Sunday, January 14, 2018

The case for NES and SNES Classic Switch Cartridges

The Switch isn't the only "new" Nintendo console selling out in stores these days.

There has recently been a huge resurgence of retro Nintendo gaming with the NES Classic Edition and SNES Classic Edition.

And why shouldn't there be? Retro gaming is great! While there have been a few issues with the Classic Editions (short cords, anyone?), the response to them has been a phenomenal success.

The biggest issue seems to be getting them into people's hands. I visit gaming stores (and department stores with gaming sections) on a regular basis, and I've never seen either of these consoles in stock. 

My only hands on experience to date with either console was with a friend who brought over his NES Mini for an afternoon of game play (coincidentally my first experience with a Switch as well). 

There is a simple solution to the lack of availability to the classic consoles - release them as Switch cartridges! Basically, take the games and put them on a Switch cartridge, while maintaining the same "classic" UI and feel. The price of the cartridges could be roughly the same, or a little cheaper, than the the classic consoles themselves. Of course, I would also expect an eShop release of the cartridges as well.

This would also solve the wired/wireless controller issue, as the Joy Cons should work for playing both NES and SNES games (and there's two of them - the right number of players!). Pro Controller/Paired Joy Cons would work as well.

There could even be an official adapter for using Classic Controllers into the USB connection, if you really wanted to.

The right way to do the Switch Virtual Console?

Other than some vague references to the Switch online service including some sort of retro "game of the month", we've heard virtually nothing regarding the Switch Virtual Console service.

Release the NES and SNES Classic Editions as Switch cartridges provides one other huge advantage - online access. The NES and SNES Classic Editions are designed for simplicity - no Internet connection, which also means no official way to add additional games.

But the NES and SNES Classic Editions as a release on Switch could offer one thing the physical consoles cannot - downloadable content! Ergo, download the NES Classic Edition for the Switch, then be able to purchase other games than the originally included set as DLC. 

While I personally hoped Nintendo would allow for consolidation of a Virtual Console collection (e.g. buy once, play on any supported device), that clearly never happened, resulting in having to repurchase Virtual Console games for different devices - something few people would find appealing. 

While I don't really relish the idea of buying Super Mario Bros 3 for the umpteenth time, I would strongly consider buying a Switch game with SMB3 included, if it included the other 29 games from the NES Classic. Same goes for the SNES Classic. The "rewind" feature from the SNES Classic could even be ported back to the NES Classic. This could be the right way to do Virtual Console on the Switch, as opposed to repeating the Wii/WiiU/3DS formula. Make the VC optional via purchase of a cartridge which includes a base number of great classic games. 

Wouldn't it negatively impact Classic Edition sales?

I seriously doubt it. There are many people who simply have no interest in a Switch, and only want to play classic games. As we know, the production of the Classic Editions are limited due to competition with the Switch for manufacturing. Even if the Classic Editions were released as Switch games, any new release of the Classic Consoles themselves would almost certainly still sell out, while making the games available to a much wider demographic. As I said, the cartridges would likely be a similar price point to the Classic Editions themselves, which wouldn't result in a loss of profit.

Although there is one other factor to consider: future Classic Editions. I've seen much speculation that the next Classic Edition will not be a N64 Mini, but rather, a re-released Gameboy Classic Edition. While I cannot say for certain, I agree this seems like a strong possibility.

There could be fear that, if the NES/SNES Classic Editions were released on Switch cartridges, they may impact the sale of future classic editions, be it a Gameboy/N64/Gamecube Classic, what have you, as people will eventually expect Switch versions of them as well. But once again, I find it unlikely that enough people would hold off on buying them that we would see hardware for the limited-edition Classic consoles stuck in stores. But as such, it may simply be prudent for Nintendo to wait for the possible supply of Classic Editions to be exhausted before bringing the games to Switch/etc (if they ever do).

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Future of 2D Mario on the Switch

Super Mario Odyssey is a fantastic game, though ever since the first New Super Mario Bros. for the DS, Nintendo finally realized they had to keep up with the 2D Mario games as well to make fans happy - and make lots of money for themselves.

