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Vitas Povilaitis
So what have I been doing with my time?

I've been setting up a networked media center for my living room. I'll describe it so you'll have a better lead than I did when I was first researching this.

I was enthralled by the Playstation 3 (PS3). It has capabilities beyond a game machine which make it attractive for the living room home theater:

  • Plays state-of-the-art games. I was captivated by Uncharted: Drake's Fortune which has great animation, shadows, textures, for a fun exploration game. Also, I liked the gimmicky things, like the SixAxis controller which I could tilt to control games, and the Playstation Eye video camera, which created virtual interactions with the on-screen game with games like Trials of Topoq, and Eye of Judgment. Trials of Topoq is a maze game in which you move your body to raise floor tiles to nudge a ball from start to finish. Eye of Judgment is a fantasy battle card game which uses real cards, and the PS3 keeps track of accounting details and present battle animations.
  • Plays Blu-ray discs (BDs). This is the next level of high definition for movies. The sharper details are eye-candy. A truly amazing showcase disc is BBC's Planet Earth. It's a nature program that captures the world in amazing glory, showing things average people would never see in real-life. Sure, it's a nature show, but high definition makes it more titillating to watch.
  • Plays SACDs. SACD is Sony's high definition surround audio. I played Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon on my friend's PS3, and the mix was great -- playing in all the speakers with clarity without sounding gimmicky. (This feature is missing from the 40 gig PS3.)
  • Plays media off a USB drive. The PS3 can play movies, music and pictures off a USB drive. Though, the number of recognized file formats is limited.
  • Streams media from a PC. A PC running a program called Tversity acts as a media server to serve movies, pictures and music. This uses technology called UPNP (Universal Plug and Play) and DLNA (Digital Living Network Alliance). It will send files over the home network which plays back on the PS3. So, when you entertain guests, you can play back stuff on your computer on your home theater, rather than have your guests gather around the tiny PC screen. (Tversity even lets you enter URLs and RSS feeds, so you can, for example, stream a YouTube video. But this is involved, because you need the video's URL, not the video's web page.) Tversity provides transcoding for files that are not natively recognized by the PS3. As long as you have all the proper codecs as provided by CCCP (Combined Community Codec Pack), many popular file formats will work.
  • Lets you surf the Net. It comes with a graphical web browser. This means you can lounge on the sofa and surf, rather than sit up-right and proper at the computer. (This has its flaws when a web page needs a plug-in to play media -- so, sites like Netflix don't work for streaming videos.)
  • Plays DVDs and CDs. All your old media will still work.
  • Plays PS1 and PS2 games. (This works best on the 60 gig PS3, which has actual PS2 hardware built-in. The other PS3s use emulation to some extent.)

I have a problem, though. I have an old TV -- a Panasonic CT34WX50. It has two component inputs and no HDMI inputs.

The TV presents a problem because it stretches all high-definition inputs to fill the whole screen. This means DVDs and BDs recorded with a 4:3 ratio will look short and fat. My solution had been to use a DVD player which added pillarboxes to the display, but the PS3 is destined to replace the DVD player. The PS3 has an option to pillarbox 4:3 DVDs, but does so only on the HDMI output. I suspect this is related to Sony's desire to keep people from copying decent high definition images, but it does present a problem for someone like me who refuses to spend more money on equipment when I have completely serviceable equipment already. But, I'll tell you my solution later.

I had worried that 1080i on my TV would not look as good as 720p on my friend's TV. After all, I want the best possible movie and game experience. I have to say that the only time a difference is noticeable is when there's a small horizontal line in the image. It'll flicker on my screen compared to the rock solid image on a 720p screen. Otherwise it looks just as stunning. Another problem is that my TV, being a CRT, has solid black blacks. Sure, this makes movies look great, but a game like Uncharted: Drake's Fortune looks too dark and hard to see in the dark areas of the game. I suspect that the game was developed on LCD displays and it's certainly easier to make out details on my friend's LCD screen. (Even turning up the in-game brightness doesn't help. I suppose I could turn up the TV's brightness, but that's too fiddly a solution. I want to keep the TV tuned for movies, having used the BD, DVD Essentials HD, to get it just right.)

Unfortunately, I cannot eliminate overscan on the TV without introducing some distortion. It seems like the reason overscan exists on CRT TVs is to hide distortion. Even though the picture quality is great, I'll have to upgrade to plasma, LCD, OLED or FED once it's time if I want to squeeze out all the resolution possible. (Yes, OLED and FED are a ways off, but the technology will supposedly be ready by the time I'm ready to upgrade.)

