Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Rule your "cheapo" webcam

Many a times I have faced a webcam. My parents have it, and a lot of my friends have it, but almost always, I do not get half as good a picture from it, as I might have expected. Usually, I appear either too dark, or in various rainbow colors. I see that nowadays webcams provide a plethora of settings to tweak, but usually I do not get the results I expect.

Today I came across a nice blog at Strobist which made me sit up. It takes you step by step on how to vastly improve the video quality of your "cheapo" webcam. Great! just what I needed!

See the before and after effect below!

Head over to Strobist to give it a read. Do share your experiences, or other tips in the comments.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Music track not showing up in Google Talk status?

For those who were busy fighting the aliens while Google Talk added the cool feature to display your currently playing music track in the Google status, please be aware that you can simply do so just by changing the status to “Show current music track”.

Now, it so happened that I eagerly tried the feature when it was launched, but Gtalk did not show the status with Windows Media Player 10, 11 or Winamp on my laptop. I thought maybe Google was sending the update slowly globally, so waited for a week or two, but nothing.

On further research I discovered that Google Talk installs a plug-in in Windows Media Player which sends the current music track to Gtalk. Now if, for any reason, WMP detects some problem with a plug-in, it disables it. This was the problem in my case. So here is what I did to enable my Google Talk plug-in:

  1. Ensure that you have the latest Google Talk installed

  2. In Windows Media Player, press Alt+T to access the tools menu

  3. Press ‘Options’

  4. Click on the ‘Plug-ins’ tab

  5. On the left hand ‘Category’ pane, click on the ‘Background’ item

  6. On the right hand ‘Background’ pane, click on the Google Talk plugin to check and enable it

  7. Save changes and change the status in Google Talk to “Show current music track”

This worked for me, hope it helps you too!

Oh and by the way, Google’s fascination with collecting information in order to show us meaningful results found its way in GTalk too. Google has a service called Google Trends. If you wish, then Google can log what you listen too, and hence show meaningful trends such as the current most popular song etc. I have opted in :)

Happy chitter chatting!

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Intelligent Television Viewing - My PVR setup

I am paying monthly for my TataSky Satellite TV connection (brought in India by a joint venture between Tata and Sky) and am also paying for my monthly dose of broadband. I miss a lot of broadcasted satellite programming, unfortunately or fortunately because I have a day job, and need to go to office daily to keep these bills rolling. I miss movies, premiers, comedy serials and a lot of extra stuff. Can I do something to make my investment more value for money? You bet!

I decided to build my own home Personal Video Recorder(PVR) setup using my laptop, which would be intelligent enough to do some work behind my back.

This is what now my setup does, or can do with a little more tweaking:
  • Pause live TV (so that I can answer the phone without missing the movie climax or the sport event)
  • Do OTR (one touch recording), so that if suddenly my friends come to call me for an outing, I can record the rest of the program for later viewing
  • Do scheduled programming. This will automatically turn on my satellite box, change channel and record a program, then make the computer go back to sleep.
  • Automatically record the next telecast of a movie I recently missed on HBO etc. It can search by itself for the next telecast and schedule it for recording!
  • Automatically record a series, such as a weekly comedy show
  • Not to mention that all recording is in superb quality!

What all I needed

  • My Laptop
  • TataSky satellite TV connection for the best quality I can get at the moment in India
  • A hardware based TV Tuner . I used Hauppauge WinTV PVR USB2 PVR. Remember that it now comes with a free IR blaster! I bought the MCE edition so got a bundled remote too for my laptop.
  • A IR(infrared) transceiver. This is required because you need a way to change channels on your satellite box behind your back, so that the correct channel can be recorded by the computer. The IR blaster works like an actual remote control, only that it’s controlled by a computer. I am using the great and time proven USB UIRT.
  • A PVR software. I am using the free, but feature packed GBPVR.
  • Lots of storage! I am using external Western Digital 250 GB firewire drive, but you may use your laptop if you have enough storage there. Remember that a 1 hour recording can take 4 GB space, straight out of a hardware encoder and uncompressed. For archival I use xvid compression which compresses a 1 hour recording to about 800 MB.
  • Some way to fetch weekly TV guide/listing details into the PVR software. I use TVxB to get listing of my favorite channels such as Star Movies, Star World, HBO, Sony, SAB TV, Star Plus, Star One, Sony Pix, Zee movies etc.
  • A hardware splitter, if you want an easy way to switch TV input between your television and the TV Tuner.
  • Time and DIY attitude to set it all up!
  • Microsoft Vista – No, this is not mandatory at all, but Vista does simply superb power management. If you are away from home, and your PC/laptop is ON the whole day, then you would want to make it save power and hence extend its life when not in use. Visa allows your PC/laptop to go into a special S3 power saving mode when not in use, and can wake the PC back into action within a few seconds. Windows XP can’t do that easily and out of the box. As an example, I can leave my laptop on suspend mode, the whole day – without AC and on battery, and still find my battery at more than 90% at the end of day!!

