Ten terrific things you can do with your PC – Part 2

Read part 1 of this article.

Build a Home Media Server
Create a digital bit-bucket to store all your media in and make it easily accessible from wherever you are.

Thousands of songs, and nothing to listen to. Why? Because all those songs are on your desktop, and you’re in the other room, or outside your house. Sounds familiar? You need a Home Media Server to have access to all your media no matter where you are.

The best way to make sure your files are in one, easy-to-find place, and available 24 hours a day, seven days a week is to store and serve them on a dedicated media box. The media server should run cool, quiet, reliably, and unobtrusively.

CPU/Motherboard and RAM

You don’t need a powerful processor. Pick a cheap Athlon or even a Semperon. You need a processor that will not run too hot. A 1.6 GHz Semperon is available for $37. For the motherboard, the only thing that is essential is gigabit Ethernet. Since this machine will be serving up large files, you don’t want a slow interface. RAM is very cheap, so get 2 GB.

Get lots of Storage

You need a large drive to store all that digital data. A 500 GB drive is a good choice, or a couple of 320 GB drives should do well. With multiple drives, a RAID array is an option. A RAID 1 array, also known as a mirrored array, automatically copies your data to two hard drives in real time. For the most part a single drive will be less noisy, and generate less heat.

Sound and Video

If your media server is destined to sit in a closet, disconnected from everything but power and Ethernet, it really doesn’t need a soundcard. If you’re going to set it up in your living room, however, you’ll definitely want a good soundcard. The onboard 7.1 audio is quite good, but if you want something superior, check out the M-Audio sound cards.

They’re expensive but deliver superior sound quality, suitable for playback on a high-end home theater system. Unless you plan to make a home theatre PC, integrated video is just fine.

A Smart Case

The other component you should choose with care is your case. If you intend to convert your media server into a home theatre PC, a good looking case is important. If you want to shove the machine into a corner, any old case would do.

The Operating System

Windows XP Professional will do just fine. You can also use one of the many variants of Linux, if you are familiar with it. Linux gives you a lot more control, but you do need to be a bit of a geek to configure everything properly. Windows Home Server is an option as well.

Setting it All Up

Once the machine is setup and the OS is installed, you should create separate folders for all your media and copy everything onto it. Once copied, right-click each of the folders you want to access on the network, and select Sharing and Security. Check the box that says “Share this folder on the network” and give your share a descriptive name.

To stream audio over the net, you need software like Subsonic. Completely free and easy to configure, it’s available at http:// subsonic.sourceforge.net Sign up with DynDNS or a similar service so that you can have a domain name similar to mymusic.dyndns.org. Once that’s done, your server is up and running!

–Aditya Nag

Super Charge Your PC

Learn the basics of CPU and graphics card overclocking to improve system performance.

What if you were told your car could be made more powerful without compromising mileage or longevity? Or, that your washing machine could clean more clothes and not consume any more electricity? Well, these things are not likely. But what is possible is that you can squeeze more juice out of your PC for free.

We are indeed talking about overclocking — something that only experts were supposed to do in the yesteryears of computing — after all, it was all too easy to fry your CPU if you weren’t careful. Thankfully, things are a lot safer now — all CPUs today are designed to shutdown when a threshold temperature is reached in order to prevent damage.

If your motherboard is anything other than a barebones budget one, it is likely to have some overclocking options. Follow these steps and eke out more performance from your CPU! Do note that, you will not see any change in system response during everyday computing, but bring in gaming or some audio / video editing, and you will see benefits.

So, what really is Overclocking?

We’ll explain this without getting too technical. Your CPU runs at a certain ‘clock speed’ measured in Mega Hertz (MHz), which amongst other things determines how fast your system is. Though any CPU is fast enough for everyday tasks, overclocking does give you benefit if you are running 3D, animation, multimedia encoding or gaming tasks.

Now, this CPU clock speed is calculated as follows: Core Speed x Multiplier. This core speed (earlier referred to as the FSB, the term is now not valid for AMD CPUs) also provides the reference speed for other devices like PCI devices, memory, video card, etc.

The multiplier is set on the CPU itself and for most CPUs this is locked and cannot be changed. Thus, for overclocking, we basically increase this core speed (or FSB as some people still call it) in the BIOS.

