The (proposed) HTPC Build

This afternoon I out out a few tweets with regard to a HTPC.

Heres the system build I came up with:


Gigabyte H55M-S2H, Intel H55, 1156, PCI-E 2.0 (x16), DDR3 1600/1800/2133, SATA 3Gb/s, ATX, VGA

Gigabyte H55M-S2H, Intel H55, 1156, PCI-E 2.0 (x16), DDR3 1600/1800/2133, SATA 3Gb/s, ATX, VGA

£66.98 Inc VAT from


Intel Core i3 530 2.93GHz (Clarkdale) (Socket LGA1156) – OEM [CM80616003180AG]

Intel Core i3 530 2.93GHz (Clarkdale) (Socket LGA1156) - OEM [CM80616003180AG]

£91.98 inc VAT from



Antec 300 Three Hundred Ultimate Gaming Case – Black [0761345-08300-3]

Antec 300 Three Hundred Ultimate Gaming Case - Black [0761345-08300-3]

£44.99 inc VAT from

Power Supply

EMD525AWT II – 525W Enermax Modu82+ II DXXI READY! Efficiency 88% 8xSATA 5xMOLEX 3xPCI-E 6+2 FREE TWISTER FAN

525W Enermax Modu82+ II DXXI READY! Efficiency 88% 8xSATA 5xMOLEX 3xPCI-E 6+2 FREE TWISTER FAN

£83.57 Inc VAT from


RAM is just about ubiquitous. For this particular system I plan on getting 2x 2Gb DDR3 from since they have some good deals. But please do state your preference for RAM in the comments.

This list does not include the plethora of fans cables, etc that turn components into a PC.

I know have to sell this idea. WMC is hard enough to explain to people in words. Actually showing them the thing and letting hem use it is a very different proposition. This is what I found withthe AppleTV. Having had it for a year, everyone loves it now. So i’m going to put the TV tuner card into the desktop, hook the desktop up to the tv and let people have a go with WMC. Thats next weekends project.

In saying all of this, it all depends on the iPad. There is only enough money in the budget for one or the other. Once I actually have the thing in my hands, then i will be able to decide.

Help Needed: Silicon Image Sil 3512 SATALink Controller BIOS Flash

So, I installed a 2 port eSata adaptor from LaCie last week and connected my brand spanking new 1.5Tb drive to it.

This is a Windows Home Server system, if you must know. So disk activity is always high, both reading and writing.

Now the hard drive itself is perfectly fine (I’ve tested it on other computers using USB 2.0). The enclosure is perfectly fine (since I’ve tested that too).

This leads me to the issue I have with the controller.

This error message always preceded a crash:

“The device, \Device\Scsi\SI3112r1, did not respond within the timeout period.”

That error let me to this Microsoft KB article:

A quote:

The reason that drives tend to have these types of problems under heavy stress is often slow microprocessors. In a multitasking environment, the processor may not be fast enough to process all the I/O commands that come in nearly simultaneously.

Hmmmmm…… This certainly fits he bill, since, after much careful examination, it seems heavy reads cause this problem.

I’ve tried all the other stuff in the KB article except flashing the PCI cards’ BIOS.

Now this is where it gets interesting. The LaCie card uses the Silicon Image Sil 3512 SATALink Controller. This is what shows up in Windows Device Manager.

I’ve updated the driver to its latest version from Windows Update. But not the BIOS.

Now the download is simply a flashtool and a readme file thats gives the following command line instructions:

Procedures to run SiFlashTool .exe

· Open Windows command prompt

· Change to a directory where the SiFlashTool .exe and BIOS binary file are located.

· Run SiFlashTool to update the flash memory with BIOS binary code

The SiFlashTool.exe command line syntax is as follows:

SiFlashTool [/BusNum:xx /DevNum:xx] [/File:filespec] [/v]


BusNum / DevNum: These parameters specify the PCI bus and device number respectively of a Silicon Image storage controller. These parameters only need to be used if there is more than one Silicon Image storage controller in the system.

File: This parameter specifies the path and name of the BIOS image file to be programmed.

/V: This switch causes the program to only display the version number of a controller’s BIOS. No BIOS image is programmed when this switch is used. The /File parameter is ignored if specified along with this switch. If /BusNum and/or /Devnum are specified, then only the BIOS versions of controller’s at the specified PCI locations are displayed.

