HP Stream Mini Desktop 200-010

HP Stream Mini Desktop 200-010

Sometimes, technology actually solves a problem. In this case, we have the HP Stream Mini Desktop 200-010, a $179 computer with the footprint that’s smaller than the average carryout box, yet delivers the goods as promised.

I made my switch to being a full-time Mac user over 10 years ago, yet I still have a few PC applications that either haven’t been migrated to OS X, or for which there’s no Mac-native equivalent. For that reason, I kept a Windows machine around as long as I could. My last “official” Windows machine, a Fujitsu LifeBook, was removed from service about a year ago when I got tired of its wheezing. Since then, I’d been using a Windows 7 BootCamp partition on my MacBook Pro Retina to run the remaining few apps on that platform.

Two of those applications, PlayOn and TotalRecorder, require a running PC for an extended amount of time, e.g., the amount of time you plan on using them. PlayOn is a media-streaming service that will send all kinds of internet-based and network-local media to a WDTV Live or Roku (or Chromecast, phone or tablet). TotalRecorder is a program that captures internet streaming audio, and I use it to record longer-format shows like Those Were The Days, the four-hour old time radio show out of Chicago. Having to lock my Mac into Windows mode for hours while running these programs was an intrusion.

(And yes, I know there are many streaming-audio capture programs available for the Mac– I am a huge fan of Audio Hijack– but it still does not solve the challenge of having to leave my Mac on for hours.)

When I saw a review of the new, tiny HP desktops in Ars Technica, I realized I may have found a solution to my Windows challenges. HP has just introduced a line of inexpensive, lower-powered computers that run Windows 8.1, and the cheaper desktop looked like it could be put on a shelf, loaded with my software, and left to run happily.

It turns out I was right.

I bought the HP Stream Mini Desktop 200-010 at Amazon for $179 during the last week of February, 2015. It’s a good thing I did, too, since within a week they were out of stock everywhere, including HP’s site. (As of this writing, other sellers are gouging for the device at $250.) Based on the recommendation of one of the Amazon customer reviewers, I also bought a stick of 4 GB memory to bring the total memory to 6 GB and the price to $212.  I later replaced the stock drive with a 128GB SATA M.2 SSD for about $60, providing me with a little more storage overhead; but more about that later.

The computer showed up in a box about the size of a laser toner cartridge.  The biggest thing in the box was the full-sized USB keyboard, which HP provides along with a USB mouse and external power supply.  The keyboard and mouse are average-quality, certainly enough to get the job done.   The main unit will easily fit in your hand, and the included setup guide is easy to follow for setting the computer up.

Once connected (I used my Vizio HDTV as the display, and plugged in an Ethernet cable to get it on my network), the computer booted quickly into a guided setup screen.  Not having ever dealt with Windows 8, I was actually impressed with the way the software walks a new user through initial configuration.   Within 5 minutes, the computer was up and running on my network, ready for me to start loading my software.

Right out of the box, I saw I had about 12GB of disk space available.  This was not a big issue, as my plan was to only load a couple program on the computer, and any data would be put on Dropbox or OneDrive and deleted soon after.    I also went through and deleted software that I knew I wouldn’t use:  as pointed out in other reviews, HP was very conservative with loading this machine with the usual “bloatware” given the small amount of storage they provide.

My cable provider gives its subscribers free antivirus, so after loading that and Dropbox, Google Chrome, and Firefox, I was ready to install my programs.   Given the local space available, I had to choose “Selective Sync” on Dropbox because I have a ton of stuff out there:  I only chose the directories I knew I’d want to access from this computer.

PlayOn installed just fine.  The HP Stream’s specifications are well within the requirements for the program, so there was no problem serving up stutter-free video over my network to my TV-connected devices.  I added an external 1 TB drive to the HP to serve up my library of media using the MyMedia feature of PlayOn.

TotalRecorder installed with only one bump:  in order for streaming audio to work on the computer, it has to know there is an audio output device connected since it has no internal speaker.  If I went to a site with streaming audio, it would simply not play it at all, which means TotalRecorder could not capture anything.  I resolved this by plugging in a cheap pair of headphones and leaving them on the shelf with the computer.   From there, it worked perfectly.

