Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Year of Video Games - 2010

Just like last year, a list of games I finished in 2010.

This is the year of Assassin's Creed and Zelda, since there are six of them on the list and what I sunk most of my time into.

A buddy at work who lent me Assassin's Creed II, which got it's hooks into immediately since it took place in Renaissance Italy and had this great virtual reality conspiracy thing going for it. I quickly finished AC II and immediately picked up AC I, which while a bit duller than the second was still a joy to play with all the historical references and it fleshed out the story better knowing the beginnings. When AC: Brotherhood came out I was excited enough to get the collectors edition box set.

Zelda was another big player this year as I was ramping up to finish them all before my 30th birthday in April. While I had completed Ocarina of Time right at the end of 2009 I didn't start Majora's Mask until the Spring. The mechanics of the game were similar to Ocarina, but I just couldn't get into the whole three day time thing until well into the end of the summer. Finally after picking it up and 3-4 hours intervals I finally got the hang of things and was able to power through it in August. Overall I enjoyed the game at the end, collecting every mask was actually fun and the reward of the Fierce Deity Mask made the end boss ridiculously easy. Shortly after completing it the Haunted Majora's Mask story "You Shouldn't Have Done That" appeared and playing it all the way through made it even more creepy. I even went so far as finding an original N64 cartridge at a local game shop and it's sitting on my desk along with an original N64 copy of Golden Eye.

After finishing Majora's Mask I dove right into Twilight Princess. While I had twice tried to start it in the past, I started all the way over with a new game and finished it up. I don't know if it was anxiety that kept me from playing Twilight Princess knowing that it would be the last game in the series until Skyward Sword comes out or what, but I was a bit apprehensive about finishing it. The game itself is beautiful, with many of the locations and dungeons building off of the original formula and fleshing it out in 3D nicely. Some of the ancient landmarks and ruins (Bridge of Eldin) seemed like they were pulled from my seven year old selfs imagination while flipping through the original Zelda instruction manual and map. From some of the boss fights I was fully expecting the Ganon fights at the end to have more challenge. While a sword fight for the final encounter was cool, it was a bit too easy. I was hoping to use some of the more powerful items (magic armor and fairy tears) as a boost if I ran out of fairies and potions, but I made it through with only losing a few hearts. Still, it was a good way to end and overall the game was satisfying.

Another surprise this year was Alan Wake, which was the first Xbox 360 game to go onto a list. This is mainly because my buddy Bren let me borrow is 360 which gave me the opportunity to play it. While I haven't finished the second DLC package it opened me up to watching Twin Peaks and reading more Stephen King novels.

Since Zelda is out of the way and I own a majority of the Metroid games already, I'm going to set a new goal of completing all the Metroid games before I turn 40. It's a good chunk of time, but you never know what's going to come up.

Finished Games for 2010

Metroid II: Return of Samus

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare
Heavy Rain
Assassin's Creed
Assassin's Creed II
Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood

Xbox 360
Alan Wake

Chrono Trigger (this is actually from 2009 but forgot it last year)
Professor Layton and the Diabolical Box
Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks
Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars

Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess

Virtual Console
Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask

Beneath a Steel Sky
Civilization Revolution

Angry Birds

Goals for 2011
Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword
Metroid: Other M
Call of Duty: Black Ops
Metroid Prime Trilogy
Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time
No More Heroes
StarCraft II
GoldenEye 007 (Wii)

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Cutting the Cord

Sometime in the mid summer of this year my brother and I spoke briefly about canceling cable TV and going to an Internet only feed. The idea quickly faded since the alternatives, while there, just weren't up to meeting our entertainment requirements. A few weeks ago with an deal between Time Warner and ESPN (more on this later) and the new media server I built it was time to cut the cord. With broadcast HDTV, a PS3, and Linux based media server here's how we did it and ended up saving a ton of $.


We had the movie option in our cable TV package, with Encore, Starz, and a few other channels excluding the more premium ones like HBO and Showtime. This was by far the easiest to check off by using Netflix. The PS3 is capable of streaming all of the on-demand Netflix catalog, as well as play blu-ray and DVDs with the 10$ one-at-a-time plan. Netflix is only expanding their streaming library in addition to making more HD streams available. I also have many movies ripped to the linux media server and pushed out to the PS3 via a UPnP server software called fuppes for streaming of my movie collection.

Network TV

With cable we had a DVR package to record and replay shows back later on in the week. Time Warner also had a nice On-Demand feature to play a majority of network and cable channels shows anytime even if it wasn't recorded on the DVR. Since HDTV came about a few years ago network TV looks just as good, if not better, than it's HD cable counterpart. By purchasing a HD antenna and putting it over the bookcase we're able to get the local SD network channels in 1080i. Now this isn't as ideal as having the DVR or On-Demand on TW, but the biggest piece in this puzzle was the software called playon.tv.

Playon.tv runs on a Windows computer and scrapes streaming websites like hulu.com, cbs.com, tv.com, etc. It transcodes the streams on the fly and then presents them as a UPnP media server to various devices such as the Wii or PS3. It also has a mobile feature, and devices like an iPad or iPhone can connect to the media server over a remote 3G connection for playback anywhere. The one downside is the streams are not in HD, although HD support is promised by the developers soon. Total cost is 40$ a month with 20$ a month renewal and it more than makes up for the lack of DVR. On a technical note, playon.tv will run just fine in a Windows XP KVM guest on my linux media server with 2 vCPUs and 4GB of memory dedicated to it.