If I Run it with /V it tells me that BusNum is 05 and DevNum is 04.

Question One, what BIOS binary file are they talking about?

Question two, how am I supposed to include the BusNum and DevNum arguments?


Many thanks for any help all the hardware and command prompt gurus out there can give.

Why I Just Bought A Dell (instead of an iPad)

295 best_experience_20100127

Even with all the iPad hysteria in yonder interwebs, there is one fact that differentiates the iPad from a true, bad-to-the-bone laptop: the need to sync.

This above all else cripples the iPad (at least when one considers it against the backdrop of the average laptop hardware spec). Think of it. How are you going to get all those wonderful iPhone apps you’ve bought over the past three years onto your brand spanking new iPad?? You need to sync it. How are you going to get your music, tv shows and movies on top your iPad? You need to sync it. In fact, how are you going to get some swanky software update that Apple will surely release on to your iPad without syncing it??

I have that problem with my iPhones at the moment. My iTunes library  that i sync the iPhones to got borked a few weeks back. Now I have to erase and re-sync BOTH iPhones with my partially rebuild library (its a bit of a hit or miss process). Until I do that, I can get stuff off the devices, but not sync stuff to them. Bit of a pain, no?? Its going to be even worse with the iPad if I’m ever in this sticky situation with it.

Secondly, the iPad runs iPhone OS3.2, the laptop runs Windows 7 Professional. Which gives me the great freedom of applications?? It depends. I have no qualms about the app store. Its the type of application that is allowed on the iPad/iPhone thats the problem. Apple clearly prohibits running Virtual machines, or any kind of Just In Time compiliation on the device in question. So how do I write code on the thing?? (writing code is useless if you can’t compile in real time and debug). A Jailbreak is out of the question , and even then, Visual Studio is certainly not coming to a jailbroken iPad near you.

Second, the hardware itself limits what kind of applications you can run. If Adobe produces a stripped down version of Photoshop (likely – they already have a Photoshop iPhone app), Lightroom (possible, it depends on if the SDK allows access to the SD and USB port adaptors) or Illustrator (after Apple demonstrated the drawing capabilities of the iPad, why not?), you can bet your bottom dollar that they are not going to be anywhere as full featured and powerful as their desktop (and laptop) counterparts. The hardware is Apple’s very own custom silicon. The A4 system-on-a-chip made by PA Semi for its parent company runs at 1Ghz. Not exactly world class performance. And until we have industry standard bench marks, nobody can say for sure. Nevertheless, this nice Dell system runs a Intel® Core™2 T6670(2.2GHz,800MHz,2MB). A nice speed improvement, if I do say so myself. The current consensus is that the iPad has about a 1Gb of RAM. Compared to the 4Gbs in the Dell build.

Now I do a lot of typing on my laptop – whether thats for code or for taking notes or the occasional blog post. So the Keyboard is must for me. The iPad keyboard dock is an ingenious design, and would look good on just about any desktop (not to mention those nice display tables at the Apple Store). It goes along way to answering those critics who, after three years of using their iPhone virtual keyboards, still like their tactile feedback (not to mention the much improved ergonomics of writing volumes on the keyboard dock rather than just on your lap – there must be some ergonomically minded lobby that would blame apple for all the RSI around, right?). What i can’t imagine is lugging the dock all the way to uni, setting it up and then putting this tiny little iPad on it and then taking notes for three hours (mind you, after actually trying this I may change my mind, but thats months away). Equally, I can’t imagine turning up to a busness meeting armed with the keyboard dock and iPad – i’d be the laughing stock of any (Dell-dominated) conference table.

In saying that the iPhone virtual keyboard has been very good to me. If one had to graph the spelling mistakes I (inadvertently) tweet, there is a continual improvement ( a reverse hockey stick graph if you will). So I’m certainly not against the virtual keyboard on the iPad. How it will actually work, however, is another question altogether. I’m typeing this on the last Dell laptop i bought, and the keys give me firm, reassuring feedback. Not to mention the almost soothing sound the keys make as I type, the sound of success (if I an’t typing, I aint working).