If you asked me to pick my favorite Mario game of all time, there's only one answer - Super Mario Bros. 3 (yes, Super Mario World is close second!). I could pick that game up tomorrow, play it for the thousandth time, and still get a smile on my face when I race into the sky on maximum P Power. A lot of fans simply enjoy the simplicity a 2D Mario brings, while others find 3D games a bit too difficult to navigate.

I was thrilled when Nintendo rebooted 2D Mario, and picked up New Super Mario Bros Wii on launch day (I didn't have a DS at the time, though I now own both NSMB1 and NSMB2). I enjoyed every minute of that game (well, expect maybe the "Save Toad" levels - they were dumb). Of course, I followed it up with New Super Mario Bros Wii U (fun, if a bit repetitive) and Super Luigi U (it's like Donkey Kong Country Returns on steroids).

But sadly, some of the latter games just didn't fill me with the same fun-level as games like SMB3 or NSMBW did. When the 2D games started dying out originally, they switched to 3D to reinvent the franchise (and keep up with technology). Then, the 2D games came back with a renaissance, including updated graphics and new game play mechanics. But the original New Super Mario Bros for the DS came out in 2006 and has largely followed the same formula since. Almost 12 years later, I feel like it's time for a new renaissance!

When Super Mario Maker came out, I (quite possibly literally) leaped with joy. Hey, it was only a game I waited two decades for. While it turned out I was rather sucky at making levels myself, the level-creating community was where the game really shined. Sure, a lot of levels are terrible, and others are way too insanely difficult, but you can also find a lot of quality levels that keep the 2D Mario gaming spirit alive.

What I'd like to see in 2D Mario on the Switch

So far, the Switch has been all about reinvention. 3D Super Mario returned to an open world design, and Zelda created one of the best and most expansive open world games to date. I'm also patiently waiting for the announcement of Luigi's Mansion 3 for the Switch, hoping it too will return to an open world format.

I think it might finally be time to mess with the traditional 2D Mario format. Yes, we've already seen some of this in the Paper Mario games (Super Paper Mario was pretty great), but those are less mainstream games. The time may have come for a mainstream, open world, 2D Mario.

Could this even work? Would it be like some giant level, or would it be Metroidvania style? I'm a big Metroidvania fan myself (and kind of wish Samus Returns had been a Switch release, instead of 3DS), so my instincts for an open world 2D Mario would trend towards that genre. But I'm open for anything that breaks the formula. Here are some ideas to get them started!

  • Game starts out as a standard 1-1 “Grass world" with a flagpole at the end, complete with the usual enemies and temporary power ups.
  • Upon hitting the flagpole, a “bad-guy” cut scene happens ("Well gee Mario, it's so easy to defeat us when all you have to do is hit a flagpole!" - me, in a horrible Baby Bowser voice), the world gets “expanded”, Mario is stripped of all his power ups, and the player is now able to walk "past" the flagpole.
  • The player than keeps going past the flagpole, eventually finding a warp pipe to “Underground world".
  • Eventually the underground world meets back up with Grass world and you are able to traverse back to the area you started.
  • Different open-areas would be themed off of standard Mario worlds - Grass World, Underground World, Ice World, Water World, Desert World, Sky World, all of which would interconnect in various ways.
  • Mario would get his power ups back throughout the game based on standard Mario-powers - e.g. Fire Flower, Ice Flower, Racoon tail. Mushroom could allow Mario to grow or shrink in size at will (a la Morph ball). A Dash power allows Mario to run faster. Cappy should be included as well. At this point, maybe some abilities would be permanent and equipable, e.g. maybe Goomba’s shoe allows you to jump higher. Beating a boss may be required to get a power up, which would sometimes allow access to new areas.
  • Different suits could also allow Mario to get to new areas. E.g. In Water-world, Mario could only skim the surface until finding the Frog suit, allowing full access underwater.
  • Warp pipes would allow quick access to different areas of the map, once they are unlocked.
  • Game would still gave bosses, minibosses, etc, although with a more Mario-theme. Mario would also need a different hitpoint, possibly similar to the 2D games.

