
We use the Ultrastudio (US 3D from now on) at work for both recording and streaming purposes. We’ve got a dedicated capture system in the form of a 2011 Mac Mini with Thunderbolt connection. Recording/capturing can of course be done in a variety of programs, preferably Mac OS X based, because Thunderbolt is not yet properly supported in Windows. But here’s the thing. Like many larger companies, our entire infrastructure is Microsoft based. As is the video server used for broadcasting a stream to a larger audience. Windows Media Video (WMV) is the only format we can trust the server can handle and is supported on workstations across the company. So Windows it is. Getting it all to function properly wasn’t as easy as it was with Mac OS X, but we got there in the end.
1. Windows won’t start with the Ultrastudio 3D connected
First issue, Windows would not complete the boot procedure when I connected the US 3D to the Mac Mini for the first time, but would boot up just fine once I disconnected it again. It would hang at the Windows logo screen. The trick for me was to connect the US 3D with the Mac Mini turned off, boot to Mac OS X (Mountain Lion in my case) and restart to Windows again. This time, Windows booted as it should. Why that did the trick? Not really shure, but there’s probably some hardware handshaking going on that Windows just can’t take care of. Once OS X sets the defaults, Windows can work with them.
2. Installation & the Ultrastudio 3D is not detected as a capture device afterwards
The US 3D comes with an installation disc containing both Mac OS X and Windows software. The package ‘Desktop Video’ will install the drivers, a control panel item for input selection/settings and a basic capture environment. Version 9.0 was provided but I like to be up-to-date and download the latest drivers. But on BlackmagicDesign’s website there was nothing to download when selecting Windows OS and the Ultrastudio 3D as the device. Not even the current 9.0. Using the provided disc was the only option.
After what seemed a successful installation, the US 3D wasn’t detected as a video capture device. Not in Microsoft Expression nor Blackmagic’s control panel settings. Windows device manager also showed a multimedia device with the dreaded orange triangle. There was no way I could get it to work. Restart, reinstall, you name it. Finally, I decided to have another look at Blackmagic’s online support section. This time I chose the Ultrastudio Pro as my device and suddenly Desktop Video 9.6.1 popped up. Worth a shot. Installation was problem free, new drivers were installed and the US 3D was detected and working as it should. Wether it’s a fluke on the website or Blackmagic doesn’t deem the Windows version worthy for the US 3D yet, I don’t know, but problem solved.
3. Windows can’t find the Ultrastudio 3D
One major drawback of using Thunderbolt on Windows is its lack of hot-swap-support. If the US 3D (or other Thunderbolt device) disconnects by e.g. loosing power or changing cables, you MUST restart Windows with the device plugged in and powered on to get it to work again.
4. Can’t change the input
I’m writing this bit with a last bit of shame. I was not in any way able to get a picture on another input besides SDI. The Desktop Video software let me change resolutions and refresh rates but not the actual input. Some kind of faulty autodetect with priority came to mind but was a bit far fetched. After a few hours I finally discovered the Blackmagic Design’s Control Panel item with all the settings you could wish for. Input, output, how to handle 23,976 Hz, even fan speed!
This article is part of larger collection on various subjects about the installation of my Mac Mini as a mediacenter to replace my PopcornHour C200 and Plex server PC. You can find the index here
One thing I loved about my previous networked media tank was its ability to function as an allround hassle free downloader. Upload your NZB’s or torrents and forget all about it. Few hours later, it’s done. Downloaded, PAR checked, unrarred and already residing on the main media hard drive. I had to at least match this with my new setup.
I prefer usenet downloading over all other forms. It’s fast and private. My old PopcornHour C200 used NZBGet as its out-of-the-box usenet client. NZBGet is a lightweight package with a pretty complete feature set. Multiple servers, watch folder, par check and unrar. Despite of the Popcorn’s limited processor and memory, it always maxed out my ISP’s download speed. But it looks like crap! Now having the advantage of a full fledged PC, I could pick whatever I want, but it was a no-brainer: SABnzbd. Free, fast, skinnable, open source and very feature rich. It also allows access to its API’s in order to communicate with other programs like Sickbeard, Couch Potato and the likes.
