Office Makeover – Board and Batten, Triple Computer Desk

Triple Desk Wall BoardSo we finally got around to getting at least one wall of the den/office completed. When we moved into the new house last year I had just thrown the computers on the floor with a couple pieces of particle board which sort of made a cheesy desk and called it good. Far from aesthetic but fully nearly functional. After drafting up one the largest makeover projects I might have ever taken on (see last pic below), I scaled it back about 90% and got to work. Only two weekends later it’s done, or rather, 1/3 done to be more accurate, since we have 2 more walls to finish before we’re done. But are house projects really ever done?

Step 1. Build a desk. Not just any desk, but a desk for 3 computers. Why 3 computers? Don’t ask. Maybe it’s because that’s how many will fit along the wall, or because that’s just how many I have, or because that’s how many this family needs to stay functional. Whatever the reason, this desk was going to be huge. Though honestly, it wasn’t about the desk, the desk was, or rather is, temporary, a stop-gap until I can do a real built-in. I built it mostly from wood I already had in the garage, namely particle board, MDF and 3×1 common pine strips. It’s nothing fancy, but it was enough for me to get the project started one Saturday morning without a trip to Home Depot. I won’t go into the details of the desk. It works fine for now, it’s also more functional than my “desk” before and now it’s at least somewhat aesthetic and fits the intent and new style of the room. I will say that my wife did a bang-up job painting and distressing it, considering what she had to work with. If nothing else, it was good practice for some of the other furniture she has plans to re-finish.

Step 2. Add the wainscot. In this case, we did a board and batten style wainscot. Google it and see what comes up if you want ideas. There’s no end to what or how you can do this look. I suppose it’s not really a wainscot but then again, this really isn’t a blog. I created this look with strips of 1/4″x3-3/4″x98″ pieces of pre-cut MDF from Home Depot. they sell these pieces for various house projects will no real single intended use. I found they worked awesome for doing the battens as they were the right width and thickness and all machine-cut so the edges were perfect. Most people don’t use a board/batten this thin, as the look it creates is more flat, but I wanted a clean edge all the way down to the baseboard, which is just over 1/4″ at the top, and I didn’t want to do a chamfer where the different thickness pieces meet up. I’ve seen it both ways, this way worked best for me.

DSC_0511 (Medium)I cut one of the strips at about 2″ and ran it the length of the wall on top of the existing baseboard (which I did not remove) to give it some added height and to create somewhat of a bottom rail. The total baseboard height is about 5″ from the carpet so it looks a little better and gives a nice clean edge for the battens to run into. Next I cut seven boards at 39″ and placed each one on top of the 2″ bottom rail above the baseboard. I took the 1-3/4″ piece that was left over from the bottom rail and added it to the top along with a piece of the 3-3/4″ making the top part, the top rail, 5-1/2″ wide. Then to give the molding some depth, I routered a custom top rail to go over the 1/4″ piece and ran it the length of the wall. Since this piece ran into an existing door casing (that was only 1/2″ deep) I ended up doing a 30 degree chamfer to bring the 1″ top rail down to a 1/2″. It looks fine to me, though a real craftsmen would probably scoff.

The battens are nailed and glued to the walls, since I didn’t space them on the studs, and the top and bottom boards are glued and nailed only at the studs. I puttied the holes, caulked the transitions, primed and painted using our original trim house color “Swiss Coffee” in a semi-gloss. The wall finish between the battens is not smooth, it still has the hand-trowel texture as does the rest of the room, but since this was a retrofit job, I didn’t have the spacing to add a flat board and I didn’t trust my mudding skills to try and smooth it. A professional would have smoothed the wall, but for this budget renovation, the texture is a non-issue and really doesn’t look as bad as you’d think. Again, I’ve seen it done both ways. Smoothing it is preferred however and I will reconsider this option as I move through out the house with this style.

