Retro Setup Update

20. September 2019 13:15 by Cameron in   //  Tags: , , ,   //   Comments

I had been seeing various posts about JVC D-Series consumer CRTs and recently picked up a couple for my collection. My primary driver for retro gaming is a JVC AV-32D303 which is a great size for seeing scanlines from a reasonable viewing distance. I also found a JVC AV-20D303 locally which is a good option for more shorter gaming sessions. The JVC D-Series sets are quickly becoming my preferred way of retro gaming due to their curved screens and near flawless geometry. While I do like Trinitrons, if the set is a flat panel, the geometry looks weird on the edges. Now, if I did happen to see an FV310 become available in my area, I would definitely pick it up. That said, JVC's D-Series is a good competitor to the consumer Trinitron. The colors, geometry, and sharpness are simply stunning. If you happen to find one locally, definitely pick it up!

Since I recently purchased the 3rd party GameCube component cables from Insurrection Industries, I decided it was time to increase my component inputs. I didn't want to pay upwards of $200 for a gcompsw right now so I bought two Philips PH61150 4 way automatic switchers. I got each one for about $25. The nice thing here is that they can be daisy chained or combined with an existing switching setup. I already had a 3-way manual component switcher so I plan to make two of the inputs on that switch go to the automatic switchers.

The Philips switches provide the ability to switch between component, composite or S-video sources. The inputs don't transcode from one to another though. As most of my devices are component, I am primarily interested in the component switching abilities anyway. Since my GameCube will be getting an upgrade from S-video to component, I no longer need a switch for S-video. My Sony Handycam can output to S-video and I can leave the S-video input on my JVC D-Series available. My only composite device is my VCR. I had thought about an S-VHS VCR, but those are unfortunately quite old by this point. My VCR was manufactured in 2016 which is the last year that VCRs were manufactured. I hope that it will remain in functioning condition for years to come.

eMac Restoration

20. September 2019 09:35 by Cameron in Mac  //  Tags: , , , , ,   //   Comments

Continuing retro Mac collecting, I picked up an eMac! Upon receiving the eMac, it was packed very well and the shell was mostly undamaged. There are a few small cracks on the front bezel, but mostly cosmetic. When I tried to boot up the eMac, it failed to load any operating system. I booted up the Mac OS X Tiger installer and tried to format the hard drive, but kept getting errors during formatting. Ultimately, I had to replace the original 60GB HDD with a spare 250GB HDD I had. The replacement wasn't too bad, but it is more involved than servicing an iMac G3. I also replaced the DVD drive since it is a standard 5.25" IDE DVD drive.

In the process of putting the case back on, I accidentally snapped the wires to the power button because I forgot to disconnect it until the case was properly aligned. This is a common problem with eMacs. Thankfully, I was able to find some replacement power button assemblies from a computer recycling company. While I waited for this to arrive, I fashioned a makeshift power button. My plan is to desolder the original power button connector and solder on a JST connector in its place. While I have the case open, I will be replacing the PRAM battery too since it seems to have gone bad.

Once I have everything reinstalled, I hope to not need to open the case again for a while since it's a bit of a hassle to service an eMac. The screen is a beauty though. Apple used Trinitron CRTs in their vintage iMac, eMac and studio displays. It will be nice to keep these in working order as long as I can. Next, I would like to find a classic 68k Mac. I haven't decided on which model yet, but I will keep my eyes open for a good deal.

Why Plex? - Part 2

17. September 2019 13:09 by Cameron in   //  Tags: , ,   //   Comments

The online TV streaming market is becoming more fragmented as each company introduces their own service and gets exclusivity to several of our favorite TV shows that we used to watch on cable TV. I fully expect traditional cable to TV to be replaced by streaming in the next 5 to 10 years. The idea with streaming services was to "cut" the cord from the big cable companies. However, the reality is, the amount of money we pay hasn't really changed; It's just a matter of who we pay now.

