Monthly Archives: October 2009

Top 10 Apps that Boost Your Media Center [Lifehacker Top 10]

Streaming video, digital DVD backups, DVR recording—it's all possible from your TV-connected media center, and you don't need a system administrator to pull it off. These 10 apps make filling and controlling your media center PC even easier.

Photo by William Hook.

10. Give your tunes the covers they deserve

Your favorite band, assuming it’s not Motörhead, probably spend a good bit of time thinking about their album art. Pay credit to their creative indulgences, and give your media center something to show when their tracks are playing, by embedding album art in your MP3 collection. Rick Broida ran through the basics in his 2007 guide to whipping your MP3 library into shape, and I revisited the best sources and tools for Windows, Mac, and Linux systems in a 2008 album art guide. Whatever tool you use, having album art consistent across your library might feel a bit obsessive, and it is—but there's a certain reassuring payoff when your TV displays the same art as your iPod.

9. Remove ads automatically from recorded TV

Some commercials are worth their short time commitment, but sometimes you just want to watch exactly 24 minutes of condensed television. Windows Media Center plug-in Lifextender does the job inside your hooked-up PC, while DVRMSToolbox runs through Media-Center-recorded files independently, and can then export them to more generally usable formats than Windows’ somewhat locked-down system. (Original posts: Lifextender, DVRMSToolbox)

8. Boost Boxee with repositories and feeds

Boxee is basically the XBMC media center app with a different look and a more social flair. It also supports a lot of independent content creators and independent developers, whether through the official App Box, through adding repositories of new apps, or through stand-alone RSS feeds. We’ve covered some great sources for Boxee apps and content in a quick Boxee guide. Looking for even more app repositories? Check out Boxee’s list of known repositories and see what strikes your fancy.

7. Rename files for easier detection

Media player apps try their best to figure out exactly what TV shows and movies you’ve got loaded into storage, but they often have a hard time keeping up with the naming schemes used by a variety of applications and fallible humans. Grab an app like MediaRenamer (for movies and television) or TVrename (for shows alone) and whip your files into a shape that XBMC, Boxee, Windows, Plex, or any other media center can easily figure out. For a quick read on what media center apps like to see—XBMC in particular—read Jason's guide halfway through his XMBC add-on guide.

6. Plug Hulu into Windows Media Center

It’s not an officially supported streaming site, like Netflix or CBS, but Hulu’s own Hulu Desktop can be worked into Windows Media Center with a clever little back-and-forth plug-in. Install Hulu Desktop Integration, and you’ll get an icon for Hulu among your video options. Click it, and Windows Media Center closes down, opens up Hulu Desktop; when you’re done watching Hulu, the app shuts that down and re-opens Media Center. Clever, helpful stuff.

5. Rip DVDs the easy way

Rather than find out halfway through the final disc of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles that your Netflix disc is scratched beyond repair, you could rip the suspect DVD to a digital file and play it from there, with just a minor skip. Adam’s built a tool called DVD Rip to make it a dead-simple process in Windows, but it’s fairly easy to pull off with HandBrake or VLC Media Player on Windows, Mac, or Linux systems.

4. Schedule TV recording from any browser

With a TV tuner installed, Windows Media Center or Home Server makes for a pretty hardcore DVR device, without the monthly fees. Make it easier to catch good TV when you think of it at work with Web Guide, a free scheduling program that shows you what’s on in the future, streams what’s on now, and otherwise delivers your media center’s TV experience to wherever you happen to be at the moment. (Original post)

3. Media center remotes for your phone (or iPod touch)

Sure, you could go the easy route and buy an infrared-based, media-center-friendly physical remote for your TV-attached setup, but if you'd like a bit more functionality—and, more importantly, actual typing input—there's probably a free or cheap remote for your Wi-Fi powered phone or iPod. Gmote turns an Android phone into a multi-system remote, assuming you don’t mind a quick software installation. iPod/iPhone owners have their pick of many XBMC-compatible remotes in the App Store, the free Boxee remote, and MediaMote (iTunes direct link) ably handles your Windows Media Center remote.