Step 3. Paint. So after painting the board and batten white, it only made sense to apply a fresh coat of color to the wall above it. Our last office we painted a dark/deep blue but this time around we wanted something a little lighter, so we went with a blue-gray midtone Behr color called Silent Tide from Home Depot. This color is beautiful and went on the wall perfectly. The contrast with the white looks awesome. It makes me want to add a wainscot to every room in my house, just to get that contrasting look of color midway up the wall. It’s so neat, so clean.

So that’s about it, I’ve nearly hit my thousand word mark, which means I’ve written too much. I added the desk I had built (which covered most of the wainscot, bummer, oh well) and set up the 3 computers. And there you have it, how to spruce up an office with some color and style and only 1 trip to Home Depot. There’s plenty of other, better, tutorials out there for creating this style but I’ve never seen it done with so much computing power in front of it! Anyway, check out the pictures below for a complete start to finish on this project and if you like the look, let me know in the comments below! Thanks again for checking out Dan’s Blog For Whoever.

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How to Build a Simple Under-Cabinet Shelf for Your Kinect Sensor

Kinect_Under_MountThis past weekend I built a small under-cabinet mount for our XBOX 360 Kinect. This sweet little shelf moves the sensor from above the shelf in the entertainment center (in front of the center channel speaker) to just below the shelf and tucks it neatly out of the way. The wire is more hidden now too and it looks much less thrown-together than it did before. I don’t think this post needs much detail, as the pictures pretty much speak for themselves, but I’ll add some words for anyone looking for a quick fix to clean up their Kinect integration into their media center.

I found a scrap piece of 3/4″ MDF that was 5″ wide and about a foot long. I marked it in three locations, at 3″, 4″ and 5″ and made 3 cuts. I took the 5″ piece and rounded the front, somewhat to match the rounded front of the base of the Kinect sensor. I routered the bottom half and sides of this piece also as well as the top of the support piece and the underside of the top piece. See pics for details if this is unclear. The routered edge simply provides a cleaner look as apposed to leaving it square.

I drilled, counteresunk, glued and screwed a pair of 2″ wood screws from the support piece into each of the top mount and base pieces. I drilled (4) holes into the support mount to accommodate the 1-1/4″ wood screws to mount into the underside of the shelf in the entertainment center. I spray painted it to match the entertainment center Heirloom White from Krylon. I did a fit check with the TV still in place to make sure it was sitting as close to the TV as possible without hitting the back of it. I removed the TV, centered the mount, marked it and screwed it in. I put back the TV and placed the Kinect sensor on its new resting place, its new home, where it will sit happily ever after. We played a quick round of Dance Disney to test it out and it works flawlessly. No complaints here.

Not much else to say about this little build. I know it’s a weak blog post, but not much is going on around here these days, but I do have something much bigger and better in the works. In the mean time, check out the pictures and thanks for dropping by!

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Backyard Projects – Grand Sequoia Play Set Assembly

CaptureLast year we bought a new home, while the details of that little adventure are better left for another post, I did want to share some of the work we have done in the backyard in order to make it a more kid-friendly place to play. Now the house was everything we could have wanted, but the backyard left a lot to be desired. There was plenty of space, it had potential, but there was nothing back there but dirt, rocks and one of the hugest piles of sand I’ve ever seen outside of Zuma Beach. The first thing on the list of things to do in the backyard was – put in a play set.

We searched around for a few weeks and ended up settling on The Grand Sequoia from Sam’s Club. They were doing a sale, $500 off with free shipping. The kids all agreed they liked it the best so we made the purchase. It showed up 5 days later, all 900+ pounds of it. This was going to be a long weekend but we were up for it.

Before we could start on the play set however, I had some ground prep to take care of. First and foremost was removing all the trees, weeds and bushes that filled the back corner of the yard, right where we had slated for the new play set. Second was to remove the hot pink/green/purple 2×10 lumber that lined the old sand box which was buried 8″ deep into the ground. We had approximately 600 sq.ft of area (or 450 cu.ft. of sand) to work with for using underneath the play set. We had to move about half of it. Thirdly I had to dig down the remaining area around the existing sandbox so as to make dirt to fill in where the sand was being removed. That took a weekend all in itself. But it was worth it.

