Gutting an NES

Last week I bought an NES off of eBay.  I paid a whopping $10 for it!  It didn’t include any of the power or TV cables, but that didn’t matter to me because I planned on gutting it for my retro machine.

It took me a couple of days to find a screwdriver that could open the thing up.  The screws are standard screws, but the screwdriver needs to be really thin to get access to the screws.

Here is it opened up

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Once all the parts were taken out of the NES I sealed it back up so I wouldn’t lose the screws.  Here it is empty.

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And all sealed back up…

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Now I just need to find a Dremel tool to cut the insides apart so I can fit my PC in there.

Until next time…..

 

 

 

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ColecoVision is up and running

Hey there,

After spending a few minutes on it I was able to get colecovision up and running.

If you ever encounter an issue, the Coleco systems require a bios file to run. It’s easy enough to find, but it just needs to go on the correct location.

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Here’s Donkey Kong running.

Next up I’m going to tackle Intellivision.

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Just got 2600 up and running

I got some amazing 2600 USB joysticks from Curt Vendell a few months ago.  I thought they would be amazing for my new game console.

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Problem is, while they are terrific for playing the game, they don’t work for selecting the game options.  I didn’t see this coming, but of course there are a lot of physical buttons on the base consoles, and how can those be replicated on the controller?  This seems like it will be the biggest problem with the Atari 2600.

Should I add a keyboard/mouse combination to my retro console?  That seems a little ‘not faithful’ to the original console concept.

What to do?  What to do….

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It’s a start

I finally got all the windows xp updates installed, along with all the various drivers for the Intel Atom d510. That certainly took awhile!

The next step was to get as couple of systems emulated. The first thing I did was install Arcade Maximus – it’s the same frontend I used for my arcade machine and it works great.

After getting that setup I wanted to take it slow. The first thing I installed was 2600 support — which represents the low end of what I need. Once I got that up and running I went for the high end of my system, the n64. I really just wanted to make sure that my Intel Atom could handle it and sure enough it could.

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So next up I need to get all the systems working with my keyboard.

I also ordered an old nes system off eBay so I can begin the hardware modifications.

Once that’s all setup I’ll start ordering the controllers. Very exciting, but keep in mind this is going to be a long project; most likely a couple of months.

That’s all the news that’s fit to print for now!

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Systems I want to emulate

Hey there,

So I put together a list of systems I want to be able to run. Since I want to use original controllers for each, it will likely take me a while to get all the hardware.

Here goes:

Atari 2600 (luckily I already have USB joysticks for this one)
Intellivision
ColecoVision
Neo Geo
Nintendo 64
NES
SNES
Sega Genesis
TurboGrafX

Are there any consoles you think are missing?

Also, there’s a piece of hardware that plugs in via USB that allows you to run actual cartridges for some of the systems. I may get that as well.

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New retro computer

Hey there,

It’s been awhile since I posted but wanted to talk about a new project I’m going to start.

I started thinking about retro games a few days ago. I still have my arcade machine which is great for the old arcade classics but I really want to play the old console games on my TV. Specifically I really want to jump back in to N64 games.

I know that Ouya has great classic game support but I don’t have one. I realized that I have so much old tech lying around the house that I could probably build a machine out of spare parts. I think I can do this without spending very much money at all.

I found an old computer in my closet that’s running a dual core Atom processor at 1.66ghz. I’m not sure it’s going to be good enough so I’m installing Windows on it now for testing.

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Once I get the computer set up I’m going to do a case mod using an old NES. I also want to be able to use the original controllers from each console and run the whole thing through my TV.

This should be fun.

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Installing the computer into the arcade machine

 

 

 

 

Hello interwebz,

So, here is where the arcade machine is now.  I think it’s starting to look really good!

All the buttons are in, the cabinet is painted and (mostly) assembled.  And now it’s time to get the electronics into it!

Here’s the computer I’ll be using.  I built this computer about 2 years and it’s been used as a 1)PC Gaming rig, 2) Windows Media Center, 3) Windows Home Server and now 4) Arcade machine.

This computer is a 2.4GhZ Intel Core 2 Duo (or something like that).  It’s *plenty* fast enough to do what we are doing here.

 

 

 

 

 

Here’s the start.  The mainboard is mounted into the arcade machine.  I used plastic mounts that screwed into the wood so the mainboard didn’t sit directly on the wood.

 

 

 

 

I then installed the power supply, the graphics card and the hard drive.  I wired everything up and got it to power on.

