personal, activities comments edit

For our second anniversary, Jenn and I packed up for a week and headed down to sunny southern California to visit Disneyland and Legoland.

We flew down on October 14th and were hoping to get there in reasonable time, but we had some fairly serious delays due to mechanical troubles on the plane, so we spent most of the day stuck in the airport. Luckily, we planned a “travel day” on either side of the actual vacation, so this didn’t hinder us too badly.

The 15th through 17th we toured through Disneyland and Disney’s California Adventure. It’d been years since either Jenn or I had been to Disneyland and neither of us had been to California Adventure, so it was really fun to see not only the stuff we were familiar with, but the new rides and exhibits.


From Disneyland and Legoland

The 15th was primarily Disneyland. We stayed at the Disneyland Hotel, so we took the monorail into the park first thing in the morning and while everyone else was working front-to-back on the park, we worked back-to-front. The first rides we did were the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party and the Alice in Wonderland rides because Alice is, by far, my favorite Disney character. Jenn wasn’t expecting much from the tea cups, but Ireally cranked that thing around and we both left pretty dizzy. (A kid coming on the ride after us literally ran to get our cup because “it was the fastest one out there.” Heh.)

We continued on through Fantasyland and then went through into Tomorrowland to enjoy some classic Star Tours action. After Tomorrowland, we hit Adventureland, stopping in at the Jungle Cruise and Enchanted Tiki Room, then through to see the Pirates of the Caribbean (which has been updated to match the movie). We came back to ride the new Indiana Jones ride and, while it was fun, we ended up having to ride twice because the first time we rode, it broke down and we got stuck on it (with the lights on and everything) for quite some time. We finished off that first day watching the characters parade down Main Street, USA.


From Disneyland and Legoland

The 16th we started the morning with a character breakfast at Goofy’s Kitchen, an all-you-can-eat buffet of just about anything you’d ever want to eat. Princess Jasmine and Princess Aurora were there, as was Goofy, Chip and Dale, Pluto, and Baloo. It sounds silly, but it was actually very fun (and great food).


From Disneyland and Legoland

Following breakfast, we spent the day going through California Adventure. California Adventure is less about the Disney cartoons and more about celebrating the nostalgia of California history. While there’s definitely some kid stuff here, I think it’s more adult-oriented because smaller kids aren’t going to know what stuff like the California Zephyr are.

We saw the Muppet Vision 3D movie, rode the taxi through Monstropolis (from Monsters, Inc.), checked out the various Bug’s Life things, and then wandered around on the boardwalk enjoying the rides and the food. We finished off the day in California Adventure watching the Pixar Play parade - a parade of Pixar movie characters.

Since California Adventure closed relatively early, we sauntered back over to Disneyland to see the Haunted Mansion (now done up in Nightmare Before Christmas style, and particularly so since it’s Halloween time) and ride Splash Mountain. Let me tell you - you can get into Splash Mountain easier later at night, but you really get soaked down and it doesn’t dry up too well. Jenn and I walked the park soaking for quite some time after that.


From Disneyland and Legoland

The 17th was dedicated to picking up rides and areas of the park we didn’t get a chance to see. We started the day in Disneyland and enjoyed the morning ceremonies in Toontown, getting our pictures with Mickey and seeing other characters as well. After that we went back to Fantasyland and took a cruise around Storybook land, seeing miniaturized versions of significant storybook locations. We started getting tired after that so we headed over to Tom Sawyer’s island and, after that, rode the Mark Twain riverboat.

The day was pretty hot, and we were worn out, so we took a breather back at the hotel for a bit before returrning to the park and riding the California Screamin’ roller coaster in California Adventure, then finishing out the day watching an amazing fireworks display over Cinderella’s Castle in Disneyland.

The 18th we checked out early from the hotel and drove the hour or so south from Anaheim into Carlsbad to see Legoland. Our hotel, the Sheraton Carlsbad Resort and Spa, had a private entrance to the park, so we headed right into the park without having to wait in line at the beginning.

The phrase of the day was, “Hey, check out that <insert noun> made out of Lego!” If you’ve ever seen a Lego show, or been to a Lego store and seen some impressive models, Legoland puts all of that to shame. Particularly the “Miniland” section, with full city replicas of well-known US locations. It’s spectacular from a Lego perspective… but the rides and attractions are definitely geared toward the younger (3 - 13) set. There’s really only one ride there for the older crowd: The “Knight’s Challenge,” which is basically a robot arm from a car manufacturing plant that someone welded some chairs to. You get in the chair and it thrashes the living crap out of you. An awesome ride, to be sure, and proves that it doesn’t need to have rails to be a good ride.