The play set went up without too many issues. The biggest problems we had were missing screws and bolts. If you purchase this play set, or one like it, I would recommend going through every nut and bolt with the instruction manual to make sure everything is accounted for. We had to make two emergency trips to the hardware store just to pick up pieces that weren’t included. Not to mention that several screws they had included were simply the wrong length to get the job done. Fortunately I had a stock pile of enough random screws on-hand I was able to get by without making a 3rd trip to Home Depot (which isn’t exactly around the corner). To top off the missing pieces, it snowed, twice, while we were building the play set. Which is quite the feat considering I live in Southern Arizona where it only snows maybe once a year. It was pretty though, and I didn’t complain about it one bit.

Once the playset was up and completed, I had the fun of moving half that sand box to accommodate the new play location. I did it one wheel barrow at a time for many hours in a row until my back was broken. I framed the new sandbox area with a double-stacked high 4x4x8′ Cedar Posts from Home Depot (they were only $2.59 each). I held them into the ground with 1/2×12″ pieces of pre-cut re-bar that were about $1 each. I was really happy that the color of the cedar matched the playset nicely. They have just enough height to keep the sand inside and was quick and easy to put up.

So with that, the kids are having a great time playing in the new sandbox and swinging on the swings, going down the slide and climbing up the rockwall. We also bought a pirate ship’s wheel and a pirate flag from Amazon, which I still need to put up. Overall it was a fun project that I was happy to do while the weather was so cool. Here’s a few pics of the whole process as well as some cool time lapse video of the entire build-up process. 14 hours condensed into only 30 seconds. I wish we could have done it that fast!

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AMD A4-3400 Llano-Based HTPC Upgrade Rocks

Several years ago I threw together a cheap HTPC based on an AMD Athlon 939-socket chip. It worked fine over the years playing back standard-definition movies and streaming Netflix without issues. Recently however I noticed lots of skipping and stuttering while my kids were watching an episode of The Avengers. The movie was attempting to play in HD, but the old HTPC just couldn’t cut it. I took a look at the CPU usage and it was pegged at 100%. I disabled HD and the movie proceeded to play without issues, but the CPU usage only dropped to about 80%. I decided it was time to upgrade this old machine, if for no other reason than to get HD playback on Netflix. After all, what good is an HTPC that can’t play back anything in HD?

My goal for this build was most bang-for-the-buck. I wanted to build the least expensive HTPC I could that would fit the bill of internet media streaming device without being required to do much else. The plan would be to keep all existing components such as the case, HDD, TV tuner, PSU, DVD drive, Windows 7 and only upgrade the CPU, motherboard, graphics and memory. This isn’t the first time I’ve done this kind of upgrade, and I find it works out well for anyone on a budget. And I’m usually on a budget.

So my HTPC upgrade starts off with one of AMDs brand new Llano-based APUs – the A4-3400. This little chip packs a 2.7 GHz dual core processor paired with a Radeon 6410 graphics processor. While this chip comes just at the heals of Ivy Bridge, it probably competes better with Intels’ lower end Pentium-based Sandy Bridge processors. I waffled back and forth between spending the same money on other either of these two chips and ultimately decided to go with the AMD A4 because of the lower bundled cost, better graphics core and ultimately better WEI scores (according to reviews on Newegg). At the time I made my purchase, Newegg was offering combo deals for APU/motherboards for as little as $99. So I jumped on that very deal and got $20 off an A4-3400 and and ASRock A55M-HVS motherboard. I threw in a 2×2 GB set of G.Skill ram for $25 and got free shipping on the whole deal. So for a mere $124 I upgraded my old machine to something the ultimately ended up being worlds faster than what I had before.