 

 

 

 

 

This mess has been in the living room for at least a week.  I really don’t know how my wife tolerates my ‘shenanigans.’

Here you can see the computer mounted in the arcade cabinet, running out to the TV, with the speakers on the left.  At the bottom of the picture you can see there’s still a wire connecting the case to the mounted computer.  That wire is to turn the power on and off.  Later that wire will be connected to a red arcade button mounted on the back of the unit.  To turn on and off the unit, all you need to do is press the button and voila!  Arcade GOLD!

 

Now all we have to do is stitch this thing together.  In this picture, the computer is getting screwed into the whole cabinet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And now it’s time to install the monitor.  I installed two bars that go from left to right in the cabinet.  You can see the first black bar here above the control panel.  These two bars will prevent the monitor from falling inside the machine.  The monitor will be installed from the front and then covered with plexiglass that I will screw into the cabinet.  Once I do that, that monitor’s not going anywhere!

 

 

 

 

 

Here are the two bars fully screwed into the cabinet.  You can also see all the buttons and joysticks wired up.  The buttons were a bit of a pain, because each connector was a little too big so they were loose and kept sliding off their contact points (thus making the button useless).  I went in with a pair of pliers and crimped each connection so we wouldn’t have a problem with lost connections.

 

 

 

 

 

 

We are getting really close to having a finished cabinet here.  From here on out it’s mostly a game of tetris trying to figure out how to get everything into the arcade cabinet.

Thanks for reading!
Robert.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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My control panel

Hello Interwebz

It’s been a while since I posted about the arcade machine.  Sorry about that.  I hope to post more over the next few days.

Today is the day that I made the control panel.  The process is pretty simple but takes a lot of drilling.

The first step is to measure the control panel so you know how much room you have to work with.  Once measured, it’s time to start planning out how you want to lay out the controls.

I knew a couple of things.  First, I knew I needed two joysticks.  I didn’t care about a trackball or spinner, but two joysticks is an absolute must so I can play Robotron and Smash TV.  I also knew that I wanted at least 6 buttons, but if there’s room 8 would be good too.  Based on that I hopped into Adobe Illustrator and came up with a few different layouts before I decided on my final layout.  And here it is…

You can see the joysticks on the left and the right with the buttons in the middle.  Once I was happy with the layout I pasted the printed piece of paper onto the wood and noted my drill marks.

Now that the marks are noted in the wood, I am ready to drill!  To drill the holes, you need a 1 1/8″ drill bit.  That’s a huge hole, but once drilled the buttons and joysticks will go right in place.

 

 

 

And here’s the panel drilled out.  My only complaint is that the button holes are a little close together.  On my next control panel I will space them a little further apart.

 

And now it’s time to put the buttons and joysticks in!

 

Here is the panel with the buttons and joysticks installed.  I was thinking about doing a vinyl control panel overlay (so I can put fun graphics on the panel) but ultimately decided against it.  So this thing is ready to go!

Next up, I need to put microswitches into the joysticks and buttons.  For those interested, microswitches are the physical switches that plug into joysticks and buttons that send signal to the machine.

To go a little more in depth, let’s look at the buttons.  The button is literally a piece of plastic and a spring.  The microswitch clips on at the button of the joystick so that when the button is depressed, it completes the microswitch connection and sends a signal to the electronics in the machine.  This is what causes Mario to jump.  A button uses one microswitch and a joystick uses four.

Here’s the bottom of the control panel with all the microswitches installed into the machine.

That’s it for today.  Next up, getting the computer installed.  Soon, we will play games!

Thanks,

Robert.

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Songs for my arcade machine

So, the frontend that I'm using allows me to create an 'ambience' soundtrack.  This 
will play a certain set of songs while in the menus, choosing your game.  
So I'm creating an "ambience" playlist.  These are mostly songs I 
remember hearing while playing arcade games when I was a kid.  Here's 
what I came up with so far:

AC/DC - Hells Bells
Clash - Rock the Casbah
Journey - Don't Stop Believin - Separate Ways
Def Leppard - Photograph
Styx - Rockin the Paradise - Too Much Time on My Hands - Mr Roboto
Cars - Shake it Up
Billy Squire - Stroke
Golden Earring - Twilight Zone
Devo - Whip It
Hall and Oates - I can't go for that
ELO - Livin Thing
Michael Jackson - Beat It
Duran Duran - Is There Something I Should Know
Blondie - Rapture
Rick Springfield - Jesse's Girl
Survivor - Eye of the Tiger
J. Geils Band - Centerfold

Can you think of any others???
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Big day for the arcade machine!