Another thing we noticed: Lego really hasn’t taken advantage of all of the merchandising opportunities it could. There were only like five or six different shirt styles that said anything about “Legoland” on them; everything else, including the Lego sets, were all things you could get at a Lego store or on their web site. There were a lot of things I wanted that simply didn’t exist. Here’s hoping they figure that one out.


From Disneyland and Legoland

Since we finished out Legoland in a day, we took the 19th to sleep in and rest our feet. Grabbed some breakfast at IHOP, drove down to see the Hotel del Coronado, and basically were lazy, which was nice.

The 20th saw us checking out from the hotel in Carlsbad and driving back to LAX to return the rental car and grab our plane home. Again, due to misjudged timings and such, we spent most of the day traveling.

All in all, it was a great trip. I really do love Disneyland and it was great to be a kid again. It’s sort of like going to Las Vegas (which I also love) but with less sin. I will definitely have to find another opportunity to go, or maybe hit Disney World in Florida so i can see Epcot. I probably will wait a while before going back to Legoland, to see if they do some renovations to address the older set or add some new models. Good times.

blog comments edit

Just downloaded a MetaWeblogAPI blog client for Blackberry. Here’s hoping it works!

UPDATE: Either the client sucks or there’s some oddness with the MetaWeblogAPI implementation in my version of Subtext. Either way, not good. Maybe this is my opportunity to learn Blackberry development. Until then, Opera Mini to the rescue!

General Ramblings comments edit

I don’t generally get into politics, and I can’t remember really ever posting anything political here, but I have to put this up because it is, by far, my favorite political commentary ever. It’s a clip of Jack Cafferty, a political analyst for CNN, talking about Sarah Palin’s interview with Katie Couric.

It’s like Saturday Night Live, only real life. I’ve watched this like 10 times now and I fall down laughing every time. It’s all about Cafferty’s deadpan delivery. I think I’m gonna go watch this again.

General Ramblings comments edit

We had a fresh layer of barkdust blown in yesterday. We do it every two or three years, and getting it blown in (rather than spreading it yourself) is far and away a better way to go.

I always forget what kind of barkdust we get, or who we use, though, so it’s always a pain to get it scheduled for the next time. This time, I’ll blog it - so I can find it again later!

We got one unit of medium fresh fir, which is enough to cover all the beds we have. It cost $295 this year, up from $215 three years ago. (Price of gas, I guess.)

We used Grimm’s Advanced Bark Blowing. We’ve had ProGrass do it before, too, but they’re slightly more expensive. Grimm’s does a really good job at a decent price. Done and done.

media, music, movies, hardware, home comments edit

UPDATE 7/8/2015 - All current documentation for my media center and home network is at illigmediacenter.readthedocs.io.

Now that I’ve solved my media center problem, let me do a review of what I was trying to do, what I did, and some of the lessons learned along the way.

Goals of my media center solution:

  1. Access to my DVD collection. I have a lot of DVDs and, yes, I do like to re-watch them. The problem I’m running into is the same problem I ran into with my music collection - inconvenient access. I think about a movie I want to watch, then I have to go through the collection, find it, fire up the system… it’s a lot less “at my fingertips” than I’d like. It’s also nearly impossible to browse, so if I want to look for something to watch, I have to either riffle through the binders of discs, use an outdated printout list of movies, or fire up DVD Profiler and scan through there.
  2. Backup solution. My dad and I both have had DVDs go bad. Ideally I’d like to be able to re-burn a disc if I have the original go bad. UPDATE: I’ve changed my position on this since the original setup and I’m only storing the movie files now.
  3. Full quality, all features. I want to be able to navigate and view the DVD as if I had put it into a DVD player - full menus, no reduced quality, all audio tracks, all extra features. UPDATE: I’ve changed my position on this since the original setup and I’m only storing the movie files now.
  4. Wife acceptance factor. I want it to be easy and accessible to Jenn so she can use it, too, without having to memorize the 37-button-sequence to get it working.
  5. Network storage. I want everything to be stored centrally so the data can be accessed by any device.