The build went without too many issues. The only thing I had failed to account for was the lack of a parallel IDE port on the ASRock motherboard – 6 SATA II ports and not a single parallel port. Whoops. I dug threw all the PCs I had in the house and only my Samsung Blu-ray drive had a SATA II port. I borrowed it temporarily and then later bought a new Lite-On DVD drive for 17.99 from Newegg with free shipping. I pulled out the old motherboard and dropped in the new shiny blue ASRock unit. I popped in the cool blue G.Skill memory sticks and the proceeded onto the A4 chip. I can’t believe how tiny the cooler is that comes with this thing. The heatsink must be no taller than 1″, including the fan. Fortunately this sweet ASRock mobo with its UEFI bios makes setting up the fan speed a breeze. I’ve got it set to spin as slow as it can safely go. I can’t hear it from beyond about 3 feet away.

Last thing to do is reinstall Windows 7 and I should be good to go – or at least that’s what I thought. I pulled out my Windows 7 install disc and turned on the PC. I was about to pop it into the DVD drive when suddenly the words “Starting Windows” appears on my monitor. I thought what the…? This thing is going to boot into Windows with a brand new CPU/motherboard/graphics and not crash? Sure enough Windows 7 loads up tells me it Found New Hardware (yeah, ya think?) and proceeds to install everything one by one. Well without the LAN driver, it wasn’t going to get far, so I dropped in the Driver disc provided by ASRock and installed the chipset, video, and LAN drivers. Once I got online, I downloaded the latest of the remaining drivers and the new HTPC was good to go. There were no other hangups. I couldn’t believe it. That just saved my like 2 days of updates and software re-installs. I did have to reactivate Windows though, but a quick call to the automated activation hotline and I was all set. Easy peasy. Never had an upgrade go so smoothly.

Now that its been a few weeks since the build I am happy to report that this new hardware is working flawlessly. My overall WEI went from 4.4 to 5.8. It plays Netflix HD movies without a fuss and CPU usage remains at only about 30-40%. It also plays back HD TV shows with no problems. Of course it plays back my DVD collection also without issues. Windows Media Center is much quicker, much more responsive. It also streams recorded HD TV shows to my other HTPC without stuttering, something my old machine couldn’t do. I don’t have a Blu-ray drive in this machine, but I have no doubt it would work just fine (or at least as good as any PC-based Blu-ray player works). I should also note that this computer stays on ALL the time. I haven’t turned it off in at least 3 weeks, yet every time I turn on the TV and receiver and select HTPC, it’s all ready to go. It’s quiet, efficient and makes for a perfect media experience without costing an arm and a leg. Hats off to AMD for making such a great product. Oh I should also mention that the UEFI interface on the ASRock motherboard is awesome. I don’t think I can go back to a simple text-based interface ever again. It makes the overall user experience just that much better. I haven’t actually tweaked anything, other than the fan settings and the default memory speed was wrong, but I didn’t intend on overclocking this little machine anyhow. Overall the ASRock motherboard compliments this build perfectly.

With that, here’s some pics of the hardware as well as my WEI scores for before and after the build. Next up will be a review of my new sweet new Nexus 7 Tablet. Spoiler alert…it’s awesome.

UPDATE: So the biggest issue I’ve encountered is the audio/sound over HDMI loses link to my Pioneer receiver every time the receiver is turned off/on and the input is selected to something else. Cycling the inputs doesn’t work, power cycling the receiver works half the time, power cycling the PC fixes it every time, both are not ideal solutions. Especially when my kids come in at 6 AM Saturday morning and say “Dad, there’s no sound on the computer” and then I have to get out of bed and fix it in a half-asleep daze. Curse you AMD! We’ll see if I can find a solution to the problem and I’ll post any updates. Apparently it’s a common issue with AMD drivers.

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Review of the Pioneer VSX-1021-K 7.1 A/V Receiver

Last month my 13-year old Sony 5.1 receiver finally quit. The very same receiver that had been the hub of my home theater since the dawn of the DVD era. I was bummed to have it break since I wasn’t really in the market for a new receiver. The Sony DVD player that was just as old died a couple of years ago and the XBOX took over as my stand-alone DVD player. I hadn’t looked up receivers in years, so I had no idea what kind of new options I would be in store for. So I got online and started doing some A/V Receiver research to see what I could find. After several weeks of debating between a Sony, a Denon and a Pioneer unit, I finally decided on the Pioneer VSX-1021-K 7.1 A/V Receiver. Long story short, I give this unit 5 blazing stars. It is awesome and so far has performed flawlessly for the last several weeks with everything I throw at it. I couldn’t be happier with my purchase and highly recommend this unit for anyone looking for a fully-capable A/V receiver at a great price.