I’d like to highlight one very simple but much used feature, the watch folder. When working with multiple NZB files, it can be a pain to upload them all separately to SABnzbd. SABnzbd can monitor a given folder every few seconds for new NZB files and once detected, they are added to the cue. Very effective. As with all folders, the watch folder can be shared over the network for added functionality. I configured my MacBook and Windows PC to mount the shared watch folder on startup. I can now use the same watch folder on any system I like, while the Mac Mini is the one doing all the work.
As I stated above, I like downloading via usenet. I’m not that big a fan of BitTorrent. Anti piracy foundations got their eye on it, it’s less private compared to usenet and bad quality modem-routers tend to crash with large torrent streams. But every now and then, certain files are not offered on usenet. The BitTorrent community is just better suited for the more obscure and hard to find files and media. So I installed a torrent client anyway.
The PopcornHour C200 came with Transmission and ANSI front end. I like transmission on OS X, but it crashed constantly on the C200. Transmission is also not available for Windows, my mediacenter OS, so I had to look elsewhere. I found μTorrent. It’s an effective and free torrent client with a very small footprint. It can run in the background, waiting for torrent files and magnetic links, without using any significant amount of memory or other resources. All settings are there, folder setup, bandwidth management, up/download restriction, you name it. Perfect for instant once-in-a-while usage
My Mac Mini’s only display is a TV set, which is also used for… watching TV. And although I’m able to manage everything through Teamviewer, it’s not ideal. So for the frequently used tasks like usenet- and torrent downloading, I like to have an alternative. Both programs come with a web interface option. Once enabled, they can be reached by connecting to the system’s IP address (setting a static IP address is advised) and pre set port number (http://192.168.1.111:8886 for example). The port number can be set to anything you like, as long as it doesn’t interfere with other programs or standardized functions like 25 & 110 for mail, 119 for NNTP, 449 for https, et cetera. This way, you can manage your downloads by just using an internet browser instead of Teamviewer or other remote desktop solution. Another advantage is the ability to connect to the download clients from outside the house. You just have to know your WAN IP address, provided by your ISP, and configure port forwarding in your router. Port forwarding detects requests at pre set port numbers and passes the ones allowed to the coupled LAN IP address. DON’T forget to set a username/password in every program reachable from the internet, or anybody could potentially connect to you computer or worse.
Sickbeard, Couch Potato and HeadPhones
Respectivly automated TV series, movies and music download. One misconception is that these programs actually download the content. That’s not the case. They just keep track of a personalized watchlist and automatically download the corresponding NZB file when a new item is posted on Usenet. They integrate very well with e.g. SABnzbd which in turn does the actual downloading.
I wanted to mention these kind of programs to get a full picture, but I’m not going to use them. I’ve played around with Sickbeard for a while. I do appreciate the functionality but like to manage my downloads manually. Here’s why. I like to download older series too. Something that can be quite tricky with Sickbeard. First of all, most of the essential index sites don’t backtrack, which means no history. So only newly posted episodes are available. Second, when backtracking, Sickbeard tends to pick the newest post if several exist. In practice however, newer post are usually password protected for some reason, or come with hardcoded subs. The older original postings are clean of tampering by other parties, but are ignored
Another reason is the fact I’ve got other sites to keep track of new episodes and movies. I’ve used them for a long time now and they give me suggestions based on the series I follow in return. Downloading manually also has the advantage of keeping track what’s new in your library, instead of stumbling upon a new item. So I’ll keep using the hands-on approach… for now.
Disclaimer: I’m not in any way affiliated with the programs mentioned above nor do I condone downloading illegal content in any way.
This article is part of larger collection on various subjects about the installation of my Mac Mini as a mediacenter to replace my PopcornHour C200 and Plex server PC. You can find the index here
Watching movies and browsing through your media library from the living room couch can only be done with proper remote control. I strive for an esthetically clean setup at home, so the Mac Mini is behind doors. That means no line of sight for infrared remote control. There are a couple of ways this can be omitted for relative little money. They all have their advantages and drawbacks. But a little tweaking goes a long way!
These solutions are platform independent. They don’t rely on a Mac Mini or the OS of choice. All or similar soft- and hardware is available for Windows, OS X and Linux.