With all of the new streaming services popping up to grab a piece of what used to be dominated by cable TV, I am glad to have my own Plex library which I have been slowly adding box sets of my favorite TV shows. It has become a bidding war of who gets to stream which show and it becomes too much to manage if you only subscribe to a couple of services. If it weren't for Netflix original content, I would probably drop them completely and continue building up my own TV library.

One of my favorite TV shows, The Big Bang Theory, is available on Netflix, but only in the UK. I have watched some of the show while visiting the UK, but while back in the US I've been using a VPN to get access to the show. Now that The Big Bang Theory is finished airing on live TV, I can purchase the box set for $200 on Amazon and not worry about who has the streaming rights to a particular show. If you usually pay $12-$15/month for Netflix, this works out to be about $144-$180 for the year. Yes, $200 for one show might seem like a lot, but it will save you the decision making of whether to keep a service or add a new service should the show you like switch streaming providers. Beginning next year, The Big Bang Theory is leaving Netflix to go to HBO Max streaming service. You will also be able to see it on TBS. However, I am just glad I won't have to worry about where I can watch going forward.

In the end, it's all about how you consume media. If you still have cable, then you can probably find the shows you like on your favorite networks. If you subscribe to streaming services, you can pick and choose which ones work for you for a given time frame. For me though, I mostly like to just subscribe and forget and not have to actively manage which ones to stay.

iMac G3 Update

1. September 2019 16:06 by Cameron in   //  Tags: , , , , , ,   //   Comments

It would appear that I was wrong about the flyback dying on my original Graphite iMac G3. I had installed the PRAM battery in the wrong direction so it was not saving any of the PMU data, preventing the CRT screen from turning on. After reseating the battery in the correct polarity and resetting the PMU a few times, I was able to get the CRT working again.

I received that second iMac G3, but it arrived in poor physical condition. The seller did not pack the iMac appropriately and the front bezel had shattered into dozens of pieces. I was able to get a refund for this iMac since it was in bad condition and shipping it back would have made the condition worse. Luckily, the CRT seems to still be intact on this iMac so I will be keeping it around for spare parts for a later date.

My original thought was to try and install the 250GB IDE HDD I had in the Graphite iMac, but there are no boot disks for the Intech Hard Disk Speedtools to properly format the larger disk. The installer for Mac OS 9 and OS X only saw the first 128GB of the drive. I played with the idea of using a second G3 Mac to format the iMac's internal HDD over FireWire, but ultimately decided to install my 128GB class 10 SD card instead. I now have Mac OS 9 and OS X installed on the same partition and can boot into either by switching the startup disk from within the OS. I haven't figured out how to get both OS 9 and OS X to list in the boot menu when holding down options on startup though. I read somewhere that you can press 9 or X at startup to boot the respective OS, but I have yet to try that.

My next goal for this iMac will be to get some more retro Mac PPC software and install a few games on the SD card. As the internal DVD drive doesn't eject disks correctly anymore, I will use an external FireWire drive or a second Mac in Target Disk Mode to install disk based games. Some of the games I will be installing include Sim Tower, Sim City 2000, and Fable The Lost Chapters.

In the spirit of vintage Macs, I recently purchased an eMac G4 1.25GHz. Upgrades on that one will be more of a hassle since Apple put access to the HDD and DVD drive on the bottom side of the logic board. I will probably tackle those, but only when absolutely necessary. I will be posting more about eMac soon.

iMac G3 Update

21. August 2019 20:35 by Cameron in Mac  //  Tags: , , , , , , , ,   //   Comments

Well, after about a week's usage, it would appear that my flyback transformer died on my Graphite iMac G3. I verified by booting up the iMac with an external display and verifying that the Apple bootloader was present. The flyback dying is unfortunately a common occurrence with these late 90's early 2000's iMacs and CRTs. I looked at replacing this part, but they're very hard to come by these days and Apple used a variety of parts for the flyback. One part I found was about $50, but it would require a lot of work and would ultimately not be worth the effort.