I bought a new receiver specifically for this setup -- a TX-SR605. (The TX-SR606 recently came out, but it didn't add anything I needed, so I saved some money getting the older receiver.) I needed this specifically for high definition sound: Dolby Digital TrueHD, DTS HD-MA, SACD. The PS3 won't decode to high definition surround sound without HDMI. (Searching on the Net, I see this isn't a technical limitation. One version of the PS3 firmware decoded SACDs to DTS to play on older receivers, but that feature was quickly removed, no doubt for copy protection reasons.)

I have a modded Xbox running Xbox Media Center (XBMC). This overcomes some lack of features of the PS3 and adds more:

  • Plays Xbox games.
  • Plays DVDs. Here's where things get better. The Xbox pillar boxes 4:3 content. It also plays DVDs from any region. It's a code-free player. So, I can play BritComs and the like from the UK.
  • Plays media off SMB drive. You can mount a PC drive over SMB and play movie, music and picture files directly off the PC's hard disc. It also means executables can exist remotely. Ideally, this means that DVD files (IFO and VOB files) can be played properly, menus and all, making it a cheap way to get a DVD server; However, so far, I can only play VOB files.
  • Streams media from a PC. The Xbox uses UPNP DLNA to play media off a media center server. Its processor, however, is too slow for high-definition material.
  • Plays DVDs and CDs. All your old media will still work.
  • Plays old games using emulation. Most popular are MAME arcade game emulation, as well as old console and computer games.

Note that my friend set up a media server on his Mac, so you don't need a PC to act as a media center server.

I had worried about the network speed over wireless. I'd need a lot of throughput to push around standard definition videos, let alone high definition videos. I have a Verizon wireless-G router, and that is inadequate for streaming high definition videos, though it's just fine for standard definition videos. That'll have to do until I upgrade. I live in an area with many wireless networks, but my router's signal is strong enough to deliver the throughput I need for standard definition videos. Perhaps upgrading to the newer 802.11n (wireless-N) would be better. There are more channels at that (5 Ghz) band, less devices use that band, and 802.11n devices are relatively expensive, so most people wouldn't even be using it, lending less interference in the band for my wireless network.

Actually, the laptop only had 512 MiB of RAM, so it may have been the culprit when I was having trouble streaming. I upgraded to 2 GiB and it's faster.

Upgrading my network to wireless-N means I would need a bridge (game adapter) with a switch for the laptop, PS3 and Xbox. They would be wired together for the greatest bandwidth, and the wireless connection is for connecting to the Internet router. I want the wireless router because I don't want to string cables across the apartment. Of course, wireless G would be good enough for standard definition use, except that I'd like the greater bandwidth and less interference that wireless N promises. I'd get a Wireless-N PC card as well for connecting the odd device to my network -- like my laptop when I don't want to connect the wire, or my friend's computer when I have a guest.

Here are the available options for wireless-N with some prices at the time I researched it. Note that these are generally dual-band devices so that they will work on 5Ghz networks as well as 2.4Ghz networks: (I have considered keeping my current Wireless-G router from Verizon and adding a bridge to it instead of getting a wireless-N router to replace it. I do hate seeing usable things go to waste.)

  • D-Link
DGL-4500 (router) $177 @ amazon.com
DAP-1555 (game adapter/bridge)
DAP-1522 (4 port bridge) $120 @ retail, $111 @ amazon.com
DWA-160 (USB adapter)

  • Linksys
wga600n (game adapter/bridge) $180/pair @ newegg.com
wrt600n (router) $156 @ amazon.com
wusb600n (USB adapter)
wpc600n (PC Card)

  • Netgear
WNDR3300 (router) (or two bridges) $107 @ amazon.com
WNDA3100 (USB Adapter)
WNHDE111 (game adapter/bridge) $170/pair @ newegg.com

  • Apple
Airport Extreme (see wds) (one for router, and one for game adapter/bridge & switch) $350/pair @ newegg.com

I ended up getting the Linksys wrt600n router and a D-Link DAP-1522 bridge. The router was a pain to set up because it had to work with Verizon's ActionTec cable modem/wireless router combination. I found an article [see footnote] on the Internet that gave me the hints I needed to set it up, though I'm not sure all the steps were needed. Then the bridge was a pain to set up because the router doesn't support WPS which could have eased setup. Instead, I had to manually configure the bridge. The instructions weren't very friendly in that it assumed the user understood how to achieve various steps without too much step-by-step detail.