Remember we said the core speed also determines the speed for the other components in your PC? Now, that’s generally not a good thing!

You need to ensure that other speeds are not affected, especially the clock for PCI devices — hard disks, audio and network cards are all based on the PCI interface and they get fussy about any speed other than what they are designed for. So, you need to ‘lock’ the speed for PCI devices, the bus and the video card (we will come to overclocking your video card later).

CPU Overclocking

We are asking you to enter a place that you have been advised to stay away from — the BIOS den. Don’t fret — just don’t change anything you don’t know about, you’ll be fine. Here, we are assuming that your motherboard supports overclocking and has the necessary features for the purpose (most mid-range boards will allow you to do a fair bit of overclocking).

Press the Del key as your PC is booting up to enter the BIOS (F2 on some motherboards). Usually the clock settings will be found under the ‘Frequency and Voltage Settings’ menu or under ‘Advanced’ or ‘Expert’ Options. If you are unsure, do
look up the manual to see where these settings are present.

The very first step is to lock the PCI frequency to its default 33.33 MHz and the PCI Express frequency to 100.00 MHz (in case of AGP 8x slot, the default frequency is 66.66 MHz). This ensures all other devices in your PC (except RAM) will not be affected when you increase the core speed. Coming to the RAM, things start getting tricky. You need to ensure that the RAM runs at or below its rated speed even after you overclock the CPU.

Find out the rated speed of your RAM (use can you the software CPUZ for the purpose). For DDR RAM, divide the effective speed by 2 and for DDR2 RAM divide the number by 4. For example, a DDR 400 will have a true clock speed of 200MHz and a DDR2 667 will have its actual speed as 166MHz. Once you have these figures you know where your threshold for RAM is. Let’s now look at a typical overclocking example:

Overclocking an Intel Core 2 Duo E4300

We use this CPU in the example because it has a lot of headroom left to overclock and is also inexpensive — making it an ideal overclocking candidate. Let’s assume you are using DDR2 800 which has a true speed of 200MHz. After locking the PCI and PCIe clocks, head to the core speed setting (some motherboards refer to it FSB) and increase it — not by much, say 5 or 10 MHz each time and ensure your system is stable before trying again.

Before you restart, head to the RAM speed settings. Here, select a CPU:RAM ratio that makes the true speed of the RAM lesser than the default (before overclock) core speed. For example, if you set a ratio of 5:4, the RAM does 4MHz for every 5MHz of the CPU, or, runs only 80 percent as fast as the CPU. Doing this ensures that after the overclock is in place, the new RAM speed will still be within its specified operating range.

So, let us say that with this arrangement, the core speed is increased to 230MHz. The RAM frequency will now be 80 percent of 230 which is 184MHz, which is within the 200MHz that the RAM can handle. If we had not changed the CPU: RAM ratio, the RAM would also run at 230MHz, which is much beyond its specification.

The default speed of the E4300 is 1.8GHz (200 MHz true FSB x multiplier 9). After increasing the core speed to 230MHz, we have an effective net CPU speed of 230 x 9 = 2070 MHz. In this manner you can push the core speed higher, taking care to change the CPU:RAM multiplier such the RAM operates within its range.

Many motherboards don’t specify a CPU:RAM ratio, but offer a reference clock. In such a case, choose a clock speed one step lower than the default. For example, choose 166MHz as the reference clock instead of the default 200MHz. This kind of setting is very typical in an AMD setup.

To push CPUs and RAMs to even higher clock speeds, many overclockers increase their voltage. While this will yield higher results, the risk of component damage is very high and hence we do not explain that process.

Overclocking an AMD CPU

There is no FSB per se for AMD CPUs and they use a fast bus called Hyper Transport (HT). The speed of this bus is also derived from the core frequency by multiplying it with a fixed number (4 or 5).

This yields 800MHz for older CPUs and 1000MHz for the newer models. The HT does not take too kindly to overclocking either, so an additional step is required here — change the HT multiplier value to one number lower than the default one. Thus, much like with the RAM, after overclocking, the HT speed stays within limits.

–Kailas Shastry

Convert Old Tapes to Digital Format

Make those precious old memories permanent. A guide on how to convert audio and video tapes to digital form.

