Archive for House Stuff

Basic Cable vs. Home Media Server – False Economy?

It’s easy to say we’re saving money by “cord cutting”, but are we?

We moved into this house in July 2010, and if we had gone with a basic cable option at that time (let’s say $40/mo – although I suspect that’s a little light) we would have spent $2640.00 on Television since then. At present our system is comprised of a Media Server with 6TB of storage and 5 media players scattered around the house – this hardware represents approximately $1100 in expense.

On its face it looks like we’re spending the equivalent of $16.60 a month for our current setup versus the $40 the cable company would have charged us.

Cool!

…..of course that doesn’t take into account the experimentation and ‘failed’ devices that have passed through our system OR the cost of the original iteration of our media system. My spreadsheet (Yeah, I know….geeky) tells me that I’ve spent $2210 on our arrangement once the ‘experimental’ (and now discarded) stuff is added in – this pushes the cost to approximately $33.48 a month (that gap is closing).

On the plus side we’ve still come in cheaper than basic cable, and it’s basically subsidized my experimenting with technology for the past five years. So I’m going to go ahead and say that YES we are saving money AND I get to monkey with technology.

Successor Media Player – Amazon Firestick

It’s official. We’ve selected the Amazon Firestick for our replacement platform for our aging (but still running) Boxee Boxes.

Really what we’ve decided to go with is XBMC running on an Amazon Firestick, but I’ve found that the firestick is a much more reliable platform than the majority of the “Android Media Boxes” I’ve experimented with (see previous posts). With a series of customizations the Firestick delivers (through XMBC Kodi) seamless access to our local media AND Netflix AND local/regional/national/international Live Television streaming sources.

You can buy Firesticks already configured for this stuff, but it’s really not that complicated to set it up yourself.

I’ll document the mundane process below the cut for my own edification and for those that might be interested in replicating the process.
» Read more..

Media Players – A successor finally found?

As has been discussed previously, our preferred Media Player (the Boxee Box) has long since been discontinued. We presently have three of them in service with a single spare malfunctioning unit. Sourcing replacements will likely not get any easier and so I’ve continued to experiment with other network media players looking for a suitable replacement.

MyGica 520E
Mygica 520E – $100CDN

An android box running XBMC (Kodi) along with the usual variety of android apps and so forth.

I found this box to be a good idea that was poorly executed. I found that with XBMC loaded and our local library indexed the unit has pretty much maxed out its available storage, and it generally runs a little “clunky” as a result. I was impressed with XBMC/Kodi and it’s flexibility but a media player constantly churning to process your last two requests is annoying.

Netgear NTV300
Netgear NTV300 – $50CDN

This is, simply put, a chunk of shit. The publish specs suggest that this has some sort of DLNA player and can stream local content – but that appears to have come from an accidental firmware update and any such functionality has been entirely removed. I can’t find any aftermarket firmware (or a means of installing it even if I did), and so this is basically a Netflix box.

A total waste of money.

Roku Streaming Stick
Roku Streaming Stick – $50CDN

As the Amazon Fire Stick is unavailable in Canada this seemed like the next best thing. With built in Netflix and the ability to stream local content (albeit through a rather ugly interface) and all combined into a compact package this appears to offer everything one needs.

I’ve not experimented with customization, as I got distracted by the next item on the list, but it’s basic functionality appears solid.


Amazon Fire Stick – $100CDN

Technically not available in Canada the Amazon firesticks utility North of the border is automatically limited by geographical restrictions on the content offered by Amazon. That content aside (and I’ve not really tested whether or not our VPN is adequate to circumvent these geographical barriers) XMBC/Kodi can be sideloaded.

I spent a few hours customizing Kodi with the Mimic theme and got a number of online streaming sources set up (including Netflix) and managed to index our local content seamlessly. I’m extremely pleased with the results, and have never been more impressed with XMBC.

I’m cautiously optimistic that this will be the replacement arrangement for our aging Boxee Boxes, but more experimentation is called for.

Aeon Labs 4in1 Sensor – Hardwired

I know I’ve mentioned it before but battery powered devices included in a home alarm or home automation system are, at best, temporary fixes and more likely long term headaches.

In our case I HAVE been feeding batteries to three Aeon Labs 4 in 1 sensors used in our home automation setup. Four “AAA” batteries seem to last around three months (and that is a few bucks out of my pocket if you’re keeping track – I am).

I sourced some automotive 12VDC-USB devices and as the outdoor multi-sensors are co-located with surveillance cameras pulling 12VDC this seemed like a good way to get better service from the devices AND save a few bucks on batteries. It did, however, take me more than a little time to get rolling.

USb thimgamawhosit

I’ve now installed the first one and it seems to be working just fine. Of course this involves a song and dance with Vera – but more on that later as I rewire the other two.

Vera – Recovering from the upgrade

Just over a week since the upgrade to U17 and I am 90% certain that the system is functioning properly again. The processor is under a higher load, but routine functionality is back.

Vera Home Automation

I’ve opened two tickets with tech support (the first dealing with rolling back the firmware – which I have put on the back burner), and the second dealing with a recurring error message (the forums suggest this is a common problem, and that tech support does NOT have a solution for it).

Meh. We’ll see.

Vera Upgrade – Oh dear.

I’ve been running my Veralite with the older U16 firmware since I got it. The new and improved U17 was rolled out some time ago, but I was happy with the performance of my Vera and decided I’d put off the upgrade.