Secondary goals:

  1. Simple, simple, simple. As few “moving pieces” as possible. I know there are ways to get very fancy setups going if you want to invest the time and effort in tweaking, perfecting, and messing about with the system. I’m not a hobbyist, and investing that level of time doesn’t interest me. I want to set it up and have it “just work” in as much an appliance fashion as possible.
  2. Expandable. If I need to add storage, add another media front-end, etc., I want the flexibility to do that.
  3. Good form factor. I don’t want something ridiculously ostentatious sitting in the living room. I want it to look good.
  4. Music and picture access. DVDs are my primary goal, but if I can get access to my music and pictures through the system, so much the better.

What I settled on:

  • Storage - Two Separate Systems:
    • Windows Home Server. For music, home movies, photos, and documents I went with a Windows Home Server as the central storage mechanism. It gave me some great first impressions and I learned a lot even two weeks in, but I’ve never looked back. WHS got a bad rap early on with some data corruption defects that have been fixed and I think people really need to give it a chance. It has a great form factor, is totally expandable, and has all of the DLNA sharing pre-configured for easy access to music, pictures, and videos for compatible devices. It plugs in and “just works,” appliance-style, and even provides additional features like monitoring your network health and backing up your PCs. Dollar for dollar, I’d take this over a generic NAS any day. (That said, there are some recommended upgrades you might want to do to make the most of your server.) UPDATE: I originally used Windows Home Server as the single storage solution, but ended up adding the Synology NAS and switching the DVD images to that.
    • Synology NAS. I went with the Synology DS1010+ for movie storage. I did this because I ran into some odd disk-related issues with the home server (bad drives) and since I didn’t have enough disk space to turn on duplication for my DVD images, I wanted to figure out some sort of fault tolerance if a drive went out. The DS1010+ will let me run RAID 5 and is super fast, so I moved to that for the DVDs.
  • Front-End Software - Windows 7 Media Center and XBMC. I looked at MediaPortal, TVersity, Front Row, Xbox Media Center, just using the Xbox 360 as a media extender, and several other front-end software packages, but Windows Media Center initially won out for several reasons. First, it comes bundled with the OS - fewer moving pieces (unlike an additional application you’d have to install, e.g., TVersity). Second, it’s handled VIDEO_TS DVD rips for quite some time (unlike Front Row, which only just recently got it and has no real documentation out there available for it). Third, it handles almost all of the other formats I use for pictures, music, etc. (unlike Xbox 360 as a media extender, which doesn’t support full DVD rips).
    • UPDATE 12/14/09: I updated to Windows 7 from Windows Vista and it made a lot of difference in performance - smoother playback, faster loading of the DVD Library, etc.
    • UPDATE 12/29/11: I have just started using XBMC as the front end instead of Windows Media Center because the rendering of the DVD library is much faster than Windows Media Center, especially with a lot of movies. It also has a much nicer UI with art and info than the more sparse WMC UI.
  • Video Format - VIDEO_TS. I blogged about the pros and cons of various video formats, and in the end I picked VIDEO_TS as the format I’d rip my DVDs into since it was most compatible with the various software packages and didn’t require any additional tweaking in Media Center to use. Plus, it gives full access to the disc features (menus, etc.), you don’t lose any quality, and you can re-burn VIDEO_TS to a DVD and have a watchable disc just like the original.
  • Front-End Hardware - Dell Studio Hybrid PC. I picked up a Dell Studio Hybrid PC to be the hardware sitting in my living room. It has a great form factor and all the right connections (DVI, HDMI, S/PDIF audio) to make it a perfect media center PC. I had considered getting a Mac Mini, as several other folks have done, and run Boot Camp to boot into Vista, but the Studio Hybrid was far cheaper and more powerful than the top-end Mac Mini.

How it works:

I set up the “DVD Library” in Windows Media Center rather than using the popular My Movies plugin because, again, I really wanted as few “moving pieces” as possible and My Movies didn’t seem to offer me anything I truly needed. If, at some later time, I want to start using it, I haven’t engineered myself out of it - I can install it and import the movies that already exist with a minimal amount of work.

I rip my DVD movies onto the Synology DS1010+. The Dell Studio Hybrid PC, which is connected to the TV in my living room, reads the list of movies from the NAS over the network and displays them beautifully on the TV for me to select from. I was running this nicely over wireless, but started running into interference issues, so it’s now a wired network.