2. Make your router more media-friendly

Your standard off-the-shelf router treats all net traffic the same, can’t tell you exactly how much you’ve downloaded this month, and is fairly difficult to turn into anything other than an agent of your cable modem. Install DD-WRT or Tomato on your little antenna box, however, and it can be a wireless bridge for your entertainment center, as well as ensure that Hulu and Netflix get all the bandwidth they need with quality of service rules. (Installation guides: DD-WRT, Tomato)

1. Convert and transfer tracks to your portable player

The best media centers can play just about any video or audio format out there, but even the coolest phones and media devices have a fairly limited format range, and only so much space. Among the five best media converters we rounded up, Super and Format Factory can match most devices and file types, while MediaCoder and HandBrake get the job done on any platform. Need help getting the file onto your phone or device? The doubleTwist media manager is the easiest drag & drop solution we've seen.

What helper applications make your digital entertainment experience that much more enjoyable? How do you smooth the kinks out of your admittedly geeky setup? Tell us all about your tricks in the comments.

From the Tips Box: Google Calendar Backup, Safely Removing Media, and Radiators [From The Tips Box]

Readers offer their best tips for backing up Google Calendar in two clicks, easily ejecting removable media in Windows 7, and staying warm without overpaying for heating.

Don’t like the gallery layout? Click here to view everything on one page.

About the Tips Box: Every day we receive boatloads of great reader tips in our inbox, but for various reasons—maybe they're a bit too niche, maybe we couldn't find a good way to present it, or maybe we just couldn't fit it in—the tip didn't make the front page. From the Tips Box is where we round up some of our favorites for your buffet-style consumption. Got a tip of your own to share? Add it in the comments or email it to tips at

Easily and Safely Eject Removable Media in Windows 7

Ranganathan shares a discovery he made in the new version of Windows:

I observed this today: Windows 7 has a single “Eject” option (in the Explorer context menu) that works as ‘safely remove’ for media like USB drives, SD cards, etc. Vista had two separate options, and XP didn’t have any context menu option to ‘safely remove’ media!

Creating a Shortcut to Sync Google Calendars

Garrett shows us how to sync Google Calendars with just a double click:

I manage several different work schedules on Google Calendars. To protect my meticulous editing from the few non tech savvy users with admin privileges, frequent backups are a must. To get all of your calendars as .ics files stuffed into a .zip file, simply create a desktop shortcut with the following link:

As long as you’re logged into Google in your default browser, backups are just a double click away!

Make Your Radiator More Efficient

Photo by Todd Baker.

Thomas shares a tip to keep the heat in:

If you have radiator heat, wrap a large piece of cardboard or plywood with aluminum foil, and place it between the radiator and the wall.

It will help to reflect the heat back into the room instead of being absorbed by the wall. Helped out on the long winters in Pittsburgh.

A quick Google search shows some more anecdotal support for this tip, but specifies that the aluminum should be shiny side out.

Warm Cold Hands with Candles

Photo by Jo Guldi.

Casey lets us know how he keeps his hands warm in a cold office:

I suffer from frost damage which leads to my hands becoming uncomfortably cold while reading/typing in the office as the weather turns. For a long time I kept a large cup of tea that I could grasp to warm my hands, but that lead to cold tea. Recently I’ve started keeping a votive candle lit at my desk (any candle that is completely contained by a glass cylinder would work.) Now, whenever my hands get chilly, I can grasp the candle. The closer to the top the hotter the glass gets. No more cold hands, or cold tea. Plus the candle adds to the atmosphere of my office.

Folder Vanity Remover Cleans Up Empty, Unused Folders [Downloads]

Windows only: Point tiny open-source application Folder Vanity Remover at a folder filled with empty directories, and it’ll check for and remove any empty folders. Cleanliness and something about godliness, right?

There’s nothing more to this app. It’s tiny and does this one, simple thing. There’s no fancy options, but if all you want is to quickly and easily clean out your file structure, it can certainly help. For a more feature-packed application with a similar bent, check out previously mentioned Remove Empty Directories. (These developers have gotten so creative with their names!)

Folder Vanity Remover is a free, open-source download, Windows only.

