Tag Archives | HTPC

Hands on with Kwikwai HDMI CEC

Over the last few months I’ve had the opportunity to play with a very cool toy and thought I’d take some time to share it here. The Kwikwai is a powerful little tool made by Swiss company Incyma. It enables complete access to the HDMI-CEC bus. If you haven’t heard of HDMI-CEC it’s probably because it’s normally re-labelled by manufacturers.  Anynet+ (Samsung); Aquos Link (Sharp); BRAVIA Sync (Sony); VIERA Link (Panasonic) etc.

CEC stands for Consumer Electronics Control and it allows various home entertainment components to talk to each other. For example when you switch on your Blu-ray player your TV and amp will turn on and switch to the correct inputs. Or when you turn your TV off the other HDMI connected devices will also turn off.

While this might all sound great in theory, in practice it can be a hit and miss. Different manufactures implement their own flavour of CEC and devices from different manufacturers don’t always play nicely together.

My interest in CEC was not so much in the interaction between devices and more in direct control and automation of each individual device using my HTPC. In fact I don’t even have a blu-ray player or set-top-box. Everything is done through the HTPC. I have a bit of an obsession with having a single remote to control everything with as few buttons as possible. Anyone should be able to pick up the remote, press power and be presented with an intuitive interface (in my case MediaPortal).

 

While there are plenty video cards that offer HDMI they don’t yet offer communication on the CEC bus.  That’s where Kwikwai comes in.

 

On the front there are 4 indicator LEDs and two HDMI ports which allow the Kwikwai to be placed ‘in-line’ between two devices e.g. Blu-ray player and TV. It doesn’t matter which device connects to which port since the Kwikwai is completely transparent to the devices connected to it. You don’t have to connect it in-line you could just connect to any spare HDMI port on your TV or Amp – everything that goes onto the CEC bus is broadcast across all ports.

 

 

On the rear of the Kwikwai there are three connectivity options. Ethernet, RS232 and USB. The USB interface is used for power and also for communication (via USB to RS232). You can power the Kwikwai either from your PC or from any other 5V USB power supply. I’ve really only used the network interface so far.

The Kwikwai is not only great for home theatre automation it’s also a powerful HDMI CEC diagnostic tool and that’s the primary use for the web interface which can be accessed by pointing your browser at http://kwikwai.local

 

While the web interface provides diagnostics, configuration, and a firmware update facility it’s not ideal for automation. For that we can either use the command line directly or use the API for developing custom software. Most HTPC users will opt for using the command line but if you’ve got some basic c# .NET skills using the API is quite easy.

There is also some sample Python code on the Kwikwai website which would make it pretty easy to implement an Eventghost plug-in, however I was able to get the Kwikwai working in Eventghost by using the existing ZoomPlayer plug-in which allows simple RAW TCP commands to be sent.

Simply enter the Kwikwai address and port number

To send commands to the Kwikwai create a new Zoomplayer ‘Raw Command’ action. For example:

cec:send A FF:36 This will broadcast the ‘Power Off” command to all devices on the CEC bus.

The command syntax can be found on the Kwikwai web site here. And the CEC-O-MATIC is a great online tool to help you build up CEC commands.

 

Conclusion

The Kwikwai is a very handy device which enables easy automation of home entertainment components without the need to stick ugly infra-red senders to your equipment. At the moment it can be hard to get hold of vendor specific commands to perform more complex control but hopefully that will change over time.

There are two Kwikwai models available. For a full diagnostics solution the K-100 is the more expensive model. For automation the more basic K-090 will be more than adequate. Both models include all the connectivity options.

The only two areas I can see room for improvement in the Kwikwai are:
1) The colour! The Kwikwai looks kind of cool and is very well built but it doesn’t blend in very well with most home theatre gear.
2) It would be nice to see a firmware update that enables the Kwikwai to emulate a ‘player’ device on the HDMI bus so that other devices could become aware of it.

 

Check out the Kwikwai at http://www.kwikwai.com

 

 

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TBS 6984 Quad Tuner DVB-S/S2 Card (Review)

Intro

In my last post I showed you my RG6 coax patch panel build which included cabling up the 4 outputs of my LNB. Well there was a reason I risked life and limb on the roof in high winds.

TBS Technology of Shenzhen China have only been making TV cards for about 5 years but they’re starting to build a good reputation amongst HTPC enthusiasts, and for good reason – as you’ll see the 6984 is a solid performer. This review will focus on using the TBS 6984 with MediaPortal TV Server.

 

 

The TBS6984 really is the grand-daddy of DVB-S cards!  It’s a DVB-S/S2 PCI Express card with 4 tuners allowing you capture from 4 different satellite transponders simultaneously.  At $249USD the price is right. That’s about $62 per tuner – considerably cheaper than buying 4 separate DVB-S2 cards and much more convenient.