Wireless mouse + keyboard
Many many options here. From cheap gear to professional equipment, not to forget Apple’s Magic mouse and matching wireless keyboard, so take your pick. They give you full control over the OS, but I don’t like it in my given setting. It’s a media center, not a workstation, and I don’t like the looks of having a keyboard and mouse lying around the living room. I do have a set connected for administrative purposes, but it remains behind closed doors most of the time.
For full remote OS control, anywhere in the world, Teamviewer is still the way to go. It will pass through any firewall, works seamlessly with iOS devices and PCs are even accessible with the use of a web interface. An account keeps track of all your connected systems with online/offline status, so no need to remember or setup IP addresses or DNS resolves. And it’s free!
The free version does come with annoying pop-ups when disconnecting and it’s not the most stable in an OS X environment. It crashes every time when I close the lid on my MacBook Pro while connected to another computer for example. It’s also not the fastest package out there. The refresh rate, even on the same LAN, is pretty slow. Of course it’s dependent on the amount of screen changes and resolution, but watching videos is not done and full screen applications become very sluggish. For basic operations combined with it being platform- and geo location independent, it’s still the editor’s choice.
Again, loads of options. I will be using Plex most of the time so the remote controller integrated in the iOS Plex client is the obvious choice. It automatically detects other clients running on the same LAN and gives you UI navigation and playback controls. Too bad it fails miserably in features and functionality. I really don’t understand why this isn’t properly worked out. Some buttons don’t do anything at all and basic features like enabling subtitles or zooming are nowhere to be found. You have to navigate through layers of menus to do this, while, e.g. direct keyboard shortcuts are working perfectly! Therefore, it’s unusable. I just hope it will get an overhaul in future updates.
A search in the Appstore comes up with a bunch of apps to control mouse- and keyboard input. I won’t list them all here. The workings are basically the same and they are all dependent on a piece of helper software installed on the PC being controlled, ranging from proprietary packages to freeware VNC solutions. But here’s the thing, Plex’s navigation isn’t designed around the use of a mouse. Mouse control can be enabled, but it ‘feels’ wrong, plus you miss out on a lot of direct control.
There are a few iOS apps that present you with dedicated control over a variety of programs like WinAmp, Windows Media Center, XBMC and… Plex. Just like the Plex client, but much much better. Snatch is an example, but I finally settled with HippoRemote. The helper software is available for both OS X and Windows and it has the ability to add custom macros (single or combined keyboard shortcuts). Very clean, big buttons and all the functionality you could want. Plus, it still has the touchpad for mouse control within Windows/OS X.
The major drawback of iPhone related remote control is in fact the touchscreen. Multitouch mouse control is nice, but for couch potato purposes, nothing beats physical playback- and navigational buttons.
PS3 bluetooth remote + EventGhost
My previous media player, the PopcornHour C200 came with a RF remote. The advantage of physical buttons vs. a touchscreen is the ability to control everything blind. After getting used to the button layout, you can use them without ever looking at the little handheld box. As mentioned above, there is no line of sight to my Mac Mini’s IR receiver. So, like the C200, I had to find some kind of RF solution. The higher-end Logitech Harmony universal remotes can do this, but will cost you an arm and a leg. Keyspan produces a range of RF remotes with a separate RF USB dongle, made to look like Apple’s Frontrow and Microsoft’s MediaCenter remotes. Still pretty expensive and not readily available in Holland.
Then I came across Sony’s Playstation Blu-Ray remote. On sale for 19 euros. It connects via bluetooth to a PS3, like the normal controllers do. But it can be connected to a PC (and Mac Mini) with bluetooth as well. It’s discovered and installed as a HID game controller, but doesn’t do much on its own. That’s where EventGhost comes in. EventGhost (RemoteBuddy for OS X users) is one of the best pieces of freeware I’ve come across in a long while. It registers events that take place in Windows. Among them are display-updates, program starts, key presses and incoming bluetooth commands. It even comes with a special plugin for the PS3 remote, so it properly recognizes what button is actually pressed. You can configure EventGhost to trigger other commands and macro’s depending on the incoming events. So for example, when pressing the Subtitle button on the PS3 remote, EventGhost registers a bluetooth command called PS3.Remote.Subtitle, which in turn triggers an emulated keypress of the letter s, used to enable subs in Plex. You can configure the entire remote exactly the way you want! Special commands like putting the Mac to sleep or Wake on LAN are also available. I even got it to start and shutdown the Plex client by pressing the PlayStation button.
