Cheap HTPC Remote

Note: This post was originally published on iamianwright.com it’s been moved here for archival purposes.

For a few years now I’ve run a Mac Mini as my main source of media. Originally I just used it as a server and had a jailbroken Apple TV running Plex for the front end. Recently I’ve found that I watch a lot more content online and it’s more convenient just to connect the Mac Mini directly to the TV although this raises the issue of controlling it.  Screen Sharing does a good job but for convenience I wanted a dedicated remote.  Apple’s wireless keyboards and trackpad are insanely expensive so I turned to the web for a cheap HTPC remote.  DX.com had me covered, always a bastion for cheap chinese electronics they have a veritable smorgasbord of bluetooth keyboards and trackpads available.

I opted for the succinctly named “Genuine Rii Mini I8 Wireless 92-Key QWERTY Keyboard Mouse Touchpad with USB Receiver – Black”, for under £20 it was worth a try.  It was delayed in delivery due to some other items in my basket being on backorder but after a few weeks it arrived.  It comes packaged in a fairly generic box with some poorly translated english instructions and a USB to Mini USB cable.

Cheap HTPC Remote Keyboard Views

Construction and Design

The build quality was considerably higher than I expected, no flimsy plastics, squeaks or creaks. The plastic has a smooth finish, feels slightly rubberised and fits well in your hands. It’s about the size of an Xbox 360 controller but much thinner. The back of the device has a panel that slides off to reveal a lithium ion battery and the USB dongle.  The top edge of the device has a simple on/off slide switch and a mini USB port for recharging.

The lower two thirds have a fairly standard keyboard layout and the upper third has a trackpad flanked by some function buttons and two circular pads with media and navigation controls.

Functionality

Retrieve the USB dongle from the back of the device, plug it into the Mac, switch on the device and it’s ready to use. The trackpad is responsive and easy to use. The layout of some of the buttons is a little questionable but you get used to it quickly. Typing on the keyboard is okay although I’ve noticed several missed key presses. It’s not a deal breaker as I only need to type in the odd searches now and then. The “Win” key maps to the Command key on the Mac and shortcuts work reliably. The navigation buttons on the top right work in Plex and Safari and the media buttons at the top left trigger iTunes.

Conclusion

Overall I’m very impressed with the device and I have found that I rarely use Screen Sharing any more. The Mac Mini is running a Minecraft Server, the Plex Media Server, my main iTunes library and a few other services.  All of these can easily be administrated with this wireless keyboard. For under £20 I think you’d be hard pressed to find a better remote. As I mentioned at the top of this post DX stock a huge array of these devices and I imagine that they probably all have the same electronics inside so you can pick based mainly on aesthetics and layout.

Building a Custom Forge Minecraft 1.6.2 Server

Note: This post was originally published on iamianwright.com it’s been moved here for archival purposes.

Having played through Tekkit Classic, Voltz, YogCraft and Tekkit my friends and I decided it was time for a custom mod pack. This of course meant that I had to figure out how to build it. After reading a bunch of tutorials of differing quality and reliability I was left under the impression that I would need to use a PC. Fortunately for us Mac users with Minecraft 1.6.2 and the new Forge installer this is not the case.

Installing Minecraft Server 1.6.2 and Forge

Head to the minecraft site and grab a copy of minecraft_server.1.6.2.jar. Make a folder to store your server and copy the jar into it. Double click to run the server and continue passed any warnings that may pop up. Once the server has finished loading type “Stop” in the console.

Now we need to install Forge so head over to their site and grab the latest installer. Download it to your desktop or anywhere else that isn’t your minecraft server folder. Double click to the launch the installer. Chose “Install Server” and then make sure it’s got the correct path to your server folder. Hit Ok. This seems to take ages, I have a 70mb connection and yet the bar still crawls along and stops repeatedly. After waiting a while you will probably receive an error like the one below:

Error downloading
These libraries failed to download. Try again.
org.scala-lang:scala-library:2.10.2,
org.scala-lang:scala-compiler:2.10.2

If this happens WontWorld on Youtube has got you covered. For me it only failed to download one of the libraries but his instructions fixed it.

Now you will need a launcher batch file so that you can configure how much RAM is assigned to the server at launch. Open up textedit (or similar), make sure you are in Plain Text (Format > Make Plain Text), then copy and paste the following code.

#!/bin/bash
cd "$(dirname "$0")"
exec java -Xmx4G -Xms4G -jar minecraftforge-universal-1.6.2-9.10.0.804.jar

This will assign 4Gb of RAM for your server but you can change it accordingly for your system. My server runs 24/7 on a Mac Mini with 8Gb of RAM that I use as HTPC as well so I leave half the RAM free for other applications.