By far the most asked question I get when talking to people about this is "what about sports?". There's almost this myth that you NEED cable to get live sports, which is absolutely not true. With the advent of espn3.com almost any live sporting even can be watched via a web browser. There's even sports on there I've never heard of. The only downside here is that in order to get espn3.com your ISP needs to have inked a deal with ESPN3. Up until a week ago Time Warner had not done this but now is available, in addition to a new TW only website called espnnetworks.com which adds even more live sports content. Time Warner unfortunately requires you have ESPN as part of your video cable package, which we do not. Logging into another TW customers account however gets around this. Right now playon.tv supports ESPN3 for non-login ISPs, so for TW customers you still need to go through the web browser. With a media server connected to the same TV this isn't much of an issue. HDTV sports broadcasts look even better than cable since they're still in 1080i but don't suffer from the compression artifacts that most cable channels seem to add. Finally, if you really want to see a live sports even and you can't get it at home, it's probably time to leave the living room.


While we own all three major gaming systems the PS3 was chosen since it can do everything we need and we have a nice bluetooth remote that looks like it belongs in the living room.

We tried out Hulu+ for streaming over the PS3, and even though it had excellent HD output, it was lacking many of the shows available on the website. Strange since it's 10$ a month and you're paying to get less content... In the future if Hulu decides to do things different I'll revisit it.

Since a lot of this is network dependent, I upgraded our router to one capable of 802.11n and gigabit ethernet speeds so the media server and PS3 aren't laggy when talking to one another.

Time Warner is still in use for the Internet connection, but Verizon is planning on rolling out their LTE network to San Diego before the end of 2010. Hopefully they start offering service as an ISP and we can replace the cable connection completely.


I switched from Windows XP to Windows 7 due to XP seeming to crash daily. Along with improved stability,Win 7 is also 64-bit and can handle all 4 cores when Playon moves to HD streams. The only issue was the AC97' sound card that KVM emulates doesn't have 64-bit Win 7 drivers, and other sound card options don't work either. Playon ships with a virtual audio device that takes care of transcoding the audio to work around this.

Monday, November 01, 2010

Jezebel 7.0

This fall I decided it was time to update my Atom based media server to a more power version.This was driven mainly by the want to rip and encode blu-ray disks and run KVM for virtualization. While the Atom setup was great for power efficiency (using about 40 watts at peak load) there were other tweaks I wanted to make. Below is my new system specs for Jezebel 7.0:

All of the parts were new except the case and blu-ray drive since they integrated without a problem. I originally purchased a micro-ATX motherboard which had more PCI, memory, and SATA slots, but the majority of the SATA connections went right up against the drive bay wall. The smaller board had less expansion space but fit better into the case and didn't limit any of the other components I purchased.

I went through about 4 graphics cards before landing on the GT430. Two were too large, and one was passively cooled but used a ton of power and put out a lot of heat. The GT430 has a fan on it that is a bit louder than I would have liked, but it can underclock itself when not in use to 50MHz to save power and heat. The GT430 is a bit overpowered for what I wanted to do, but it's CUDA support has me hoping for encoding programs like ffmpeg to use it for faster blu-ray encoding.

By far the biggest improvement is the quad-core processor, with two cores and 4 gigs of memory dedicated to KVM for a Windows XP guest install. I haven't tested it for video encoding yet but it has turbo-boost to go to 3.0GHz if needed. I also enabled an on-demand CPU governor and it runs at 1.2GHz while idle.

The drive setup was a big improvement as well. Before it was running the OS off a compact-flash card plugged into a parallel IDE connection, two 1TB drives on the onboard SATA, and the blu-ray into a SATA PCI card. This was less than ideal from an IO perspective and was still running on legacy technology. The new board has 4 SATA connections and I swapped the two drives for one 2TB disk. The SSD has shown a huge IO boost and the OS boots in less than 10 seconds. The 2TB drive is actually slow at 5900 RPMs, but it makes it quieter and is very power efficient.

The system setup is 64-bit Debian Squeeze installed onto the SSD, with /home all on the large disk. I also installed Windows XP into a KVM guest which resides on the SSD as well. GNOME is setup and running off the video card. HDMI out works for video and looks great, however I kept getting stumped on trying to pass sound through it and settled on a 1/8 audio connection from the line out.

The main use of the system is for pushing out content to our LCD TV via a variety of methods which I'll explain in a different post, and ripping/encoding DVD and blu-rays. It's also hooked up to our LCD TV and the wireless Apple keyboard and mouse is great for a living room setup with a range of approximately 10 meters.

Overall the system uses more power than the Atom setup, but the performance ratio makes up for this exponentially due to the advances in efficiency of the other components over the last few years. I'm looking forward to seeing what this system can do with it's virtualization capabilities and performance capabilities.

On some future notes, the next Intel architecture Sandy Bridge is looking to integrate video directly into the CPU. I looked into the on-die graphics available now since this motherboard can support them, but unfortunately the only Core i series CPUs that have it are dual core. Sandy Bridge will have 4 and 6 core CPUs to use it, but it will use a different socket, making this board unsuitable for it. Soon though we'll have HTPC systems like this that don't require any additional peripherals, increasing performance while at the same time driving down power usage even more.