Planning my future audio/visual/computer setup (Part 1)

I recall a number of months ago, the pastor at our church talked about how the things you daydream about tell a lot about your priorities. I don’t remember much about the rest of the sermon because I was daydreaming about computer case designs… Time has moved on and now I’m on to new daydreams, though still involving computers. These daydreams are really expanding on a previous post, this time extending the vision to multiple computers and a whole home network. In a subsequent post I’ll talk about how TVs, DVRs, and video players might fit into the equation.

At the beginning of March we were back in Pittsburgh, where we’ll be moving once I graduate, and we started looking at houses in the hopes of ultimately buying one. Thinking about actually owning a house and getting to customize it in whatever ways we see fit really got me thinking about how we should set up all our electronics, including TV, DVD Player, Stereo, DVR, computers, and backup storage. Ideally, it would all work together and make things basically accessible all over the house.

Ok, so how do I start explaining my thoughts on this, since it involves so many different components? First, I guess I’ll start talking about the network. If possible, I’d like to avoid cables. Cables are the fastest and most robust solution but I don’t want to have to drill lots of holes and pull cable through the walls. Cable is also very inflexible – if my wife wants to rearrange our furniture, any jacks I had made for the cable might no longer suit the arrangement. Fortunately, 802.11n provides an alternative. It seems to have enough range and enough bandwidth to meet all of my needs for the foreseeable future. My work laptop supports 802.11a/b/g/n and we plan to replace our main desktop machine at some point in the next year, so we can get it configured to support 802.11n. Plus, practically all new computers either come with 802.11n networking built-in or they offer it as an upgrade. So, it shouldn’t be too hard or too expensive to create a home network based on 802.11n. In my limited research so far, this seems like the best router/access point for the job.

Next on the list is backup storage. Ever since it was announced, I’ve been interested in Windows Home Server (WHS). It’s now pretty mature and supports lots of great features. So, the plan is to have a WHS machine attached to one of the gigabit ethernet ports on the router. It’ll back up all our machines, provide a network print server, and store all our media (like pictures, home movies, and music). Having all our data in one place makes it easy to then do an offsite backup. There’s a JungleDisk client for WHS and I recently read about a new service called CrashPlan, which enables you to do offsite backups to other people’s computers. So, for example, I could backup our WHS machine to a computer at my parents’ house using CrashPlan and I wouldn’t have to pay per-gigabyte bandwidth and storage costs like I would if I backed up to Amazon using JungleDisk. Plus, I could “seed” the offsite backup by doing the first backup locally and then moving the computer to the offsite location. This would dramatically reduce the time necessary for the first backup (probably from weeks to hours). The upfront cost is higher and I would be responsible for any maintenance but it may be worth it, depending on how much stuff I find myself wanting to back up. While I initially thought it would be cool to build my own WHS machine, I’m now thinking that it might be better to get one of the dedicated WHS machines from HP. They are small, quiet, and have room for up to 4 SATA drives. Plus, the cost of the WHS license is included and you get some additional software that seems really useful. I think I’d have a hard time building a computer with a 4-bay hot-pluggable SATA backplane for less than $500 including the $100 WHS license. Those backplanes are like $100 by themselves!

I’ve also had ideas of having a computer in the kitchen. My wife sometimes finds recipes online and prints them out. It would be really convenient for her if she had a small touch-screen computer in the kitchen where she could pull up recipes, bookmark them or save them locally. It would also be cool if she could view videos, listen to music, or have occasional web chats from this machine while she’s busy in the kitchen. The HP TouchSmart series is too big and too expensive. Something like the Asus Eee Top seems to have both a better size and pricepoint. The Eee Top has 802.11n and a screen that could be used for watching 720p video, though I’m not sure if the integrated graphics is up to the challenge. Hopefully, Asus will release a new model based on the NVIDIA Ion platform with a dual core Atom processor. According to a recent Engadget article, there are a bunch of so-called nettops coming out in the next year that will be based on this combination. Hopefully, at least a couple of these new Ion + Atom 330 machines will have the built-in touch-screen, bluetooth (for a wireless keyboard), and a VESA mount. The ultimate would be if I had the computer mounted on one of the cupboard doors and I had a wireless keyboard built into the cabinetry like an under-the-counter pull-out cutting board. Sweet!

In part 2, I’ll look at the TV and DVR. This is an especially complicated issue because the proper solution is not independent of the service provider we choose for TV. I’m just starting to get knowledgeable about issues like CableCards and how they affect DVRs, etc. Hopefully, I’ll post part 2 soon.

1 Response to “Planning my future audio/visual/computer setup (Part 1)”

  1. May 4, 2009 at 9:31 pm

    Hey, maybe you might want to rearrange furniture too!

    And yes, the kitchen idea is sweet. I look forward to enjoying our geek-ified ubernetworked home!

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May 2009

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