Thursday, February 10, 2011

Free-to-air (FTA) satellite TV fun

Hey, boys and girls. Another one of my hobbies is TV. Not just watching, but finding different ways to get programming without having to shovel out more $$ to a service provider. Yeah, there's some cost in hardware but it often comes in cheaper than what we pay in a year to someone like BellTV (our current satellite TV company).

I download quite a lot of our regular programming using a Mac Mini hooked to the TV, but in doing some research for another satellite reason I learned about some newer recievers capable of picking up digital signals using the big C-band dish we happen to still have in the back yard. Even more interesting is that they can pick up both standard definition and high definition channels. Looking at this page tells me there's actually a lot of free programming being beamed around the world and everything marked with a "C" I could pick up!

So I started studying FTA (free-to-air) receivers capable of picking up C-band signals. I settled on the Openbox S9, an amazingly affordable (as in just $150Cdn) box capable of receiving HD signals and PVR functions (with a separate external hard drive). This box runs Linux software internally and is pretty snappy. It also blindscans satellites really fast so in just a couple of minutes I can see what channels are available on a satellite.

As this box doesn't directly control the motor out on the dish, I'm using our old Uniden Ultra receiver that we originally bought with the old 10-foot dish to move the dish and then we flip back to the Openbox to watch what's on the current satellite. I've ordered another little box called the V-Box 7 that will make dish moving somewhat automatic when we change satellites on the Openbox which will be nice, but it's not too big of a hassle to change inputs on the TV to use different receivers. I remember the days when we had to get up and turn the dial just to change channels!

What are we watching? Well, we're really into all the Retro TV channels on the AMC 3 satellite. I think there's almost 30 of them. Carla and I grew up with shows like The A-Team, Emergency, Knight Rider and now the kids are enjoying them, too! It's way better than all the reality crap on TV now! We've also watched a bit of FX but there's so much out there and I'm just learning the ins and outs of trying to get all the channels to scan in.

I've done a bit of "testing" in the past with hacked FTA recievers but this is so much better because it's legal so there's need to wait for a "fix" when the keys are changed. Just tune in and channel surf!

Techie update

You may recall that I've been working on rebuilding my PC with new parts. I put the parts together a week or so ago and they went together without much hassle. The grate over the fan on the power supply made it a tight fit over a bracket but that was the hardest part physically and a little muscle made it fit!

Getting the machine to boot properly was a problem initially. The machine would power up, indicated by the fans spinning, but the screen remained black. At first I was terrified that I had a dead motherboard or a dead video card. After much testing and switching video connections I determined there was an issue with the new video card but it's caused by the power supply (I think!). I've installed a 400-watt power supply, which I assumed would be plenty as the old one was only 300 watts. But it appears that it's not supplying enough current to power the video card properly. This motherboard has on-board video which works fine on it's own but only if the other card is not installed. When the extra card is installed I get no video from it or from the onboard. So for now the new card sits in a box while I await a new Antec 550-watt power supply putting out a lot more current over the so-called 12-volt rails. I'm not too informed on how a power supply puts out power but it appears from reading online that that's what's needed here. The one currently installed only puts out 16 amps, but the Antec will put out 24 I think. I hope it works!

In the meantime the PC does seem snappier with the extra horsepower in the CPU itself as well as the newer faster hard drive. Windows XP boots much faster! I've got all my drivers and some of my games reinstalled. As my Mac Mini is my primary computer I don't have many applications to install but I did leave a separate 200GB partition free on the hard disk to install Linux at a later date, too.

About the same time as I've been working on my box the kids PC has quit working, too. It's an older 1.8Ghz IBM Netvista box. When it quit working properly I noticed the fans not working and now I'm worried heat has killed it. But it did boot a couple of times before I took it apart to test the power supply which I've replaced once before. It does power up on a different power supply but won't boot. The problem is that a generic power supply doesn't fit physically but I've got one sitting on top of the case powering it so I figure it should still boot though. I haven't looked at it for a few days so may next time I do it will magically boot...right?

Monday, January 24, 2011

Exciting new PC build coming

I admit it. I'm a nerd. I love computers. That should be obvious by now. Though I'm somewhat mechanically inclined, I don't feel competent working on engines and the like. Give me a computer to work on and I'm (usually) happy. I'm mostly running Macs in day-to-day life but I do have a desktop PC for games and the occasional use when something doesn't run on a Mac.

My current PC is a homebuilt machine that currently runs an AMD Athlon XP-M 2200 CPU on an ECS K7S5A motherboard. With stock settings it runs at 1.8GHz but I usually run it overclocked at around 2.0GHz. I have 1.5GB of DDR RAM plugged into the board as well as a BFG Nvidia Geforce 7600 GS AGP 512MB video card. For sound I still use a venerable Soundblaster Live! PCI sound card. There's a collection of hard drives from which I boot Mandriva Linux, Windows XP and even tried Haiku OS (a derivative of BeOS). It's starting to show its age and has always had an occasional bit of trouble booting at the correct CPU speed. I think it's time to move on.

Now what's a bit funny is that I trace the history of this box back to a store-bought Pentium 166 machine I bought way back in 1997. Over the years I've replaced bits and pieces along the way until really there's nothing left of the original machine. I think the last piece left was the 3.5-inch floppy drive which I only just pulled a few months ago to slide in another hard drive. Yes, even the case and power supply aren't original.

I think the current configuration is nearing five years old now and it's time to rebuild. Now, I'm on a budget so some of the parts I've purchased are used bits from eBay. The heart of the system will be an ASRock N68-S motherboard fitted with an AMD Athlon II X2 240 CPU which is a dual-core chip running at 2.8GHz. Another used item will be the video card. In this case I've chosen an Asus Nvidia Geforce 9600 GSO 512MB PCI-Express video card. New products going into this build are a 500MB Seagate SATA2 hard drive, a CoolerMaster 500-watt power supply and 2GB of Corsair dual-channel DDR2 RAM.

Hard-core gamers would probably roll their eyes at this build but I'm not going for all-out speed. I'm spending the least amount of money to get something quite a bit faster than what I have. I don't play games that often and the games I currently have will keep me busy for a while yet so I don't plan to get any of the newer system-taxing games.

What do I play? I like my combat flight simulators and racing simulators, though I mostly tend to play the rFactor racing mods since it's easy to just jump into the game and drive, but then it's complex enough that I can still adjust anti-roll bars, spring rates and wing angles to get better car control and lap times.

So anyway, now that I know all my new goodies have shipped, I'll be keeping an eye on the post office! I can't wait to get started on building my new beast!