I have a NAS to serve media -- a Netgear ReadyNAS NV+ with two 1 TB Seagate ST31000340NS Barracuda ES.2 (32MB Cache) drives set up as an X-Raid for redundancy. (I tend to trust Seagate because their drives have given me the least problems.) This setup seemed to give me 666 GB free, until it had time to take advantage of two drives to give me a little over 900 GB free. A hiccup is: The PS3 does a better job on USB connected device, but that requires the disk being formatted with FAT32 with a four GB file-size limit. Connecting the NAS as a network drive instead of a USB drive works well enough as a UPnP/DLNA server through the laptop. I tired using the NAS as a UPnP/DLNA media server directly, but the application seems to die every so often, and I suspect it doesn't have enough memory to run the application above and beyond its regular NAS duties.

Once done, it all worked together quite well. The Xbox and the PS3 could find the laptop's media server and the NAS's media server. However, one potential problem is that the laptop cannot find the PS3 and the Xbox directly because they're behind the bridge. I wish it would act more as a switch so I can access, at least, the Xbox directly.

Unfortunately, Hooking up the D-Link DAP-1522 to the Playstation 3 over wireless-N causes standard definition video to skip. However, streaming video to the Playstation 3 over its built-in wireless-g worked fine. That's disappointing because the whole point of going 5 GHz wireless-N is to stream high-def video without skipping! There's a firmware upgrade for the DAP-1522 with which video skips less often, but doesn't fix the problem. Calling technical support for D-Link and Linksys was interesting because they didn't solve the problem -- in fact, two calls to Linksys support dropped before we finished trying to solve the problem -- but gave me enough things to try so that, eventually, I got to a point that standard-definition streaming works. I'm not sure what did it, but I suspect it was either changing the channel for the 5 Ghz wireless-N band, or setting the 5 Ghz band to wireless-N only.

I was excited to find a beta version of MediaMall's PlayOn, which is another DLNA streaming program (similar to Internet streaming using Tversity.) It streams CBS programs, Hulu programs, and YouTube videos. Future plans which excites me greatly includes streaming Netflix videos.

I ran into video stuttering using PlayOn. It transcodes video streamed from the Internet and was sucking up a lot of CPU time. But that problem was solved by quiting Google Desktop and quiting Firefox. (I suspect Gmail was sucking up CPU time under Firefox.) I'll need to upgrade my laptop if I plan to transcode high-def material.

So here is my current set-up:

  • TV: Panasonic CT34WX50
  • receiver: Onkyo TX-SR605
  • DLNA/media center clients: Playstation 3; (original, but modded) Xbox (running XBMC)
  • DLNA/media center server: Gateway MX6441 laptop upgraded to 2 GiB (running Tversity and PlayOn)
  • cable modem: Verizon ActionTec
  • Router: Linksys WRT600n
  • Bridge: D-Link DAP-1522
  • NAS: Netgear ReadyNAS NV+

Here's the article which explains how to turn the Actiontec cable modem into a bridge for another router:

Sometimes the Actiontec loses its Internet connection.  It seems that the remedy should be to save the configuration, restore defaults, release, then load the saved configuration.

Here's the text of the article in case the link goes down:

How-to: make ActionTec MI424-WR a network bridge

After searching all over the web for definitive information about making the ActionTec MI424-WR as a network bridge, I was unable to find any. I've experienced hell trying to make the Actiontec a bridge and after finding some loose information on making a router of your choice (a thread here and a thread at the techimo forums stated that you needed to release your router IP first before doing anything else), I was able to get everything to work.

Why make the MI424-WR a bridge?
•New FiOS installations now connect you using the MoCA system from the ONT, not ethernet, thus preventing you from directly connecting a router of your choice to the ONT (some of you may say that the ethernet jack at the ONT is still there and you could run an ethernet cable to it, but it will NOT work because the ONT was not configured for ethernet connectivity during initial install by verizon).
•As part of the new FiOS installations, you are given an ActionTec MI424-WR router
•The MI424-WR is a pretty decent router (is powerful, has lots of features, and is quite flexible), however the major issue with it at the moment is the puny NAT table (only 1kb in size). The NAT table is easily overflowed just by running a single bittorrent or in some cases, playing games. When the NAT table is overflowed, you will get the "No IP for NAT - connections may fail" error logged in your MI424-WR's security log. During this time, you will unable to browse, ping, or connect to anything until you wait about 3 minutes. This problem seems to be widespread with this router, regardless of which firmware release is used. No one has been able to produce a workaround for this issue and neither Actiontec or Verizon has acknowledged this issue officially. This problem makes your FiOS connection next to useless. While your overall throughput may drop when using a store bought consumer grade router, your actual usability may increase. I personally would take this trade off over NAT errors any day.
•Instead of paying at least $100 to fix something that's not your fault (buying a MoCA to ethernet bridge), make the MI424-WR as a bridge and use a router of your choice!

