Zotac ZBox BI320 as HTPC Mediacenter

25 January 2015 by Snakefoot | No Comments » | Trackback Off
I bought this unit after seeing lots of recommendations at the Kodi forum, where it replaced my now broken Shuttle XS35GS V3. Zotac BI320 has a fan but it was said it was very silent, which is rare, since small case means small fan which usually means noise. I have also looked at Zotac CI320 which is completely fanless, but the Kodi forum said the 2957U Haswell CPU was better than the N2930 Baytrail CPU.
Installation
I just installed the 2x2GB Crucial DDR3L SO-DIMM and SSD with Win7 from my old HPTC, and then it was up and running after installing the latest Intel drivers from the Zotac homepage.
  • I had an issue with igfxEM.exe running at 100 pct. CPU usage, but this was fixed by using the latest Intel HD Graphics 4400 driver
  • I also changed the BIOS settings to allow more RAM sharing for the GPU (512 MByte instead of 64 MByte).
Performance
The Celeron 2957U is so much faster than the Atom D2700. Before I had to force "High Performance" powerplan for the Atom D2700 to work okay, but the Celeron 2957U works wonderful with "Balanced" powerplan (Allowing it to throttle for even less heat). Movie-startup is faster. Movie-playback is smooth with deinterlacing and post processing enabled. Netflix HD also works without issue together with Chrome HTML5.
Noise and temperature
When playing movies then I really don't care about the fan noise, but when idle then it should be silent. By default the fan will start when temperature is above 30 Celsius, and it gives a faint noise, but I just went into the BIOS and changed it to 50 and then it was silent. When idle the CPU is about 38 Celsius and when high CPU usage (without GPU) then 48 Celsius.

The chassis is not warm to touch when idle, and the power consumption when idle should also be around 5-7W compared to the 19-27W of my previous Atom D2700 (+Radeon HD 7410M GPU)

Steam Box alternatives

10 October 2014 by Snakefoot | No Comments » | Trackback Off
Was looking for new PC with the following requirements to replace my Core2 Duo:
  • Cheap - This means laptop/all-in-one are out.
  • Fast GPU - This means NUC are out
  • Upgradable - This means replaceable motherboard, CPU and GPU
  • Small - This means SFF / Mini-ITX / SFX
  • Silent - This means no small fans
I was not able to find anything that actually matched all these requirements, but found these candidates:
  • Alienware X51 - PSU only delivers 330W, so not very upgradable
  • Asus ROG GR8 - Large cabinet compared to X51
  • CyberPower Zeus Mini A-300 - Not available in my country
  • MSI Nightblade - Expensive even as barebone.
  • MSI Hetis H81 - Cheap, but not sure if PCI-e supports dual-slot GPU
  • BitFenix Prodigy - Large cabinet compared to X51
  • EVGA Hadron Air - PSU has very small fan, and it is expensive.
  • Acer Aspire XC-605 - Not very upgradable
  • Silverstone SST-RVZ01B Raven - Large cabinet compared to X51 and expensive.
  • Silverstone SST-ML07B - Large cabinet compared to X51 and expensive.
  • NCASE M1 - Very promising but not available in my country
I decided to go for the Dell Alienware X51 R2, as I'm getting old and like things pre-assembled. The i5 + GTX750 combo is not super expensive compared to building yourself. The only real problem is the PSU is only 240W, so the upgrade path is very limited.

Shuttle XS35GS V3 as HTPC mediacenter

27 May 2013 by Snakefoot | No Comments » | Trackback Off

*Update 2015-01-06*
Computer stopped working after running 24/7 for little over one year. The PSU shows green light, but when plugged to the computer then it blinks green. This seems to indicate a short circuit somewhere in the computer. I have tried to detach SSD, RAM, DVD and all other connections but the problem remains. I have contacted Shuttle support and they say problem requires that I sent the unit for repair, but I bought the unit at Ballicom.co.uk and they only provide 1 year warranty. I have now bought a Zotac ZBOX BI230 and happy again.