EventGhost provides a plug-in for XBMC as well. Way back, Plex was a branch of XBMC and it still has some XBMC in its DNA. As is the ability to control UI navigation over IP (localhost if the controller and client are on the same system). Combining the PS3 remote- and XBMC plug-in in EventGhost, you get a dedicated controller, instead of what is basically an odd looking keyboard. The advantage you get is when not using Plex, the remote doesn’t do anything else, like accidentally deleting all my media whenever my cat decides to mess with it. It takes a bit of effort to couple all the buttons to the different XBMC commands, but I now have a fully functional, physical, dedicated Plex remote.
HDM-CEC interface by RCAware
Although I haven’t tried it, this clever little box popped up during my search and might be usefull to some of you. It’s an HDMI-CEC interface made by RCAware. It connects to your HTPC through USB and captures and/or transmits CEC commands. CEC stands for Consumer Electronics Control and is a standarized communication protocol to interface between different HDMI equipped devices. For example, you can change your AV receiver’s volume with the TV set’s remote control. The TV set sends the volume command through HDMI to the receiver which understands the command and does as requested.
Combined with EventGhost (I can’t express often enough how cool EventGhost is) the ‘Computer Universal Remote’ as they call it, can either controll your TV set with CEC commands comming from your HTPC remote (or other EventGhost commands) or *drumroll* control your HTPC with the remote control from your TV set. You’ll only need one RC for both TV and HTPC. Makes for a very clean setup!
As a result of my research on how much power is used by my various media equipment at home, I’ve treated myself to a Mac Mini. It reduces the energy bill by 200 euros and at the same time adds a lot of functionality. You can read up here: part 1, 2 and 3.
My brand spanking new Mac Mini came in today. I love the smell of a freshly opened Apple box. Can’t help it. It’s amazing how Apple manages to put a full sized PC into such a tiny, beautiful, well shaped box. Not having a DVD drive helps with the small form factor and who needs one anyway. It will take it’s place tucked away in a cupboard beneath my TV set. Now it’s time to construct a proper media center from this little aluminum box.
First some initial impression. Sound production is virtually non existent. In a typical environment, I have to put my ear to it to hear anything at all. The only giveaway it’s on is the subtle tiny white LED on the front. It came with OS X Lion and the first-time-setup was fast and smooth. Because it was purchased after the 11th of June 2012, I was eligible for a free upgrade to OS X Mountain Lion and after a somewhat elaborate licensing procedure and one hour of downloading and installing the upgrade was complete. I’ve only had a few hours playtime with Lion 10.7, so I’m not an expert on it, but Mountain Lion feels snappier and the implementation of various iOS elements like message center, spell check, and specially iCloud feels more natural and better integrated.
For the Mac Mini to become the beating heart of my media experiences, I had a list of pre set goals in mind. The main focus is on Plex, both the server and client. For those who enjoy downloaded movies and TV shows and not familiar with Plex, I suggest you check it out here. It’s a free and very powerful media indexer/streamer/transcoder. More details later, first here’s my list of demands.
- Awesome picture quality
- NZB (usenet)/torrent downloads
- Plex Media Server
- Plex Client
- iTunes server
- File server
- Remote control
- Energy efficient
The whole process of getting the MacMini exactly how I want it to work and for it to surpass the image quality, functionality and ease of use of the PopcornHour C2oo will be an ongoing one. I will post separate articles on the different subjects and link to them as I go. The list of goals will serve as the index.
In this article however,I will elaborate on the battle of the operating systems. I really liked the idea of complementing my home setup with another OS X driven device, but I ended up with Windows 7…
Why Windows, WHY!
