cord-cutting

PIXEL, the new desktop for the Raspbian OS, on the media room screen.

Browsing the previous post on the Cord-Cutting Blog.

Browsing the previous post on the Cord-Cutting Blog.

Just yesterday, a new desktop environment for the Raspberry Pi computer’s Windows-style Raspbian operating system was released:

Introducing PIXEL (from the Pi Blog)

PIXEL makes big-screen browsing an even better experience, not least by the addition of Chromium (Wikipedia link), a minimalist version of the Google Chrome browser.

With my wireless mouse and keyboard, it’s a way to browse on a large scale from the comfort of the Laz-E-Boy.

I followed the directions to upgrade the Raspbian image I had on microSD card via command line entries on a system terminal. (Click icon at the top of the desktop to get a terminal.)

If you are starting fresh, you can download the entire image. (By the way, I just made this WordPress.org blog edit while in Chromium on our big screen.)

I also like a new feature, RealVNC (Wikipedia link). I am able to look at and manipulate the desktop of any of our Windows PCs.

Another fun feature for the media room. Did I mention PIXEL is free to download?

Read all about it at the above link.

Update, 11/17/2016: PIXEL is the perfect way to play free Tulsa Library Hoopla music and free Amazon Prime music in the media room. But I found that the Amazon site with all its Javascript imposes a heavy CPU load which can cause overheating of the Pi. No other activity, including video, has ever made the little thermometer icon show up! Read more in the footnote on the Amazon Music post.

(Click to enlarge)TrekScrn2TrekScrn3

Sequence: 3 layers of menu (Click screenshots to enlarge.)


I started with a nearly useless Android tablet, but after gaining root access, ended with a highly usable one.

It now sports a stylish Star Trek user interface inspired by the current movies, just in time for Star Trek’s 50th anniversary.


My wife’s 2012 Google Nexus 7 tablet had become increasingly sluggish almost from the git-go. My various efforts to improve its performance for her were not lasting.

This model has proven problematic for many users, due to its relatively weak processor, limited memory, and a few other cost-related shortcomings.

A couple of years ago, she moved on to an iPhone for business, and an iPad for fun. As usual, I inherited the cast-off Nexus 7 and her old phone, a Samsung Galaxy Note II.

I didn’t put much more effort into trying to rehabilitate the Nexus 7, since the Note II was doing everything I needed as a wifi-only smartphone.

But now I could really use a tablet as a portable TV screen to watch “Morning Joe” in our Tiki room, recently equipped with an LED reading lamp beside the futon sofa bed.

A few ways a tablet can become a TV:

Run the Emby app to stream our own live and recorded broadcast TV, and the Plex app to stream our TV/movie/music library.

Watch free streaming cable news channels (including msnbc, CNBC, CNN, and Fox News) with the free Puffin browser.

Pony up for the CBS All Access app. An app-exclusive season of Big Brother is coming up hard on the heels of the current broadcast season this month, and 24/7 BB live streams are available now. A new Star Trek series will be shown only on the CBS app next January.

(See previous posts Watch live local TV anywhere via Emby app and Use Chromecast to watch online cable news.)


As poorly as the tablet was working by now, there wasn’t much to lose. So I decided to “root” it.

Getting root access to your Android device allows you to alter system applications and settings, run special apps, and do other things a normal Android user can’t.

I had rooted one phone previously, my wife’s even older Motorola Electrify. (I still use this smaller smartphone with an armband to listen to my recordings of KWGS’ weekend music programs while running and working out.)

It was somewhat a white-knuckle experience, because it is possible to “brick” the device if you aren’t careful or don’t know what you are doing (and I didn’t entirely).

datalocutus

Don’t brick Picard!

(From the all-time great Star Trek NextGen two-parter, “Best of Both Worlds”)


Mr. Data attempted to use a neural link to Locutus/Picard to attain root access to the Borg collective in order to shut down their power and defense subsystems. He failed.

But fortunately, he WAS able to plant a sleep command, since the Borg regeneration subsystem had a lower level of security.

I found a YouTube with a step-by-step procedure for the 2012 Nexus 7 on Android operating system 5.1.1 (“Lollipop”), to which I had previously upgraded in yet another failed attempt to speed up the lagging tablet.

It went fairly smoothly this time, thanks to the video. Of course, not everything went exactly according to plan, but I was able to get through the process. I added my own comments for the benefit of future readers.

After attaining root access, I installed apps to exploit the root capabilities:

3C Toolbox allowed me to reduce lag by optimizing read-ahead cache size for the I/O Scheduler. It also enabled automatically running File System Trimmer (fstrim) at boot time, which improves performance by trimming blocks of storage not in use by the file system. This is useful for solid-state drives and thinly-provisioned storage, which definitely describes the Nexus 7.