ColorJive Helps Visualize Room Colors Before Painting [Home Improvement]

You want to re-paint a room, but you're not sure if the color will look right—holding up a little color swatch only goes so far. ColorJive helps you paint the entire room in virtual space.

Upload a picture of your room—an evenly lit photo works best—and begin applying colors from the available palette. You can use the enormous palette from COLOURLovers to access a nearly infinite color palette, though you may have a little trouble replicating it at your local home improvement store. If that's the case, you can select from the official palettes of Benjamin Moore and Sherman Williams.

The free account limits you to three colors per picture, and you're limited to saving one picture, although you can have three versions of it. The premium account is $15 per year and you can save up to 10 photos, 7 different versions of each, and use up to 5 colors per image—for those of you wanting to turn your room into a modernist painting.

Have your own favorite tool for checking colors or planning new home projects? Let’s hear about it in the comments.

Taskbar Meters Monitor Your Windows 7 Hardware in the Taskbar [Downloads]

Windows 7 only: If you’re not into Windows desktop gadgets, there is another way to easily monitor your computer’s CPU and RAM: Taskbar Meters puts simple, attractive resource monitors right on your Windows 7 Taskbar.

Taskbar Meters contains two programs that you can pin to your taskbar—one that monitors CPU, one that monitors RAM. Each has a colored bar that shows how much of that resource you are using, complete with color coding. In the program's preferences, you can decide how often to update the meter and what percentage of usage constitutes "yellow" and "red" colors on the taskbar. Each icon also has a jumplist that lets you easily open up Task Manager or Resource Monitor to get a more detailed report.

Taskbar Meters is a free download, Windows 7 only.

Build a Silent, Standalone XBMC Media Center On the Cheap [Winter Upgrades]

You won’t find a better media center than the open-source XBMC, but most people don’t have the space or desire to plug a noisy PC into their TV. Instead, I converted a cheap nettop into a standalone XBMC set-top box. Here’s how.

In the spirit of our Winter Upgrades theme this week, this guide details how to turn a cheapo nettop (think netbook for the desktop) into a killer settop box running XBMC. It handles virtually any video file I throw at it with ease (including streaming Blu-Ray rips from my desktop), it looks tiny next to my Xbox 360, it’s low energy, and it’s whisper quiet.

Huge props to this guide on the XBMC forums, which served as the starting point for much of what I did below.

What You’ll Need

  • Acer AspireRevo: This $200 nettop ships with 1GB of RAM, an Intel Atom 230 processor, 160GB hard drive, Windows XP (which we won’t use anyway), and an integrated graphics chip that handles HD video and can output it to HDMI. It also comes with a small wired keyboard and mouse, but once you’re done here, you shouldn’t need either of them. Oh, and it’s tiny. (Other, more powerful nettops will work [like this one’s beefier, $330 older sibling], but this is the cheapest one I could find with the NVIDIA ION graphics powerful enough to handle the HD playback.)
  • XBMC Live: This is a Live CD version of XBMC that boots directly into XBMC and has a tiny footprint. Basically all you’re running is XBMC, so your media center stays light and snappy. You can find the download specifically set up for these NVIDIA ION machines on this page, you can grab the direct download here, or download via BitTorrent here.
  • A thumb drive: It doesn’t have to be huge, but it’ll need to be at least 1500MB of capacity, according to the installer. You should also format it to FAT32.
  • An IR receiver/Windows Media Center remote: This isn’t strictly necessary, but if you want to control your shiny new XBMC via remote control, you’ll need some sort of supported remote with a USB receiver. I bought this $20 remote because it was the cheapest I could find. (Incidentally, it also works like a charm with XBMC as soon as you plug it in.)

Getting XBMC Live up and running on your nettop is a breeze if you follow a few simple steps, so let’s get started.

Install XBMC Live on Your Thumb Drive

XBMC Live allows you to try XBMC on any computer from a bootable CD or thumb drive, then optionally install the lightweight, XBMC-focused Linux distro directly to your device if you like. Since our nettop doesn’t have a DVD drive, we’ll need to first install XBMC to our thumb drive.