Save the file as launch.command. Now you need to set permissions for the file so that it can be executed. Open terminal, navigate to your server folder by typing “cd” without the quotes, then a space, then drag and drop your server folder onto the terminal window. That should complete the command with the full path to your server folder. Hit return and then type the following code.

chmod a+x launcher.command

Excellent. Now quit terminal as it’s scary in there and we won’t need it anymore. Next double click on launcher.bat and your MinecraftForge server should start. This would be a good time to test that you can connect to your new server.

Installing Forge for your Minecraft Client

Before connecting to the server you’ll need to install forge but before you can so that you must run Minecraft once. You’ll need a copy of Minecraft 1.6.2 from the Downloads page. Install it as normal and then open it. Once you get to the screen with a button that says “Play” you can quit and then install Forge.

This is fairly simple, just run the Forge installer you downloaded earlier choose “Install Client” make sure that the installer has the right path to your minecraft install and hit OK. This is generally very quick and painless.

Now open Minecraft again, choose the new Forge profile at the bottom left and hit Play. In Minecraft click Multiplayer, then add your server and test that it works.

If you’ve got this far and everything is working then it’s time to move on to the fun bit.

Installing Mods into FML in Minecraft 1.6.2

So now that you have your list of mods, download them all into a working directory somewhere other than your server folder. When you download them be sure that your browser is not unzipping them, if it is you should be able to find the zips in the trash.  All of the mods will be either ZIP files or JAR files.

All that’s left to do now is install the mods by moving the mod file into the mods folder inside your server folder.  It would be nice if you could just drag them all in at once and it worked but that was not my experience.  I found that it was best to add one at a time and check I could still login. Remember that any mod installed on your server also needs to be installed on your client.

Some mods have different files for server and client but most are universal.  So add a mod to your server, start the server, add the mod to your client, start your client and join the server.  Sometimes after adding a mod to the server it will die horribly and throw a SEVERE error. If that happens read the log file, read the forums, check for dependencies and try again.

You may need to copy the contents of the server’s config folder to your client’s config folder if you encounter ID mismatches between client and server.

It would also be a good idea to make backups of your server every time you successfully install a mod. This may seem like overkill but I finished this project once and was happily playing online when I decided I should add one more mod.  It threw a severe error, removing the bad mod didn’t fix it neither did reinstalling the server and copying the last backup of mods. Moral of the story backup everything all the time.

In the end I managed to get the following mods installed and living happily side by side.

  • Advanced Repulsion Systems 56.0.0
  • Advanced Machines 56.0.0
  • Arhimede’s Ships 1.6.2
  • BuildCraft 4.0.2
  • ChickenChunks 1.3.3.2
  • CodeChickenCore 0.9.0.5
  • ComputerCraft 1.5.6
  • Dimensional Anchor 56.0.1
  • Dyeable Beds 1.6.2
  • EnderStorage 1.4.2.2
  • Greg’s SG Craft Mod 1.6.2
  • Immibis Core 56.0.5
  • Immibis MicroBlocks 56.0.5
  • Industrial Craft 2
  • Infinitubes 56.0.1
  • Iron Chests 1.6.2
  • IC2 Charging Bench 1.90
  • Not Enough Items 1.6.1.3
  • Teleport Pipes Mod 1.6.2
  • Timber! 1.6.2
  • Twilight Forst 1.19.3
  • Useful Food 1.6.2
  • Weapon Mod

Now it’s up to my friends to play test it and see if it breaks horribly.

Pebble Review

Note: This post was originally published on iamianwright.com it’s been moved here for archival purposes.

What is a Pebble?

The Pebble smartwatch connects to your Android or iPhone handset via bluetooth and displays text messages, emails and other configurable alerts on it’s e-ink display. It’s the result of the most successful kick-starter project since the site’s launch. Pebble were originally looking for $100,000 but wound up raising a staggering $10 million during their campaign.

I thought it looked like a great product when I first saw the demo videos during the funding stage but due to a lack of funds I didn’t back it. I signed up to pre-order one in February this year and was contacted at the beginning of August to say that my Pebble was ready for me. It arrived about three weeks later and after paying around £25 in import duty it was in my grubby mitts.

It arrived in a very minimal package, just the watch and the proprietary USB charger in a long thin mailing box. The setup instructions are available online and in the companion apps for iOS and Android. Setup was almost instantaneous, download the app, open it, it asks for permission to connect on both devices and then you start configuring any IMAP accounts you want it to alert you to.

(NOTE: As I have an iPhone 5 the rest of the pebble review will be around the experience of pairing a pebble with iOS 6.)