Maybe some power ups are permanent - like Cappy or a higher jump - while others remain ephemeral, like Fire or Ice Flower. I'm sure the smarter-than-me game designers could come up with a 2D Mario game that was true to the genre, but still retaining a unique Mario-esque feel. It would definitely put a smile on my face.

Super Mario Maker 2?

Does this mean I think there's no room on the Switch for a standard, ax-smashing, flag-pole riding, 2D Mario adventure? Absolutely not! I think Nintendo was right on target with Super Mario Maker, and there will absolutely be a Switch version at some point. That's how I'd like to see standard 2D levels evolve on the Switch.

There are many aspects of 2D Mario levels missing from the original game. Personally, I really miss slopes, and vertical levels. But I think there are plenty of "new" elements that would warrant creating a proper Super Mario Maker 2, as opposed to simply a port like was done for the 3DS. Not to mention 2D game mechanics that don't even exist yet (Cappy?) that could be added to the game. They could even add "super-size" levels, akin to some of the open world mechanics I mentioned above.

Another key missing feature - over worlds! Give people the ability to make over worlds and "link" courses together? Secret exits even! Then allow the publishing of course packs. You could basically build entire new 2D Mario Games with the engine, and the fans would be in control.

Besides, Nintendo already makes and publishes special courses for the original Super Mario Maker - imagine they published entire course packs of levels. DLC? Why not! Make a Super Mario Maker 2 eShop and allow for purchase of additional, official course packs, based on the engine.

I admit the Super Mario Maker experience would be a bit different on the Switch, without having dual screens. Again, I'm sure the smarter-than-me game designers would be able to make it a good experience using the Joy Cons, or maybe even simply undocking the Switch to create levels. The Super Mario Maker 2 case could even come bundled with a capacitive stylus to facilitate creation of games on the Switch touchscreen. Maybe we'll need to wait for the wirelessly-docked Switch I suspect will come eventually, but I certainly hope not!

Whether or not this fan's advice will be taken, I cannot say. We may simply end up with New Super Mario Bros Switch, though I feel such a sequel would be a bit lackluster compared to the precedent that has been set for the Switch thus far. 

On the other hand, I'd still totally buy it :). 

Friday, January 5, 2018

Thoughts on Nintendo Switch

Hi all!

Are you digging the Nintendo Switch yet? Or still just a curious observer?

I got my Switch back in August of 2017, starting out with Breath of the Wild, Mario vs Rabbids and Sonic Mania :). With a recent influx of games received over the holidays, my collection now includes Super Mario Odyssey, Rime, Just Dance 2018, Cave Story+ and Axiom Verge.

Since I've always been a Nintendo fan, the Switch is unsurprisingly my favorite console to date. It's very similar to what I imagined the successor to the Wii U would be, a smaller version of the Wii U Gamepad, which could also act as a dedicated console.

The Joy Cons were a wonderful surprised, as I didn't expect them at all. The Wii Remote redefined the gaming controller, and the Joy Cons have refined the concept to near perfection with a slimmed down design, analog sticks instead of D Pads, and amazing haptic feedback. Playing Just Dance on the Switch with the Joy Cons is much nicer than the clunkier Wii Remotes, with excellent motion tracking (though I do also long for a controller-less design, a la the now discontinued Kinect) and the ability to use both Joy Cons at once (even if not for songs).

Likewise, the Pro Controller is great to use when you want a more classic feel.

Multi-cartridge support?

While the eShop is great, I'm always a fan of physical cartridges over eShop versions of the game. While I bought Sonic Mania digitally, since I didn't see any evidence of a physical release, I specifically waited for Axion Verge on the cartridge since I knew one was coming. I may also end up buying Blossom Tales digitally, though I'll still wait for a bit in the hopes of a physical release. 