I bought this unit after having read some positive feedback about it:
Asrock ION 330 HD was failing
I had an Asrock ION 330 HD, but it gave an evil noise from the small GPU fan, and had a small stutter when doing 1080p playback, along with a soft plastic remote control that was about to break. I had tried to fix the small GPU fan with a fan-mate, and it lowered the noise, but didn't remove it, and a new smell of burned electronics arrived. I had tried to fix the 1080p stutter on XBMC by synchronizing the refresh rate with the movie, but then the sound was out of sync. The easy solution was to change the refresh rate to 50 Hz (Instead of 60 Hz), and it solved most of the stutter, but it was still there.
Sensitive when it comes to RAM
I bought the barebone version of Shuttle XS35GS V3, and had purchased the RAM else where (Corsair Value RAM). But quickly discovered that it was very sensitive, and failed to perform BIOS POST without the correct RAM. I then bought the recommended Crucial RAM, and it started up nicely.
Windows 8 is not recommended for XBMC
I installed Windows 8 on the computer and the VGA card was recognized as an AMD Radeon HD 6430M. I then installed the VGA drivers from Shuttle homepage, and the card was recognized properly as HD 7410M and everything seemed faster. But XBMC had a small stutter, even after fixing the normal issues:
  • Ensure to force DXVA (Instead of AutoDetect). Ensure to activate DXVA2
  • Ensure to set output audio device to DirectSound, and disable all unnecessary audio output formats
  • Ensure to set true fullscreen, instead of running it as a fullscreen window
I then tried Windows 7, and after installing the drivers from Shuttle's homepage (AMD Catalyst 12.6 WHQL), then all issues was removed. The XBMC menus was much more responsive and the playback of 1080p movies did not have any stutter. Later tried the updated drivers (AMD Catalyst 13.11 WHQL) from Shuttle's homepage, but then performance was slow again.
Netflix cannot play in HD
Silverlight 5 fails to make use of the GPU for DRM content, and the CPU is not strong enough to handle a HD stream. When forcing it to only use SD-quality, then everything plays without lag. Could be nice with a better XBMC plugin than NetfliXBMC
TrueHD and DTS-HD support
If you have a fancy surround sound amplifier, then this little device will produce a high quality audio experience.
No heat and no noise issues
I used a Samsung SSD 840 as main drive, and then had a 5400 RPM harddrive attached as an external USB 2.0 drive. And it works quite nicely. The USB drive will power off when not in use, so even though it fails to give hearable noise when active, then the dogs will not be affected either in idle state.
Hauppauge MC Remote Control Kit
Since there is no IR receiver on the Shuttle XS35GS V3, then I bought one from Hauppauge. It was just to plug the device in, and then the remote control was working nicely in XBMC. No additional drivers or extra tweaking was needed.

Wordpress 2.0 vs. PHP 5.3

28 November 2012 by Snakefoot | 1 Comment » | Trackback Off
My web hotel (Unoeuro.com) announced that they wanted to upgrade the PHP version from 5.2 to 5.3. This has caused some disturbances on this site, as Wordpress 2.0 is an aging blog engine and is not fully compatible with the "latest" PHP version.

Had to disable E_DEPRECATED in error_reporting, as PHP 5.3 complains about function parameters passed by reference (&). But besides some minor fixes in the Wordpress code (and plugins), then everything seems to be working again.

Still waiting for the Ticket #5034 to be resolved, so I can upgrade to the latest version of Wordpress.

Also had my last work day at Saxo Bank, so it is now time to brush up my rusty résumé.

Windows 8 is the monster of Frankenstein

7 November 2012 by Snakefoot | 3 Comments » | Trackback Off
I often love the smell of newly installed operation systems, but this is not true for Windows 8. I upgraded from Vista to Win8 together with some extra RAM and a SSD harddisk. For some reason the Upgrade Assistant didn't allow me to choose which version of Win8 to download. Instead I had to go the unsecured part of the Internet to find a x64 version, and then use my legal product key.

The Good: Fast boot and new Task Manager
The computer boots faster than ever into a working state, where important things like WIFI network and desktop are usable. The new Task Manager makes it easier to discover ill behaving applications (Like Windows Defender). The file overwrite confirmation dialog have been improved back to WinXP standards, and the copying dialog now includes a nice transfer performance graph. But besides that then I have not found any visual improvements.