My photos are accessible through not only the Windows Media Center, but also through my Xbox 360 and PS3 via the DLNA sharing that comes for free out-of-the-box with my Windows Home Server.

My music is accessible to DLNA compliant devices (Xbox 360, PS3) through Asset UPnP on the Windows Home Server. Windows Media Center doesn’t natively play Apple Lossless (though with Windows 7 it does play AAC) so I don’t have it running through the Media Center.

Diagram:

Here’s a picture of the current network topology, with a little added detail around how things connect to my TV. It’s pretty simple, not a lot of moving pieces, and the majority of things are wireless. As much as possible is also connected directly to the network (like my printer) so I can access anything from anywhere.

Media center and network
layout.

Lessons learned:

  • Everything in Home Theater PC-land is tribal knowledge. It took the majority of my time to figure all of this out because there are far too many options with far too few people providing information in accessible locations. Most information on this stuff lives in forums, making it hard to pick through and figure out what’s going on. When you ask questions, people assume you already know a bunch of stuff you don’t know, so you get very cryptic answers, which you then have to go research and ask more questions about.
  • Format wars are a pain. I’m specifically looking at you, WMA vs. AAC. There’s no good reason I can find that the Apple formats aren’t supported out of the box by Media Center other than the desire to remain proprietary. Garbage. (With Windows 7, AAC is supported but Apple Lossless still isn’t.)
  • Even in a simple environment, things are fiddly. Getting everything stored centrally, updated properly, displaying right, with correct access… it’s trivial, annoying, fiddly stuff. Tweak this registry setting, add a symbolic link to this folder, map this drive, configure this setting… it’s a pain, and if you don’t get it right, things don’t work as smoothly as you’d like.

Next steps:

So, now that it’s done - two years in the making - what am I going to do next?

  • Music access: I’m looking at MCETunes to enable access to my iTunes content in Media Center. [UPDATE: I found you can get Media Center playing iTunes files natively by adding some codecs and metadata tag parser support. I also found you can use Windows Home Server add-ins to stream music to Xbox 360 and PS3 that wouldn’t normally work.] [UPDATE 2: I’m using Asset UPnP for DLNA streaming/transcoding of Apple Lossless, etc., to Xbox 360 and other DLNA compatible devices.]
  • Front-end upstairs: I have a spare desktop (the ThinkCentre) that I may put upstairs so we can access the same DVD content in another room. It’s not as nice of a form factor, but that’s less concerning in the game room. [UPDATE: I did end up moving that ThinkCentre upstairs and it’s working well.]
  • Finish ripping movies: I have 90 movies on the server right now, but 500+ titles. I’ve gotta get these things ripped. I won’t rip every single one of them, and probably won’t rip the “extended features” discs, but that’s still a lot of work left to do. [UPDATE: I finished ripping all of my movie discs - no extra features discs - and have 770 VIDEO_TS folders taking up 4.91TB of space on the Windows Home Server. That’s about 6.7GB per image.]
  • Upgrade my MPEG2 codec: The built-in DVD player for Media Center is notoriously mediocre. It looks decent enough, but by upgrading your MPEG2 codec (and configuring Media Center to use it) you can get better playback quality. A lot of folks swear by the NVidia codec which you can buy separately or get with PowerDVD. [UPDATE:: XBMC uses FFmpeg to play DVDs and I’ve had some better luck with XBMC as the front end. Some discs that looked exceptionally bad… still don’t look awesome, but are at least better.]
  • Fix the video resolution: The TV in the living room is a native 1366 x 768 resolution. The closest the Dell Studio Hybrid gets to that is 1280 x 768, which looks crisp but leaves a bit of a black letterbox on either side of the picture. I’d like to get it to display full-screen, but it looks like it involves some very fiddly stuff and a tool called DTDCalc. [UPDATE: Connecting the PC through HDMI to a newer TV yielded full 1080p resolution with no letterboxing.] [UPDATE 2: I upgraded the TV in the living room to a 1920 x 1080 set and still have no problems.]

Related posts:

I’ve done a lot of work to get this far, so there are quite a few related posts I’ve made that may be of interest. (Most of these, and more, are linked in the above article, but for your convenience, here are some highlights.)