Last night I received an email from the company recommending the upgrade, and I figured “what the hell, it might just resolve some minor issues I’ve been dealing with.”

It did not.

Vera Home Automation

It broke, or more importantly ‘bent’ every facet of this system aside from manually turning things on or off. The entire “automation” part of my “home automation” system needed to be torn apart, examined and put back together by me over the last 16 hours.

Most of the issues seem to stem from the way the firmware converts scenes from U16 to U17. Examples of the malfunctions are;

– Virtual Switch set to turn exterior lights on or off – using this switch causes a runaway process where the switch turns itself on and off dozens of times a minute until the system is rebooted.
– Vera Alerts App configuration screen damaged, causing multiple pop-up window errors. Had to be deleted and reinstalled.
– Exterior Multi Sensors began reporting detected “motion” as “Low battery” alarms (regardless of ‘armed’ or ‘disarmed’ state).

There were others, and presumably issues I could not find as the system itself would become unresponsive and would fail to fire scenes when the associated triggers were activated.

I fired off an email to tech support demanding they help me roll the firmware back about 4 hours ago, but in the interim I have identified a few of the key problems and resolved them. I’m now sitting on the fence trying to decide if I should keep working on this, or roll things back to the way they were.

-sigh-

CCTV to CATV – An overview

We have always had our CCTV system fed into our cable so that regardless what room of the house you are in you can simply turn to a specific channel and see what the cameras see.

This is accomplished by taking the composite video signal from the CCTV DVR (usually a quad screen split or some such), feeding it through an agile modulator (a device that converts a signal from a composite source into a designated frequency specific to a cable television channel) which is then combined into the CATV line for the house (a notch filter is used to block a specific channel range so there is no interference on the channel used by the modulator).

CATV distribution system

1 – CATV feed from cable company.
2 – Signal is split – one line goes to cable modem to minimize drop loss.
3 – Cable signal is fed through a ‘notch filter’ which eliminates a specific cable band (channels 72-78 are deleted).
4 – Cable signal and CCTV modulated feed (set on channel 75) is combined, then fed to various locations.

Hey presto, your cameras are now easily accessible from anywhere in the house and you can check what goes ‘bump’ in the night by simply changing channels.

Media Player – MyGica (XBMC)

I have still not found a media player that is more reliable or robust than our Boxee Box(s), but I’ll admit that obsolete technology doesn’t exactly inspire confidence and I’ve started looking around for the next media player we’ll adopt.

Recommended to me was the MyGica ATV520E media player. This is an android based box running XBMC, which seems to offer all the bells and whistles we’ve come to expect from Boxee – initial impressions were positive.

MyGica ATV520E Media Player

The Box: This is an android system set up to run XBMC Frodo. The usual bells and whistles are present, and with a google account the play store awaits.

I had zero interest in this except for installing some VPN and autostart apps so XBMC would start immediately.

Media stuffs: XBMC is pretty robust, and this system seems to offer all sorts of options for customizing the way your media is presented. There were some false starts here, and I had to restore everything to factory defaults once or twice before I got things right.

The interface still lags a bit when scrolling through options, and this may be the box itself or just that I’ve selected a skin with too much overhead.

It works, but I still prefer Boxee.

Home Automation Integration: XBMC allows the display of network messages (like the Boxee) from our Home Automation system, so I just have to configure the HA system to send the messages formatted correctly.

luup.inet.wget("http://user:pass@IPAddress:Port/jsonrpc?request={%22jsonrpc%22:%222.0%22,%22method%22:%22GUI.ShowNotification%22,%22params%22:{%22title%22:%22Motion%22,%22message%22:%22Front%20Porch%22},%22id%22:1}")

Works just fine.

..in the end: MyGica still doesn’t seem to run as smoothly as the Boxee, but allows us much of the same functionality. Maybe I just need to buy an android media player with a faster processor and more memory.

I’ll continue to monkey around with this system, and see if it doesn’t grow on me.

Stopping Robo-calls

Over the last few months we’ve seen an increase in recorded telemarketing calls, nightly fax machine calls and as we normally received between “few” and “bugger all” calls on a weekly basis this started driving me a little nuts.

I was being continually bothered by robots on the phone. The solution seemed simple, get my own robot to counter their robots!

Based on reading I had done on a forum I frequent I set up an IVR (Interactive voice response) on our home phone that prompts callers to press ‘2’ if they are a human, any other number pressed or 20 seconds of inactivity results in the special information tone indicating a disconnected line being played, followed by the call being disconnected.

This was surprisingly easy to set up using the options available from our VoIP provider (VoIP.ms).

Voip.ms

A whitelist allows known numbers to automatically bypass the IVR altogether (although with shift work and all that whitelist is rather small).

It was immediately effective at screening the annoying robo-calls, and thanks (I’m guessing) to the tone played our number appears to be slowly being removed from the robo-callers databases (or at least we’ve seen a substantial decrease in these calls).

This was so effective that when I started receiving these same calls on my cellphone I set up Tasker to automatically forward my cell to our home number whenever I was home (more on that later).

I can, if I so desire, happily peruse the call logs through VoIP.ms and see how many calls we’ve been missing, and although robo-calls cost me approximately $0.005 each I can confidently say that I would pay much more than one half of a cent to not have to deal with these calls.