Notifications

Notifications were the main reason I wanted a pebble. Text messages (SMS) and iMessages are displayed on the Pebble in full and they work flawlessly. I have been surprised at how handy it is and I wouldn’t want to be without my Pebble for this feature alone!

Like most people I get a lot of email, some of it is even important but soon after getting my first iPhone I disabled the email notifications as it became frustrating to get my phone out when it buzzed only to delete yet more spam or social media notifications. Pebble allows you to set up a number of IMAP accounts that it watches and then notifies you when new email is received. It vibrates and displays the first few lines of the message. For email notifications to work the Pebble app has to be running in the background on the iPhone. So far I have found that it doesn’t consistently alert me to emails but it’s hardly life or death.

You can set up notifications from any app to display on the Pebble by setting them to show on the lock screen in the Notification Center preferences of the iPhone. However at the moment this is a bit hit and miss. Pushover seems to work fairly consistently but Prowl refuses to play nice with the Pebble at all. The general consensus seems to be that iOS notifications should be improved in iOS7 and until then it’s a case of turning the settings on and off until they stick.

Pebble Apps

Pebble comes with a built in Music app that allows you to play, pause, skip forward and skip back through what is playing on your iPhone. It also works flawlessly, if nothing is currently playing it will start playing wherever you left off, whether you were in an album or playlist. There are no controls to navigate through your library so you’ll have to get your iPhone out if you fancy switching album or playlist. In it’s current incarnation I think it’s perfect for skipping the dud tracks on albums while commuting or walking when you might rather leave your phone out of sight. It’s also good in shuffle mode to check the name or artist of a track you’ve forgotten.

There’s an inbuilt Alarm Clock app that allows for multiple alarms. The alarm itself is silent as it just vibrates the watch against your wrist. I don’t really have any need for it as I don’t wear it to bed and have no need of alarms during the day but it’s a sensible addition.

There is one other app included although it only gets activated when you launch a compatible companion app on the iPhone. The Sports app works with iOS apps like RunKeeper to display information on the Pebble about your workout; elapsed time, miles covered and current pace. It also allows you to pause the workout without having to get your phone out. I have been using it to track my rides to work for the last week. I found just the act of tracking them to be quite motivational and being able to put my phone in my bag and start/stop the workout from my wrist makes it much more convenient.

The Pebble SDK has been available for a few months and there are some third party apps available. Even though I didn’t buy the pebble for apps, it was a fun to play Space Invaders on my watch although the buttons make it too uncomfortable and impractical to be any more than a novelty. I did also download Cave Worm, which is a clone of a game I spent many hours playing on the school computers during form time. It runs smoothly and is easily playable, in part because it requires only one button but again it becomes uncomfortable quickly.

It will be interesting to see what third-party developers will come up with as the install base increases.

Watchfaces

There are quite literally thousands of watchfaces available for the Pebble. The vast majority of them are created using online generators and as such are all much the same. There are some diamonds in the rough though, in the picture above I’m using Squared, I also really like the idea behind LinesWatch although it’s not easily legible. The built in Fuzzy Time face was part of the original draw for me as I’m a bit of a typography geek.

I cobbled together my own watchface with the generator and it was very simple but limiting in what you can achieve. The SDK is available and there seems to be quite an active community but I don’t have time to investigate it in detail at the moment.

In Use

Having not worn a watch for a few years it felt strange for the first day but I soon got used to it again. It’s light and comfortable on my wrist although I wonder if people with slimmer wrist might find it a little too large. The build quality is pretty much exactly what I expected, it’s not Apple’s level of industrial design but it looks good and it’s the first product from a small crowd funded startup. It’s smooth and sleek, the screen is excellent and clearly legible in all lighting conditions. It comes with a user-replacable silicone strap which I will be changing as I’ve always found they irritate my skin in the past. It’s a fairly standard size so there are plenty of options to customise the strap.

The vibrations are strong enough to get your attention but discreet enough not to alert everyone around you.  The battery life is quoted at around seven days and so far that seems in keeping with my experience. I had been concerned that it might kill my iPhone’s (already poor) battery life but it doesn’t seem to make a huge amount of difference and I’m still charging the phone each night.

I have received a couple of positive comments on my Pebble mostly due to the slightly peculiar watchface I’m using. It seems that most people have never heard of it but at least one person that I talked to about it asked where to buy one. I think the Pebble is understated enough that the majority of people are unlikely to remark upon it unless they recognise it.

My only real worry is scratching the face of the watch as it’s plastic. There are a number of companies offering wraps for Pebble and they also include a clear screen protector so I may invest in one of those.

