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Archive for March, 2014

DStv Explora Setup and review

Here in South Africa, one doesn’t have too many options when it comes to TV channels. The public broadcaster has 3 free to air channels, while a fourth free to air, e-tv, is a private business. On the pay TV side of things, there is either DStv, or StarSat (previously known as Top TV,) both of which are satellite broadcasters.

We’ve had DStv since 2008, when we purchased at that time, the top of the line SD PVR decoder. The device could display 2 different TV channels at the same time, while also recording a 3rd channel in the background. The resolution was standard definition, which wasn’t a problem when all the TV’s in the house were small CRT based things. However, since I got the large TV in the lounge a few years ago, putting up with SD quality on that screen has been slowly driving me nuts. Throw in the at times instability of the PVR and I found myself itching to upgrade.

DStv introduced some HD decoders a few years back, but apart from one device that offered the same features as the SD decoder, they were limited to 1 view, 1 record. Throw in the fact that these decoders were even more unstable and I decided to wait a little longer.

Last weekend, I finally ended up purchasing the new DStv Explora. The Explora is a new and modern HD decoder, although still sadly limited to 1 view, 1 record. The interface on the decoder is a lot more modern than any other decoder DStv has ever produced, and it has a 2TB hard drive inside, which ensures much more space for recordings. With the SD decoder I found myself often butting up against the recording limit.

The Explora is securely packaged in the box, wrapped in a nice layer of bubble wrap. The device isn’t too heavy, but feels solidly built despite being mainly plastic. There were no creaks or other defects out the box. Unfortunately for whatever reason, the power supply has now migrated from being internal to being a power brick. I suppose it makes sense that if there is a power surge or something, it’s much easier to replace a power brick than the whole decoder. Still, power bricks are often unsightly and contribute to cabling clutter.

The old SD decoder is quite noisy, with a very distinct fan drone emanating from the machine at all times. The Explora is a lot quiter, and seems to run cooler as well, despite it’s vastly upgraded internals. Hard drive noise is also far less evident, thanks to modern drives which are a lot quieter than the 250GB model in the SD decoder.

I chose to install the Explora myself, without making use of an installer. There was no need to pay someone to do the job, since we already have a large enough dish and have a twin cable feed coming in from the dish. From there, the process is simple:

  • Screw cables from the dish into the top inputs on the included multi-switch.
  • Connect one output cable on the side of the multi-switch to the Explora.
  • Connect two cables from the bottom of the multi-switch into the inputs of the existing SD decoder.
  • Use a F connector splitter to split the feed from the RF output of the SD decoder. One cable goes to the RF input port of the Explora, the other cable runs to the secondary TV that was always hooked up.
  • Use HDMI cable to hook up Explora to my amp, which in turn feeds the TV.
  • The reason to interconnect the 2 decoders is to enable DStv’s Extraview feature. With this feature enabled, you are able to use 2 interlinked decoders on the same subscription for a nominal amount every month. With my particular setup, we can theoretically watch 3 completely separate TV channels, whilst recording 2 different programs at once.

The installation really isn’t difficult if you already have a previous DStv in your house and it meets the requirements for the Explora. The rest is just an exercise in patience as you connect multiple cables. Depending if you are making use of Extraview to interlink 2 decoders or not, you may need to purchase 3 extra co-axial cables and a F connector splitter.

So far, so good. The Explora has been running a week with no problems that I’ve detected. Most of the channels are still SD resolution, but they are being upscaled better than the old SD decoder could ever do. HD content on the other hand looks lovely, if not quite Blu-ray lovely. Still makes a huge difference in things like live sport though.

Overall, the Explora is a worthwhile upgrade. From any SD decoder it’s a big leap, while the increased space and stability puts it above the older HD decoders. Time will ultimately tell how stable the Explora will be, but I am strangely optimistic the device will hold up well over the coming years. Although the device is quite pricey, it has been on special a few times already.

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Having fun with Solid State Drives

A week ago, our school purchased 3 SSD’s, to run a small experiment on the viability of replacing many of our mechanical hard drives with SSD’s instead. Our older classroom PC’s have 160GB mechanical drives in them, any newer machine generally has 500GB mechanical drives. Most of the the time, usage of the mechanical drive doesn’t surpass 50GB total. Since all staff documents are redirected to their network profiles, most staff don’t store info on the local PC’s themselves.

We purchased 3 Samsung 840 EVO 120GB drives. One was to be installed in our staff work room, and the other two in classrooms with different types of PC, in order to get a decent sample range. One PC is much newer than the other, with the older model being what most classrooms currently have.

In order to save time, I decided to use the included cloning utility to do a straight clone from the mechanical to SSD. This way we save time, transfer a working system as is with minimal downtime and we don’t use up activations on Windows and Office. In the past, I’ve had issues with cloning software being unable to clone from a larger to smaller drive, but I’m pleased to say that Samsung Magician was able to clone 2 of the drives successfully.

As luck would have it, the oldest PC out of the 3 kept throwing up this error when the clone got to 100%

WP_20140224_001

I scoured the net, but I couldn’t find much in the way of information on this particular problem. It could be the fact that the motherboard doesn’t support the AHCI standard, despite supporting SATA 300 ports. I’m guessing when MSI designed these particular boards back in the day, they were trying to save every penny possible, and ended up using the version Intel’s ICH9 chipset that didn’t support AHCI.

Anyway, solving this problem was a little more tricky. Samsung Magician would not finish the job, no matter what. Upgrading to a newer version didn’t help, nor did a typical restart. Eventually, I had to turn to 3rd party tools if I wanted to get the job done. Clonezilla refused to clone the drive, due to the larger-smaller problem. Trying to force Clonezilla did result in a copy, but the copy refused to work no matter what. I turned to Parted Live next. Using the included GParted, I copied the existing 2 partitions off of the mechanical drive and onto the SSD, while resizing the main partition to fit. This time, both partitions successfully copied. Trying to boot the drive however simply resulted in a blinking cursor. Turns out that GParted couldn’t create a proper partition table. Using the Windows 7 Emergency Recovery Disk, I let it detect and repair problems, which it duly did by creating a proper partition table.

After the required reboot, the new drive was up and running, easily maxing out the SATA port, despite the chipset not supporting AHCI and all the advanced features it brings. Even on this older slower PC, applications feel snappier to open up, boot time is reduced, and there’s almost no sign of typical mechanical thrashing you normally encounter the first few minutes after a PC starts up.

The other classroom PC has a SATA 600 port, so performance on that machine is screaming. The teacher in that class is actually the head of IT, so I look forward to him putting the drive to good use and providing some feedback. The drive in the staff work room is performing, but I suspect Windows needs to be reinstalled. Even before the clone, Windows was not too healthy on that particular PC, and the SSD hasn’t magically cured the symptoms.

Overall, I suspect that despite the still rather high price, we will be making more use of SSD’s in the future. While a 1TB mechanical hard drive is about half the price of these 120GB units, the speed and other benefits of the SSD are not easily ignored. Older computers in the classrooms will get an extended lease on life due to these drives, and that is a good thing as it will allow us to focus on other IT projects for a change, instead of constantly replacing the older computers. Eventually, the older PC’s will have to be replaced of course, but an extension of life is welcome for the time being.