It was time to build an HTPC for the family room downstairs. And so it begins…
UPDATE: Since writing this article the HTPC in question has been upgraded to Fedora 19 and NetworkManager banished from its configuration (it just caused too many “support calls” from the family while I was away at work). About the only major change in userland software I’ve made since then has been replacing mediatomb upnp media server with the newer, lighter weight, and easier to configure minidlna (using the rpm from the rpmfusion yum repository).
This will be yet another project notes post, and as such is a work in progress.
For the last few years we’ve relied mostly on the little Seagate FreeAgent Theater+ boxes for streaming Netflix and YouTube, as well as for connecting to a Windows PlayOn server and a Linux box running mediatomb, for our entertainment needs. The kids are big on playing PC based games and we don’t actually watch much TV as a family any more. When we do it’s usually OTA (Over The Air) or Netflix. Lately our Hulu consumption has been growing, leading to the decision to subscribe to Hulu Plus.
The main way we’ve been accessing Hulu has been through PlayOn running on a Windows XP kvm guest (the server is my Fedora 17 workstation). Performance has been pretty terrible. Hulu’s streaming infrastructure really is a joke compared to what Netflix has established, and it shows.
After tweaking performance as much as I could, it was pretty obvious that we were going to have to remove the PlayOn server as a middle man and access the site directly.
The hardware was a retired vintage 2009 Dell Inspiron 530. The Core Duo E7400 CPU still had some life in it, and the box had gotten a power supply upgrade just a year before. The original hard disk had also been replaced with a 500 GB Seagate Barracuda that would be just fine. A low power AMD 5450 graphics card that came with an HDMI port and a generic wireless card completed the kit.
Initially I gave Fedora 18 a try but NetworkManager couldn’t seem to handle the wireless card that had previously tested good on Fedora 17, so I dropped back to the earlier version. The only departure from my usual build procedure was to leave NetworkManager enabled, mostly because I was too tired to rip it out and build the requisite network scripts from scratch.
In addition to the shipping Mozilla Firefox, which will be the main “application” used on this unit, I also installed XBMC. The latter is going to require some time to master, but I’m hopeful.
The only concern I have at this point is that because Amazon does not separate its streaming video service from its shopping service, the same browser session that gives me access to instant video also would allow viewers to make purchases of merchandise. That’s a pretty big security hole, so I’m hoping to get the XMBC add-on for Amazon working to provide a layer of abstraction (the Amazon add-in currently throws a script error that others have blamed on unspecified incompatibilities with Firefox, but I’ve already posted to the forum that Amazon instant videos work fine via Firefox: it is clearly the add-in that’s buggy).