I decided to buy one more iMac G3 to satisfy my classic Mac wants. It's either an Indigo or "Fruit" iMac G3, but I will need to wait and see. The seller didn't take a picture of the sticker on the bottom of the unit so I'm not sure. I purchased this model for $69.99 with the known issue of not having a hard drive. It did however have pictures showing the CRT in working order. I have accepted now that whatever happens with this iMac happens. It's possible I get a few years out of it, but it's possible I get a week. It just depends on the previous owner's usage.

There was no mention on condition of the CD (maybe DVD) drive so I will need to proceed with caution on using the internal disk drive. I will try putting in a blank CD to make sure it ejects disks correctly before attempting to use the internal disk drive. If the internal disk drive doesn't work, then I will use Target Disk Mode from my iBook G4 like I did on the previous iMac G3. I did see that there are some "salvaged" slot loading CD drives on eBay so I may give those a look at a later point. I didn't see any replacement DVD drives though. I did actually confirm that my external Pioneer Blu-Ray drive works on the USB 1.1 ports on these iMacs so that could work in a pinch.

For the storage,  will see about using a 250GB IDE HDD since it is the standard 3.5" form factor and should fit nicely without modification. There might be some compatibility issues preventing all 250GB from being seen. I've heard that you can just partition the drive into smaller partitions for it to be recognized by the system. If that doesn't work, I guess it will only be able to address the first 128GB of the drive. Another option will be to use my original SD to IDE adapter with the Class 10 128GB SD card. This should be fast enough with 80MB/s read and write.

Once I've confirmed installation of Mac OS 9 and Mac OS X Tiger, I will do a logic board swap (assuming the logic board needs swapping). Then, I will make sure that the PRAM battery is replaced and re-install the 2x512MB of RAM. I could get an AirPort card, but there isn't much point since it would be 802.11b which would heavily cripple the rest of my 2.4GHz network. I will likely keep it hooked up via 100Mbit ethernet on my desk. Hopefully after all that everything will still work!

Once all of the parts are salvaged from my previous iMac, I will need to see about taking the CRT to an ecycler which is kind of a bummer. I could also try to sell for parts first and then go the ecyle route if that doesn't work.

I will post an update following my reassembly of the next iMac shortly!

Getting Into Retro Macs

15. August 2019 13:16 by Cameron in Mac, Mac OS X  //  Tags: , , , ,   //   Comments

I have a strong affinity for things that are from my childhood; things that are 20+ years old and now considered vintage! I recently stumbled upon a local FaceBook Marketplace listing for an iMac G3 for $22. The listing seemed too good to pass up so I picked it up last weekend. It's a 2001 Graphite iMac G3 clocked at 700MHz with 512MB of RAM, a 60GB HDD, and a CDRW/DVD drive.

This particular Mac is a bit of a fixer upper meaning that the DVD drive is broken and it was missing the keyboard and mouse. However, I have purchased a Graphite Mac keyboard from that era as well as a black optical Pro Mouse. Technically, the "puck" mouse is what most of these iMacs came with, but I haven't used a ball mouse in a long time and wanted something I could use without a mouse pad. Since the DVD drive was broken, I purchased an iBook G4 in order to use the internal DVD drive over FireWire Target Disk Mode to install Mac OS X 10.4 on the iMac. I now have a dual boot of OS 9.2.2 and Mac OS X 10.4. The great guys at Mac OS 9 Lives! provide an easy to use method for setting up your Mac's HDD with 9.2.2.

My plan for this Mac is to use as a retro Mac gaming computer. I may also experiment with the Mac as a cheap audio recording setup since I still have FireWire 400 audio interfaces. I will be upgrading the RAM from 512MB to 1GB, upgrading the HDD to a 128GB SD card with IDE adapter, and replacing the DVD drive. 