With DisableService, I was able to turn off a number of unneeded, always-running processes of the tablet (e.g., Bluetooth, Google+, Google Hangouts, Google Play Newsstand, and parts of the massive Google Play Services), saving memory and processing power.

Greenify identifies and hibernates resource-consuming apps it (e.g., Facebook) while letting them function minimally (e.g., letting notifications through). This is similar to what the Apple iOS does.

Not only was the tablet downright snappy after all this, but battery life was considerably extended.

Finally, I found a fantastically detailed, modifiable, and functional Trek theme for the tablet: TREK ✦ Total Launcher Theme. Every action has a fun little Trek sound. Warning: setting it up takes sticking with it.

(For other fun Trek-related gadgets, see the TTM aStore Star Trek pages.)


mikecompcrop2I was in front of the set on September 8, 1966 for the first broadcast episode, “The Man Trap”.

Fifty years later, I watched it again on MeTV’s “Super Sci-Fi Saturday Night”, this time, armed with slick future Trek tech to control theater room devices, and mood lighting (via the X10 Commander app).

I would have been thrilled to hear all about that back in 1967, when my computers (and I) looked like this–>

(from Boing Boing, “Origins of Cyberspace auction: brainiac memories“)

Also see previous post Sci-fi Saturday fun in the theater room.

New Raspberry Pi 3 with Ethernet, & USB dongles: IR remote control, wireless keyboard.

New Raspberry Pi 3 with USB dongles: IR remote control, wireless keyboard/mouse.

For once, I spent birthday cash on a specific fun item: the new Raspberry Pi 3. The Pi with clear case and power supply cost $50.

A few needed extra expenses:

Two Kingston Digital 8GB microSDHC Class 10 UHS-I microSD cards: $11 total

Wireless USB PC Computer Remote Control Media Center Controller: $8

Logitech MK270 Wireless USB Keyboard/Mouse Combo: $20 (already had one to use with the hacked Wii)

This new Pi has a quad-core processor, ten times more powerful than my original Pi (which has a new job, plugged into our bedroom TV). That makes for much snappier response in OSMC (Open System Media Center), an adaptation of Kodi software for the Pi and other devices.

I loaded one of the microSD cards with OSMC, then customized it. That’s easy by now, having previously explored most of its many available settings and options.

The other microSD card I loaded with Raspbian, a Windows-like operating system for the Pi.

For the first time, using Raspbian, I can efficiently browse with the 65″ theater room TV as a monitor using a wireless keyboard and mouse.

I recall presuming back in the early 2000s that big-screen browsing would be coming soon. It turned out that laptops were a much better way. (The height of boredom is watching someone else browse.) But this would be great for demonstrating a site to a group of people.

As much fun as I have with the Pi, I must admit that a Roku/Chromecast/Apple TV/Fire TV-type device can do almost everything it can do for home theater.

The Pi on OSMC/Kodi definitely can’t replace one of these devices, as it does not have proper addons for Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu.

But the Pi still does a few unique things for me:

Serves Windows Media Center PVR recordings to the TV. But I wouldn’t need the Pi for that if the WMC PC had an HDMI output. And Emby is capable of doing the same, only better!

Plays back practically all audio and video formats.

For example, I use VLC media player with Windows Scheduler on a PC to record weekly radio shows from KWGS online. The highest quality stream offered is in the advanced audio coding format AAC+. The Pi/OSMC is a good way to take advantage of this .m4a stream delivered via Plex, my current preference in music/video library systems.

Chromecast can handle some .m4a files, but not these (tried it per How to Stream Local Media from Desktop, Android and iOS to Chromecast); my Roku 3 wouldn’t play them, even using the Roku Media Player channel.

Skip directly and easily to specific times on audio/video recordings with a Kodi smartphone app, such as Kore or Yatse. Roku can play my .mp3 files, but no skipping allowed.

OSMC has a slicker and more comprehensive interface than Roku. It includes current Yahoo weather for your zip code and a news ticker, just in case you shut yourself off from the outside world a little too much.

Free Kodi addons of various stripes, e.g., ESPN3.

More tinkering (and hair-pulling) possibilities.

As I mentioned, the original Pi has moved to our bedroom. I added a USB wifi dongle, got it onto the current version of OSMC, added PlexBMC and a few other music and video addons.

But honestly, the Roku LT is sufficient in there. I will be thinking about what else I might do with the old Pi, e.g., RISC OS, Software-Defined Radio, etc. (See previous post $8 USB tuner turns PC into FM radio/recorder.)

