Date: May 2005
Last Update: Aug. 14, 2008
Author: Lutz Wagner
One of the topics discussed the most in recent PC-magazines is the type of 'Multimedia-PC', especially considering its usage in private living room environment.
As far as I know none of these articles contain nothing about OS/2 or eCS operatings systems as a platform for that usage, not to mention its (presumably) better ability for this issue. This here article is meant to fill the gap. I would like to write down my own personal experience on my way to find the suitable and optimal configuration of a Home Multimedia-PC which meets all my requirements, i.e. be suitable for the living room.
"Suitable for the living room" means in my case: it must be silent in the first place, but also it should fit into modern furniture and life style so it gains a high WAF (Woman's Acceptance Factor). It must be able to play music (mp3) as well as videos (mpg), and also I would like to view pictures (photos). Surfing in the Internet would be nice too, but this target I have not persued at this moment (due to a lack of network connections in my living room).
Coming along without a computer-monitor sure would be a WAF-increasing factor, so a graphics card employing a TV-output was part of my wishlist.
Not a part of my wishlist is recording of music or videos, because just one shelf ahead of my multimedia-pc in the hifi-rack I have a dedicated video-recorder with audio-recording capability. And that machine does perform the task much better.
This is what the box of my decision looks like ... Black Beauty. But it is also available in silver. Its measures are: (WxHxD): 32 x 11,5 x 26 cm (more info on the dealer's Homepage).
This is a view of the final result in my living room (with a silver colored coating).
Finally, after lots of recommendations and rumors about what is 'best' for home use I made the decision for the mini-ITX mainboard technology by VIA (EPIA-boards). Because of the very small footprint of the mini-ITX-formfactor the cases are small and cute, ideal for the audio-rack. But being small unfortunately has also some negative implications. There is only room for one DVD-ROM, one 3.5 inch harddisk drive and one PCI-slot (which in turn may be extended by a riser card to two PCI-cards). There is no chance (thank Heaven!) for a diskette drive. Onboard comes a LAN-, an audio-, a VGA-graphics-chip and two USB 2.0 with two front-side outlets (I did not try out the LAN).
Here comes the complete system in detail:
|1.||PC-case SilverStone SST-LC06B (incl. external power-supply)||158,00||Fa. IBKS, case-dept.|
|2.||Mainboard EPIA-M-10000 Mini ITX, w/ CPU 1 GHz||145,00||Fa. IBKS, mainboards-dept.
or directly at VIA
|3.||RAM (DDR-512-400) 512 MB||76,00||in any computer retail store (in my case Fa. Atelco )|
|4.||CPU-cooler Verax A1-65201237-KT (Art.No. 0200234) (as a replacement for the onboard-cooler from EPIA, which for my taste was too loud).||60,80||VERAX Ventilatoren GmbH|
|5.||Harddisk 160 GB (Samsung SP1604N P80, Par.ATA)||79,00||any computer retail store|
|6.||DVD-ROM Samsung||25,00||any computer retail store|
|7.||USB 2.0-Cardreader 8-in-1 (instead of a diskette-drive)||19,90||any computer retail store|
|8.||Soundcard Soundblaster Live. This PCI-card I mounted with the help of the riser-card, which belongs to the Silverstone-case.||12,00||purchased at eBay|
|9.||Cordless keyboard/mouse (with a range of almost 3 meters)||45,00||any computer retail store|
|Total amount hardware||620,70|
I used eComstation 1.2 as the operating system. I installed right from the CD-ROM, onto the new unformatted 160-GB-diskdrive. There was no trouble at all, everything worked out fine, in my opinion a great improvement compared to earlier versions. The eCS-installer automatically recognized the Soundblaster Live soundcard (though to my astonishment the board ships with a OS/2-driver for the onboard soundchip, but I decided to use an external soundcard with the expectation of a better sound quality).
Also the onboard-graphics-chip was recognized by the eCS installer without problems, and I chose a resolution of 1280 x 1024 (24 bit colour). There was also no problem with the onboard-TV-output, which I regard a prerequisite for true 'lounge-usage' of a multimedia-PC. The Award-BIOS on the EPIA-mainboard lets you select the VGA-output-mode: CRT+LCD, CRT+TV LCD+TV, TV (alone). Because of the lower resolution of TV-monitors you have to scale down WPS-resolution to 800 x 600 pixels, then reboot and select 'TV' in the BIOS, afterwards you have a stable and fairly acceptable eCS-desktop on your TV-monitor (a video cable ships with the mainboard).
But the operation of computer programs via a TV-monitor still is an issue, mainly because of the not so crisp presentation of each pixel on the 50 Hz TV-equipment. This results in hard to read menus and other small font texts, so driving your WPS to the full extent will turn out difficult. To cope with this problem I have developped a little application called 'HOPPLA' (which stands for 'Home programmable program-launcher'), so in the end you can get along fine with the TV-monitor, i.e. without a computer monitor (which we regard as having a low 'WAF').
