Logitech Harmony 670 remote

Harmony 670 remote

Some things are so good that they seamlessly integrate into your life and you don’t realize just how good they are until you don’t have them anymore. For me that’s the Harmony 670 remote. I bought it for myself after last Christmas. It allowed me to consolidate to one remote for our DVR, TV, PS2/DVD player and lighting with future expansion options. We previously had four remotes for this. The remote that came with our DVR was not compatible with our HP TV, the PS2 had a wired controller and the lighting, well, is lighting. Note: I use a rope light from Home Depot to backlight the flat panel TV. Sort of a poor man’s ambilight.

My setup immediately became user-friendly to even the most non-technical of users. And, my wife loves it. You just push the “Watch TV” button and it turns on the DVR and TV and changes the TV to the correct input setting. Likewise, “Watch Movie” turns on the DVD player, TV and switches the TV to the correct input for that.

So, obviously, you are wondering why I mentioned that I don’t have it anymore. Well, a couple weeks ago, the LCD display went blank and no longer displayed text. The unit is very difficult to use without the LCD.

After I submitted a support request through Logitech’s web site and made a follow up call they are sending me a new remote. And, I just need to “recycle” the old one. So, normally, I would never recommend even the greatest product if it broke on me, I don’t hesitate to recommend this one. The warranty support is great. These days, many electronics products have short warranties and/or difficult to deal with off-shored support. Logitech has neither. A one year warranty and, after I submitted my original trouble call electronically and followed their instructions on how to re-flash the firmware (which did not help), when I called I spoke to a pleasant customer service person who, no follow-up questions asked, initiated the shipment of a new unit.

Logitech has several varieties of this remote. I choose this model because of the DVR integration. My wife just pointed out that Money magazine just highlighted this exact model in their article on the greatest gifts ever.

Keeping the old Compaq Aero running as a lighting controller

A few days after I setup my home automation/lighting controller (FireworX-10 running on a Compaq Aero 4/33c) and wrote the first entry on my setup, the hard drive on the Aero experienced problems. I figured I would write an entry here about it even though it is on some really old technology. One of things that encouraged me to convert my online ‘journal’ on Mustangs and FireworX-10 into a more general blog was an opinion I read from Dan on edbrill.com that it could serve as a “brain dump or artificial memory for knowledge you pick up.” In that light, I thought I would add this here for myself to remember from and possibly others to learn from.

The original hard drive was still in operation on the 12 year old Aero. It was 256 Mbytes in size so it had to be running DriveSpace compression in order to fit everything. It was DriveSpace that began reporting problems. Rather than try to fix the problems, I decided to rebuild the thing from scratch. Luckily, I found that I had a 6 Gbyte IBM Travelstar drive lying around and it fit in nicely.

It took a couple of reboots to get it to recognize the new drive. There were a few minutes where I couldn’t even get it to power on with the new drive. I was able to get it to recognize it by removing the drive from the BIOS settings and unplugging and reinstalling the drive. Unfortunately, I didn’t write this immediately after I did it so I don’t remember the exact sequence of steps. The important thing is that I got it to work and was able to install the setup and diagnostics software.

The challenge with loading an operating system on this little machine is that it comes with an external floppy drive that plugs into the single PC Card slot which is the same slot that the network card uses. Also, it has no CD-ROM drive. Since the newest Windows OS it can run is Windows 95, I needed to get DOS on it first. I used to work with these laptops in a desktop support role and at the time I had plenty of boot disks with correct drivers and so on. Now I have nothing since I bought this unit used on ebay. Of course, I own licenses for DOS 6.22 and Windows 95 from a long ago PC purchase so I just needed the media. I found the web site bootdisk.com had what I needed to generate a DOS 6.22 boot disk.

After installing the hard drive, I booted from the floppy and I partitioned and formatted it. I then needed to get it on the network. I have an old 3COM Etherlink 3C589 for it. Again, hardware but no drivers. In order to do get it working, I found MODBOOT a ‘Modular Boot Disk’ solution. I built the standard MODBOOT disk and then made the network version of it with the driver for my network adapter. Since I could not boot from the floppy onto the network (due to the single PC Card slot), I copied the MODBOOT disks contents to the c: drive maintaining the file folder structure. After several attempts (I found that I could not allow EMM to be running) I was then able to boot the laptop and get it on the network. I then copied the contents of the Windows 95 CD across the network to the hard drive of the laptop and installed it from there.

The Aero is not a perfect solution since I cannot remotely control it via VNS so I hope to replace it with something a little more advanced in the future. I definitely need a small footprint solution and the Shuttle PC looks interesting. I have seen some older ones on ebay. A Pentium III with Windows 2000 should be quite enough for my needs. For now though, the Aero seems to be working fine.

Get started developing with some free software from Microsoft

I have delayed continuing to work on FireworX-10 mainly becuase I have lost interest in the platform I originally built it on. I originally built it in Visual Basic 4 and later moved to Visual Basic 5 becuase those were the versions I had available at the time. What keeps me motivated to work on projects such as this is the opportunity to learn something new and VB 4/5/6 didn’t seem to provide that. Additionally, as part of the software development that I do at work, I haven’t had requirements to use VB since the days of VB5 so I don’t have access to the later versions. They have been too expensive to justify solely to continue to work on a freeware project. Together, these issues have kept me strugling for continued interest in the project.

It seems like that has changed. When I was browsing the Microsoft Visual Studio site to look at some .NET stuff, I noticed that the Visual Studio 2005 Express version is being offerred for free until November 6, 2006. I have downloaded and installed the express versions of Visual Basic 2005, Visual C# 2005 and Visual J# 2005.

These express versions seem like they have what is necessary to build a simple application such as FireworX-10. I rewrote the sample code I provide on this site in Visual Basic 2005 and it seems to work fine. I tried Visual J# but I think it suffers from the sample problems as traditional Java development; the threading model is too flexible and does provide the strict timing control that sending signals to the serial port requires. I am going to start looking into C#.

So, if you have been thinking about getting started with development on a small project or want to learn more about the latest MS tools, check out the free Express versions of the Visual Studio products.

My current home automation setup

My home automation setup has evolved since I started about 5 years. It did not happen overnight. At the beginning, I had a vision of what it could become and I am now feeling that I am close to achieving that vision. My vision was centralization. Instead of having various bits of home automation equipment spread throughout the house I wanted everything in one location. Perhaps that came from my experience in the corporate environment relative to telecommunications. Early in my career I spent time designing telecom. rooms.

One of my main governing principles was to keep the cost down. Since this falls in the category of non-essential spending (or at least that’s what my wife thinks) I could not go out and spend thousands on the ultimate solution. So, what you’ll see are sometimes creative ways to get the project done.

Cabinet

A cabinet was key to my centralization approach so it came early on. Also, it was the first area where I decided that costs could be controlled. I looked at some of the commercially available cabinets but they seemed not as flexible as I would like and locked you into a certain line of add-ons as well as being expensive (usually $100 +). So, I built my own from materials I had left over from various home improvement projects. My cabinet is made primarily from 3/4″ plywood. It has enough space for all my gear.

Communication cabinet front
Communication cabinet front
(note schematic for original plan taped to back)

Continue reading