With the New release of Ubuntu just around the corner and the bloated and expensive Vista requiring a hardware upgrade for most current 2000 / XP users to even be able to install it on thier machines it has never been a better time to try Linux. With the ability to be able to boot off of the disc and try Ubuntu without even having to install anything on your hard drive there is really no excuse - especially as it is free!

5 months and still smiling

It has now been about 5 months that I've been solely using Ubuntu Linux as both my work and 'play' operating systems which means it's being used about 10-12 hours a day. So far I have only had to revert to using Windoze on one or two occasions - and that was only to use an excel file that I had written a bunch of VB code for as open office does not seem to support it. Eventually I will get around to re-writing the file in Javascript as a standalone software package - then my ties with Windoze will be completely gone.

For emergency use I had set up Windows XP as a virtual machine (as well as leaving the Vista installation as dual boot when I initially installed Linux) The vitual machine allowed me to use the Excel file for a client demo, and as the virtual machine integrates quite nicely within the Linux window handling I'll leave it installed (see THIS video I recorded whilst writing this article). The dual boot Vista on the other had has not been booted into since I installed Linux on the machine - when I get some spare time I'll look into removing it.

Another item of note is that I have managed to function using Linux in a solely windows envoironment - everyone else (with the exception of one Mac user) uses Windows at work, the main server is running Windows SBS, most of our clients use Windows. Even considering that I am probably the only person using Linux file sharing and editing of shared files has not caused any problems - Email from the SBS 2003 server has not been a problem - even acessing and creating public exchange folders is possible.

Despite all the success, there are a few things to look out for - occasionally Evolution (the mail client I use) goofs out, Incorrect formatting within office documents seems to get very exaggerated within open office and you will probably need to manually set up some things that you take for granted on windows (such as being able to connect to the internet via bluetooth on my WM6 Smartphone) - Mind you, one point of note is that Ubuntu is a LOT more stable - as well as simply working with my Asus laptop from day 1, it has never suffered one lock up - I cannot say the same for my experience with any windows operating system.


So,why not replace your MCE machine with Linux too?

Being a long time user of a PC as a Media Controller I was pleasantly surprised to stumble across the Linux MCE project the other day, I had initially looked into using Linux as the operating system for a Media Centre type machine but had not really found anything that compared that worked 'out of the box' to the Windows MCE solution. However it would seem that things have progressed considerably in the past 3 years and the alternatives to MCE are slowly overtaking it.

My experience of using a PC as a media controller started way back in about 1998, After finally succumbing to accepting CD as a replacement for Vinyl, I had slowly replaced most of my  collection. I then copied all of my CD's onto the PC as MP3 files and hooked up the output from the soundcard into my mixer, using Media Player I was able to listen to any album I wanted and putting it on shuffle I was never without music to listen to. Not having a TV, at that time I also installed a TV card - this allowed me to play my games console on the PC monitor and also hook up the Cable TV (which also provided my internet connection). This was a great setup that only really lacked a remote control - but with my wireless keyboard and moue on the coffee table it was a useable system.

That's how things remained until one day, about 3 / 4 years ago, after surfing the web I came across MCE - with it's remote control. 'Gotta have one of those' I thought - so I duly downloaded a 'trial' version of MCE and ordered myself a remote control from the internet - this made my Media PC 110% more useable but didn't work with my old TV tuner card - so I invested in a tuner card - along with a projector and my first Windows MCE machine was born.

After many months of happy use, I became interested in the whole Home Automation thing. To me it seemed like a logical progression - and probably spurred on by some article somewhere on the web I was determined to see if I cound integrate it into my PC. Unfortunately, It was about this time that my MCE trial 'Expired' and faced with the cost of having to replace my trial copy of MCE I started to look into alternatives. Linux MCE wasn't available back then, and whilst there were a number of Linux alternatives for both media control and home automation, none were really up to the same standard as MCE itself.

Having chosen X10 as a suitably cost effective way to automate my house I stumbled across mControl and thier seamless MCE integration (not to mention the remote access capabilities) - so my mind was made and I coughed up the price for the Win MCE software and invested in the mControl package.

This is basically how my system operates to this day except that the home automation is now controlled by a second 'permanently on' PC which is connected to a small touchscreen in the hallway (using the projector as the master screen is simply unpractical). The MCE PC has now been upgraded and sits in a nice Origen case and I often think of what direction the system should go next.


So what next?

Many nights of pondering of what to do next on my home automation / media PC have led me to the conclusion that the next step is to extend the system into other areas of the house. We are currently renovating and will hopefully be extending the house soon and so I've considered what mods need to be done to the system to accomodate the new changes. The new extension will be the main living area and so will be the main media room, the outside entertaining area will also need to be connected into the media system, the new master bedroom could also benefit from a media terminal / tv, And eventually access control will be needed for visitors as we intend to put electric gates at the end of our driveway.

The home automation side of stuff is easy - I just install thin clients and touch screens that talk to the main Home automation PC - one for the front door - one for the outside entertaining area and one for the main living area. now all I need to do is to integrate the media into the same touchscreens - this is where the problems start!!!!

To extend the media experience into other areas with MCE I need to invest in 'Media Extenders', but at last look these were not available here in Australia, Ideally what I need is simply the software from a media extender so that I can install it into the thin clients - but unfortunately there's no software available and no API info from which to develop any. (typical Micro$oft).

So that unfortunately leaves MCE as not suitable as a complete home automation solution (a shame as the mControl integration is awesome)

Enter Linux MCE

Linux MCE is a definate contender against MCE - based on a branch of Pluto - a proprietary distributed media system -  the interface itself is built around completely different principles, the menus are integrated into the display rather than the display having to change to show a dominating menu system - this way the TV / Video is always present and always full screen. (no more annoying your partner by minimising the TV to a small box when you want to turn on the porch light) Navigation is also easier - especially with the dedicated gyro mouse, but best of all the thing that sets Linux MCE above Windows MCE is its multi room capability - not only can different media streams be used in different rooms the media can also be set to follow you as you move through the house.

Support is included for a number of home automation systems as well as integration for cameras. Linux MCE also features a fully loaded telephone system with the ability for call forwarding and answerphone services to name a few. In fact there's so much packed into it probably the best way to get to know it is to watch one of the many videos made on it.

For a full demo of how to install and use Linuc MCE check out the following video Linux MCE installation and useage Video it's about 20-25 minutes long but worth it.

for a quicker explaination of some of the functions take a look at the flash presentation on the Pluto site - it's basically the same.

There are also proprietary systems being supplied with Linux MCE installed - Fiire - http://www.fiire.com/ offer three very reasonably priced products - a Linuc MCE server (basic system) called Fiire Engine, a Linuc MCE thin client called Fiire Station and the gyro remote called Fiire Chief.


But best of all...

Not only is the Linux MCE project free, it's also open source.

I'm currently downloading the Linux MCE package and will let you know how I get on, if it proves to be a good as it first appears I'm sure that my Win MCE machine will soon become a Linux MCE machine.