As a matter of fact the harddisk is not a critical issue for eCS. Any disk will do. But one should pay attention to the fact, that (1) it should be as noiseless as possible and (2) there is only room for one disk drive in the Mini-ITX-case. Which means the disk should be chosen large enough for the next years, even more because the process of installing the disk in the Mini-ITX-box is a little bit difficult and cumbersome.
In my case I decided for a 160 GB, which I think will last for the next 2 - 3 years. I formatted as follows: (during eCS-installation):
As mentioned above, the EPIA-board with integrated CPU runs at 1 GHz, what nobody would suspect these days being a speed-record. But it is more then sufficient for playing my MP3s and my MPGs and viewing digital images. On the other hand, the restriction in CPU-speed renders limited production of heat, so the effort for cooling may be kept at a reasonable low (noise) level (see above, VERAX-cooler).
It is mostly because of the very fast startup-speed after power-on that makes this PC to be recommended for home (living-room) use, which is owed to the JFS file system, as opposed to HPFS, which takes a much longer time during the boot-phase for the initial AUTOCHECK of all volumes. And in my opinion its is very important for a machine dedicated to playing music to be fast in getting operational.
The second very important feature is noise: thanks to the very silent Samsung harddisk and the almost noiseless CPU cooler fan this multimedia-PC fits very well into a music-enjoying environment, where you would feel disturbed by the noise of an ordinary PC while listening to music at low volume level.
Coming to WAF: Well, everybody is free to have his own personal taste, but I believe that nobody would deny that this Silverstone-case does look quite nice besides other stylish audio- and video-equipment and I bet most people wouldn't identify the 'PC' in the rack at first glance. You know, many traditional amplifiers are larger in size and have a more 'aggressive' look. It is only the keyboard and mouse lying on the table which let you know that somewhere there is a computer around. Judge by yourself and have a look into my living room.
The box, as discussed here, is a home-entertainment furniture, not a PC! You simply have to keep this in mind and there won't be any problems with your spouse any more.
Speaking of software we have to begin with the operating system. As mentioned above, I chose eComstation version 1.2. It is not only the much improved multimedia-capabilites of ver. 1.2, but mainly the fast and versatile JFS-filesystem that makes eCS 1.2 an outstanding multimedia platform (yes, I know, JFS was available in earlier versions too). Besides the speed at power-on time it is the virtually unlimited sizes of files and partitions (both in terabyte range) which deserve special aknowledgment.
Another issue of operating systems is APM (Advanced Power Management). With eComStation 1.2 this has also improved. In the case of the EPIA-mainboard (as is the case with other boards as well), shutdown with power-off is no longer a problem. Utilizing the shutdown.exe of eStylerLite, which comes with eCS 1.2, I implemented a graphical push-button (with the help of the 'Hoppla'-GUI) to trigger the system shutdown with power-off by just one click of my cordless mouse. Yes, of course this is only a minor issue, but it adds to the over-all elegance of the multimedia-PC, being able to power-off the system right from your actual 'sofa-position'. You know, modern people are driven by remote-control.
But the operating system by itself doesn't play any music or show you videos. For those tasks you need application-software. I have employed the following:
|TV-friendly graphical user-interface||Hoppla|
During the past four years I have digitized all my thousands of long play records, tapes and compact discs to
the MP3-format, resulting in about 60 GB of disk space, organized in a xBase-database.
For the administration of these ten thousands of tracks and albums
I use CDMagic. Because I have written this program myself
I refrain from talking about it here, instead I would like to refer to a
by Team OS/2 Region Trier (it's in German, but the CDMagic-
program has German, English and Spanish menus and dialogues).
Note: The review is some years old, a lot of things in CDMagic have changed since.
These are some screenshots of the actual version of CDMagic:
|Initial main menu||Track-list||Album-list||Cover-panel|
Talking about MP3 would be incomplete without mentioning the player-programs WarpAmp, z! and PM123 as well as the multimedia-I/O-Procs MMIOMP3 (included in eCS 1.2). CDMagic itself has no playing capability, but serves as a 'shell', where the user can select one of the above playing programs as a 'plug-in'.
Hoping not to emphasize inadequately my personal opinion I would like to talk about the most outstanding advantage of computer-based music-listening: To find a certain track from a certain album out of a collection of thousands of volumes, regardless if the track in question is part of an original album from that artist or is contained on a "Best-Of"-compilation, and to bring the track to sound out of the boxes within seconds. Try this with traditional techniques in a situation where your thousands of CDs etc. are spread over your cabinets, drawers, racks and those of your friends and neighbors.
The second important component in the multimedia-scenario besides music is video. I think everyone would agree that for this purpose nothing is more dedicated in the world of OS/2 than WarpVision. WarpVision plays (almost) all kinds of videos (avi, mpg etc.). It is a Netlabs-Project and it is permanently being worked on.
Because most probably everybody knows this program, I am not supposed to talk more about it here.
