eRacks Open Source Systems Blog

Making the world safe for Open Source

I’ve been evaluating various open source media center applications in an effort to put together a new unit and had the opportunity to weight the relative pros and cons of each. Below, you’ll get to read about my findings and hopefully learn a little bit about what’s out there. So, without further ado, here’s a list of the packages I looked at, in order of preference.

1. Boxee
(http://www.boxee.tv/)

Boxee was my first pick. It has a slick interface, can draw from a variety of different sources such as Hulu and Youtube out of the box, makes available a plethora of plugins (called “applications”), is easy to navigate and has an interface very suited for a remote control. The biggest con for me is that, while the project itself is open source, in order to use it, you need to register for an account on their website.

2. XBMC
(http://www.xbmc.org/)

XBMC, which stands for “X-Box Media Center,” was originally designed for the X-Box and has since been made available on the PC. It sports a very polished interface, and like Boxee, is easy to navigate and makes using a remote control easy. Support for online sources such as Youtube is missing out of the box, but there are plenty of plugins to help. Unfortunately, unlike Boxee or Moovida (which is next in our list of applications), you have to go to external sources in order to find them (check out http://www.xbmczone.com/). Supposedly, it’s easy to install a plugin once you’ve downloaded it, but the directions I found online differed from how things worked with the latest version, and I ended up having to install plugins manually by unzipping them and copying the files to the right directory.

3. Moovida
(http://www.moovida.com/)

Moovida, formerly known as Elisa, is another media center option. Like Boxee and XBMC, it sports an easy to navigate interface suited to a remote control, and unlike XBMC, integrates the process of finding, installing and updating plugins a part of the application itself. The reason why I rated this one below XBMC is that there aren’t a lot of plugins available, and because the interface to XBMC is, in my opinion, slightly more polished.

4. Miro
(http://www.getmiro.com/)

(My reason for rating Miro at the bottom isn’t that Miro is a bad application. In fact, I enjoyed using it. It comes with support for many video feeds by default and does a good job of organizing media. My problem, for our purposes, is that it’s not such a great application for set top boxes. The UI is easy to use, but I don’t think it would be as friendly when hooked up to a TV with a remote control. Also, it’s difficult to add sources such as Youtube, as you have to manually add RSS feeds for the channels that interest you. Nevertheless, it’s a useful application, and I recommend giving it a try.

August 6th, 2009

Posted In: media center, multimedia, Open Source

Tags: , , ,

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If you’re a student like I am, you know how important it is to save money. Some students are too busy with their studies to work at all, and those who can are usually only able to do so part-time. And, like books and tuition, software is a significant source of financial burden to the average student. While it’s true that student licensed versions of software are significantly discounted, popular titles such as Microsoft Office will still cost you somewhere in the ballpark of $130. And of course, that’s only if you don’t intend to use the software for anything other than your academic or personal endeavours. If you utilize the same applications on the job, you’ll find that you’re no longer eligible for student licenses, and suddenly you’ll discover that $130 magically turns into $300.

Fortunately, the current digital climate is rife with free software alternatives, which have the potential to save students (or parents!) hundreds of dollars.

The Operating System

Let’s start with the most fundamental bundle of software, the operating system (hereby abbreviated as OS.) The OS is what sits between the hardware and the user’s applications. Some examples are Microsoft Windows and Mac OS X.

For many students, purchasing an OS will be a non-issue, as most computers come with one pre-installed. For those in this category, most of the software mentioned below will run on both Windows and Mac. That being said, there are also a significant number of people who need to include an OS in their financial plans. Perhaps you purchased your computer used and without software. Or, maybe the OS on your machine is old and needs to be upgraded. You could have even assembled your own computer, as many hobbyists do.