(There are ways around this. If you had a USB optical drive, you could probably burn XBMC Live to a disc and go from there. The thumb drive method isn’t much more difficult, though.)

Here’s how it works:

1. Download the XBMC Live installer with the updated NVIDIA drivers included on this page (direct link, torrent link). Update: Huge thanks to Mike and Aaron for the file hosting and torrent creating. It’s a 341MB file, so it may take a while.

2. Burn XBMC Live to a CD
Once the download completes, unzip the file. What you're left with is an xbmc.iso file—the disc image of the XBMC Live installer. Now you need to burn this ISO to a CD. Install our favorite tool for the job, ImgBurn, then right-click the xbmc.iso file and select Burn using ImgBurn. (If you’re running Windows 7, you can use its built-in ISO burner, too, by selecting Burn disc image.)

3. Install XBMC Live to Your Thumb Drive
Now that you’ve burned XBMC to a CD, you’re ready to install it to your thumb drive. To do so, plug in your thumb drive, put the XBMC Live CD in your DVD drive, and reboot your computer. If it’s not already your default setting, go into your system BIOS (for most computers hitting Delete at the first boot screen will launch your BIOS) and set your optical drive as the primary boot device.

(All this means is that when your computer boots, it'll first check to see if there's any bootable media in your optical drive. If not, it'll continue booting to your secondary device—generally your hard drive. If your optical drive does contain bootable media—like your XBMC Live CD, for example—it'll boot it up.)

When XBMC Live loads, select “Install XBMCLive to disk (USB or HDD)”, then accept the first prompt (by pressing any key). Next you’ll end up at the “Choose disk to use” prompt, where you’ll tell the installer that you want to install to your USB stick. Be careful here not to choose your hard drive, because it would be happy to overwrite your operating system if you told it to. Remember, your thumb drive is the Removable disk. After you pick the disk you want to use, confirm that you want to proceed and let the installer do its magic. (It’ll only take a few minutes.)

Eventually the installer will ask you if you want to create a permanent system storage file, which presumably you’d want if you’re not sure whether or not you want to install XBMC Live to your Acer’s hard drive. I went ahead and created the system storage (even though we’ll install XBMC Live directly to the hard drive in the next step.) Once the installation finishes, you’re ready to proceed to the next step.

Set Your System BIOS

You’ll need to make a couple of tweaks to your system BIOS to get it working smoothly with XBMC Live. So plug in your thumb drive, boot up your Acer AspireRevo, and hit Delete at the first boot screen to edit your BIOS. Look for the “Boot to RevoBoot” entry in the Advanced BIOS features menu and disable it. While you’re there, set your XBMC Live thumb drive as the primary boot device. (You can set the primary boot device back to your hard drive later, after you’ve installed XBMC Live to your drive.)

Then go to the Advanced Chipset Features menu and set the iGPU Frame Buffer Detect to Manual and set the iGPU Frame Buffer Size to 256MB. (This is detailed here; the actual guide says 512, but that requires that you install more RAM—something I may do in the future, and will detail with a guide if I do. The 512 buffer size will help you stream the larger HD videos without hiccups.)

Now that your BIOS are set, you’re ready to try out XBMC Live on your Acer AspireRevo.

Boot Up/Install XBMC Live to Your Hard Drive

At this point, you’ve got two choices. You can either restart your Acer AspireRevo and boot into XBMC Live to play around a little before you install it to your disk. If you’re sure you’re ready to install it for reals, just go ahead and run through the exact same installation as you did above, only this time install it to your nettop’s hard drive. When you install to the hard drive, you’ll also set a system password. This’ll come in handy later.

The Final Tweaks

Okay, so far so good. XBMC should boot up directly from your hard drive now, and if you’ve plugged in your Windows Media Center remote, it should also be working without a hitch. You’ve just got to make a couple of adjustments to make it shine.

Now, what makes your little nettop work so well is that its onboard graphics processor can handle all the HD business without eating up your regular processor power, so you'll want to enable this in the XBMC settings. So head to Settings > Video > Play, find the Set Render to section, and set it to VDPAU.