Update, 10/6/2016: I wound up moving the old Pi running OSMC back to the theater room; the new Pi is also there running PIXEL (Raspbian OS). With the Logitech Harmony remote, I can switch between the two rather than changing SD/microSD cards.

My original Pi

Emby Live TV 4

Watching Gilligan's Island on Android phone Emby app. (Click each pic to enlarge.)

Emby Live TV 1Emby Live TV 2Emby Live TV 3

A nice benefit of knowledge gained through cord-cutting:

Watching our own over-the-air (OTA) TV and DVR recordings on Roku at home, or on a phone or tablet anywhere in the world.


I recently upgraded a quad-core Windows 7 PC in our home office to Windows 10, then added back the now-unsupported Windows Media Center. (See previous post Add Windows Media Center to Win 10!).

We had an extra USB TV tuner from a past attempt to give Gaye the ability to watch OTA TV on her work PC. It proved too big a hassle for her to both do work on the PC and have the TV window up. The tuner had been unemployed for a few years. (She has a now-cheap LCD TV in her business office.)

Over-the-door antenna, attached to USB TV tuner plugged into PC

Over-the-door antenna, attached to USB TV tuner plugged into PC (click to enlarge)

To test Windows Media Center on the Win 10 PC, I had attached an unamplified Winegard antenna to the USB TV tuner, placed the antenna on top of our home office door, then plugged the tuner into the PC.

I first set up Windows Media Center, then ServerWMC, free software that allows other computers and apps to see program listings, live TV and recordings from the WMC PC.

(I have been doing this for the last two years in our theater room with another PC; see previous post Windows Media Center & Raspberry Pi.)

Seven local stations (including MeTV, Gaye’s go-to) came in strongly with this hastily improvised setup.

I didn’t diddle around with placing the antenna for better reception of the other channels. Maybe later.

Update, 10/6/2016:

WMC disappeared when my PC received the Anniversary Update for Windows 10 on 9/24/2016. I was able to get WMC working again; see my notes added to previous post Add Windows Media Center to Win 10!.

However, the driver for the old USB TV tuner is no longer supported, so I just ordered a $20 Hauppauge WinTV-HVR-950 from eBay to replace it. In the meantime, I can still see and play any shows I had previously recorded with Emby.

(Update 10/17/2016: The Hauppauge tuner worked great for all local channels! See the comment I added for this post.)

As long as you have WMC on any version of Windows, you should be able to get Emby working with WMC as follows.


Emby (formerly known as MediaBrowser) is a free media center program with its own Roku channel and smartphone app.

I remembered that Emby was supposed to serve up live TV, unlike its otherwise similar competitor, Plex. I had previously installed Emby as well as Plex on the PC (they don’t interfere with each other).

With all the pieces in place, it was a good time to give live TV a try.

Using the Emby server’s browser interface on the PC, I activated Emby’s own ServerWMC plugin. It enabled the Emby server to talk to ServerWMC on that PC.

(Nice setup guide: Stream Live TV with Emby and ServerWMC)

Thanks to my previous experience with both ServerWMC and Emby, it was not difficult to get all this working.

I went to the Emby channel on one of our Rokus, and found that the seven stations looked so good, you couldn’t tell they weren’t coming in via direct antenna. Likewise with WMC DVR recordings: perfect.

The secret of this perfection is in Emby’s transcoding.

Broadcast TV is in the MPEG-2 format, which is bulky and unforgiving of internet streaming. Emby automatically transcodes (converts) the video to .MP4, which Roku and most apps of all kinds have no trouble dealing with. That’s where the powerful quad-core PC shines; it has the processing power to do this conversion on the fly. (Our theater room PC has a weak though adequate-for-its-purpose Celeron 450 processor.)

I tried the Emby app on my wifi-only smartphone. Worked great. I ultimately restricted Windows Media Center to only the seven good stations, since trying to stream the poor reception channels tended to hang ServerWMC (and bad channels are no fun to watch anyway).

I set up WMC to DVR “The Bob Newhart Show” on MeTV, and “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” on Heroes and Icons, so we would have something to watch on the bedroom Roku if nothing good was on.

Then I wondered how it would work on a smartphone outside the range of our wifi router.

At a party last Friday, I tried it on Gaye’s iPhone. It failed, due to not being able to reach the server on our home PC.

To fix this, I set up port forwarding on our router to allow external connectivity to our Emby server.

“…you’ll need to open the web interface for your router, and forward TCP Port 8096 on your router to port 8096 on the Emby Server machine.” (see Emby Setup Port Forwarding note).