Then there is battery. Now, if Apple is to be believed, the iPad has 10 hours of battery life and a month of standby. No idea if that’s 10 ours of general use, of video playback, of web browsing or music playback etc. Going by the iPhone’s track record I’m not so sure I’m always going to get 10 hours out of the thing. However, the 10 hours still far outlives the seven i had for two years with the current laptop’s 9 cell li-ion battery. And the 2 hours I’ve lived with for the past for months. And the zero hours that I’ve had for a week and a half now.

Now lets think of the gravy.

One, the laptop has no app store. On the minus side, this means that I have to source the applications I wish to run myself.  I have replacements for all the iPads built in applications. This, ironically enough, includes iBooks. Its called Kindle for PC. From Amazon. (Amazon’s actions over the weekend is a subject for another post, but read this brilliant article by the author John Scalazi). I have the Full Creative suite 3 from Adobe. I have Microsoft’s Expression Studio 3. I have Visual studio 2008 and 2010. I have SQL Server 2008. I have Office 2008 (soon to be 2010). I have a virtual swiss knife of utilities near and dear to my heart for everything from screen capture to April fools jokes.

Two, webcam. This laptop build has an integrated webcam. And the iPad does not. And yes, I’ve heard of those rumors of the camera cavity in the iPad’s frame. And yes there is every possibility that el Steveo will pull a One More Thing on launch day and announce the addition of a camera. But here we deal with certainties and absolutes, not obscure fantasies and wet dreams of fanboys. So we assume that there is no camera on the iPad version 1. But, again assuming that the SDK allows the access, the appearance of the third party webcam is almost assured. But still, I have a integrated webcam here and now.

Third, 64 bit. This is a 64 bit processor with a 64 bit OS. Need I say more?

Forth, DVD drive. For those movies I’d like to watch without going though the palava of syncing them. The benefits of having the DVD drive handy are still very much apparent, even in this age of the cloud and the on demand nature of the downloading programs off the web (legitimately, of course). The iPad is complete dependant on the internet for its software, music, and there is iTunes syncing for anything else.

The one question mark here, which I will require an actual iPad to answer, is the screen. The Dell screen is anti glare, and promises to be a significant improvement on the screen on my current laptop. The iPad screen is IPS and supposedly has a great viewing angle. According to Steve Jobs, that is. No-one has had it in direct sunlight yet, so we’ve no idea how well it handles the glare. The winner in this category will undoubtedly be Amazons Kindle (that pesky Company again).

So with out further ado, here are the specs:

Vostro 1520 : Standard Base

4096MB 800 MHz Dual Channel DDR2 SDRAM (2x2GB)

Internal Keyboard – English (QWERTY)

Video Card
Integrated GMA X4500 HD Graphics

Hard Drive
320GB (7,200rpm) Serial ATA Hard Drive with Free Fall Sensor

Microsoft Operating System
English Genuine Windows® 7 Professional (64 BIT)

Optical Devices
8X DVD+/-RW Drive including software for WIN7

Wireless Networking
Dell Wireless 1397 Mini Card (802.11 b/g) European

Primary Battery
Primary 6-cell 56 WHr Lithium Ion battery

Intel® Core™2 T6670(2.2GHz,800MHz,2MB)

Integrated 1.3MP Camera

Colour Choice
Obsidian Black

15.4 inch WXGA+ CCFL Anti-Glare Display Anti-Glare


Now, I don’t know why i waited so long to install this iPhone app, but this app is seriously cool.

What better time to try this than on holiday (in the Dominican Republic, no less)?? (more on the holiday in another post)

So, here are the pics:

IMG_0752 IMG_0762 IMG_0776 IMG_0788 IMG_0799 IMG_0800  IMG_0836 IMG_0845 IMG_0835


(click to see the source pic)

Worked fairly well. Its not foolproof and you will see some ghosting  where the images have not lines up completely.  I may redo the pano’s with Photoshop and do a comparison.

Movement does tend to screw things up, but not always.

Taking those pano’s of the beach proves to be a tad difficult. If the sky is completely blue, there’s not much to differentiate one pic from another.

This is just another of example of the iPhone continuing to surprise.

So before I join the AutoStitch praising echo chamber, I’ll leave it here.