The only thing remaining was to figure out how to remotely access the computer, as I did not want to leave it connected to a monitor or the TV.  Since the Stream comes with a version of Windows 8.1 that does not include Remote Desktop, I had to think of another solution.  I am a big fan of TeamViewer, which allows a user to gain control over a remote computer as long as it’s connected to the internet.  (I use this when troubleshooting my daughter’s computer while she is at school.)  I loaded TeamViewer and set it up for “Unattended Access” which involves setting up a free account at TeamViewer’s site.  After entering the codes provided, I was able to fully control the Stream from my MacBook.  The only challenge with this setup, however, is that the remote computer has to think it has a monitor connected in order to have a display to “share,” otherwise it will display a blank screen.  I solved this by buying a Compulab fit-Headless HDMI adapter, which acts as a display emulator (the radio geek in me calls it a “dummy load”) and plugs right into the computer.  I unplugged my monitor from the Stream, plugged the adapter in, and remotely accessed it again from my Mac.  Success!

It’s worth pointing out that HP does not provide Recovery Disks with the computer: there is a Recovery Partition on the built in hard drive, but they recommend you create media with the recovery software as well.   Following these instructions I created a Recovery USB key, which is a good thing to have in the event of a hard drive failure.  If a system crash occurred, I’d have the tools to rebuild the system.

After a couple weeks of the Stream’s providing solid service, I realized I was constantly running at about 5GB of disk space to spare.   This would have been okay, but I figured SSDs are pretty cheap so I may as well give myself a little overhead.   As mentioned above, I bought a Transcend 128GB M.2 SSD which would provide plenty of space going forward.

The physical installation was very easy.  This video shows how to disassemble the Stream and where the memory and hard drive go.  (It also shows the impressive compact design of the computer.)  I was able to remove the old drive and install the new one in a couple minutes.  I did not format the new drive or anything– it was plain “vanilla” right out of the package.

Once reassembled, I inserted the USB Recovery Key I described above and powered the computer up.

I booted the PC, and since it could not find an OS on the internal drive, it proceeded to boot from the USB. The menu that came up gave several options for diagnosing and rebuilding the computer. I chose the option to “Reset my computer” which destroys everything that’s on the internal hard drive by reformatting and repartitioning to the factory defaults. It then loaded the factory system image, rebooted, and I was presented with a system that looked exactly like it was when I took it out of the box.

I had to re-register and reload my programs, but most importantly, I discovered the “reset” program had repartitioned the new internal drive with an appropriately-set recovery partition (as I expected) and a C: partition that took up the remainder of the drive’s space. The “reset” process running from USB took less than 30 minutes to complete. I reloaded my programs and configured everything the way I wanted, which added about another 30 minutes to the process.

I came to this solution after searching on the internet for ways to reload the computer’s current image on a new drive, but none of what I found was particularly helpful or easy to follow.   That’s when I decided to go after the “slash-and-burn” approach, knowing that HP must have provided some sort of tool to restore the factory image.

One thing to point out about the “Reset” option:  when you follow this path, the installer creates the main C: and Recovery partitions as described above, but instead of “hiding” the Recovery partition as it comes from the factory, the Reset mounts the Recovery partition as drive D:.   Since the partition is loaded to just about its 6.7GB capacity, Windows will consistently throw “Disk Almost Full” errors.   The best thing to do is to use the Control Panel option for changing Notifications, and turn off the warnings for Low Disk Space.

Overall, I am very pleased with this computer, and I am looking forward to seeing what else it can do.  Bravo to HP for  coming out with such a great little piece of equipment!

…has been disconnected.

For the first time in my life, I do not have a home phone number.  

Last week, we decided to drop our landline telephone service.  We did an informal-yet-enlightening analysis of our home phone usage, and here’s what led to our decision:

  1. Of all the inbound calls we get in a week (according to caller ID, it’s between 25-30),  less than one is usually from someone with a legitimate reason to call us.   The rest of the calls are telemarketers, political robo-dialers, and/or survey-takers.
  2. People who really need to contact us already use our mobile numbers.
  3. The only outbound calls we make are to the local pizza shop or the occasional business phone call when T-Mobile or US Cellular can’t get a signal to our house. 