Another typical activity for the living room is viewing photographs. Most people will remember their parents unfolding a big photo album, bound in leather, upon the lounge chair, gathering all their children or friends around them. Well, this 'old-fashioned' pleasure is by far not obsolete. Only the media have changed. Instead of pictures produced on paper we nowadays enjoy their digital descendants. And as most readers will probably know, there is no problem at all for OS/2-users. This is mainly the merit of PMView, an excellent image-viewer, which outperforms most of their competitors on other platforms. I use this program since ver. 2.0, the actual version is PMView.Pro (though they call it a 'new product', the transition from the predecessor 3.x to Pro is smooth and carries only minor changes; nevertheless you have to register completely new).
Though PMView offers a smart slideshow-capability I use for this functionality a program called Calydos. Calydos is an image-database, which lets you describe your pictures in a hierarchy of different terms. These terms later may serve as search-criteria in order to find an image by entering just these terms or a fragment of a term. Calydos has only limited viewing capabililty, so for detailled and sophisticated viewing the user must specify an external viewer program, such as PMView, which is neatly integrated in Calydos.
Calydos comes with a Galery-function, which may be used as a slideshow, much similar to that in PMView. So depending on actual requirements, I use the slideshow in PMView or the Galery-function in Calydos.
Because Calydos as well (as CDMagic) is written by myself I refrain from further presentation here, just show you some screenshots:
|Image-Browser (with Preview-Images)||Image-Galery||Database-Report|
The term 'HOPPLA' stands for "Home Programmable Program Launcher". As the name is suggesting, Hoppla serves as a GUI to start programs. This sounds quite trivial, and indeed, Hoppla is just a small utility program like many others of its kind, but it meets some vital objectives:
'Designed for usage on a TV-monitor' means: Because of the bad readability of CRT-devices a TV-friendly GUI must display text and dialogues in large fonts or even better: as (large) icons or graphical buttons.
In Hoppla you may configure these functions:
To make it clear, Hoppla itself is not a graphics editor. You must create all graphical objects (background image, push-buttons) by yourself and save it in BMP-format. The background image should be quite easy to obtain, you simply look at the collection of digital images from your latest holidays and select the most beautiful one.
For more sophisticated graphical tasks you may use Embellish or Phototiger (or Gimp/2, if you are the fearless type of guy :-) ).
The main objective for Hoppla is to create your personal user interface with large enough control elements (push-buttons) so it may be used to start programs, e.g. your favourite mp3- or video-player, using the cordless mouse, while you remain seated in your actual place and without the need of a telescope in order to look at the TV-screen.
After creating your personal profile, which is called 'schema', you may place the hoppla.exe as a program-object in the eCS-startup folder, specifying the name of the schema as a parameter.
Having done this your multimedia-PC behaves as follows: After power-on the PC comes up immediately presenting you a GUI where you may start playing your music or viewing your videos by just one click on the cordless mouse. Ah - don't forget to power on the TV too, of course...
Until now we have been talking mainly in terms of "PC" and "computer". However, I would like to remind you, that our objective is "using a computer without having the look & feel of one". So, to prove we have achieved this goal, have a look into my livingroom:
|(Click here to enlarge image).|
In the foreground you can see the cordless keyboard & mouse. The remote controler has a reach of almost 3 meters, which is sufficient for program-operation from my sitting position. I would say, this is almost the optimal distance for watching TV (if you don't live in a cathedral or other spacious place). Operating the mouse on the marble table and sometimes pressing a key on the keyboard on my knees surely cannot enable you to perform extensive computer operations such as word processing or programming. But this is not the objective of a multimedia- (home-) computer.
This TV-based manner of operating a computer is dedicated to simple things such as invoking playlists, starting a video or a slide-show. With the help of the 'Hoppla'-GUI these tasks do not require more than a few mouseklicks, so even the keyboard on my knees (or on the carpet, somewhere among the pages of my newspaper...) is not needed in most cases.
But now, where is he, my eComStation-Multimedia-PC?
Move your mouse-cursor slightly over the image and watch the small bubble-help text-strings popping up, telling you what item your mouse cursor is just pointing to. Please note: The black box above the cabinet: this is the main amplifier, not the PC!
What I have presented here is not 'the biggest thing since colossus', not a breathtaking new technology that brings your PC effortless into your living room. Instead it's a sequence of several small steps, beginning with a new mainboard design (mini-ITX), improved cooling systems, noiseless disk drives, an operating system that supports it all and - last not least - a certain amount of programming, specially dedicated to the purpose of 'lounge-' or 'armchair-computing'.
There are still some things that hail for improvement, e.g. I would prefer a TV-like remote-control, or a LCD-based TV (I'm waiting for their prices to decrease), but these are minor flaws, which cannot, in my opinion, prevent the complete system from succeeding.
Talking about OS/2: What I wanted to show is that the current release of eCS is ready to be installed on the latest mainboard-technology, with non-Intel, non-AMD CPU, and as a result is best suited to meet the challenge of up-to-date way of life, at least in the field of enjoying multimedia contents at home, as opposed to the (home-) office.
So, if anybody still wants to tell you, that OS/2 is a computing platform for the financial industry and not for personal use, don't believe him. The contrary being true has been proved.