Wednesday, 22 July 2015

PC DUINO and LINUX as a Multimedia Centre - by Ross Devitt

After some disappointing experiences with Western Digital TV Live and Kaiser Baas Smart Media Player I have been using an old laptop to play my movies and videos.  The Kaiser Baas wasn't too bad, but Google Android should really have no place in communications or entertainment.

Don;t get me wrong.  Android is not the problem. As an operating system it is brilliant, powerful and flexible.  But after creating it, Google has turned it into a real mess.  Now, by rooting our devices and installing various open source non Google Android clones it is possible to dump the pre-installed garbage like 'hangouts' and Play Services, and get a fast lean Android that works better than any other phone or tablet alternative.  However, this is not as simple as it sounds.

Luckily I don't have a smart Android powered TV, so I am not locked into the painful user experience.  Unfortunately the WD TV Live seems to be powered by some sort of proprietary system and the ser Baas Kaiser Baas just bogs down under the load imposed by Android.  Of course the whole World Wide Web experience has been bogged down by Google.  Computers and networks have become faster and faster and because of Google the web has become slower and slower.  How ridiculous!

So back to multimedia.  There is a smart little microcomputer board called the Raspberry Pi that started a whole revolution in the education and hobby market.  And inspired by that are computers built on tiny boards.  One of these is the PCDUINO.  I got my hands on this magic little device recently and I have been experimenting with it.

One of my goals for some time has been to have something like an Android tablet running Linux.  The PCDUINO board is 120mm x 65mm x 20mm in size.  And it comfortably drives a 48 inch LED TV playing videos for hours on end without overheating.

And it goes one better.  One add on that is available for it is a 7 inch capacitive touch screen.  That makes it into a complete and very usable micro computer.

Of course a bare circuit board is just asking for trouble.  But about $7 adds a compact little protective case with holes to plug in all the relevant peripherals.

As if that's not enough, this little computer outputs via HDMI and has a 3.5mm audio jack as well.  So you can choose to drive your TV or monitor built in speakers through the HDMI cable, or if as I do, you prefer the thump and rumble of your stereo system, simply output the video via HDMI and plug the speaker system into the jack.

This Computer comes with Lubuntu configured for the Allwinner A20 chip and the ARM Cortex A7 CPU chip.  It uses a Mali 400 Dual Core GPU, which plays 720p video beautifully and so far has handled sending my 4k HD video seamlessly to the 48 inch LED TV.  You can easily replace the UBUNTU Linux with Android should you wish.

SDRAM is 1GB and there's 4GB of Flash Memory built in.  On my PCDUINO 2.5GB was still available after system use.  I added a spare 32GB micro SD card to give me some on board flexibility for storing stuff.
The one full sized USB port seems a bit lonely at first, but connecting a hub soon makes it a useful tool.

I have two ports in my hub taken up by Wifi adapters for my mouse and keyboard, but I will change to an all in one device when I can.  The hub is still handling two 32GB USB sticks for video and music without problems.

The only thing I could whinge about I suppose is the performance of YouTube video, but that is mostly a function of Google interfering with the web again and there;s not a lot we can do about that.  Once you download the video it plays perfectly.

The power is supplied by a micro USB port on the underside of the board at the end where the network socket and HDMI out socket live.  Further around the board is another micro USB port but this is mostly for debugging and diagnostics.

There is an IR receiver for using a remote or other IR device.  There's a SATA hard drive connecter and next to it the pins for powering the SATA disk.  A whole lot of space is dedicated to pins that allow connection of a lot of different peripherals.  The PCDUINO is based on and compatible with the ARDUINO and seamlessly conneects to all the 'shields' available for it.  DC motor controllers, sensors, GPS receivers and so many more tools for experimenting and designing.

Having HDMI out opens up some other possibilities.  One of which is to be able to use a 10 inch touch screen instead of the 7 inch one that uses a heap of connectors and a ribbon cable. This would be a lot less messy, especially when mated to a short flat HDMI cable.

I'm looking forward to exploring the capabilities of this little computer further.  For now i can also say that the version of XBMC Media Player that is installed on it does NOT play mpg videos.  It played every other video I threw at it but every mpg made it shut down.

Luckily all I had to do was open a terminal and run:  sudo apt-get install libavcodec-extra-53
the follow it up by typing:  avconv -i filename.mpg -c:v mpeg2video -q:v 2 -c:a libmp3lame outputfilename.mp4

Obviously replacing filename and outputfilename with the actual file names.  One warning though.  Rename the files so you don't have spaces!!  Command line stuff hates spaces.

Surprisingly the conversion was remarkably quick.  I think it was done in about the same time as it takes on my full desktop computer.

I'll add more about the PCDUINO as I explore it.  For now I am happily using it as an entertainment centre.   I have successfully powered it for several hours off my portable 'powerbank' that I use to recharge my phones and tablets, so that is another job.  Record just how long it will play full screen video while still running WiFi and stuff.

As far as futher expansion, This is the best screen option I have seen so far.
10" universal LCD with HDMI interface and capacitive multi-touch.
It has the advantage over other HDMI screens of being powered by 5VDC.!/10-universal-LCD-with-HDMI-interface-and-capacitive-multi-touch/p/42545413/category=3094861

Display specifications:
  • Display: 10” full-color a-Si TFT with IPS technology
  • Integrated touch-panel: capacitive multi-touch with up to 10 fingers
  • Native resolution: 1366x768 pixels
  • Aspect ratio: 16:9
  • Display colors: 16 millions (8-bits per color)
  • Panel dimensions: 269mm (H) x 172mm (V)
  • Weight: 245 grams
  • Input voltage: 5V DC
  • Low power consumption: 2.5W (typ)
  • High brightness: 450 cd/m2 (nits)
  • Contrast ratio: 800:1
  • Viewing angle: 89 deg (all directions)

  • fully integrated solution - no external boards and cables
  • slim design (<9 mm thickness including electronic and connectors)
  • easy installation – just connect and it will work
  • mini HDMI input accepts any resolution up to 1920x1080 (FullHD) and scale down to native LCD resolution
  • slim-profile power connector (OD=2.6mm, ID=0.65mm, positive central pin)
  • mini USB connector for touchscreen with support for driver-less single touch, or multi-touch with additional driver (Windows USB HID standard)
  • can be powered through the same mini USB connector
  • firmware can be updated through standard USB cable
  • audio engine provides decoding of HDMI stream audio and outputs it to standard 2.5mm connector
  • LCD brightness can be controlled by optional ambient light sensor, manually, or from your program with USB HID commands
  • internal LVDS scaler allows to get HDMI signal with any resolution from virtually any HDMI source, like RaspberryPi, Beagleboard/Pandaboard/, Beaglebone Black, Hackberry, Odroid, Cubox, mk802 and others Android stick clones, Gooseberry, Nitrogen/Sabre, OLinuXino-A13, normal PC/notebook, video players, etc.

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