LAN Over Powerline

The idea is not new – I’ve been hearing about it for the last 10 years at least (check it out here). For about as long I am depending on WiFi to satisfy all my networking needs because apparently the electric wiring in my apartment was designed by an idiot with zero respect to high-speed networking… Anyway I decided to give it a shot and see if it fares better than WiFi.

TLDR: the answer is NO it does not.

I have started with the kit from Netgear, Powerline AV500.

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Manufacturer specifically warns you:

Do not plug Powerline products into a power strip, extension cord, or surge protector.

Well, that was quite unfortunate because the same gifted individual that designed all the wiring was also very economical power-socket wise… Anyhow I’ve plugged adapters into spare sockets, securely paired them as per manual and fired a speedtest. WOW!! Whopping 12 Mb/s!!! Not bad for.. 500 GIGAbit adapters??! Well, at least they worked. Because they might not have worked at all – if my rooms were on different switch boards for example and not connected in any way – that’s it, no chance. Take that into account if you decide to try for yourself.

Unfortunately for me, that was the speed at the locations I required those adapters to be. Extension cords or no extension cords – situation was the same, I guess power grid in my neighbourhood is too noisy for such equipment to work optimally.

Fast forward several years and guess what? I’ve decided to see where the progress have taken this technology, enter Netgear Powerline 1200:

netgearav1200powerlineadapter-4900-001

Aaaand, Ladies & Gentlemen results are in!

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An improvement? A slight one, yes, but the fact is – latest AC standard WiFi routers will beat the living shit out of these power-line adapters and that’s it for today folks.

 

Raspberry Pi 3 B as Media Center

Over the weekend experimented with OpenELEC Linux flavor for Raspberry Pi 1 B. Experimented with wired and wireless connection options, unfortunately in all cases performance was very laggy on high quality HD movies, if 720p was ok in some cases, 1080 was never played at an acceptable level. I compare it with Intel NUC which I setup for media center some time ago and now using it for different purposes – comparison is very bleak, if NUC is fully capable as media center, from playing music and movies to viewing vacation photos then RPi only able to play music somewhat ok. Still I have used Xonar USB audio because embedded sound produced noticeable static when playing music.

I understand that I compare something that costs ~600 EUR to something around ~50 EUR and it does not seem fair.. Anyways, I decided to give a shot at newer model of Raspberry Pi – model 3 B. Just ordered it at http://www.modmypi.com/raspberry-pi/set-up-kits/rpi3-model-b-kits/supreme-kit-including-raspberry-pi-3-model-b. Will update this post once I get my hands on what is in the kit, here is the list I got in my mailbox, accompanying my order:

Supreme Kit Including NEW Raspberry Pi 3 Model B
– Includes Raspberry Pi: Raspberry Pi 3 B **R..
– Raspberry Pi Case: Raspberry Pi Foundat..
– Select Case Colour: Official Black and G..
– Micro SD Card Size: 8GB w/ Official Adap..
– Power Supply Select: Black Universal 5V 2..
– Video Cable Select: HDMI – Black – 2m **..
– USB Cable Select: Standard – Black – 1..
– RJ45 Cable Select: Black – 2m **CAB-000..
– Keyboard & Mouse Select: Wireless – Ultra-Min..

It Has Arrived!

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Please note that Asus Xonar U3 was not part of the package, I use this external audio card in conjunction with Raspberry because Pi’s internal audio has too much interference and the situation did not change for the better with this newer model, sound output is as noisy as it was on RPi 1.

This new model came with 8GB flash card that had NOOBS installed on it. I have selected OSMC from the list of possible operating systems and installed it. Please note that you have to plug the wire into the Ethernet socket in order to get some other OS different from Raspbian, this is because NOOBS will download the needed OS from Internet, which would have been possible with WiFi too but unfortunately NOOBS does not support wireless and it seems it won’t get such support in foreseeable future, so get your Ethernet ready before powering on the RPi.

What was interesting about the package is this: Rii mini wireless keyboard with touchpad (and laser pointer). From previous experience with standalone media players running Linux, sometimes problems happen that require mouse and keyboard to be hooked to the player in order to fix the issue, so previously I was taking the devices from my workstation, plugging those into the player, fixing the issue and plugging the devices back to the workstation. Not anymore! Rii is going to be very close to the RPi device, always ready to intervene in case of an issue that cannot be solved with Kodi Remote (using Kore on Android phone).

Verdict

IT FREAKING PLAYS EVERYTHING WITHOUT ISSUES!

You can configure anything and everything, as I mentioned above I am using additional sound card with RPi and I had no issues setting the sound output to the card instead of RPi analog output or my TV’s HDMI. There was slight annoyance though – I had to increase buffer size because some particularly large videos were not playing smoothly. Just create file called advancedsettings.xml with this code:



1
100000000
4.0


And copy the created file to /home/osmc/.kodi/userdata/. Just mind that you have to SSH into your RPi running OSMC and create file there, not on your workstation :) Login / pass for default OSMC installation is osmc / osmc.

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Plex, Twonky, XBMC & NUC

DLNA was out there for quite a while now, call me a slowpoke but I finally decided to give it a try!