Why Plex?

2. August 2019 14:45 by Cameron in Plex  //  Tags: , , , , , , ,   //   Comments

In the modern age of streaming movies and TV, we are faced with a growing problem of media fragmentation. No longer can you watch all of your desired shows under one subscription as all of the big studios seem to be fighting for a piece of the pie when it comes to licensing movies and TV across streaming services. The challenge too is that at any given moment, a publishing company can revoke these licenses from a particular service and switch to another service. Also, if the new service is something you don't subscribe to, you then need to make a decision of whether the cost of a new subscription is worth it for still having access to your show.

All of these subscription services add up. You might not think much of one or two services, but if you subscribe to several services, then you are likely paying close to if not more than a comparable cable subscription. The only difference here is that everyone is getting more money for their content by bypassing cable licensing fees. Streaming has changed the way we consume content by cutting out the middle man and allowing us to watch on our own time. However, don't be fooled that it is always cheaper than cable.

If you enjoy certain TV series but don't want to pay a monthly subscription to watch, you can opt for Plex and purchasing box sets of your TV series. There is more of an upfront cost by getting compatible hardware for Plex, but the good thing is that you can start small and plan for expansion as your budget allows. The box sets tend to be pricey up front too, but one series box set (~$200) will have paid for itself in about a year's time.

With the digital codes that are distributed with new movies, they used to be redeemed with Ultraviolet, but has shifted to Movies Anywhere. With the recent closure of Ultraviolet, I'm reminded why I don't like DRM. I'm a huge fan of buying physical movies and ripping them to my Plex server. While I like the concept of Movies Anywhere, how do I know that this won't ultimately have the same fate as Ultraviolet? With my own library, I maintain the original discs in boxes and I have access to my hundreds of movies with a click of a button. I don't have to worry about a service going defunct.

I'm not boycotting streaming services altogether, but I don't like having content I enjoy watching tied up in DRM platforms. I plan to keep my streaming service subscriptions to a minimum. Of the few, I will stick with Hulu, Netflix, Amazon Prime (I mostly use for shipping) and probably Disney's streaming platform. As long as I can still buy physical media, that will be my preferred way of building a library for many years to come.

Home Lab Update

25. July 2019 12:48 by Cameron in Plex, server  //  Tags: , , , , ,   //   Comments

A couple of weeks ago, I expanded my server's RAID 6 array to 40TB, but in the process the RAID controller's write cache failed. I didn't know that this was the problem right away though. I had just told the array to expand the volume to 40TB and then the application froze and it seemed like that wasn't going to complete. I became impatient and force shutdown the server before the operation completed. However, when I went to restart the server, it would not recognize the write cache and it failed to boot. Then, I tried removing the external card and moving everything back to the onboard P410i.

The original reason for getting an expansion RAID card was to have RAID 6 support without the need for a license. The P410i requires a license and they're prohibitively expensive. The P812 expansion cards are $12 a piece and it was the right choice for my needs. After determining that the RAID card had failed along with the cache, I ordered another P812 and cache module. In the mean time, I was able to boot my server with the onboard P410i and backup the content from the array although there was no write cache. It took a couple of days, but now everything is backed up to two 8TB hard drives.

When my second P812 arrived, I was able to install the new card and get back up and running. I recreated the RAID 6 array at 40TB and have begun copying my files back over the network. The process is slow as I'm using 1Gbits at the moment and for some reason my USB 3.0 hard drives are only operating at 480Mbits. Though, it should be faster in the future with 10Gbits. I'll need to install an NVMe drive in my desktop to take full advantage of 10Gbit throughput. My server is limiting SATA drives to SATA II at 3Gbits and my desktop is capped at 6Gbits with SATA III. I've installed an NVMe SSD into my server and can get about 1600MB/s read/write or 12Gbits.