Based on the first point alone, our decision was made.  Once we looked at the cost, it made the choice that much easier: we were paying $85 per month for basic phone service and 8 Mbit internet. 15 Mbit internet-only service from our provider costs $52, which means we were paying $33 per month for the “convenience” of being hassled by people (and machines) we didn’t want to hear from.

I made the call Friday morning and by Monday afternoon the phone line was turned off.  Oh, and this little bit of joy took only minutes to go into effect:

Before…

..and After:

We did not put a forwarding number on the account because the people who need to contact us know how to do so.  So all you robo-dialing, political-office-running, lawn care-selling, survey-taking entities will have to find another tree to bark up.  Or whatever it is that you do.

For the people and places with whom we wish to stay in contact but we’d rather they didn’t have our mobile numbers, we’re sharing our Google Voice number. This has the advantages of (a) not ringing a phone in our house (or pockets), and (b) providing a spiffy and occasionally accurate transcription of the voice mail that the caller can leave when they dial our number.  And if, for some reason, we need to have the Google Voice forwarded to a “real” phone, it’s just a few keystrokes to make that happen.

Yes, we’ll have to keep our mobile phones charged and have a spare standing by in case one of them takes a dive into the Chicago River.  We’ll also have to make sure the numbers for our local Police and Fire Departments are programmed into our mobiles.   Done and done.

One more step at simplifying our lives is complete.

Photobucket

We got rid of cable TV in November of 2009. Since then, we’ve been watching over-the-air TV and zipping through our Netflix queue, as well as spending a lot more time participating in non-passive entertainment. This means we’re a lot healthier and less zombie-like. Of course, we still have internet connectivity so the cable company still gets a check from us every month– it’s just not as large as it used to be.

I’ll say again that we don’t miss cable TV one bit: this was one of the smartest decisions we’ve made.

For a long time, our primary media source was the Sony BDP-S370 Blu-Ray player, which has connectivity to Netflix, Amazon, and a few other online services. The player has generally served us well, but it comes up deficient in a couple areas, specifically its inability to talk to other devices on my home network, where I have other media files stored on a FreeNAS device.

(Aside: FreeNAS is an open-source file server program that essentially turned my old Windows XP box into a giant file storage device where I store movie and music files as well as back up the data on all the Macs in our house. It’s free, and it works beautifully.)

Sony claims the Blu-Ray player supports the DLNA standard, as does FreeNAS. The problem is that there doesn’t seem to be an absolute “standard” protocol so these two pieces of equipment don’t talk to each other, which I find aggravating and a nuisance.

A few months ago, I read a review of the Western Digital WDTV Live Plus, a device that’s about the size of a McD’s Quarter Pounder box that plugs into your network and TV and, as you will learn if you Google it, will “play just about anything you can throw at it.” I picked one of these up through Newegg when a sweet coupon came through that made the deal irresistible.   You can usually find this device for just under $100.

In short, the WDTV Live Plus delivers exactly what it promises: not only does have access to several online media services, including Netflix and Amazon as well as a couple others including Blockbuster, but it immediately found my FreeNAS server on my network and all the files I have stored there– and it played most of them flawlessly. It can play movies, audio, and photos on your TV screen as long as they’re formatted in a way the box can understand, which is a pretty long list.  Here’s a list of the online services currently supported on the device, and here are the complete specs showing the formats it can read.

I typically use Handbrake to make iPod Touch-compatible movie files from the DVDs in my collection: this way I can watch movies on my commute without having to break out my computer on the train and running down my MacBook’s battery. Over the years I’ve ripped much of my collection and stored the files on my FreeNAS server.   I also have a PC running SnapStream’s BeyondTV acting as a DVR to record over-the-air programming, which I store on the FreeNAS server:  the WD Live plays these all files on my TV just fine.

The device also understands VIDEO_TS files: this means I can use a program like RipIt on DVDs that I own to pull the DVD contents to my computer, then copy those files to my server. When I want to watch the movie, I go to the file on the server and click– and the entire DVD’s contents, including special features, commentaries, etc., are all available to me as if I put a DVD in the player.

This came in really handy recently when I was recovering from surgery and wasn’t supposed to move a lot: I hooked the WDTV to the bedroom TV and ripped a bunch of movies from my collection that I’d been meaning to watch. Those, along with what was available from Netflix and Amazon kept me entertained for those few days.