 

TBS list the following specifications:

Receiving Frequency: 925~2175 MHz Tuning Range
Input Level: -69~23dBm
4x Advanced DVB-S2/DVB-S 8PSK QPSK Demodulator

Symbol Rates:
DVB-S QPSK: 1-45 Msps
DVB-S2 8PSK/QPSK: 2-36 Msps

Code Rates:
DVB-S: 1/2, 2/3, 3/4, 5/6, 7/8
DVB-S2 QPSK: 1/2, 3/5, 2/3, 3/4. 4/5. 5/6, 8/9, 9/10
DVB-S2 8PSK: 3/5, 2/3. 3/4. 5/6. 8/9, 9/10

I’m not going to pretend that I could explain all the technical aspects of these specs, but suffice to say this card will handle pretty much anything you can throw at it.

 

What’s In The Box

  • The PCIe Card
  • A driver mini-CD
  • Infrared Remote Control
  • Infrared Receiver Cable
  • Power Cable

The build quality of the card is excellent – all the soldering looks clean and solid, and the components are well aligned.  The bracket has labels for the tuners ‘A’ through ‘D’ stamped on it – a nice touch.  The chipset consists of the following:

  • 2x  Trident CX24132 Dual DVB-S2 Tuner
  • 2x  Trident CX24117 Dual DVB-S2 Demodulator
  • 2x  Intersil ISL6422B Dual Output LNB Supply and Control Voltage Regulator
  • 1x  Trident SAA7160E PCI Express Audio/Video Capture Bridge

 

The remote is pretty basic;  but let’s be honest, if you’re looking for a quad tuner card you’re probably an HTPC enthusiast in which case you’ll already have an advanced remote.  If not you’ll need to get one!  It has TV and navigation buttons, but lacks buttons for the advanced features you’d typically find in media centre packages like MediaPortal. That said, it will do just fine to get you up and running with basic TV software.

As for the driver CD, I haven’t even put it in my PC.  Personally I never use the driver CDs which come with any hardware.  I prefer to go straight to the web and download the very latest version.  It would be nice if TBS released a white-box version of this product, which included just the card and the power cable.

TBS state that the additional power cable is only required when you need extra current for driving things like dish positioning motors and some LNBs.  In general, you shouldn’t require it which is good – the less cables floating around the better when it comes to an HTPC that you’re trying to keep cool with a minimum of fans.

 

Installation

I’d love to go into great detail about the installation but there really isn’t much to say. The hardware side is obvious – unplug your PC and install the card into a spare PCIe 1x slot.

As for the driver, TBS keeps it simple which I really appreciate.  You don’t have to run an installer (although there is one).  You can simply let Windows detect the card and then tell it where to find the latest driver files and the device installs without any fuss.  I wish more manufacturers would take this simple clean approach.  With an installer, you don’t really know what you’re getting and what’s being changed on your system.  I’m running Windows 7 x64.  Once the driver is installed, you’ll see a single “TBS 6984 Quad DVBS/S2 BDA Tuners”  device listed in device manager.  The driver is a BDA driver, which means it conforms to Microsoft’s broadcast driver architecture so the card will be compatible with any TV software which supports BDA devices.

 

MediaPortal

MediaPortal is a free and open source media centre package for Windows.

MediaPortal TV Guide

MediaPortal TV Guide

 

MediaPortal Home

MediaPortal Home

You can get a wealth of information and support at the Team-MediaPortal site, but these are the basic components that you’ll need to get TV up and running with the TBS 6984.  The remainder of this review will focus on the TV Server component of MediaPortal.

  • MediaPortal – this is the main front-end application. You can have this installed on as many PCs around the house as you like
  • TV Server – this is a Windows service which manages all TV streaming and recording.  It can be on the same or a different PC to the MediaPortal application
  • TV Client Plug-in – this is a plug-in component to MediaPortal which connects it to the TV Server

 

Once you’ve got the driver installed TV Server will detect the card. You’ll have to restart the TV Service and TV Server configuration tool if they are already running.

One thing I really like about this card is the way it identifies itself.  In the Windows device manager it just shows a single device, but once you open up the TV Server configuration tool you’ll see all 4 tuners and they’re actually labelled A, B, C and D – unlike some other dual cards I’ve seen, which just show 2 identical tuners so you can’t tell which one is which.

 

Scanning speed is impressive – just over 6 minutes to scan 41 transponders.  Both DVB-S and DVB-S2 channels are found correctly.

 

Now the part you’ve been waiting for – recording 4 channels at once.  In fact, with MediaPortal TV Server you can record even more than that because it allows you to record all the channels on a given transponder at the same time.  The TBS 6984 can tune into 4 separate transponders, so if each of those transponders carries 6 channels that would mean you could record 24 channels simultaneously! Below you can see I’m receiving 12 channels quite happily and the 6984 doesn’t skip a beat!  “Just try that Windows 7 Media Center!” 

The driver seems to report the signal quality and strength much more accurately than a lot of other cards I’ve seen, and also updates these quite frequently – which is great.

 

 

Channel Change Speed

The most common question I hear when discussing various TV cards with HTPC enthusiasts is “How fast can it change channels?”.  There are a number of things that can affect this – system hardware, TV card, TV card driver, TV software, media codecs, etc.  It also depends on where you take the measurement. The following results are taken from the TV Server logs, and indicate the time it takes for the TV card to switch channels.