Hey there,

Today ended up being a bit of a big day for the arcade machine.  I received some more parts, plus I did my first drilling!

This is a package I received from Ultimarc.  This is going to have a couple of critical pieces for the machine.

 

 

 

 

The first thing I received is a pack of 10 buttons (which I later will find out isn’t enough).  They are made by Happs Electronics and got great reviews.  I decided to get the red buttons for the old school arcade look.

 

 

 

I also got the I-PAC.  This is the keyboard interface that translates the button presses to the computer.  Each button and joystick gets wired into this, and then this plugs into the computer via USB.  This supports enough buttons for two players, although since my cabinet is so small my control panel will only need buttons for one player.

 

 

Next up is to start working on the cabinet.  Here is the cabinet as it arrived in the mail.  As you can see it’s completely disassembled.  The thing on the right is the plexiglass to cover the monitor as well as the marquee.

It looks like I have my work cut out for me!!

 

 

The first thing I wanted to do was to drill a button into each side panel.  This will allow me to play pinball games.  Since I know absolutely nothing about drilling you can see my method was rather ‘basic.’  The good thing is that I learned from this and it helped me ‘perfect’ my craft.  (note: Adobe Illustrator is your friend when creating the control panel).

 

My first drill hole!  I used a 1 1/8″ drill bit which is kind of a monster.  You can see there’s a big scratch on the side of the drill hole.  I’m not too worried about it because I am going to be sanding and painting this panel.


 

 

Aaaaand, the button fits perfectly!

 

 

 

 

 

Here’s the second side panel drilled with the button attached.  I did a much better job this time with the drilling.

 

 

 

 

That’s all for today.  Stuff is starting to come together 😉  And now I’m off to The Cape to hang out with my friend Michelle!

Thanks,
Robert.

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Easy day for the arcade machine

Hey everybody!

Not much happened today on the arcade front.  Here’s the lowdown:

Today I received this power strip.  This power strip is really unique because it senses if a specific plug is active.  If it is, it turns on all the other plugs.  This means when the computer is awake it will wake up everything else (monitor, lights, etc).  When the computer goes to sleep, it will cut the power to everything else.  Well, at least that’s the theory!

 

This is The Big Kahuna!  The arcade cabinet arrived.  Now I get to start the process of drilling, painting and wiring.  Wish me luck 😉

 

 

 

 

This also came in the mail today….it’s my replacement PC keyboard!  Now I can actually start setting up my PC.  But first…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Home Depot!  I expect I’ll be spending a lot of time here.  The first thing I wanted to buy here is the primer for the cabinet.  I know a couple of things about the cabinet now that I’ve received it.  First, it’s not that big so it shouldn’t take a ton of primer or paint.  Second, the finish is melamine, which is a type of plastic that’s coating the pressboard.

 

The nice lady at Home Depot turned me on to a type of primer called Glidden Gripper.  Apparently this stuff sticks to anything.  That and a box full of sandpaper sponges and I should be good to go.  She did warn me that it would take a lot of sanding to get that finish worn down to a point it could take paint.

Before I start painting the sides of the cabinet (the only thing I’m going to paint), I need to drill the button holes.  I want to have buttons on the side of the cabinet so I can play pinball games.  So the buttons need to arrive, then I can drill the holes, then I can sand and primer.  What the hell did I get myself into here?

Now back to the PC setup.  I decided to use a dedicated frontend called Hyperspin.  You can check it out here:  http://hyperspin-fe.com/

Hyperspin looks like a really good looking frontend for all my emulators.  It looks like it can seamlessly transition between games, game systems, and everything else — they even boast they can support a media center.

With all that power comes a lot of configuration.  I’m a few hours into trying to set this up, and man is it a pain!  To be fair, MAME (which controls the old-school arcade roms) set up perfectly and very easily.  But trying to set up Atari 2600, Atari 5200 or Daphne is a complete pain.  I’ll have to come back to that later after some research on the interwebz.

I think that’s enough arcade machine talk for today.  I’m beat!

Thanks
Robert.

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Starting to set up the arcade machine

Hello!

I got a couple more parts today, and now is the time to set up the computer.

This is the monitor.  It’s a 19″ 4:3 monitor.  I couldn’t go widescreen with this because it wouldn’t fit in the case.  Also, most of the old arcade roms are in 4:3 mode anyway, so there’s no problem.