I love Mac and Mac OS X. Having worked with (and against) Windows professionally for many years, I can say I prefer the more minimalistic, efficient and ‘thought-through’ approach of OS X. The simplest of simple examples I can think of being; the window beneath the mouse arrow is the one affected by scrolling and not necessarily the active one. It’s the little things. I spend many many hours less on keeping my workstations problem free compared to my Windows days. Although pricey, the prefect marriage between soft- and hardware makes for a very stable environment. But here we immediately hit the Mac’s biggest drawback. It customizability is very limited, hardware and OS. Apple’s philosophy ‘It just works’ is applicable to 90% of my work and home needs, but not to my tweaked media center. In this particular instance. I’ve got two practical problems with OS X;
1. No control over the display settings whatsoever. My Samsung d8000 does a very good job at improving the input signal with all kinds of filters and image processing. I want my media player to provide a relative raw and unaltered image and let my Samsung do it’s magic. To prevent them from working against each other, you need full control over the graphics card’s settings, something that’s just not possible in OS X but easily done with the Windows drivers. I also like to experiment with RGB colorspaces and YCrCb, force refresh rates, et cetera.
2. No support for 23,976 hertz. OS X (Mountain) Lion doesn’t support 23.976 hertz, only 24 Hz. The majority of my video library and other HD content out there is 23.976 hertz! This means a double frame every 41 seconds to keep in sync (more under Awesome picture quality) which shows a small stutter. Sounds negligible, but I can’t accept it.
These are the two main reasons why I decided to go with Windows 7 as the preferred OS for my media center. Installed it with Bootcamp without any issue (see below). Now I had my platform on which I could build my Mac Mini Media Center
Bootcamp and Windows 7 Upgrade sidenote
Installing a Windows 7 upgrade on a fresh Bootcamp partition can be problematic. Here’s why and how to get around it. It is possible to install Windows 7 within Bootcamp from a USB drive. Unfortunately, I only have a copy of Windows 7 Upgrade on disc. The Mac Mini no longer comes with an optical disc reader, so I had to loan a USB DVD drive, better known as Apple’s SuperDrive. Because it’s an upgrade, you need to provide proof of an earlier ‘full license’ Windows edition. I have multiple version I can provided, all the way back to Windows 3.11, but all on disc as well. The problem is you can’t eject the disc from within Windows setup. There simply is no physical eject button. The eject on a Mac’s keyboard is software driven and only becomes available when the Windows Bootcamp drivers are installed. Luckily, the setup enables you to complete the installation without the use of the product key or the need to provide an older version. It becomes a 30-day trial.
Here’s the trick; after the installation is finished, restart the Windows setup from scratch by rebooting the Mac, hold down the alt key on startup and choose the Windows DVD as boot disc at the presented screen. Watch for the ‘press a key to boot from disc…’ message and do so. Once again in the Windows setup, format the Bootcamp partition (do NOT remove it, just format). There will remain some residual Windows info on disc (in the MFT or MBR, I’m not sure) which is enough to let the Windows 7 upgrade think it’s updating a previous installed full version. Complete the installation with the product key and activate as normal. Now you have a fully activated and legitimate (provided you own an older full Windows version) installation of Windows 7 on Bootcamp
Besides the odd PC or networked media player, there’s usually more equipment silently running in the background. All these independent devices combined use up more energy then you might think. And to my surprise, one device, supposed to reduce power consumption, was actually doing the exact opposite.
USB connected NAS
My main router is a Linksys E4200 V2. Great signal range, very stable, adequate tool set and it provides a USB input to turn a USB hard drive into Network Attached Storage. One major advantage the V2 has over the V1 is it’s improved read/write speed for the USB connected storage. The NAS’ intended use was for backups, but the increased networking speed meant it was way faster compared to my PopcornHour C200 (22 MB/s vs 13 MB/s). It quickly became the repository for files I needed fast access to. Tasks like browsing through photos over the network can be painstakingly slow with the C200 but doable from the E4200’s NAS. For streaming purposes the PopcornHour was still fine though.
The E4200 has one disadvantage; it doesn’t allow the USB drive to power down. No power management whatsoever. We’ve seen in part 2 a spinning vs. an inactive hard drive doesn’t necessarally mean a large drop in power consumption, but it always helps. More important, an extra USB drive means the use yet another separate power supply.