(PS. At £1.19 it is a steal)

How the Zune will save the Music Industry (or why I want one)

I must say, upfront, that i think the Zune HD is an excellent device. While admitantly below par when compared to the iPod Touch or the iPhone.

There are still weak points, like the mobile browser being IE6 based ( IE6 has more holes than Swiss cheese).

But the Zune is not simply pure hardware. The Zune Pass you can purchase ($15??) gives you essentially unlimited music (plus 10 free tracks a month that are yours to keep forever).

That is the key to the Zune succeeding big in the world. Think of the implications for your music listening habits.

The Zune will scan your music library and download tracks that complement it. Automatically. No human input required. No Passwords, nothing. Nada. This is great for music discovery, not to mention indie bands and labels whose work may not be as well known.

Andy Ihnatko  made the point on last weeks episode of Macbreak Weekly that instead of simply being restricted to 30 second previews per track of an album, Zune Pass allows you to just download and buy the whole album. I had that situation just the other day. I was trying to figure out if I should get the soundtrack to 500 Days of Summer (great movie BTW, but I digress) from iTunes. If I had Zune Pass, I could get the whole thing and only then decide if I like it. I could then make that my 10 free tracks for the month.

Talking of which, that episode is a must listen since it centres on the Zune HD.

Also available on the Zune are TV programs and movies, although the catalogue is far smaller than the one on iTunes. I’m not totally sure whether this is included in the Zune Pass, but lets assume for a minute, that it is. Since it should be.

See at the moment I’ve bought 3 seasons of The West Wing on iTunes. All of which were a perfectly reasonable £19.99 each. Now season 4 is £34.99. I’d like to buy Season 4, really. But that is too darn expensive. I can rent a few movies every weekend for a month for that price. If I had a Zune Pass, this would be a different story completely. You see i really DON’T want 60 West Wing episodes taking up space on my Hard Drives. Apple can have them back. But I do want to continue watching the series. A Zune Pass would let me do both of those things.

I’m sure that both Apple and the Record Labels and the Studios would love for me to continue spending money. But as long as prices are that high, my money isn’t going anywhere. What would you rather have, a burst of income once in a blue moon, or a steady, albeit lower than usual, income stream??? Multiply that by  millions of millions of subscribers and you’re sitting on a friggin’ fortune.

As I said on Twitter earlier, make it easier for customer to spend their hard-earned cash on things they actually want to buy. I want to buy music and that 4th season of the West Wing, really, but i want a Zune Pass. Or an iTunes Pass. Something.

It goes without saying that this will deter many MANY (illegal) casual file sharers. The benefits of a Zune pass are extraordinarily compelling.

I suspect that the music industry  and the studios are dragging its heels on this. Let the Zune go global, and let iTunes do something similar.

Fans every will thank you.

PS. Apple. I want wireless syncing with my iPhone. Now.

WHS: Virtual Server

As I promised, I’m posting a How To for installing Virtual Server on WHS.

A word to the wise:

I’ve a 2.8Ghz Celeron D with 2GB RAM to run this on. Virtual Server can provision processor usage to an extent, but it uses RAM like there’s no tomorrow. Don’t forget that it has to play nicely with WHS (specifically DEmigrator.exe that burns CPU cycles) and other stuff like defrag passes and anti-virus.

Since WHS is built on top of Small Business Server,  the underlying OS is essentially the same. Hence no compatibility issues.

Installing Virtual Server is relatively straight forward.

First, download Virtual Server 2005 from here.

Then Download the Service Pack from here.

Open a Remote Desktop Session or use the Advanced Admin console tab to access the WHS desktop.

Now, its up to you whether you want to install the program files to C drive or D drive. Its worth noting that the Virtual Machines are stored separately in a location you specify on a per VM basis.

Once the install( including that of the service pack) is completed go to Start -> All Programs -> Microsoft Virtual server and hit the Administration Website shortcut.

You get this:


Note: I was accessing this remotely so had to prefix the user name with “server\”.

Otherwise, these are your WHS credentials that you use to access the console or remote in to WHS.

This is the webpage you get to (click for a larger version):


As you can see I have two virtual machines listed. One of which is currently  running.

I find that its easier to manage the server remotely, so copy the web site shortcut from the Start Menu to a network share. This now allows you to reach the web site from any connected PC.