This is what you will need to do:
1) Connect your computer to the MI424-WR using an ethernet connection if you have not done so
2) Open your web browser and type in in the URL and press "enter"
3) The default username and password for the MI424-WR is "admin" and "password, however verizon techs tend to change the password to "password1". If neither works, you will need to do a hard reset on the router (hold down the reset pinhole with a paperclip for about 10 seconds). If you did a hard reset, you may not be able to reconnect to the ONT due to a configuration issue with the default router settings (I will explain how to get it working as you keep reading).
4) Once you are logged in, go ahead and reset the router to the default settings if you have done numerous customizations in the past, otherwise don't worry about it. To reset the config to defaults, click on "Advanced" at the top, then click yes in the confirmation box. You will then see "Restore Defaults" at the lower left side of the screen (under the red toolbox icon). The router will now reboot itself. Remember that the username and password resets itself to the ActionTec default of "admin" and "password". It's a good idea to change the password after this is all done of course.
5) Go ahead and log back into the router if you have "Restore Defaults", otherwise just click on "My Network" at the top of the screen. Once you are there, click on "Network Connections" at the menu on the left.
6) You should now see a list of interfaces that exist in the router. To see them all, click on the "Advanced" button below that list.
7) Now you will need to do this very important step. you will need to release your MI424-WR's IP from the ONT or you will NOT be able to have your new router DHCP an IP for itself!. To do this, click on the "Broadband Connection (Coax)" from the connection list. Then click on the "Settings" button at the bottom. You will now see a bunch of settings for this interface. Make sure the "Privacy" option is enabled (if you have reset your MI424-WR to defaults earlier, it maybe disabled. Not having this setting enabled will cause the connection to the ONT to fail!). You can click on the "Release" button if an IP address is currently assigned to the MI424-WR. Click the "Release" button and immediately change the "Internet Protocol" option to "No IP Address" (default setting is "Obtain an IP Address Automatically"). Click on "Apply" afterwards, then "Yes" (if there's a confirmation message), then "Apply" again.
8) Now you will need to turn the MI424-WR into a bridge. In the connection list, click on "Network (Home/Office)", then click on the "Settings" button. You will see a list of interfaces under "Bridge". Check the box next to the "Broadband Connection (Coax)", then check the box under the STP column. Click on "Apply" afterwards, then "Yew" (if there's a confirmation message), then "Apply" again.
9) Since the MI424-WR will no longer be used for routing, go ahead and disable its wireless interface also. Click on "Wireless Access Point" in the interface list and then click on "Disable". You can also disable this in the "Wireless Settings" section.
10) Just in case the MI424-WR will do something wacky, I disabled the built-in firewall also. Click on "Firewall Settings" and then select "Minimum", then click on "Apply".
11) Verify that the MI424-WR no longer has a connection to the internet by looking at the status information in "Main". It should have a red light and say it's on PPPOE right now. The MI424-WR should still have a connection to the ONT. You can check this by going back into "My Network", then "Network Connections", then clicking on the "Full Status" button at the bottom of the list. "Broadband Connection (Coax)". Should say it's connected still.
12) Next, disconnect all computers from the MI424-WR. Setup the router of your choice (for me, I'm using a Linksys WRT54G v4 running dd-wrt). Make sure your new router's IP address is something different from or it will conflict! Your new router should now DHCP an IP from verizon without any problems.

The only way to access the MI424-WR after this setup is to directly connect a computer to it (via ethernet) and using a static 192.168.1.* IP address. It will no longer DHCP an IP to you. You will also notice that the "Internet" light (may look like a map globe) on the router will now be lit orange and blink red. This is normal. The MI424-WR control panel will also perpetually say you're not connected to the internet. That too is normal.

You will know everything is working when you see your new router getting an IP from verizon.


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