A power supply will never be 100% efficient. This inefficiency means heat production and current leakage. So part of the overall energy is lost. Because of this, it’s better to connect multiple devices to a single larger power supply instead of using a separate one for every single device. Unfortunately, that’s not always an option. For example, the maximum current a USB 2.0 port can provide is limited to usually 500 mA (at 5 volts, so just 2,5 W). That’s nowhere near enough for most USB hard drives. Enough talk. Out comes my Fluke 87 multimeter. The power used by this secondary NAS? 74 milli amps (= 17 watts or 149 kWh a year). Not that much on it’s own, but it adds to the bigger picture.
Master-slave power socket
In an earlier attempt to save some energy, I purchased a master-slave power socket. For you who don’t know what that is; it’s an extension socket with one master and several slave outlets. Plug your main device, e.g. a PC, into the master and peripherals you tend to use together with the PC into the ‘slaves’. Once turned on, the power used by the PC passes a certain threshold pre set in the socket which in turn switches on the slave outlets, powering all ‘slave devices’. If the PC turns off, the power falls below the threshold and all peripherals plugged into the slave outlets are completely shut off, effectively eliminating standby currents from adapters and other inefficient power supplies, saving you a few watts.
But here’s the thing. The socket itself uses energy for it’s internal circuitry too. A whopping 16 watts of power! In my case 12 watts more then the standby power leakage of all slave devices combined! It seemed a perfect solution, but ended up doing the exact opposite of it’s intended purpose. I immediately replaced it for a normal switched extension socket. Another annual saving of 105 kWh.
Let’s add it all up
I tried to give a picture of the devices, their role and their power consumption, I use on a daily basis for all my multi media needs. At home, at work or on the road. On my main TV set and streaming to multiple iOS devices over my LAN of WAN. Here they are again with their idle power usage:
- PLEX server PC: 51 W
- PopcornHout C200: 42 W
- Secondary NAS: 17 W
- Backwards Master-Slave socket: 12 W (usage minus savings)
Added up, that’s 122 watts of continues use which means 1068 kWh annually or, at 22 cents per kWh, the total sum of 235 euros.
So… what to do about it
Those of you who’ve read part 1 and part 2 might have guessed; I ordered a Mac Mini. Currently on sale for 499,- euros. The specs state it will only use 11 watts when idle (with Finder open as Apple likes to put it). I will need to connect an additional hard drive to it to house all of my files. But because of the Mac’s power management features, it will use less power then it does connected to my E4200. I estimate the setup will use an average of 20 watts. That’s 175 kWh (38,55 euros) a year. A difference of 893 kWh or better yet, 196,45 euros! The Mac Mini will earn itself back in a little over 2,5 years, not to mention the extra functionality compared to the PopcornHour C200 and it’s resale value once I inevitably switch over to another toy.
Stay tuned for my articles on how I turn a Mac Mini into a proper media center.
This is the second out of three blog entries about my quest to reduce te energy conscumption by the 24/7 media equipment I use at home. The first device was my PC. You can read up here.
Next up is the PopcornHour C200. Within the chain of devices, this one is probably used the most. It’s my primary NAS, it contains all video- and audio content and is connected by HDMI to my Samsung 40D8000. Another great feature is it’s ability to take care of all NZB downloads. So it’s my workhorse, but how much do I actually feed it.
First a little background on the C200. It’s made by PopcornHour (Syabas), the leading brand in networked media tanks. Which basically means as much as a NAS with video output capabilities. It’s build around a Sigma SMP8643, 667MHz floating point processor/video decoder. The macrovision brother SMP8647 is found in many blu-ray players. Out of the box, there’s a load of supported file formats and containers. There’s a very active community with lots of great third party apps and modules, most of them free. So, it has a lot going for it, but despite it being a second generation device with a large costumer base, you get a lot of cons with it as well. Lets start with the good:
- Great picture quality
- Integrated NAS, download and media playback device
- variety of network protocols like NFS, SMB, FTP, etc.
- RF remote, so no line of sight necessary for control
Now for the bad:
- Lack of firmware updates while containing a lot of bugs , specially in the first year after release
- While advertised as 10/100/1000 network capable, the network speeds are nowhere near gigE
- Power supplies die like crazy! It’s all over the main support forum
All that aside, it is a great device that supports most of my media needs. But power consumption is the topic so here goes!