It would be nice to have the convenience of eShop games, but being able to retain the cartridge form factor. While this would have been prohibitive with optical media, the Switch's cartridge form factor allows a unique opportunity. While the Switch in "portable mode" makes sense to have a single cartridge, I'd love to see an attachment that connects to the dock allowing us to load multiple cartridges as once, so that you can easily switch between games on different cartridges. This makes perfect sense in a home console, and the USB ports on the Switch Dock would make the connections easy. A separate dock could also be sold which would have the multiple cartridge ports built-in.

A 2DS Player?

I'm disappointed that we have not yet seen any way to officially play 3DS games on a TV (in 2D mode), having to resort to very expensive hacks. Not only do I long to play several 3DS games on my TV (Luigi's Mansion, Link Between Worlds, Mario Kart 7, etc), it just feels "right" as a follow up to Nintendo's previous attachments for allowing portable games on your TV (the Super Game Boy for the SNES, and the Game Boy Player for the GameCube).

The Wii U would have seemed the perfect console to create an attachment to allow this, already having a separate touch screen that allows asymmetric game play. While I've seen some arguments that the resolution of a 3DS game (400x240) would make for poor playing on a TV, even a simple 4.5x linear scaling, or less depending on your TV's resolution, should still be playable. And the fact that DS games are available on the Wii U eShop (at 256 x 192 resolution no less) kind of nullifies that argument (though I have not personally played any). It's entirely possible the resolutions could be improved for the TV, in some way.

I suspect one reason a 3DS Adapter never materialized for the Wii U was simple due to poor sales of the console. If it had seen wider success, maybe I could finally play New Super Mario Bros 2 on my TV.

Therefore, with sales of the Switch, the natural question is whether or not we could see any way to play 3DS games on a TV, via the Switch. It would be a bit more difficult for the Switch than the Wii U, but certainly possible. I expect we could see some form of "2DS Player", as an accessory for the Switch. I imagine it would take the form of the "lower" section of the 2DS XL, which the cartridge could be inserted into, supplying the circle pads and controls, as well as the lower touch screen. This could then connect (maybe even wirelessly) to an attachment that would plug into the Switch itself, which would then render itself as the "top" screen, either in handheld or docked mode. I can only imagine a case allowing you to use it in handheld mode as the "2DS XXL" :).

There is also the question of whether or not there is business case for such a perphial. A Wii U/3DS adapter may simply have been nixed due to fear of it negatively impacting 3DS/2DS sales. There is also the factor of potentially missing the 3DS eShop on the adapter. But I personally think if set at a decent price point (< $100, less than the cost of an original 2DS), such an adapter would be a huge hit and generate a decent profit margin. Even the Game Boy Player was somewhat limited compared to the Game Boy Advance, and the same could be true of a 2DS Player - for example, perhaps the eShop capabilities wouldn't exist, requiring games on a physical cartridge only. Some people suspect the 3DS may be near its lifetime, and so it would not be crazy to wait until then to release such an adapter.

Or perhaps it's all just a crazy pipe dream, and I'll have to replace my 3DS with a 2DS XL so I can play Samus Returns on a larger screen :). 

What might we see in a Switch 2?

While the Switch is still flying off shelves, rumors are flying that Nintendo is already working on a successor. Given the rapid pace of technology, this would not surprise me in the slightest.

I doubt that the Switch successor will be a brand new concept. Like the Wii U built on top of the Wii (adding a touch screen), I suspect the Switch 2 will take the Switch concept and refine it further.

When I first heard about the Switch, one thing that really surprised me was that the dock was wired. Given the precedence set by the Wii U for wireless video transfer, I expected the Switch to connect to the TV wirelessly as well (via a "Chromecast-like" dongle). The physical dock works fine, but it is a bit cumbersome. I suspect the Switch 2 will see some sort of wireless dock feature. Using a wireless dock would also solve the missing screen issue for a 2DS Player, using the Switch itself as the lower screen, but there I go dreaming again :).