There’s a debate about LCT vs CRT screens in an arcade machine.  CRT screens are absolutely better.  They make the old arcade games look really authentic.  If you can get an original arcade tube, that’s even better.  For me though, the LCD is good enough.  Plus I just don’t have the space for a huge CRT — our place is small.

Next up, I need to install the video card.  I have a massive high-end video card in my PC now, but for this I need something simple.  I chose a low-end ATI card pictured here.

The only problem is I couldn’t get this card working.  No picture, no nothing.  D’oh!  It looks like I need to keep my current card in the PC and just swap it out later.

 

 

 

And another minor stumbling block.  My video card only has DVI out, while my monitor only has VGA in.  <sarcasm> I love computers.</sarcasm>

So I had to go to my basement and see if I had the correct adapter.  Luckily, I did!  Stumbling block averted!

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’ll be taking the guts of the computer out of the case soon enough.  But for installing Windows and setting up everything, it’s better to work in the case.

Now to hook up the keyboard and mouse to the computer so I can start working.  This computer was originally a PC game machine, and then repurposed to a server (at which point I got rid of the keyboard).  Now that I’m setting it up as a arcade machine, I needed a keyboard so I could install everything.  I went to Amazon.com and bought the cheapest one I could fine.  Here’s how it showed up:

Of course the keyboard is broken.  Why wouldn’t it be?  Sometimes I ask myself why do I even bother.

My wife’s computer has a keyboard, but I needed to wait until she was done working so I could use that one until I got a replacement keyboard.  I also set up remote desktop so I could work on the machine from my Mac.

Here’s a picture of the guts of the computer:

Not bad for an arcade machine.  I built this computer myself two or three years ago.  It will go to good use.

Next up, install Windows 7 and start installing ROMS.  And a couple of hours later…

The first thing I wanted to get working was the Dragon’s Lair emulator (known as DAPHNE).  It wasn’t that hard to set up (thankfully)

Not a bad day of effort for the machine!

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Arcade machine parts are arriving!

Hey everybody,

So I started receiving parts today for my arcade machine in the mail.  It was a really fun day.  Here’s the recap!

 

The first box that arrived?  What could it be???

 

 

 

 

 

Boo!!  It’s the connectors to the microswitches.  A necessary item, but not the most exciting thing on earth…

 

 

 

 

The next box that arrived?  What could this be??

 

 

 

 

 

And it’s the wrench to tighten the buttons to the control panel.  It makes things easier, but when am I going to get some exciting stuff???

 

 

 

 

And the next box to arrive!!

 

 

 

 

 

It’s a crappy $15 keyboard I bought from Amazon.com.  I wanted to use it to set up the computer.  But you know what, this was broken in shipping!  Wah wah.  Looks like I need to return it.

 

 

 

 

 

Another box??  I’m like a kid at Christmas….except so far I’ve only got uninteresting and broken things.  [insert something funny here] And…..

 

 

 

 

It’s some wire.  This will allow me to wire my controls to the keyboard encoder I mentioned in my last post.

 

 

 

 

Also in the box….a pair of speakers!  Guess what these do 😉

 

 

 

 

 

Another package.  This is really an amazing day.  How did I get so much stuff??

 

 

 

 

These are the microswitches.  For those that don’t know, these plug into the buttons and the joysticks.  The wire hooks into these and into the keyboard encoder.  The keyboard encoder hooks into the computer which translates the buttons to keypresses, which results in Mario jumping on screen!

 

 

 

 

These are the macadamia nut kisses that came with the microswitches.  Thanks Paradise Arcade Shop!

 

 

 

 

Final box of the day!  It better be good!

 

 

 

 

 

It’s the joysticks for the control panel and mounts for the computer .  The mounts will allow me to remove the computer mainboard from its current computer case and put it directly inside the arcade cabinet.  This doesn’t give any benefit other than looking cooler (and only when you open up the arcade machine).

 

So, pretty nerdy, but what are ya gonna do?

 

 

 

 

 

That’s all I received today.  There’s not much I can do as far as assembly, so for now this needs to go into a newly created ‘project pile’.  We’ll see what comes in the mail tomorrow!  I’m doing a lot of thinking about ‘the plan’ on how this thing will come together.

Will post more soon.

Thanks,
Robert.

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My arcade machine

Hi there,

It’s been awhile since I posted on this blog.  As you may know I’ve always been a tech guy, but I am undertaking something so nerdy, so techy that I think I’m even going to outnerd myself.