The Bad: Two user interfaces in conflict
The bad thing is the conflict between the Desktop and the tile interface:
  • The integration between the desktop and the tile interface is like seeing the monster of Frankenstein, that has been stitched together involuntarily.
    • Opening a new application through the tile interface causes all running desktop applications to be hidden by the tile interface. This gives a lot of screen flickering and disturbance of the task at hand.
    • It is not possible to run a tile application in window-mode, so it can shown side-by-side normal desktop applications. Not sure why the operating system is still called Windows.
  • The tile interface has revived mouse gestures (that was buried for good reason). Simple tasks like closing a window, or changing to another application are not mouse friendly.
  • The rigid limitation of only displaying 2 tile applications at time makes little sense, when I'm used to be switching between 5-6 open applications. Again why can tile application not integrate nicely with the Desktop?
All these weird limitations and lack of integration makes it very clear, that one has to choose between desktop or tile-interface. I chose the old desktop as most applications I use are still there.
Start Menu
Unlike previous versions of windows then there is no classic mode, that makes everything look like Windows 2000. The Desktop is lacking the start menu, as I only have 5-6 favorite applications that I want pinned to the taskbar. A workaround would be to add a Toolbar-folder, and the maintain this folder manually by adding my favorite applications, but it will still be missing the search feature. Weird that the not so powerful "Power Menu" (WIN + X) doesn't include built-in search (WIN + S) and shutdown shortcut (Win8.1 adds shutdown option).

To get the old Start Menu then one can either buy Start8, or get the Classic Shell.

I chose the Classic Shell (with 8Plus Skin), because it was free and seemed low on the resource usage. I'm quite excited by how it can boot directly into desktop (Win8.1 can now boot directly to desktop), and it can disable the hot corners. It is not as nice as the Windows 7 start menu, but it is very customizable and the search works good.
Thick Window Borders
I quickly noticed that the window border of the Desktop applications had been increased. Probably to cater for the fat fingered touch interfaces. But I hate when my real-estate is used for unnecessary stuff. I first tried to configure it through the Personalize Desktop, but discovered the dialog for configuring the desktop windows was gone. Instead one have to do it through the registry:

[HKEY_CURRENT_USER\ Control Panel\ Desktop\ WindowMetrics]
BorderWidth=0
PaddedBorderWidth=0

Window Games
I also noticed that the normal Windows Games had been removed. I looked in the Programs and Features, but there was nothing to be found. Instead one have to find them in the Windows Store.

Automatic User Login
After a few restarts then I got tired of having to click my own user account and typing password. But there was no buttons to give me ability to automatically sign-in. Instead I had to run the following command to configure it:

control userpasswords2

Automatic Window Resizing
I started to get annoyed that the Desktop windows was automatically resized when dragged to the corners of the screen. This "Aero Snap" feature was introduced with Windows 7, but it continues to do havoc on Win8. It can still be disabled by opening the Control Panel and search for "Ease of Access Center", and scroll down to the item "Make the mouse easier to use". Here you have a checkbox called "Prevent Windows from being automatically arranged when moved to the edge of the screen"
DVD / CDROM drive missing
Tried to use my DVD drive, and then discovered that it wasn't there. Even though I had just installed Windows 8 from it. Seems that DVD drives are only for computer geeks (just like the desktop), so one have to add the following DWORD registry key to make it appear:

[HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\ SYSTEM\ CurrentControlSet\ Services\ atapi\ Controller0]
EnumDevice1 = 1

Miranda IM
Then I needed to setup my mail again, and I installed Windows Live Essentials 2012. Everything worked out nicely, and it was able to pickup my old mail folders from Vista. I then discovered that MSN Messenger had become a resource hog (Also detected by the new Task Manager), so it was thrown out and replaced with Miranda IM x64 (Plugins: Popup Plus and Keep status). Miranda IM also allows one to connect to Facebook Chat and google talk through the Jabber protocol.
Sleep Mode Finally Working
For the first time in my life, then my custom assembled desktop machine is able to enter deep sleep mode and wake again. This has only worked for me on laptops and other pre-assembled devices. I then tried to update the driver for my AMD HD 7750 card to Catalyst version 13.9, and then it suddenly failed to wake the monitor from sleep. After using system restore back to the default RTM driver, then it was able to wake from sleep again with no issues. (Fixed with Catalyst ver. 13.12 and Win8.1)

Things are now looking good again, and I can now play with the latest applications without getting errors, about not supported by your current version of Windows.