Now, depending on how you’re planning on hooking up your XBMC Live box to your television, you’ve got a few more tweaks you’ll want to make. Namely this:

If you want to use HDMI for your audio out, head to Settings > System > Audio hardware, then set the audio output to Digital. Set your Audio output device to hdmi, and set the Passthrough output device to hdmi. Last, enable Downmix multichannel audio to stereo.

If you are using HDMI as your audio out (I am, and it’s pretty nice), you’ve got to make one final tweak if you want the audio output to work with menu sounds. (It’ll work fine with video without making this tweak, but the click-click sounds that play when you move around the XBMC menu are nice to have.) If that applies to you, create a new text file on your regular old computer (name it asoundrc.txt) and paste the following code (again, this awesome tweak comes from this post):

 pcm.!default { type plug slave { pcm "hdmi" } } 

In the next step, I’ll show you how to copy that file over to your nettop (a little trick that’ll also come in handy for manually installing plug-ins and copying files to your nettop).

SFTP to Your XBMC Box

If you want to transfer files to your XBMC Live box from another computer, you’ll need to get yourself an FTP client (I like FileZilla) and log into your nettop with the password you set when you were installing XBMC Live. To do so, create a new connection in Filezilla that looks something like the screenshot below (the default user is xbmc).

Once you’re connected, make sure you’re in the /home/xbmc/ directory, then copy over the asoundrc.txt file we made above. (The one you want to use if you’re running your audio through the HDMI output.) Once it’s copied over, rename the file to .asoundrc, restart XBMC, and the click-click menu sounds should be working along with regular old A/V playback.

The same SFTPing method here will be useful if you ever want to manually install any plug-ins or skins down the road, or just copy over media directly to your nettop's hard drive. (Though we'd recommend streaming—see below.)

Other Options

As I said above, you can buy more expensive, meatier machines, but for my money this Acer nettop has worked perfectly. Apart from upgrading to better equipment, you can also add up to 2GB more RAM if you’re up for the job (RAM’s so cheap these days, anyway). Like I said, though, so far I haven’t seen the need for it.

I also quickly switched the skin to the MediaStream skin, which is the one you see in the photo at the top of the page. For a look at some other great skins you may want to apply to your XBMC box, check out these five beautiful skins—or just head to XBMC's main skins page.

Now that you’ve got it all set up, you’ve probably also realized that 160GB isn’t all that much space for your media. You’d be right, of course. You’ve got two pretty good options. First, the nettop should have something like four free USB ports still, so you can easily plug in a big old drive that way. Assuming, however, that you can run an Ethernet wire over to your nettop, your best option is just to connect it to a shared folder on your home network. XBMC works like a charm with Samba shares (Windows shared folders use this).

Whichever method you use, you just need to add your extra hard drive space as a source in XBMC. You can do so through any of the individual menu items (videos, for example), or you can add a default Samba username and password in the settings so it can connect automatically without asking for a password each time you add a new watch folder on that machine.

At this point I could go into more detail on how to use and get the most out of XBMC (it can be a little hard to get your head around at first, even though once you do, it’s not actually confusing). We’ve covered souping up your XBMC—and building your classic Xbox XBMC machine—and both offer some help in those directions. But stick around; tomorrow we'll follow up with an updated guide to some of our favorite XBMC tweaks.

This guide covers in pretty close detail one method for putting together a dedicated, quiet XBMC media center without breaking the bank, but it’s certainly not your only option. If you’ve gone down this road before, offer your tips and suggestions in the comments. For my part: I’m completely in love with my new little media center.

Adam Pash is the editor of Lifehacker and loves a good computer-based DIY, especially when the results are as beautiful as XBMC. His special feature Hack Attack appears on Lifehacker. Subscribe to the Hack Attack RSS feed to get new installments in your newsreader, or follow @adampash on Twitter.

Ubuntu 9.10 Karmic Koala Out Now [Downloads]

The final version of Ubuntu 9.10 has hit Ubuntu’s servers a little bit ahead of its front page. Grab a torrent or ISO of the free Linux operating system while the servers aren’t slammed.