First question that needs to be answered is WHY? Well, if you have a bunch of stuff like music, movies and photos on your home file server (NAS) it is likely you want to have some convenient way of accessing all those riches preferably from all your devices and in a more or less the same way – this is exactly what DLNA server on your NAS does for you. If you have one that is – some NAS devices come equipped with DLNA server right out of the box but if your file server is not a commercially available NAS but some custom solution, like maybe ageing PC turned into a file server then you have to add DLNA capabilities yourself.

Second question is WHAT? And here is what you need to get going:

XBMC/KODI

Media centre that is able to find available UPnP devices on local network and play the content. Versions of this media centre is available for Linux, Android, Windows and OSX at least. I should note that for OSX I have also tried the alternative - PlugPlayer. Cannot say I was too impressed with it though because mostly I was seeing this screen below while trying to use PlugPlayer:
PlugPlayer dies again

My advise is to stick to XBMC/KODI.

Another very nice thing about XBMC/KODI is the remote control capabilities – you have to enable control over HTTP in the settings menu and after that you will be able to control the playback with Android app for example.

Plex or Twonky

Both of them are quite popular server side solutions that have Linux versions (my file server is running Linux) so I decided to try one of these first and see if I am good or should explore the alternatives.

I have started with Twonky and got a show-stopper issue right out of the box: scaling of the photos did something very ugly to the pictures – everything became very low resolution and blocky, pixelated. There are some solutions to try like this one for example but it did not work for me, after couple of hours of fruitless tinkering I decided to say goodbye to Twonky and move on to the alternatives.

Enter Plex – media server with a very good Web frontend that could do anything really be it playing video, music, browsing photos or configuring the server itself. It worked as expected immediately and you do not really have to create Plex account to use it, so I opted out and still got what I needed.
There was no issues and especially that nasty rescaling of photos was gone, picture quality was great.

Of course other solutions are out there like minidlna, for instance but Plex worked well for me and I decided to not fix what is not broken. There is one feature though that is heavily discussed online – accessing your content outside of your LAN. This is possible via Plex account and paid membership (I think so but did not actually try, so may be wrong). However people also write that you could have something like this done with SSH port forwarding feature just forwarding correct ports from the PC running Plex to your router with external static IP.

XBMC/Plex integration

To get all the content from your server shown on your XBMC/KODI media centre you have to add UPnP source for each of the sections – Music, Video, Pictures. However there is a different way of getting much more significant integration with proper search capabilities like that of a native Plex client. This could ‘theoretically’ be achieved by using PleXBMC addon (installed beta4 version because others gave me errors) I just did not try it yet so probably update the post once I have some positive experience with this addon.

One very annoying thing to keep in mind without the addon – search in XBMC/KODI will not work with your remote server, meaning that searching for anything will give you 0 results whatever you do. What you have to do is use ‘filtering’ instead of searching, meaning you have to get inside the directory on your remote server and once there, use the sliding menu on the left screen border to enter filter, so you get only entries that pass your filter. Not sure why XBMC is not recreating some local version of remote media database for search to work but this is how it is. Maybe I am doing something wrong but I was not able to figure out how to make search work.

NUC

The last part of the equation, not required by the way – a dedicated device that is always on, connected to LAN and a TV, hardware media player. There is nothing stopping you from running XBMC/KODI on whatever platform and device like your laptop for example. I just wanted a new toy so decided to try and turn some micro PC into a media player running Linux + XBMC/KODI hooked to my TV.

There definitely are many alternatives to NUC and cheaper ones however NUC is quite powerful, having i5 CPU, supporting 16 gigs of RAM and SSD HDDs. Basically a real PC but very small-sized. Opting for NUC gave me more flexibility to do something more with this little thing later – not just media player. Talking strictly about media player functionality Raspberry Pi would have been a way cheeper choice though very limiting in terms of hardware power and compatibility (it’s ARM, not x86/64 architecture, no normal version of Windows for instance).

I have decided to install Linux Mint 17.2 on my NUC, it is Long Time Support release so I’m all set until 2019! Windows would also work perfectly fine but where’s fun in that? As much as I would enjoy all these new spyware features in Windows 10 I would still prefer gewd ol’ reliable Linux which is also happens to be free as in free beer sense :) By the way even Intel published a guide on making media centre box out of NUC using Linux Mint & XBMC. Didn’t use the guide though but maybe this one will be useful for somebody out there.

The best advice I got about NUC was from some blog post (unfortunately do not remember which post exactly) recommending UEFI boot – that really got NUC booting up instantaneously. Setting up Linux on NUC definitely use UEFI boot partition, search the web for guide on that if you need.

Overall my experience with the whole setup was quite positive but yeah, there are several annoyances, see below.

Annoyance #1: sporadic wake-ups from suspended state, fixed by turning off wake on LAN feature in BIOS.
Annoyance #2
: XBMC simply hangs after running for many hours straight in idle mode (i.e. not being used actively). No real fix for this one for now, seems I am using the latest version of KODI already, so I have just set up a cron job that restarts KODI during the night time.
Annoyance #3
: do not expect NUC to be completely silent during heavy load (using all CPU cores close to 100% utilisation) it has a very little fan and noise level is that of a small laptop. This does not happen during playback though but will happen during some CPU-intensive operations like creating large archives for example.

I would like to end this post with a little photo-session, so please welcome, NUC!

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