It’s true that students can purchase Microsoft Windows at a discount of 30-60% off, but why would you do that when you can get your OS for free? Over the last few years, a veritable cornicopia of easy-to-use free software-based OSes have emerged, the most popular, and in my opinion, the easiest to install and use, being Ubuntu (http://www.ubuntu.com/). For the more technically inclined and perpetually curious, there are a slew of other Linux distributions, as well as the *BSD family of OSes — FreeBSD (http://www.freebsd.org/), NetBSD (http://www.netbsd.org/), OpenBSD (http://www.openbsd.org), PC BSD (http://www.pcbsd.org/) and Dragonfly BSD (http://www.dragonflybsd.org) — and Sun’s OpenSolaris (http://www.opensolaris.org/).

In reality, we do still live in a Windows world, so you may find yourself in a position where you have to use a program that only runs on Windows. Luckily, there’s a very mature and very complete open source implementation of the Windows API that’s been actively developed since 1993 called WINE (http://www.winehq.org/) You simply install WINE through the point-and-click interface provided by your OS and install your Windows applications on top of it. Many will run out of the box, and others will run with a minimal amount of tweaking.

Office Productivity

As mentioned earlier, a student copy of Microsoft Office will cost roughly $130, and in some cases, students won’t even qualify for the student license, making the product much more expensive. So then, simply by installing a single free software replacement, you’ve literally saved hundreds. There’s a fantastic open source alternative called OpenOffice (http://www.openoffice.org/), a spin-off from Sun Microsystems, Inc. The download is a little large (over 100MB), but the price tag is worth it (it’s free), and OpenOffice really is a solid application capable of doing anything Office can. It includes components that replace Word, Excel, Powerpoint and Access, as well as additional components for drawing and for editing HTML documents.

In addition, you’ll find Scribus (http://www.scribus.net/) for desktop publishing and the creation of professional quality PDFs and Dia (http://live.gnome.org/Dia) for drawing diagrams, roughly like Microsoft Visio.

Multimedia

Of course, no college-ready system is complete without the ability to play movies and music! Fortunately, open source has you covered there as well. With Totem (http://projects.gnome.org/totem/) and Xine (http://www.xine-project.org/), playing your videos on Linux is a snap (Windows and Mac users of course have their own respective built-in players and don’t have to worry about this.) As well, there are applications like Banshee (http://www.banshee-project.org/) that do a great job of managing your music (it also plays videos.)

You’ll also more than likely be managing a great deal of pictures. For editing them, you’ll find the GIMP (http://www.gimp.org/), which is very similiar to Adobe’s Photoshop, and for browsing and managing your pictures there’s F-Spot (http://f-spot.org/).

You’ll only run into a couple of hitches when dealing with multimedia on an open source OS. The first is that you won’t be able to play many Windows Media files. Fortunately, this can remedied by purchasing the Fluendo Windows Media Playback Bundle (http://www.fluendo.com/shop/product/windows-media-playback-bundle/). True, it’s not free, but for $20 it’s a small price to pay compared to all the hundreds of dollars you’ll be saving on everything else, and if you can live without Windows Media, you can save yourself the expense. The second is that technically, according to the controversial Digital Millenium Copyright Act (http://www.copyright.gov/legislation/dmca.pdf), you’re in a legal predicament if you install software to decrypt your DVDs. More than likely nobody’s going to care, and the software to do so is readily available and in common widespread use, but if you choose to play your DVDs on an open source OS you should first take the time to thoroughly understand where you stand from a legal perspective. [Ed. note: there are fully licensed DVD players available for Linux, but even so, legal scholars now feel that this area of the DMCA has not yet been fully tested in court, but recent precendents suggest that if it were, in the end, that Fair Use doctrine would win out in the end over the DMCA – Ed.]

A Plethora of Other Goodies

Depending on your field of study, you’ll find many other professional-quality free and open source applications that are outside the scope of this blog that will save you even more money. Just google around. You’ll find all sorts of amazing applications, all of them free.