At popcornhour.com, it’s rated 13W when idle with no extra devices attached. This means no must-have-internal-hard-drive which instantly defeats the purpose of a ‘media tank’. So the specs are useless. And there’s another issue. Like many others, my power supply died after two years. Probably due to heat build up. It uses passive cooling for noise reasons. Knowing a bit of electronics I can say the power supply is of bad design and bound to fail under heavy and continues use. I replaced it with a standard ATX PSU taken from a HP thin client PC. A bit of cutting to make it fit, but it does the job. There’s no way to tell how this affects the power consumption, because the efficiency of a supply means it can draw less or more current while doing the same job. However, this is MY C200 so IT is under scrutiny.
The C200 knows three power states, indicated by the illuminated power button; Standby (red), on but no video output (orange) and full on (white). When in the ‘white state’, it can vary from idle with the hard drive spinned down, all the way to video playback with network activity and some unzipping on the side. I hooked up my Fluke 87 and DIY current splice adaptera and after examining the power usage in every possible situation, I can safely say it draws between 40 and 44 Watts on average. 40 When doing nothing and 44 when playing a 1080p video with subs enabled. The reason for this relatively small variation in power is thanks to the C200’s dedicated hardware video decoder mentioned earlier. No heavy software processing, so additional energy use is low. Removing the hard drive saves 2W, but then you need to stream all content over the network which cost you 2W as well, and there’s the extra power used but the network router, switch and separate hard drive/NAS, etc. All other power is used for memory, network interface and other electronics. These all stay on at idle, even with the video output turned off.
Because its my main NAS, I need (almost) instant access from anywhere. Standby might be an option, BUT… I left out the C200’s biggest drawback, it doesn’t have wake-on-lan. Yes good folks, the PopcornHour C200 networked media tank with all it’s bells and whistles doesn’t come with a WOL option. This means it always needs to be full on for it to be accessed remotely. There’s no way of getting it out of standby, other then physically pressing the power button. The hard drive spins down after 5 minutes of inactivity, but that just saves you a mere 2W. This pseudo NAS uses 40W when idle, compared to e.g. 8W from a Synology DS212+. It’s the amount I would expect from a PC, not a dedicated media player with HDD.
Let’s talk money. My C200 is up and running 365 days of the year. The few hours it’s down are compensated bij the extra power used while downloading and unzipping new media. Let us assume an average consumption of 42W. That’s 367.9 kWh per year. We pay roughly 22 cents per kWh, so the PopcornHour C200 sets me back 80,94 euros annually. Off course, it’s okay to spend some money to run it to my liking. I’ve downloaded tons of content and watched many hundreds of hours of video directly or streamed from it, but a constant 40W at that price? I have to be able to do better than that.
So what are my alternatives? A dedicated ‘true’ NAS will have faster network access and better power ratings. NAS boxes with the ability to run PLEX media server, like the Synology DS412+, are available as well, but they still don’t pack enough raw power for proper HD transcoding. And I still need something connected to my TV set. Other networked media tank manufacturers like Dune, AC Ryan, Western Digital, et cetera won’t do a significantly better job and PopcornHour is the market leader for a reason. A dedicated media center PC might be a good option. Configurable exactly the way I want it, standby and WOL option and it can replace the PC from part 1 in it’s role as PLEX media server and double als a PLEX client as well. But most of them are not that energy efficient at all. Except for… wait for it… the Mac Mini. There it is again! It can do everything the PopcornHour AND current PMS PC can do and much much more, but with a fraction of the power and it comes with HDMI- and optical audio output. The C200 and PC combined use 91 watts when idle, the Mac Mini just 14W! But 599 euros is still a lot of money…
To summarize. Like The PC from part 1, I’ve got another big power user in among my multi media devices. There’s probably the not-so-orignal power supply to blame to some extent, but I suspect the original PSU doesn’t do a much better job at being energy efficient. And there’s no option to make it go to sleep, let alone wake it up again. Very inefficient indeed! Together, they use a total of around 735 kWh (160 euros) a year just to keep them running. “Need to… stop… buying… Apple gear… argh!”