From our own experiences, and those of commenters, the final release of Karmic Koala will generate enough traffic to seriously slow, if not entirely 404,'s web servers. If you're good with BitTorrent downloading, it's likely your best bet for today. Grab the copy you need—for most users, that's the ubuntu-9.10-desktop-i386 image or torrent—and leave your torrent client running for a bit to help spread the open-source vibes.

Already running the beta or release candidate? Assuming you’ve been keeping up with your updates, you’re already running the final version by now. If updates happen at a molasses pace today and tomorrow, try switching to a mirror server to move things along.

We’ve previously taken a look around 9.10 in beta, posted an “emergency key” restoration tip, and showed non-Ubuntu users where they can grab the new icons and wallpapers. Now's your turn—tell us what you've liked, loathed, and tweaked in the latest Ubuntu release in the comments.

Ubuntu 9.10 (Karmic Koala) [Ubuntu Releases via Gizmodo]

Parsing Strings to Enums with a Simple Univeral Extension

getting an enum to a string is easy, but switching back can be a pain

If I have an enum:

public enum WhatToShow { All, Courses, Seminars };

and I want to turn a string “Courses” back into that enum Type, there are a few ways I could do it. The most basic way would be to use a switch statement; that is a pain, especially for large enums, plus it has to be re-written for each enum. Here is a simple extension you can use to convert strings back into enums:

public static T ToEnum<T>(this string strOfEnum) {     return (T)Enum.Parse(typeof(T), strOfEnum); }

Now if I have a simple string, it is simple to turn it back to an enum:

string str = "Courses"; WhatToShow en = str.ToEnum<WhatToShow>();

WP iPhone: WordPress for iPhone 2 now available in the App Store

We’ve just received word that WordPress for iPhone 2 is now available on the App Store. Woohoo!

A quick note about installation: WordPress for iPhone 2 is a new app, and the previous version won’t automatically update to 2.0. Installing it won’t overwrite any previous version you have installed. When you launch the new app, you’ll immediately see “Version 2.0? at the bottom of the screen. When you’re no longer using it, you can safely remove the previous version from your device.

Our efforts were focused on creating a better user experience — the beginnings of a user interface overhaul that we’ll continue with the next version, and eliminating the bugs and incompatibilities with some self-hosted WordPress setups that was the source of the majority of the support requests we see in the forum.

So, what’s new in version 2?

  • A new, more efficient user interface that makes it faster to switch between comments, posts, and pages.
  • Various user interface refinements and bug fixes
  • New Comments interface, with Gravatars and the author URL shown in the comment list
  • Passwords are now stored in the keychain
  • Posts are now automatically saved and restored if network connection is lost during publishing
  • Added persistence, so the app re-opens in the blog you last used
  • Added an interface for manually entering the XMLRPC endpoint for non-standard setups
  • Fixed rotation-related visual glitches
  • Fixed errors where malformed XML prevented access to XMLRPC endpoint
  • Fixed edge case where local drafts were sometimes not saved
  • Fixed the order of photos so that they’re displayed in the order they’re uploaded

WordPress for iPhone, just like WordPress itself, is an Open Source app. Our source code is publicly available, and anyone can contribute to it. On behalf of all the developers, thank you to everyone who wrote code, submitted their ideas or bug reports, built and tested new features with the iPhone Simulator, and installed our beta releases. They helped bring you this app, and we’re excited to have you all start using it!

Just a reminder: we’ve started a new blog called Making WordPress for iPhone, where we’ll talk about the features we’re tackling for the next version of the app, and keep you up to date on our progress. We’re soliciting your ideas and feedback there, so if you’d like to help guide the direction of WordPress for iPhone, that’s the place to be.

In the interest of keeping comments on topic, please don’t post support requests here—instead, we ask that you post them in the WordPress for iPhone forums.

Configure Google Apps For Your Domain

There’s always lots of interest in posts about Google Apps, a lesser-known way to put Google services behind your domain name. This morning at Lifehacker I ran down some of the most important Google Apps settings, and how to do things like map multiple domains to one account, create users and groups, and configure your catch-all domain email address. Here’s more on how to Trick Out Google Apps for Your Domain.

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