Verdict

After my first week with it I’m really impressed with the Pebble and I wouldn’t willingly give it up. I’ve been fascinated by wearable technology since I was a teenager and it seems like this may be the first consumer priced step on that journey. I’m hopeful that the imminent release of iOS 7 will address some of the inconsistencies with notifications and possibly allow more communication from phone to pebble.

If the much rumoured Apple smart watch ever materialises then no doubt it will have a higher build quality and be more feature rich than the Pebble but I doubt it will be priced around $150 nor will it last a week on one charge.

Pebble offers an attractive, well-priced and open platform to those interested in wearable tech. It’s probably not for everyone but it suits me and I’m looking forward to integrating Pushover in future projects purely for geek value.

Fix Network Drivers for XP in Boot Camp

Note: This post was originally published on iamianwright.com it’s been moved here for archival purposes.

Just a quick tip today.  I had a client that asked me to do the unthinkable.  She bought an iMac several years ago but had only ever used it for Windows XP under boot camp.  She asked me to give her more space on the windows side, it was originally configured with the default 32Gb.  So after backing up her data I removed the windows partition then created a new, larger one. I reinstalled Windows XP and followed Apple’s instructions (PDF) by installing the drivers from the Leopard disc.

Windows XP would not recognise the network drivers (ethernet or airport). After several futile attempts and one other copy of Windows it was still stubbornly uncooperative. Everything I could find on the web just reiterated Apple’s advice to install the drivers. In a last act I tried installing the drivers from a Snow Leopard disc and it worked perfectly.

So if you can’t get an internet connection in Windows XP under boot camp try installing the drivers from a Snow Leopard disc as the Leopard ones don’t seem to work (alternately learn to use Mac OS X, just saying).

Lepai LP-2020A+ Amp Review

Note: This post was originally published on iamianwright.com it’s been moved here for archival purposes.

My new Lepai LP-2020A+ amp arrived yesterday and I promised a quick review so here goes.  I expected it to be adequate at best but it’s excellent!  I am not an audiophile but I can definitely appreciate the difference between good and bad audio.  The only complaint I have is that the amp does sound a bit muddy if you switch on the tone controls so I have left them disabled.  It’s not much of a concern though as I’m streaming the audio from iTunes so I’m using the built in equaliser and it sounds great.

For less than thirty quid I cannot praise the Lepai LP-2020A+ enough.  As I already had the speakers and Airport Express it’s a no-brainer.

White MacBook vs Samsung TV

Note: This post was originally published on iamianwright.com it’s been moved here for archival purposes.

A few years ago I bought my parents a Samsung TV as a Christmas present.  Recently they have started watching more content on their laptop and my Mum asked if there was a way to connect it to the TV for easier viewing.  They have a somewhat ageing MacBook, the white plastic model (long since discontinued) which has a Mini DVI output.  So we purchased a Mini DVI to HDMI adapter and some HDMI cables from amazon and with my Mother being a slight technophobe I was invited over to “set it up”.

For anyone reading this you’ll be thinking exactly what I was, plug the cables in, select the HDMI input and Robert’s your Dad’s brother.  This is exactly what happened when I plugged it into the small, cheap TV in their bedroom.  However the larger, more expensive Samsung TV in their living room refused to behave itself.  I tried various menus on the television to no avail.  I googled the problem with every keyword combination I could think of and eventually gave up.

The MacBook was clearly recognising it was plugged into an external display as the screen flashed as it should but the TV stubbornly continued showing the No Signal message.  I admitted defeat and headed home.

A considerable amount of searching later I found this post on the AVS Forums which seemed to describe a similar issue.  Fortunately I had access to a PC laptop that offered an HDMI out so I visited my parents again and gave it a go.  Success!

The TV detected the PC’s output immediately.  I changed the Picture Size to Screen Fit as directed, disconnected the PC and then connected the MacBook which then worked faultlessly.

I have written this here in the hope of directing anyone else encountering the same problem to this hard to find gem of information.  It’s a very peculiar issue but armed with the instructions and a Windows laptop it is solved in minutes.

Typing Symbols on a Mac

Note: This post was originally published on iamianwright.com it’s been moved here for archival purposes.

Something that has always bugged me is the way that you enter symbols on a Mac.  I can never find what I’m looking for and tonight was no exception.  I wanted to type a musical note earlier this evening, couldn’t find it so I had a quick look online.  I found an article that mentioned opening the Special Characters window, which I had already looked in but then it said to choose the Symbols section.

Special Characters in Pages
Special Characters in Pages

As you can see I don’t have a symbols section.  I casually clicked the cog at the top left and suddenly was able to enable all the sections that I previously couldn’t find including the Musical Symbols.  I’m not sure how long it’s been like this but I’m glad I’ve finally got access to all the symbols again.  I’m posting this on the off chance it saves someone else some time.