If you’ve done this, close Remote Desktop and try it. The Default IIS settings that the install configures for you should be OK.

Setting up a Virtual Machine couldn’t be simpler:

First we want to set the default location of our Virtual Machines. Go to Server Properties at the bottom of the Sidebar and click on Search Paths. Change the Default virtual machine configuration folder to your desired location. I’ve been using a network share with replication turned off.


You can also set default paths for ISO’s that you will use. These will show up when you configure the VM’s Cd/DVD drive.

And press Ok when you’re done.

Hit Create under the Virtual machines section of the sidebar:


Enter all the info on the screen.

The RAM that the Virtual Machine is assigned is occupied as soon as the VM starts up. So be careful when doing this.

You have a choice of creating a new Virtual Hard Drive or attaching an existing one. make sure that the size of the hard drive is enough for your needs. Expanding it later can be a little difficult.  And choose a SCSI bus if you intend to have multiple VHDs attached to the same machine.

The VHD actual file size increases as you add data to it. It stops at the logical size of the VHD. So a 80Gb VHD can no be larger than 80Gb on disk.

You can also choose to create the VM without an attached hard disk.

Pressing “create” takes us to the Vm config page:


You can also reach this page by selecting your VM from the Configure menu under the Virtual Machines Section of the Sidebar.

This is where you change items such as memory, hard disks, CD/DVD ROM drives, Networking, SCSI Adaptors, COM and  LRP ports.

Each option takes you to a new page were you configure settings specific to that area.

Its worth noting here that the VM needs to be Shutdown for some operations. But you can still change the location of the media that the CD/DVD ROM drive captures while the VM is running.

You can also set the VM to start up automatically with WHS by going to the Server properties.


With my Windows Server 2003 VM running constantly, the WHS automatic restarts could be a problem. All I do is check the box, input the account details, set a delay ( in my case, 600 seconds) and tell Virtual server to save the VM’s state when WHS shuts down. The delay is actually a pretty nifty feature as it allows WHS to initialise itself, bringing all its processes online, before starting the VM.

One more thing I have to cover for running this on WHS is Resource Allocation:


You’ll find it the bottom of the sidebar.

As you can see my VM has 50% Max Processor capacity to play with. This protects the WHS processes from being starved of resources.

Once you’ve got your VM set up and you’ve installed you software all you have to do is remote in using the Remote Control facility the web site provides you with ( its good for the initial setup such as enabling Remote desktop Connections and so forth). All you do is double click on the VM icon  on the front page.

I also recommend installing VM Additions (the ISO for it comes with Virtual Server and is a default option for the CD/DVDROM drive) that will improve the way the VM behaves within the Virtual Server environment.

Additionally, this post probably scratches the surface of what’s possible with this.

And I’m sure I’ve got a few things (unintentionally) wrong along the way so its not fool proof, so YMMV ( Your Mileage May Vary).

Happy Hacking…

Windows Home Server: Resource Deconfliction

As more and more Windows Home Server Add-Ons are introduced, WHS becomes more and more like an appliance than a piece of software (and hardware).

More and more Add-ons mean that we ask more and more of our systems. These demands mean that finite resources have to allocated and shared with the WHS software itself.

DEMigrator.exe comes to mind ( the magic behind folder duplication). Since DeMigrator does not actually have a front end ( short of turning off folder duplication), it is impossible to pause or stop it when its running in favour of something more urgent. Granted we could change our backup window, but this is not always convenient or possible.

What WHS needs is some way of managing resources on a much more granular level than process priorities. By that I mean that WHS makes  a logical guess as to what process(es) need to run now  and what processes are less immediate.

So if I use SageTV to record show x at time y and a defrag ( or other processor intensive program) is scheduled to run at the same time, we need resource deconfliction to kick in and sort it out. We can do this in one of two ways: either throttle back the proccessor intensive process or re schedule it ( if the drive isn’t very fragmented a missed defrag pass wont make much of a difference).

Naturally, we can’t expect this souped up task scheduler to be able to handle every occurrence of every program. this means that WHS would simply notify the offending process(es) of the situation and it would be up to the program to implement a responsible and reasonable strategy to handle that.