Conclusion

Fellow students, let loose the shackles of expensive proprietary software and embrace the freedom of open source. Not only will you save hundreds of dollars, you’ll be drawn into a community of users and developers that are passionate about writing and supporting software. Once you get used to using free software alternatives, you’ll wonder how you ever got by without it.

Here at eRacks, we specialize in providing users of all kinds with open source solutions to meet their needs. So contact us today, and ask us how we can help you save money and get even more out of your academic experience!

April 20th, 2009

Posted In: How-To, multimedia, Open Source, Reviews, ubuntu

Tags: , , , ,

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Imagine having the technology to store your music, movies and pictures in a central location and to access them from anywhere in the house. Even better, imagine that you can do this with little cost for hardware and zero cost for software. Not only is it possible, it’s never been easier.

The Network

In order to be able to access your central media repository, you’ll need to connect your computers to a network. With wireless networking, you can cheaply connect your machines almost anywhere in the house without having to run any cable. For the minimal configuration of one server (your media repository) and one client (the system connected to your home theater that lets you actually use the media), one wireless router and two wireless adapters will do. Even better, if the wireless router sits near the server, you can directly connect the two via a cable, saving you the cost of one wireless adapter.

The Hardware

Nowadays, with storage so plentiful and CPUs that are so powerful, it really doesn’t take much money to get good results, which is fortunate for those of us who have been negatively impacted by the downward turn in our nation’s economy. On the server side, a modest Intel Core 2 Duo with anywhere from two to four gigabytes of memory will do, and with one terabyte hard drives falling below $100, you should be able to save even more money. On the client side, with the new Intel Atom CPU, which is powerful, compact, quiet and highly energy efficient, you can build a thin client that sits snuggly atop your entertainment center.

The Software

Media center software has grown increasingly popular, and the open source movement has kept up nicely with easy to install, easy to use applications.

For the operating system on both the client and server side, you have a plethora of Linux distributions to choose from, Ubuntu (http://www.ubuntu.com/) being our recommendation. Then, on the server side, you’d simply have to configure your system to share your files over the network. On the client side, applications for managing your media include XBMC (http://xbmc.org/), Elisa (http://elisa.fluendo.com/), Entertainer (http://www.entertainer-project.com/) and MythTV (http://www.mythtv.org/ — note that MythTV is a little more involved with regards to configuration and has components that must run on the server side.)

Conclusion

With hardware becoming cheaper and more powerful, and with the added bonus of using free software, a capable home entertainment system can be had for a minimal investment. And, of course, eRacks specializes in providing its customers with the resources they need, whether it be selling systems pre-configured to your specifications or offering consulting for more difficult projects. Contact eRacks today and find out what we can do for your home!

March 24th, 2009

Posted In: media center, multimedia

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

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Here are 10 really useful reasons to justify why you need a new Linux Netbook from eRacks.


Besides, a contributing member of this technological society is required to stay well-connected at all times. And in this economy, cost-effectiveness is imperative.

Top Ten Reasons why you need a Linux Netbook

  1. Lighten your load without compromise. The average laptop weighs 7 lbs. The average netbook weighs 2.5 lbs. How’s your back lately?
  2. Save money. The average laptop costs $1500+ while netbooks range from $300 to 500$.
  3. Take it with you and don’t get lost. Connect and find your destination. Google maps is a lifesaver.
  4. Keep in touch, even when you’re out. Connect with Facebook, Twitter, and Meebo.
  5. Finish your document/spreadsheet/presentation/homework at the cafe – eRacks Netbooks come with OpenOffice and many other useful applications.
  6. Waste time more effectively. Catch up on LolCats and then watch all the cat videos on YouTube. After all, isn’t that the underlying purpose of the Internet?
  7. Keep your job (or find a new job.) Manage your servers remotely anytime.
  8. Watch a film or video clip through your home network or from Hulu, in your favorite chair.
  9. Save a little more money. Find that book cheaper than in the store and order it.
  10. Portable Webcam possibilities are endless. Update your blog in real time.
  11. Bonus reason: eRacks is having a sale on rackmount servers that could likely save you the cost of a Netbook anyway.