I am building my own arcade machine!  The goal is for me to have a fully functioning cabinet with all the emulators running (MAME, MESS, Daphne, etc) with a cool frontend that can link them all.  I built an arcade machine a long time ago with my buddy Jason Crawford, but we made one superhero mistake — trying to retrofit a JAMMA cabinet to work with a PC (or hacked Xbox 1).  It was a fun project, but that one made my brain melt a little 🙂

I’ve already started the project and have taken lots of pictures.  But I think the first step is for me to talk about what components I will be using to make the cabinet.  This is going to require a bit of explanation as I go along:

The book that got me started – http://www.amazon.com/Project-Arcade-Build-Your-Machine/dp/0764556169

Project Arcade is the name of this book.  The writer is clearly well-versed in arcade machines.  I got a lot of useful tips and inspiration from this book.

 

Cabinet – http://goo.gl/SySxa

I decided to go with the Ultimate Bartop 2 cabinet kit.  This has a really small footprint (our apartment is pretty small) but will still give me that arcade feeling.  If the cabinet turns out well and I find the space I can always build a pedestal to set it on later.

I bought the Ultimate Bartop 2 directly from North Coast Custom Arcades (www.mameroom.com).  They have been awesome.  I asked them to not drill any of the holes into the unit so I can drill my own custom control panel layout (I *must* have two joysticks so I can pay Robotron).  So I guess I’m going to need to learn how to drill!

Also, I plan on painting the sides of the cabinet.  I guess I’m going to need to learn how to paint!

 
Monitor – http://goo.gl/z2Eev

This is the monitor I purchased.  The largest monitor this cabinet will fit is 19″ and only in 4:3 mode.  We are going old school with this one baby!!

 

Joystick – http://goo.gl/0G4rJ

I bought two of these joysticks.  They can either be set to 4 way or 8 way.  Reviews on them have been good and they seem reliable.  At the end of the day I can always change these out if I don’t like them.

 

Microswitches – http://goo.gl/vew86

I bought these 50 gram microswitches.  I know there are a million places to buy microswitches, but I saw good recommendations for this store — and they are in Hawaii and I’ve always loved that place.  I couldn’t be happier with the microswitches.  They feel really nice, have a great weight and make a great sound.  Added bonus, they sent me Macadamia Nut Kisses with my order.  Very classy!

 

Keyboard encoder – http://goo.gl/haCgQ

This for me was a no-brainer.  From what I’ve read, this is THE keyboard encoder.  For those that don’t know what a keyboard encoder is, it’s a small unit that translates button presses and joystick directions to keyboard commands.  This unit plugs into the computer and when I wire my controls into it the computer simply thinks I’m playing these games with my keyboard.  I guess I’m going to need to learn how to wire!

 

Buttons – http://www.ultimarc.com/goldleaf.html

I bought my pushbuttons from Ultimarc.  Since I was buying the keyboard encoder from them I thought it made sense to buy the buttons as well (saves on shipping).  I just received the buttons today and they feel pretty good.  Plus, I can always change them out later if they don’t work out.

For the PC side of things I’m going to use an old Core 2 Duo 2.8GHz for this with a 1TB drive.  I put Windows 7 on there and loaded it up with stuff, but that’s another post.

I’ll be updating this regularly.  The machine is coming along really well, let’s just say I am learning alot about patience!

Thanks,
Robert.

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iPad update (or: can this thing replace a netbook?)

Hey!

Recently I took a trip to Seattle.  The trip was mostly for fun, but I ended up working quite a bit while I was out there.  For the first time I had the opportunity to take only my iPad with me on a trip.  I decided to bring my Netbook as well and let me tell you I’m glad I did!

Overall the iPad is a great experience when you’re not trying to work or do any heavy research.  When you’re watching media, doing light web surfing, emailing or taking notes the iPad is terrific.  However when I’m working I do a lot more than that.

Part of my psyche is when I have some down time I think of new things to do research on.  I’m always on the lookout for new software or gadgets that I can play with.  Currently I’m obsessed with Leo Laporte and his amazing podcasts.  This Week in Tech and his other podcasts are amazing from (among other things) a pure production standpoint.  As an aside, if I could make money doing podcasts I would seriously consider doing it full time.