 

Start DVB-S Channel (Same channel/transponder for each tune)
 1st Tune: 437ms
 2nd Tune: 218ms
 3rd Tune: 203ms
 4th Tune: 281ms
 5th Tune: 124ms
Start DVB-S Channel (Different channel/transponder for each tune)
 1st Tune: 390ms
 2nd Tune: 718ms
 3rd Tune: 531ms
 4th Tune: 796ms
 5th Tune: 609ms
Change DVB-S Channel  (Same transponder for each tune)
 1st Tune: 437ms
 2nd Tune: 453ms
 3rd Tune: 374ms
 4th Tune: 281ms
 5th Tune: 593ms
Change DVB-S Channel  (Switch transponder for each tune)
 1st Tune: 475ms
 2nd Tune: 374ms
 3rd Tune: 468ms
 4th Tune: 468ms
 5th Tune: 687ms
Change DVB-S2 Channel  (Same transponder for each tune)
 1st Tune: 234ms
 2nd Tune: 296ms
 3rd Tune: 234ms
 4th Tune: 343ms
 5th Tune: 171ms
Change DVB-S2 to DVB-S (Switch transponder for each tune)
 1st Tune: 656ms
 2nd Tune: 390ms
 3rd Tune: 718ms
 4th Tune: 656ms
 5th Tune: 687ms
Change DVB-S to DVB-S2 (Switch transponder for each tune)
 1st Tune: 2159ms
 2nd Tune: 2124ms
 3rd Tune: 2156ms
 4th Tune: 2218ms
 5th Tune: 2187ms

Very impressive, with all tests sub-second, except DVB-S to DVB-S2 switching which takes a little longer.

 

DiSEqC 

The TBS 6984 supports DiSEqC 2.x.  MediaPortal TV Server doesn’t yet support DiSEqC for this card, but I’ve spoken to a member of the MediaPortal development team who has informed me that they will be adding it soon, and has asked me to be a tester when the time comes.

 

Conclusion

All-in-all, my only criticism is that such a high-end card should be matched with a high-end remote.  I think the best solution is a white box version of the product so the user can choose their own remote.

The channel change speed tests speak for themselves;  that, combined with the solid driver and excellent build quality, makes the 6984 an excellent choice for anyone looking to build or expand an HTPC.  In fact, unless you’re certain you won’t need more than 2 tuners, I would say just go straight for the 6984 because you’ll end up saving money in the long run.

As for TBS support – while I haven’t needed any technical support, from what I’ve read elsewhere they seem to have a reputation of being very responsive as well as being happy to interact with the MediaPortal development team. They also make their SDK (software development kit) freely available.

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$10 USB DVB-T Receiver Review

After about 2½ years of constant use my trusty Hauppauge HVR-2200 dual DVB-T tuner card started to fail.  Just for fun I bought a dirt cheap USB receiver off eBay.

Total outlay was $15.09 NZD shipped.  That’s $10.33 for everything you see above except the MCX to ‘F’ adaptor which was $4.77.  It took almost 3 weeks to arrive from China.  Given the price, I wasn’t really expecting much, but it was so cheap I thought it was worth getting it just to play around with.

Apparently there is a variety of different chipsets used in these devices, all of which come wrapped in the same outer casing.  One difference between the various types is the LED, on some of them it’s red, other’s its clear. From what I’ve gathered these are the possible chipsets:

  • Intel CE6230 (Intel CE9500 reference design)
  • e3C EC168
  • Afatech AF9015

I got the one with the Afatech AF9015.  I didn’t want to plug it straight into my nice, clean, recently rebuilt HTPC server in case the drivers got all ‘tangled up’.  Instead, I plugged it into my laptop running Windows 7 Pro x64. Windows immediately detected the device as a Leadtek WinFast DTV Dongle Gold. I was happy to see this, because I had no intention of using the bundled driver mini-CD – who knows how old and buggy that driver is!

The device installed cleanly without any issues, so I decided to to plug it into my HTPC server which is running Windows 7 Ultimate x64.  Of course I expected the device to install automatically,  as it had on my laptop, but it didn’t, despite using the search online option.  Fortunately I now knew that the Leadtek driver was compatible, so I went to the Leadtek site and downloaded the driver.  As always, I extracted the setup package using 7-zip which gave me the plain driver folder as opposed to running the setup, which will install who knows what!

Windows found the driver and installed it correctly!

After restarting the MediaPortal TV Server service, it detected the device and I set it to highest priority so I could put it though its paces. The first time it tunes a channel after a reboot it takes approximately 30 seconds, but subsequent channel changes are quite fast ~3 seconds.

I’m pleased (and surprised) to report that this cheap little tuner has been working flawlessly for an entire week. How long it will last remains to be seen!  For $10 I can definitely recommend this device – the only issue is that you might get a totally different chipset;  that is, a totally different device for which none of the above would apply.  If you purchase from the seller I linked to at the beginning of the post there’s a good chance you’ll get the same device.

The included antenna and remote are complete rubbish and will quickly find their way to the bin!

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