This is definitely one of those best bang-for-your-buck kind of items. I bought the VSX-1021 for $299 with free shipping from Newegg.com. They sell this thing for that price almost every weekend, while the usual price is $549. Amazon sells it for $399 any day of the week. They pack a load of features into that kind of price – 90W x 7, MCACC, AirPlay, 2 Zone, DTS-HD, DD TrueHD (plus all the usual decoding schemes), 5 HDMI inputs, 1.4a HDMI switching (3D), 2 coax and 2 optical inputs (all assignable), onscreen setup menus, DLNA, Ethernet port (upgradeable firmware, huge bonus), iControlAV2 (app for iPhone/iPod that is super cool), assignable input labels (including skipping inputs all done with your iPhone/iPod), downloadable calibration files, plus a whole lot more. Ultimately here’s some of the things I really like:

AirPlay – hands down best invention ever. As someone with several iPods and iPhones in the house, as well as multiple PCs and a huge mp3 collection maintained in iTunes, AirPlay is a dream. The simplicity is typical Apple, but a testament to the genious behind its invention, my 7-year old daughter can start a song on my iPod Touch and have it playing through the stereo seconds later without a hint of difficulty. Additionally, using the Remote app, I can play any song from my larger PC library that isn’t on the iPod straight from iTunes to the VSX-1021. The sound quality is as good as any of the mp3′s I own and AirPlay works effortlessly without missing a beat. While it does an optional Wi-Fi adapter you can purchase, I have the unit hardwired to my 100Mbs LAN which works great. The onscreen album art is a bit lack luster, but who needs the TV on anyway when you’re just listening to music?

HDMI Switching – OK so just about any bottom-end receiver has HDMI switching, but this is first time for me I’ve been able to hook up ALL of my devices to the receiver and literally run ONE cable to my TV. The DVR, the HTPC, the XBOX and the Blu-ray are all connected to the VSX-1021 via HDMI and the TV is permanently set to one input. For you married guys out there, this is a huge score on the WAF. I used to have all the audio running to the receiver on all the video to the TV and everything had to be set just right for sound and video to be all working. While being able to assign names to the inputs helped in the past, it didn’t simplify the process. Now it’s so easy I can’t believe I ever messed with it the other way. I’ve got specific names assigned to each input (which is a piece of cake to do with the iControlAV2 App) so ‘XBOX 360′ is exactly what it says it is and there you go, rocking out to Guitar Hero in seconds. Of course if you’re still old school and don’t like the idea of running video through the receiver, there are 2 coax and 2 optical inputs which are assignable.

I have had no issues with the video or audio over HDMI to the receiver. While the VSX-1021-K does have various video processing options, I’ve got them all turned off, so as to pass the direct video on to the TV without any additional processing. I did mess with them a little bit, but honestly don’t see a whole lot of value in using the receiver as a video decoder/enhancer/corrupter. Besides the manual suggests that if any of the video options make the picture look worse, to just turn the features off. So that’s what I’ve done. The only reason to use them would be if you’ve got a non-HDMI input (composite or component) that you want upscaled to 1080i/p. I haven’t tried out that option.

iControlAV2 App – While you can do a lot with the remote and the onscreen menus, this cool little app for iPad/iPhone/iPod is great. You can easily select inputs, change sound modes, turn the volume up/down mute, and pretty much anything else with a simple touch-based GUI. Kids got the movie too loud in the other room? Just open up iControlAV2 and dial it down a couple of notches. The mere fact that Pioneer has even created a useful app for their receivers just shows that they’re on the cutting edge of today’s technology. The fact that it works, shows they know what they’re doing.