I was doing research on his setup and I came across a piece of software called Wirecast.  While it’s not exactly what Leo uses, the software does a lot of similar things.  So I decided to check it out.  Doing my research I found that a lot of content about the product (movies, online interface demos, etc) simply wouldn’t show up on the iPad (I’m guessing because it was Flash).  I finally found a link to a video on the Apple site that I thought would give me more information.

http://www.seminars.apple.com/seminarsonline/videoliveweb/apple/index.html?s=203&locs=us_en

However, I couldn’t get the video to play on my iPad and I have no idea why!  It’s one thing for Flash video to not play on the iPad (as frustrating as that is) but a video on Apple’s site not playing is beyond excusable.  So I pulled out my Netbook.

Later that day I decided to set up a Twitter account that focuses on games.  The first step is that I wanted to create a Twitter account that syndicates gaming feeds.  Once I got that set up, I wanted to run a Twitter Bot to find as many gaming-related Twitter accounts as possible.  My goal for this Twitter account is to keep very current with all the gaming news and gossip.

Well, let me tell you there wasn’t a single part of that task which could be done using the iPad.  I couldn’t get the content syndication site (Twitterfeed) to work with iPad.  Once I went through the headache of getting the feeds into Twitterfeed I received some random errors that prevented me from setting up my account.  So I pulled out my Netbook.

Then trying to get the Twitter account set up and getting my followers set up using a bot is not possible at all using an iPad.  There is no mass search and add functionality for Twitter on the iPad.  So I pulled out my Netbook.

Next, I tried to check in for my flight using the iPad.  Unfortunately, JetBlue uses Flash for their seat assignment and checkin, and it didn’t work on the iPad.  So I pulled out my Netbook.

Finally, on the flight home I tried to do my weekly status report for work.  For me to do my status report, I need to read the status reports from my team (which are sent to me in email) and roll them up into a combined status report (in Word format) which I then send to my manager.

What normally takes me 15 minutes to do on my Netbook took almost an hour using my iPad.  Here’s the workflow on an iPad:

– Open email
– Copy the appropriate text from the email
– Close email
– Open Pages
– Paste the text in Pages and rewrite as necessary
– Format the text to match the rest of the document
– Close Pages
– Repeat for each issue for each status report (between 20-30 per week)

This completely drove me over the edge.  I can’t imagine how a simple task like this could be made more difficult.

For all these issues I blame myself in part because the iPad just wasn’t made to do everything a computer does.  My guess is, as the iPad matures as a platform it will be better equipped to handle these types of tasks.  For now however, I think for me it’s a glorified notepad with basic email functionality and media consumption device.

I really hope it becomes more than that for me.  Don’t get me wrong, I still love my iPad, but I now realize how limited the functionality truly is.

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Windows Media Center

Hi!

So you may already know this about me but I am kind of insane when it comes to technology and the promise of it helping us run our lives. To me, the promise of making things easier is very alluring and I often fall victim to that promise only to be disappointed by the reality that the tech just isn’t ready for prime time. I am particularly obsessed with technologies that focus on communications and media.

One of my recent colossal disasters was Windows Media Center. The promise is terrific… have a computer in the office/bedroom/wherever record your TV, manage your movies and be an overall great interactive TV experience. The reality is that it doesn’t actually do a great job at any of them.

To begin, here’s my setup:

– 2.8GHz PC running an Intel Core Duo processor (E7400 Wolfdale)
– 8 GB RAM
– 3TB HDD space (across 3 drives)
– 2 external ATI Digital Cable Tuners (with one cable card each installed)

This computer is in my office. It’s running a wired connection to my router, and I have Xbox 360’s in the bedroom and living room. The Xboxes are the only things plugged into my TV’s.

The idea seemed sound, have the computer run my TV’s and the Xboxes serve as extenders that stream video from the computer. With two tuners, I could have both Xboxes stream live TV, have one live channel playing while recording something else, or record two things at the same time. Since I have been dealing with multiple TiVos (and all their problems), centralized TV tuners were a really appealing idea to me. Plus the additional power of the 360, with Netflix/Zune integration, DVD playback and games seemed like a no-brainer.

Well, now is the time when you can cue the ‘whomp whomp’ sound, because this setup just doesn’t work. Don’t get me wrong, this is *meant* to work but there’s just no scenario where I see this working as a day-to-day TV solution.

First off, you’re running Windows. I have Windows 7 Ultimate 64-bit installed on the system and it’s a great OS. But, it’s not quite great enough to expect it to do everything it needs to do AND run your TV. Even basic browsing while you’re recording shows is a painful experience. Forget playing games of any kind while recording a show.

