Media Centres and failing disk drives

For a long time now, I’ve used an old (black) xbox running XBMC as a media centre in my lounge room plugged into the TV. I just stream content to it, so it only has a little hard drive in it. Cost-wise its hard to beat, and XBMC has been updated enough over the years to keep up with the myriad of funny codecs out there. I also find the component output of the xbox is quite nice compared to all the other options I’ve tried.

But the xbox is getting old, and the main thing it can’t do is very high resolution stuff, especially high resolution H264 content.

I did look at using the bottom half of a Thinkpad T40 as a media centre, but that never worked out very well. So I thought I’d try the mac mini. I’ve had the mac mini about a year now using it in my office, but since I bought the macbook the mini gets less and less use. So, even though it seems a waste to sit the mini under the TV, I thought I’d try it for a while.

I also thought I’d upgrade the mini from Tiger to Leopard first. I thought I’d do a clean reformat install, so found a 200GB drive I had, put it in a USB enclosure, told the mac mini to do a Carbon Copy of its internal 80GB drive, and then went and installed Leopard.

My goal was to use the Migration Assistant to migrate data back …. but I put that on hold, and just set the thing up to run FrontRow. One thing that works much nicer in Leopard is NFS mounts, specifically automounts. I used to manually run a script in Tiger to mount NFS mounts as it never seemed to work the way i wanted. So in Leopard I just put some symlinks under ~/Movies to /net/<fileserver>/movies and it all just worked fine.

I discovered a program called the ‘Sapphire Browser’. It’s a plugin for FrontRow that I think was originally developed for the Apple TV but also works on Leopard FrontRow. Anyway, it sort of indexes your media collection and adds in coverart and movie/tv descriptions. It mostly works for me. I think it really doesn’t like my NFS mounts, as I find it very difficult to update the information. The whole concept is similar to the ‘Library’ functions in XBMC. It all looks pretty … but I always wonder whether it’s that useful from a useability perspecpective.

I’m connecting the mac mini to the TV with a DVI to HDMI cable, and audio is just out the headphones socket of the mini to the TV (which has left and right audio next to the HDMI input as an option). It works well enough. On my TV, the HDMI is forced to 1280×720, even though the native resolution of the TV panel is 1368×768, so when looking at text its not as crisp as perhaps the VGA input (I should try VGA for comparison). Quality wise I still think the component output of the xbox is slightly better. I can now play 720p stuff OK, though I do see the occasional glitch in playback of these. I need to investigate further whether this is because the data is via NFS or just an issue with FrontRow.

I’ve also added the Mini in to my Harmony remote. That took a while to get sorted. It works OK, but I haven’t worked out a way to simulate pressing the play/pause button for 5 seconds in order to make the mini go to sleep.

Anyway, I eventually got round to grabbing my Carbon Copy of the mac mini’s disk to take a look at (It’s a seagate 200GB IDE drive). I first tried connecting it to my macbook via the USB enclosure. It would not mount at all. I eventually plugged it into my linux server directly and it found lots of bad sectors on it. I tried Seagate’s seatools and it too found lots of bad sectors. Not good. How on earth could I lose two disk drives so close together? This one was in constant daily use until I bought that 750GB drive. Then it sat in one of those shipping case things on the floor for the last couple of weeks.

I ran some dodgy sector recovery type programs (I never know what these things are really doing) and they seemed to recover some sectors. And now I’ve just been running some deep surface scan type recovery thingee program (which seems to take a good 12hrs to run). It actually looks a lot better than it was. With my 300GB drive that died, it got progressively worse over a few days. This one seems to be getting better. Given that my USB enclosure cost $20, I really wonder if its a case of a very dodgy power supply.