MCACC – This is Pioneer’s auto speaker calibration routine. I haven’t had a chance to tweak my setup much other than to just run one sweep, but it worked great and definitely gave the sound the needed bump in the right places. You get 6 different memories and various different calibration modes – all of which can be manually tweaked afterwards. I love the fact that once the calibration is complete, you can “log into” the receiver from your PC and download the calibration files and view the response plots of your room. It’s pretty handy for letting you see what kind of changes are being made and why. You can actually set up the entire receiver from your PC through a series of menus, though it’s not very user friendly and seems to be written more for a total novice A/V person. I walked through the first portion of it and then quit. That part of Pioneer software engineers could do some work on. But it’s not a deal breaker, just don’t use it.

Those are just a few of the reasons why this receiver is so great. But I’ve written a lot and probably not said very much. All in all, this receiver is awesome. I can’t believe the technology in 13 years. I expected just something simply just to get my home theater back up and running, I didn’t even realize all the great conveniences I was missing out on. Now I don’t think I can live without them. Pioneer has been a brand that has been with me since I was a little kid, but with my recent experience with Sony products, I couldn’t go back to them. I’ve got quite the Sony Mortuary going on in my garage right now (DVD player, CD player, tape deck, VCR, discman, receiver, and TV) which have all since been used and consumed. I can only hope that this new Pioneer receiver lasts at least 13 years, though I wonder what kind of great features I’ll be missing out on then?

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Blu-ray and Pentium Get Along at Last

If you’ve ever wondered if that old Pentium IV computer you’ve got collecting dust in the closet might just make a great media hub capable of full 1080p, you may be surprised to find that it’s got just enough horsepower to actually work. That’s what I discovered last night after installing a Samsung Blu-ray drive into my 3.4 GHz Pentium HTPC and watched Back to the Future in full 1080p with perfectly fluid playback. Something I didn’t think would be possible with such an old CPU. But I’ve finally made the jump to Full HD and I’m totally blown away. The detail is amazing, the colors pop and the picture just looks outright gorgeous. And I managed to get it all for less than the cost of a decent stand-alone player. Here’s why I finally caved and how I got my system up and running.

In 1998 I paid $375 for my first DVD player. I jumped on that bandwagon before most video rental stores were even carrying DVDs. Even then I still waited about a year after their initial release because I wanted component video outputs and needed the price to come down just a bit. Today I paid a mere $65 for a Samsung Blu-ray drive for my computer nearly 5 years after their initial release. So why buy a Blu-ray drive instead of a standalone player? I debated the issue quite a bit, but ultimately for me it came down to convenience, price, and overall tweakability.

Here’s some quick specs on the machine I’ve got running Blu-ray right now. I bought it used for $50 several years ago and have been using it as an HTPC in the master bedroom for the last year. It’s an HP Pavilion dc7100 running an i915P chipset and a 3.4 GHz Pentium IV (Prescott 550) with 2 GB of PC3200 DDR400 memory. I’m running Windows 7 32-bit that gets a WEI of 4.4. A 320 GB Western Digital hard drive takes care of recording space for TV shows using Hauppauge WinTV HVR-1250. I have a super old school Sounblaster PCI 128 sound card that has a built-in amplifier, so it drives a pair of stereo speakers surprisingly loud without the need for an external amp (for now). An old Radeon X1600 took care of the video, despite that no supported drivers for Windows 7 were available. Though this setup played 720p HD TV shows just fine, it struggled with 720p Netflix content. I never thought it would have the power to play 1080p Blu-ray.