Second, when you’re recording two shows at the same time, the PC slows to a crawl. I’m talking slllooooowwwwww. In fact, it’s so slow that if it’s recording two shows, don’t even bother trying to watch TV because it’s not going to work. It got so bad that I needed to pay attention to the exact time certain shows aired. For example whenever Lost was on, I needed to go to the computer and shut off the other tuner because the computer would become so slow the tuner would drop frames while recording. Not exactly the point of having a DVR, and an issue I never had to worry about with TiVo.

Now let me tell you about the actual viewing experience. The 360 side is ok — at best. You turn the TV and the Xbox on, it goes straight into the Windows Media Center (a console setting you can turn on or off) and it puts you in the main menu. However, when you want to watch Live TV the whole thing sputters, your network traffic goes through the roof and finally it brings up channel. But, when it brings up the channel it drops most of the frames. Usually if you give it a minute or two it will start to display all the frames, but if it doesn’t you need to jump back 5-10 seconds using the remote which will give the computer time to catch up. BTW during this whole process the computer is maxed out at 100%.

God forbid if you turn on the TV, change the channel or bring up the guide on the half-hour or hour marks. Because that’s when the tuners are trying to change channels and begin recording new shows. If you make that mistake it’s at least 5 minutes of messing around with the remote, making sure the computer is ok and trying to figure out ‘what the hell it’s doing.’ Then, more often than not, a “Network Error” message will appear on the screen.

I used to have this saying to my wife, “it’s only stalling because we’re trying to watch it.” But at the end of the day, my question is ‘what the hell is that box doing?’

TiVo is a dual-tuner system that’s running a MUCH slower processor. And I don’t think I’ve ever had slowdown on a TiVo. Also, why does Windows Media Center require a hard-wired network connection? My TiVo’s have wireless connections and everything works just fine. I have a Roku box and it can stream HD over wireless connection, so what gives?

And I have tried to fix this. My original configuration was a 2GB Windows 7 32-bit install (on the same processor). I thought Windows Media Center needed more memory, so I installed the 64-bit version of Windows 7 and increased my memory to 8GB but no luck. I was wireless but WMC was always complaining so I went wired. It helped, but the experience is far from great.

So Microsoft, are you really trying to get in the DVR business, because this isn’t the way to do it? Perhaps the right way is for me to throw out the Extender concept and just use a dedicated PC plugged into the TV. But that’s likely to be a noisy, expensive proposition and may not actually solve the problem I’m trying to solve.

I think TiVo is a completely antiquated concept (why aren’t we all just streaming shows we want to watch off the internet directly to the TV?) but you know what, it actually works! I don’t think I’m going to upgrade my HD TiVo to the new ‘Ultimate” box anytime soon, but for me TiVo is pretty reliable. It’s a closed system, but it actually does a good job at what it’s supposed to do (record TV and let me watch it).

What’s your DVR solution? I would love to hear it! I need something that’s ‘wife approved’ because if she keeps having problems watching TV, I think she’s going to leave me (yet another reason Windows Media Center need to get it’s act together).

Thanks,
Robert

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iPad or Netbook?

Hi there!

I’ve been using the iPad for a couple of weeks now, and I’m liking it more now than when I first got it.  I’m writing a review of the iPad that focuses on my personal experience with it, which I’ll be posting in the coming days/weeks.

That said, I have a bigger question that I’m wrestling with.  You may have seen the Jeff Jarvis re-boxing video where he decided to return his iPad.  His argument is with all the other gadgets he has, the iPad doesn’t fit in his lifestyle.  I completely understand that argument.

However, I have a different take on the iPad.  I think it actually fits really well with my lifestyle.  The problem is that I have a LOT of computers and devices in my house, and I really need to focus on simplifying.  Here’s a rundown:

  • iPhone – This has no AT&T service, so I basically use it as an iPod Touch
  • Droid – This is my only mobile phone.  I love the Android OS, and it’s a bit of a hackers playground which really appeals to me
  • iPad – For me, this is the ideal instant-on, take a note, instant-off experience.  I use it at work and home for many things but I’ll go into more detail in my review of iPad coming soon.
  • Netbook – Asus EEPC 1005HA running Windows 7.  This thing has terrific battery life, is a real computer with a video camera.  I have an external DVD burner that goes along with it.  This is a 1.6GHZ Atom processor with 2GB ram and a 160GB HDD.  It’s light and small.
  • MacBook  – This is an older MacBook.  It’s a 1.8GHZ system with 2GB and a 320GB HDD.  It also has a camera.  I just bought a new battery for it (old one died) and it gets about 3-ish hours.
  • iMac – Aluminum, 2-ish GHZ system with a 640GB HDD and 4GB ram.  It’s a great reliable system.  This is usually the computer my wife uses.
  • PC – Home built, fast, dual monitor, lots of memory, the fans are really loud, runs Windows 7, yada yada.  This is my primary computer but I sometimes wonder why I need it.  Usually if I’m playing games I’ll just use my Xbox 360, Wii or PS3.