Those old VHS tapes contain some splendid memories, a piece of family history perhaps. Viewing them now puts a smile on your parents’ faces. But tapes have a short lifespan and every time you play it, you are wearing it out a bit. Give those recordings permanence by converting them to a digital format — all you need is a PC and a TV tuner card.

There are two ways in which you can hook up the VHS tape to your PC. One is using the Firewire port on the old camcorder if your PC and the camcorder have Firewire connectivity.

The other is using a TV tuner card in your PC to which you connect the ‘video out’ from the camcorder or VCR. We will illustrate the second method as not all devices have had Firewire.

If you don’t already have a TV tuner card, go ahead and buy one. Almost any TV capture card today will serve the purpose at hand. Internal TV tuners start at about Rs. 1,200 while USB based one(for laptops) start at about Rs. 2,000.
1. Once you have put in the card and installed its drivers, the next step is to connect the VHS tape source (your old camcorder or VCR). Use a standard video cable (with Yellow connectors) to connect the ‘video out’ from the VHS device to the ‘video in’ of the TV tuner card.

2. Next, you need to connect the audio out from the VHS device to your PC. If the TV tuner has its own ‘audio in’ ports, use it — typically a two cable system (RCA) with Red and White connectors.

Otherwise, you need to connect it to the ‘line-in’ port of your sound card (generally Blue in color) using a RCA to Stereo cable (most older VHS devices give you sound output in RCA format).

3. Now that your setup is ready, you are all set to begin the analogue to digital conversion. In your TV tuner software, set the video input as ‘composite’ video and audio as ‘line in’ or as the TV tuner itself, depending on the kind of connection you have made.

4. Choose what format you wish to record it as — the resolution must be at least 640 x 480. Choose a compression method that is gives you your desired balance between file size and quality. Do note that using a higher compression requires a very fast CPU, so do a couple of trial runs to see if your PC can handle the job. If the CPU is not up to the task, you are forced to go one step lower on the resolution.

5. Click the record button on your TV tuner software and press play on your VHS device to begin recording. Wait until the tape ends and the end the recording on the software.

6. Once you have the analogue tape converted to an AVI file, you can then make a video DVD out of it like you would with any other video file. You can use Nero Vision or Ashampoo Burning Studio 2008 (bundled with the January 2008 PC World DVD).

–Kailas Shastry

Use a Webcam for Home Surveillance

Set up a security system at home using a webcam and easily available software.

Setting up a surveillance system at home need not cost a bomb. If you are worried that you might have an intruder in your balcony or someone enters your room without permission, you can set a basic motion detection system that captures images when the scene in a room changes (when a person enters the camera frame).

All you need is a webcam and software to grab images from it when a motion is detected. Many Logitech webcams come with motion detection software which is fairly well featured. Here we show you the process to use any webcam as a monitoring device.

1. Hook up your webcam to the PC and adjust its position such that it covers the area of the room you want to monitor. If you wish to see the persons who enter the room then you can train the camera on the door. You can also use USB extension cables if you need to place the camera far from the PC.

2. Install a webcam monitoring software. A simple google search will yield several results — we will use a software called Crime Catcher to illustrate the process (the features offered by other software will be similar; you will just need to look for the appropriate settings). When you start Crime Catcher for the first time, you will be asked to select the video capture device — choose your webcam from the list.

Then you have to specify how much motion (change in scene) has to be considered for capturing the image. If you are setting the camera indoors and wish to see who enters the room then set a high sensitivity for best results. On the other hand, if the camera is trained on the balcony, even the movement of leaves or birds can trigger the sensor and you will end up with a lot of pictures!

3. Now your software is configured for use. To start the motion detection, just press the ‘Start Detection’ button on the toolbar. You can now minimize the software and leave your room, knowing that when someone enters the camera frame, a series of images is captured to help you identify the person.

4. For real time monitoring, you can also have the software send emails with the captured images as attachments whenever a motion is detected. Click on the View Options button on the toolbar, under Internet Settings, click on Email to enter settings. Alternatively, you can also have the software upload images to a FTP server. Click on FTP to access these settings.

5. You can extend the surveillance to multiple locations by using more than one webcam. Depending on the features offered by the software you can capture images at set intervals, or play a warning sound when an intruder enters the scene, etc.

–Kailas Shastry

Read the final part of the article here tomorrow.

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