After I texted Gaye this week to give it a try when she had a chance, she reported that she was watching “Gunsmoke” while driving!

Obviously, watching TV while driving is not a good practice, even though we once played “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” (downloaded to phone via Plex) during a round trip to OSU to visit a nephew.

Our timing was great; as the final credit rolled, we pulled back into our garage.

Windows Media Center running on my PC after free upgrade to Windows 10! Note the logos, some of which I created.

Windows Media Center running again on my PC after the free upgrade to Windows 10.

The free Microsoft offer to upgrade PCs on Windows 7 & 8 to Windows 10 ends on July 29.

I use Windows Media Center as a free DVR. I had planned to skip the upgrade in order to keep WMC, since Windows 10 doesn’t support it. (See previous post RIP Windows Media Center (in 5-8 yrs).)

But last week, as the deadline approached, I got to wondering again if there was any way to keep WMC going under Win 10. Turns out there is!

Look for DavidinCT’s post of 4/8/2016 about midway down this Windows Central Forums page. There is a better WMC installer: see the update just below.

Download the WMC zip file appropriate for your PC, unzip it, and read the directions closely before starting.

Update, 10/4/2016:

My successful add of WMC to Win 10 per the above method was wiped out when my PC automatically received the Anniversary Update for Windows 10 Version 1607 for x64-based Systems (KB3176936) on 9/24/2016. Tried a reinstall, but got an “Installing package failed, reverting…” message.

Using the WMC version 8.8.1 zip file referenced in this post at MyDigitalLife, I was able to get WMC working again. You would need to create a login there to see the post.

I upgraded to Win 10, then installed WMC with the download. There were hitches reinstalling the following three WMC-associated third-party programs, which I solved. But all YOU would need to do to avoid these problems is simply uninstall the first two before doing the Win 10 upgrade, then reinstall them afterwards. (As I did on my second desktop PC.)

ServerWMC – feeds data and video to my Raspberry Pi for viewing and control through OSMC/Kodi. In order to reinstall it on Win 10, I was forced to locate its original .msi install/uninstall file. It was in the folder “Windows.old” created by the Win 10 upgrade. (This folder is needed if you want to roll back to the original Win 7 or 8 installation.)

My Channel Logos – a useful program that populates the WMC TV schedule grid with network logos (you can add custom logos, too). Again, had trouble reinstalling because it wanted to see the the original .msi file, but this time, I couldn’t find it. Used the free version of the Revo Uninstaller program to remove the old version of MyChannel Logos so I could do a successful reinstall.

One further tip: my previous custom logos were in C:\ProgramData\MyChannelLogos. I did have the foresight before the new install to change the name of the existing MyChannelLogos directory to MMMyChannelLogos so it wouldn’t be overwritten. Afterward, I moved my custom logos to the new Custom directory under MyChannelLogos.

Ceton My Media Center – allows the corresponding smartphone app to control and program WMC remotely. It took me awhile to realize that it was still there under Win 10, just no icon or program was visible (even in Control Panel/Programs and Features). Found it by typing “Ceton My Media Center” in the new Win 10 desktop search box. Pinned the “app”, as Win 10 calls programs, to the start menu.

Problems like the above (though I haven’t run into any others yet) are why you ultimately might want to do a new clean install of Win 10 after the upgrade. Microsoft allows you to burn ISO image files to a DVD for this purpose, should the need or desire arise. I created DVDs for all three of my computers. The tool is downloadable on this Microsoft Win 10 page. I’m too lazy to reinstall without a compelling reason, but it’s good to have the option.

Other notes:

  • I ran TightVNC viewer on my laptop to remotely upgrade my two desktop media PCs, which were running TightVNC server. No need to attach a monitor and keyboard, even during installation, and the several reboots.
  • WMC programming data for the TV listing grid is provided free by Microsoft from Rovi (also see previous post TiVo to be acquired by Rovi (Tulsa roots) ). My guess is that the data will become unavailable by 2020 or 2023, but if you still have the PC, at least you will be on Win 10, which Microsoft will support through 2025.
  • Personally, I like Win 10 better than Win 7, and much better than Win 8. The app “charms” have been tamed and are actually useful now. But if you dislike Win 10, you can revert back to Win 7 or 8 within 30 days of your upgrade.
  • Some PC models are not approved for Win 10 upgrade. I learned this when I tried and failed with a Dell Latitude E6420 owned by one of our nephews. Here is Dell’s page listing their Computers tested for upgrade to Windows 10. If you have problems, check with your PC’s manufacturer.

Think it over fast, the free upgrade opportunity goes away after July 29!