I should also mention that two other features I enjoy are a page that’s connected to AccuWeather that gives the current conditions and 5-day forecast, and an interface to TuneIn Radio, which happens to be my favorite streaming-radio web site and iPod Touch app. This latter feature allowed me to get the latest news from WBBM and WBEZ as well as checking in on Kermode and Mayo on BBC 5 Live, right from my TV.

In addition to accessing media on the Internet and a local network, you can also attach a flash key or portable hard drive to the unit’s USB port: this not only allows access to the media, but it turns your WDTV device into a media server for your network, meaning you can play movies and music from the WDTV on your computer.

When playing music or photos, it doesn’t use as elegant an interface as Apple’s iTunes or iPhoto: you have to navigate to the appropriate directory to play or show the media you want. This is where something like an AppleTV has an advantage, but it’s not a deal-breaker for me.

Some people who know I’m an Apple fan asked why I didn’t just go for an AppleTV. While the AppleTV interface is nice and intuitive, the main reason is that I wanted to break out of the Apple/iTunes ecosystem: with the AppleTV you can only watch or listen to what you have in your iTunes library. This means that if I wanted to watch something that’s not available in the iTunes Store or on Netflix– I’ll use Jim Jarmusch’s wonderful 1991 movie Night on Earth as an example- I would still have to get the DVD off the shelf and put it in the player. This in itself is not a big deal, but if my goal is to simplify how I access my media, it seems more directionally correct to have a media player that is flexible, which the AppleTV doesn’t seem to be.

I recently looked at some of the newer boxes by Roku, but it seems they’re lacking in the ability to use a local network for source material as well. There are several other, cheaper boxes out there that seem to come close, but none of them have the feature set of the WDTV Live Plus.

For now, I’m very happy with the WDTV Live Plus as an internet media hub– and I’m hoping for its continued success to keep the competition trying to come up with something even better, since we’ll all win!

TV Clipart
As mentioned in this blog post, we got rid of cable TV in our house about 5 months ago. I figured this was a good time to give a status report.

What have we missed? Not much. We’re not inclined to watch shows like “Jersey Shore,” and most of our former favorite channels– Food Network, A&E, Discovery– seemed to have become home to mean-spirited, cheaply produced “reality” shows. From what I’ve seen and heard since dropping cable, this trend hasn’t changed.

During the holidays we missed some movie marathons from TCM and the like, but that just made us look for alternatives at Netflix or on the local Chicago over-the-air channels.

As I mentioned, we started plowing through our Netflix queue, and we’ve caught up on a bunch of movies we’ve been meaning to watch. I’ve also discovered some TV shows that I missed the first time around (thanks mostly to MeToo), and I can now eloquently spout 20-year-old pop culture phrases like “Resistance is Futile” and know what they mean. I can now both annoy and astonish my co-workers with my “new” TV discoveries: yes, I will admit publicly that until a couple months ago I never saw a single episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

From a technical standpoint, the video and audio on our TVs is near-perfect. We have a later-model analog/CRT TV, and the signal that comes out of our converter box is great. Despite my tendency to collect gadgets, I still don’t see a need to upgrade to an HDTV yet.

All that said, we’re not completely “off the wire.” While we don’t have cable TV in the house, we now have access to Internet video thanks to the Sony BDP-S370 Blu-Ray player I bought a couple weeks ago. This unit has built-in internet video streaming, including Netflix, Amazon, and a whole bunch of other services. This means that you connect the player to your home network, and anything that shows up as “Watch Instantly” in your Netflix queue can be streamed through the player right to the TV at no additional charge past your monthly Netflix subscription. You can also “rent” movies (and recent TV episodes) through Amazon and have them delivered directly to your player at that moment. I’ll post a detailed review of the Sony player and the available services in an upcoming blog post.

So far, we’ve saved about $400 overall by not having cable TV, and we don’t miss it. And frankly, I feel a little more smug about not supporting programs where the hosts encourage people to drop 80-lb wedding cakes or show Just How Much Better Off You Are Than These Losers Who Can’t Seem to Run a Household.

Of course, we still have network TV for that.

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