How to go about it

Setup is simple. Configuration takes some time.
  1. Connect the satellite TV output to the TV Tuner input. Use the best available interconnection option. For TataSky use the coaxial audio/video instead of the RF cable option.
  2. Connect the TV tuner to your computer
  3. Connect the IR blaster(transceiver) to your laptop and point it to the satellite box. USB UIRT, at least, is quite powerful and you don’t need to pin point it to the satellite box. It works even its roughly pointed towards the box. Even +/- 45 degrees or a bit of vertical miss-alignment works perfectly.
  4. Install TVxB and configure it to fetch your favourite TV channel’s guide. The result is stored in an international standard XML format called XMLTV. Schedule it via Windows scheduler to run weekly
  5. Install the PVR software, which in my case if GBPVR.
  6. Point GBPVR to take the TV guide input from TVxB output file, and update automatically weekly
  7. Set your IR blaster type in GBPVR, so that it can send the correct IR signal to the satellite box before starting a new recording. I had a including that because TataSky is a joint venture with Sky+ of UK, they might be using their technology and hardware, so I chose the Sky+ type for the remote. It worked!
By the way, for later archival encoding the video in XVID formating by an almost fully automated and free tool like AutoGK works great for me!

Total cost of project, if we take into account the fact that I already owned my computer and satellite TV connection, was about $290 or about Rs. 12,700

If you have more suggestions, specially pertaining to a setup in India, then do share it the comments below.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Don't throw that laptop battery yet!

It has been almost 2 years now with my Dell Inspiron 6000 laptop. I had opted for the 9 cell battery which would give me about 2.5 to 3 hours of backup, and it sure gave me more time than my friends and colleague’s laptops. Now it gives me 10 minutes of backup.

Over the time, these Lithiom-Ion batteries start to shorten in backup time provided. Dell themselves state that after some time the backup time provided by the battery will go down, but by that I expected the battery to gracefully start shortening in backup time. It took me by surprise when recently I discovered that my battery was giving only about 10 minutes of backup!! It would start at 100%, then within a few minutes go down to 97%, and all of a sudden go down to 7%!
I am using Vista, and tried to convince myself that it might be a Windows fault(whatever!), and so entered the system BIOS. There, the battery health section was ready to welcome me with the message which said something like "Your battery is at the end of its usable life period, and you might want to consider buying a new one". I concluded that I will need to shell out Rs. 5000 or so for a new one now.

I did my bit of research on the trusted Internet. To begin with, I read the ‘Battery FAQ’ at Dell site here and the ‘Short Battery Life Journal’ at the Dell support site here, but in vein.

Another very good source of information on laptop battery maintenance is at the Notebook Review Forum. Somebody on their forum suggested to try a software called Notebook Hardware Control available here. This is supposed to show the current wear level of your battery and is recommended by a number of people, but unfortunately for some reason this is the first application which gave me a blue screen of death on Vista! I had to uninstall it to boot back into Vista. Conflict with some other software on my laptop maybe.
I also read the article on Lifehacker on how to extend battery life, but it was too late for it now.

A search on the popular CNET site, lead me to a scary article hinting that Vista might really be behind my shortened battery life! Read it on their site here.

Finally, I called Dell support and they asked me to try calibrating the battery once before throwing it out. The laptop batteries have internal mechanism to keep track of when the battery is fully charged. This shows us the battery level and saves the battery from getting over-charged. With use, this battery level may faulter, and may set to a lower level than the full capacity. So it may happen that the battery is just 50% charged, but the battery shows 100% charged. Naturally then it will get discharged much sooner.

Now in the past I had already calibrated my battery, but I now realized that it was not the correct method. To calibrate a Dell Inspiron 6000 battery, I need to let the laptop fully discharge, and then charge it back to 100%. This triggers the built in calibration mechanisms which should reset the full indicator to the correct level. Now I was putting the laptop on battery from within Vista, and so as soon as the battery would come to about 7% remaining, Vista would hibernate the laptop to save Windows from crashing. And so actually my laptop was never getting fully discharged! So this time, I booted straight into the laptop BIOS screen, and switched to the battery level screen. I waited for the laptop to turn off due to discharge, and then charged it back up to 100%.

I tested, and now my laptop gave me about 45 minutes of backup! Not much for a 9 cell battery, but considering the fact that it has already reached almost its end of usable time, and was giving my just 10 minutes of backup, atleast I can use it till a bit of more time atleast in home or for real emergency work. At worst, I can keep it as an extra emergency battery for that last minute of juice.