If you’ve got a high end system running WHS, this discussion isn’t very dramatic. But between backups, defrags, virus scans, DeMigrator, SageTV  and others ad nauseam  ( even automatic Windows Update needs to be able to safely restart) jockeying for resources, something needs to manage this safely and well.

Essentially, this is bringing WHS closer to the headless system originally envisioned. It would save me a lot of Remoteing in every day.

Before we finish, let take a look at the specs for the WHS systems commercially available from HP, etc to get an idea of exactly what resources are available.

The Microsoft minimum spec is 1Ghz and 512Mb RAM and 1x 70Gb drive.

The recommended spec is 64-bit Compatible Intel Pentium 4, AMD x64 or newer with 512Mb Ram and 2x hard drives with a 300GB primary disk.

  CPU RAM Hard Drive
HP Media Smart AMD 1.8 GHZ 64-bit Sempron 3400+ processor 512Mb 2x 500Gb
Norco DS-520 Intel Celeron M 1GHz 1Gb 1x 250Gb
Piranha Home Server Intel Celeron 430 (1.8GHz, 512KB, Conroe) 1GB 2x250Gb
T2-WHS-A3 Harmony Home Server Intel Celeron 220 1.2GHz 512Mb (1Gb Optional) 1 x 500Gb (1Tb/2Tb Optional)
T7-HSA Harmony Home Server Via C7M “Esther” 1.5Ghz 512Mb (1Gb Optional) 1 x 500Gb (1Tb Optional)
My own homebuilt system (Dell  Poweredge SC440) Intel Celeron D 2.8Ghz 2GB 1x160Gb

I think this is a pretty representative sample of the entire range. You can get the reviews on these servers and others from We Got Served Hardware page.

NB. The extra possibilities of multi-core  64 bit machines allowing true concurrent execution are mind boggling.

Hardware Upgrades- Vista and WHS

I just upgraded my main PC from XP to Vista  Business. And stuck a new graphics card in.

Before we discuss the Windows Experience Index, the only down side of the upgrade is that there are no Vista drivers for the front ports ( USB, SD, etc)  or the built in sound card from Compaq. None. Their driver downloads page for the model ( SR1629 UK) essentially says “best of luck” for those upgrading to Vista.

In fact, I suspect that the model number of my PC is different to that on the page as the picture does not show the front card reader and the drivers don’t show up for it. Any Suggestions???

This is extremely inconvenient, as you might imagine.I’ve lost 3 USB ports and  a 9-in one card reader. The sound issue was fixed by buying a cheap SoundBlaster Creative card.

I bought a  Radeon HD 3650 PCI- Express card.  512MB of GDDR3 RAM (that has a 1.73GHZ clock). A 790Mhz engine clock. Crossfire X support as well as full HD. The graphics that come out of this thing are amazing.

I bought it mainly to play Flight Simulator X on it and it rocks ( though I’m still adjusting the settings to get the best combination of  graphics and speed/playability).

Here’s the System information page with the Windows Experience Index:


And here’s the breakdown:


I must say I was expecting a dramatic improvement, but not by THAT much. Can’t remember what the original score was before I put the card in, but it was pretty dramatic.

There is a pretty in-depth discussion of the Index on the Vista Team blog here.

Moving on.

My Windows Home Server has been screaming for the last week that the USB drive had failed ( its connected and turned on and has been tried on multiple USB ports on multiple PCs). I’m not sure precisely what happened but I’m a hard drive short and have 200Gbs of space left.


So I’ve ordered two Samsung SpinPoint F1 750GB SATA-II drives. One to replace the failed USB hard drive and the other to replace the aging 80Gb IDE drive. Since there is the hard drive replication feature, I’ve gone down the path of more drives rather than higher drive capacity.  This should take my total drive capacity to about 2 TB, which is plenty. I go through hard drive space rather fast, mainly cause I use SageTv to record Tv and virtual server to run the occasional VM ( I have a 44 GB VM, to give you an idea of size).

I got all this great hardware from a UK company called Overclockers UK. Great customer service. They have no problem dealing with returned items (I had to return a AGP card because my system was PCI-E). They are quite reasonably priced and have some really amazing specials quite often.

My hard drives were shipped 40 minutes after my confirmation arrived in my inbox. And that really is amazing service. If i need hard ware, they’re my first port of call. Well done guys!!