I decided to upgrade the graphics card to a Radeon HD 5450 (Cedar) in order to ensure compatibility with my HDTV (and Windows 7) offering a native HDMI port, full HDCP compliance, DirectX 11 support and plenty of options using the latest Catalyst Control Center from AMD to tweak for a perfect picture on my 40″ Toshiba LCD. Additionally, this card offers support for H.264, VC-1 and MPEG-2 which should offload some of the HD rendering from the older CPU. There’s plenty of 5450-based cards out there but I ultimately settled on a GIGABYTE GV-R545OC-512I for $19.99 (after $20 MIR) with free shipping from Newegg.com. This is a PCIe 2.1 card and yes, it plays just fine in my old PCIe 1.0 graphics slot. This card runs a little faster than most of the other variants due to the DDR3 memory and even though I don’t plan on playing games on this rig, it was actually the cheapest of the 5450′s after the MIR. It’s not a fanless card, but the fan spins spins slowly and isn’t audible above the other fans cooling the PSU, CPU and case. This is a great card and offers plenty of resolution options to get what appears to be 1:1 pixel mapping at 1920×1080 on my LCD. At least text and graphics look perfect without being blurry. My TV has a 1080p PC mode which basically turns the TV into a perfect computer monitor. So I’m quite happy with the results. It’s a great card for HTPCs and I highly recommend this one if you’re in the market. Picture looks much better than that old X1600.

The Blu-ray drive I bought is the SAMSUNG Blu-ray SH-B123L/RSBP which is the latest drive from Samsung and features a 12x BD-ROM and has all the standard DVD and burning features found in most drives. While it claims 12x for Blu-ray, it only plays Blu-ray movies at 6X (even DL discs). Which is still faster than most players. I have no issues with the load times I’m seeing (about 8-10 seconds) and the drive is quick and responsive. The cool mirrored finish on the front panel is slick looking and dispite what most people in the reviews about the drive being loud, I find it no louder than any other CD/DVD drive I’ve heard and cannot be heard over playing a movie. It came with the latest firmware and Cyberlink’s Power DVD 9 for Blu-ray playback. Most people complain endlessly about the free version Cyberlink offers with most retail Blu-ray drives and how awful it is. I think considering the software is free, it’s actually not that bad. They make you install a whole suite of mostly useless applications, but Power DVD 9 works pretty good on this machine. I haven’t had time to tweak with it too much, but it works fine so far. I don’t suspect I’ll be purchasing the full version any time soon. There is one weird issue I need to work out, but I won’t dwell on it for now. I’ve been using Power DVD since version XP (which predated version 5) and have never had any (major) issues with them.

My first test Blu-ray was Toy Story 3 and it played perfectly. I seriously couldn’t believe how awesome the picture looked when it first started playing. This was the first 1080p content I’d watched on this TV (which itself I only bought 6 months ago) so I was really breaking in both the Blu-ray and the TV at the same time. Pixar movies in HD look absolutely incredible. I was impressed that not only is the detail better, but the colors are deeper, the blacks look better, there’s just more contrast and more color to the overall picture. I had to dial down some of the original picture settings I had on the TV with the old DVD player and old graphics card because they were all too high. So I was really happy about that. CPU usage was about 15% average throughout the movie, and the CPU frequency actually throttled down to 2.7 GHz throughout most of it. The next movie I watched was Back to the Future. This is a classic movie and one of my favorites. It played (almost) without incident. There were a few blips during the lightning/storm scene which shuddered and dropped frames. Turns out Windows was dowloading updates at that time. I went back later and re-watched that scene and it played through just fine. So I went into my Windows update settings and told it to not automatically download and install updates and to let me manage them. Should be okay for now. This is where a modern dual core CPU would be nice, but not absolutely necessary if you set Windows up right. CPU usage on Back to the Future was higher, up around 70%, but definitely still playable.

Now it’s time to start renting Blu-ray from Redbox and upgrade my Netflix account to Blu-ray and start enjoying all my favorite movies in HD. If you haven’t made the jump to Blu-ray and 1080p yet, what are you waiting for? Get off you’re duff and make it happen, you’ll be glad you did!

UPDATE – 9/5/2011 – While this setup worked well enough just playing Blu-ray movies, overall it was pretty slow running Windows 7 and flipping through Media Center as well as choppy playing HD Netflix (or any other) content. So this PC has been resigned to being my new Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) and I bought an older 2.66 GHz Core 2 Duo with 4 GB of RAM to replace it. The new machine really plays Blu-rays without a hiccup, but also serves as a much better and faster media hub for all my HD viewing. I’ll be blogging about my cool new DAW shortly.

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