Next, my plan is to get an NVMe SSD for my desktop, two 10Gbe cards, and an SFP+ cable to connect them. I will also need to write some PowerShell to copy files from my HDD to the SSD and then over the network to my server. On the server, then watch the SSD for new files and copy to the RAID array. The end goal being that files are copied between SSDs on both ends.

Home Lab Update

2. July 2019 16:11 by Cameron in Plex  //  Tags: , , , , ,   //   Comments

Initially, I had thought I would transcode 4K to 1080p using my lab server, but I couldn't get great results with the Quadro P400. I fear it is a limitation of the processors and available bandwidth as well as the P400's GPU pipeline. Maybe I would get better results with a P2000, but instead, I will be hosting 1080p rips of all my 4K movies for viewing on the go.

My long term goal is to have my ripping PC be connected to my server with a 10Gbe connection and copy to an SSD cache on my server, but this will require patience as each 10Gbe NIC is ~$50 and the SFP+ cables aren't cheap either. I will likely get an SFP+ switch at some point too so I can enable 10Gbe on other devices as needed. To better saturate 10Gbe, I have since removed the GPU and replaced with a PCIe x16 NVMe adapter for a network cache drive. SATA, when paired with this server and the SAS backplane, is limited to SATA II speeds.

I had a spare older 256GB NVMe SSD from another computer, but it maxed out at 300MB/s write speeds and this isn't enough for 10Gbe. Therefore, I got an Inland 512GB NVMe SSD that maxes out at about 850-900MB/s or ~7Gb/s with the HP Proliant DL380 G7's PCIe gen 2 x16 slot. This gets me slightly better than SATA III speeds on a 10 year old server, of which I am happy. I am going to work on some sort of file watcher to move files from the cached location to my long-term Plex library. The idea will be to have a mirror of the folders present on my general Plex library and just copy the files over and remove the cached version when complete.

To support more expansion and redundancy, I bought a secondary RAID controller, the HP P812. This card is interesting because of RAID 6 support since the onboard RAID controller only supports up to RAID 5 without a license. Licenses are hard to find and likely expensive. The new RAID card was about $16. Transferring to the new controller was easy enough since the RAID information is stored on disk. The key is that these are all HP OEM RAID controllers and it was as simple as swapping cables for each backplane from the motherboard to the new RAID card.

When installing the new RAID card, I was given the option to change the RAID configuration to RAID 6. Note, this will take a while when you have a large array as the parity has to be redistributed. After a grueling week and a half of transitioning my RAID 5 to RAID 6, I now have about 30TB of usable space in RAID 6 on my lab server. Funnily enough, I am currently in the process of expanding my array to support 10TB more space, totaling in at 40TB of space. This will be worth the time investment as it will take a long time to fill up (hopefully).

Home Network Update

18. June 2019 23:22 by Cameron in Home Network  //  Tags: , , , , , ,   //   Comments

After moving into our house, I had decided to get our Internet routed through the basement. This means no wires through the main floor and I had to think of a way to get coverage to my home theater PC in the living room. In my basement, I have a 24 port 1Gbe switch which I connect my HP Proliant DL380 G7, my office setup, and my Ethernet over power network. With Ethernet over power, I can get wired Ethernet on the main floor. The speed coming to the house is 400-600Mb/s and Ethernet over power provides around 130Mb/s which is ample for surfing and streaming.

I plan to move my home theater PC to my basement and give it a direct 10Gbe connection to my server. This is mainly for faster file transfers when I rip a new 4K HDR Blu-Ray. For this, I will need to copy files to a cache SSD and then to my RAID 6 array. The RAID 6 array provides 2 drive fault tolerance, but it does suffer in speed a little. I fear that I will not be able to fully saturate 10Gb so the cache will be a temporary storage location until the files are on the server. I will then have a job that will move the files from the cached location to the RAID array.

I still need a good rack mountable power delivery system and a decent rack mountable UPS. Hopefully I can invest in some of these soon.

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