January 6th, 2009

Posted In: multimedia, New products, Products

Tags: , , ,

3 Comments

I recently purchased a Vidego28 handheld MP4 player with a 2.8” display – which is actually a rebranded ONDA VX858 – and discovered that it has very specific requirements for the videos it plays.

The manufacturer provides a Windows binary-only utility for converting your videos to something the Vidego28 can read, but because I don’t use Windows, and because I prefer using the command line for automating these sorts of tasks, I immediately set out to discover exactly what format my videos should adhere to.

Googling around, I found that the videos it plays should be 12bpp XviD encoded AVIs at or below 24 fps (frames per second) with a maximum bitrate (for the video) of 800kbit/s and a resolution of 320×240 (which is the size of the display, in pixels.) I also found that the audio portion of the AVI should be encoded in the MP2 format. Using mencoder (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MEncoder), I cobbled together the following command to do the job, partly from experiment and partly from what I had found in someone else’s blog (all on one line):

mencoder -mc 0 -noodml inputfile.avi -of avi -o outputfile.avi -ofps 24 -vf-add scale=320:240 -vf-add expand=320:240:-1:-1:1 -srate 44100 -ovc xvid -xvidencopts bitrate=400:max_bframes=0:quant_type=h263 -oac twolame -twolameopts br=160

At this point, I had partial success. I was able to take my videos and convert them to a format the Vidego28 could read. The problem was that almost immediately during playback on either my computer or the MP4 player, the audio and video became so out of sync that it was impossible to make use of the files mencoder produced. I spent hours on Google looking for a solution and tweaking the above command, without success.

At some point during my experimenting, I discovered that ffmpeg (http://ffmpeg.mplayerhq.hu/) could produce AVI files as well, and decided to give it a shot. Unfortunately, the files it produced were not in a format the Vidego28 could read, but out of curiosity, I decided to see what would happen if I used mencoder to take the output of ffmpeg and re-encode it per the original command I had tried earlier, since the files ffmpeg produced were in sync when played back on my laptop. To my astonishment, for whatever reason, mencoder was able to output an AVI in which the audio and video remained at all times in sync when played on the Vidego28!

Finally, I decided to write a simple script so that I could automate the process of calling ffmpeg, followed by mencoder, the result of which is listed below:

vidego.bash:

#!/bin/bash
FPS=$1
INPUT=$2
OUTPUT=$3

# Make sure all the required arguments were passed
if [ -z $FPS ] || [ -z $INPUT ] || [ -z $OUTPUT ]; then
   echo
   echo "Usage: $0 [fps] [input file] [output file]"
   echo
   exit 1
fi

# Make sure $FPS is valid
if [ $FPS -lt 1 ] || [ $FPS -gt 24 ]; then
   echo
   echo "error: frames per second should be between 1 and 24"
   echo
   exit 1
fi

# Let's do our stuff!
ffmpeg -i $INPUT -r $FPS /tmp/$OUTPUT

mencoder -mc 0 -noodml /tmp/$OUTPUT -of avi -o $OUTPUT -ofps $FPS -vf-add \
scale=320:240 -vf-add expand=320:240:-1:-1:1 -srate 44100 -ovc xvid \
-xvidencopts bitrate=400:max_bframes=0:quant_type=h263 -oac twolame \
-twolameopts br=160

rm /tmp/$OUTPUT

The above script takes as parameters the desired FPS (which should be between 1 and 24), the source file (which can be any format that mencoder supports) and the destination (the file that will go on your MP4 device). A sample call would look like this:

vidego.bash 24 input.file output.avi

Just copy output.avi to your Vidego28 (or ONDA VX858), and you’ll be good to go!

April 28th, 2008

Posted In: multimedia

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3 Comments