So my dilemma is that I need to get rid of something because I have so many redundant devices.  I think I’ve narrowed it down but I can’t make a decision on which device to shed myself of.  I feel that an iPad, a Netbook and a MacBook is just too much technology to have to solve the ‘computing-on-the-go’ problem.

The MacBook is great.  It runs OSX, I can reboot into Windows (or use Parallels).  It’s a little heavy, but it’s actually a completely capable computer.

The Netbook is also great.  I like that it’s really light and small, has terrific battery life (~10 hours), it’s got a video camera and runs reasonably fast.  It is a small computer so it’s not great for writing long mails and the screen is a bit small for me.

The iPad solves a lot of issues that the Netbook solves, but it doesn’t have a camera and runs a closed OS (meaning it’s difficult to view/edit Word and Excel docs for example).  However, the iPad is super-light, is instant on, and is great for meetings, sitting on the couch, etc.  I have the Wi-Fi-only version, so it’s not something I can take anywhere and use, but the Netbook is wi-fi only as well.

So there you have it.  I either need to get rid of the MacBook or the Netbook.  I’m leaning toward getting rid of the Netbook because the iPad is becoming my daily use computer and I could use the MacBook when I need a larger screen and a ‘real’ computer.

Or I could just keep them all and eventually they will end up in my ‘pile of unused electronics.’  I’ll keep you posted!

Robert.

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What is up with Apple TV?

I’m really disappointed in my Apple TV.

I bought my Apple TV about 3 years ago.  I bought the original 40GB version.  I can’t say I waited in line to buy it, but I bought it a day or two after launch.  It was a crazy time in my life…  I was excited by all things Apple, and to me they could do no wrong.  I’ve been trying to ditch my cable TV for years now, and I thought Apple had the magic formula for doing it.  Boy was I wrong…

I hooked up my Apple TV and used it for about 3 weeks off and on, and then it pretty much went into my pile of unused electronics (which is pretty big, believe me).  I brought it back out when the 2.0 software came out and again when the Boxee beta happened.  Once I read about the Boxee beta, I started down the path of hacking my Apple TV (a path I take with all of my gadgets once I’m bored with them).  Luckily the Apple TV is easy to hack.

So here I am, looking at this Apple TV in my pile of electronics when I read about the 3.0 software.  Eureka! I think.  Did they add Netflix integration?  Can they stream from ABC.com, Comedy Central.com?  Did they open it up to allow viewing of different formats from directories on my Mac or PC (DivX, etc)?  Rhapsody integration?

Oh, it’s just a new interface for the same stuff?  Ok, I guess I’ll just unhook it again and wait for the next version…  Or, I can sell it to pay off my iPad?

My question to Apple is ‘why’.  I think the high level pitch of ‘bringing iTunes to the living room’ is a great one.  However, not only could it do so much more than it does, but there are tons of other options out there.  For crying out loud, the Roku box kicks Apple TV’s ass in all regards!  Netflix streaming alone makes the Roku a much better purchase (at only $100).  Plus, it can do Pandora, stream live news channels (albeit from irregular sources) hook into MLB.com and more.

And don’t even get me started on the media capabilities of my Xbox 360 or PS3 with TVersity.  Stunning, to say the least.

So, Apple, why do you even keep this thing in your inventory?  Is there a promise you’re planning on fulfilling at some point?  Or are you just going to keep it around and ‘see what happens.’  I almost feel ashamed for buying the thing.  You know, building this thing took resources from the planet and people had to assemble it!  At this point it seems like that work is for nothing.  Furthermore, Apple TV is nowhere to be found on your main site, and I actually only found references to it in the store.

If you’re so focused on making the iPad a ‘media consumption device,’ then the least you could do is assign the same goal to Apple TV.  Last I checked, the TV in my living room is almost completely dedicated to media consumption!  And you’ve got a piece of hardware that works great with it.

Apple, please either make this device what it should be or just cut bait.  I need to shrink my pile of unused electronics, and I would rather use it than get rid of it.  Maybe I need to have a yard sale…

Robert.

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