The Joy Cons could also use a bit of improvement. I find constantly sliding them on and off the respective rails, depending on what mode you want to use, a bit tiresome. Perhaps we will see Joy Cons that are a bit more self contained, but still usable in a similar way, maybe with NFC syncing and wireless charging.

4K Gaming? Maybe, but I wouldn't hold my breath. We don't even have Netflix for the Switch yet, so I won't guess on any multimedia features it may have. But for now, I'll happily keep rocking the Switch and am excited for all of the new games coming up.

Cheers!

Friday, December 19, 2014

Random acts of math!

Hi all,

Hope you are having a splendid Friday!

Just a quick note to let you know about a new blog started by yours truly.

Random Acts of Math is a fun little place to share some peculiar or interesting things from the world of math. I wanted some practice writing with the digitizer on my Galaxy Note Pro and thought posting some writings to a blog would be constructive and might help a few people.

Disclaimer: I'm not a math expert, nor do I have a math degree (I did take some math courses in university). Given my amature status, always consult a professional before using anything you read on this blog for something important!

What about Jay's Desktop?

It hasn't been forgotten! Jay's Desktop will still be a place for me to write about things I find interesting  ("a place for my stuff") when the mood strikes me. Think of Random Acts of Math as a "subset" of Jay's Desktop - specifically for math-related items and writing from my tablet :)

Cheers!

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Ubuntu 12.04 Tips: Clearing out old kernels & SSD Trim

Greetings!

I've recently come across two Ubuntu/Linux tips that I wanted to share (and document). They are particularly import if you run Ubuntu on machine with not a lot of extra hard disk space. In my case, I have a hybrid hard drive with a 24 GB SSD partition, and a 750 GB data partition (Ubuntu is installed on the SSD partition of obvious reasons, while most of /home uses symbolic links to the data partition). Over the last year or so, I've noticed my SSD partition steadily increase is size, from about 40% to 73%. Fearing I would run out of room soon, I did some research on if this was merely from system updates and installed software, or if it was something else. I also noticed my machine seemed to be responding much more slowly then it had been when I first set it up a year ago, and tried several things to improve performance without much result. I feared this might be related to the lack of disk space on the SSD partition as well, and I was sort of right.

These tips might be application to other Linux distributions as well. As always, use at your own risk!

1) Clearing out old kernel versions

Ubuntu keeps old kernels hanging around after you install new ones via auto-update. They can take up quite a bit of room. There are some good reasons for keeping old kernels around (e.g. reverting if a kernel update breaks something). But it's unlikely you'll need all of them.

Here's a simple little command line to clear out the old ones.

sudo apt-get purge $(dpkg -l linux-{image,headers}-"[0-9]*" | awk '/ii/{print $2}' | grep -ve "$(uname -r | sed -r 's/-[a-z]+//')")

It worked for me, and cleared out a good 6 GB or so of old kernel files, which made a big difference on my 24GB SSD (I went from 73% full to 45% full). I'd recommend only doing this after you've confirmed that the newest kernel works, and even then, you might want to modify it slightly to keep the second last kernel just in case.

This also made a big difference in my /boot partition, which is about 500 MB. This is in fact what led me to find this, as I'd been getting error messages upon boot about /boot being nearly full and went to investigate. After removing the extra kernels, I'm back down only 29 MB full on /boot. Nice!

Reference: http://askubuntu.com/questions/89710/how-do-i-free-up-more-space-in-boot

2) SSD Trim

If you ever use Ubuntu on an SSD drive (as I do), your performance will slow overtime unless you periodically run the 'fstrim' command (e.g. in a daily cron job) to send SSD delete commands for removed files. I definitely noticed a drop in performance over the last year, and have been trying to diagnose why when I came across this little gem.

Since then I've started running fstrim, I've definitely noticed an improvement. The first time I ran it, it sent about 7GB worth of "deletes". They are supposed to add this in 14.04, but it's not in as of 13.10 (or 12.04, which is what I use).

Full instructions and information are in the link below. Enjoy!

Reference: http://www.howtogeek.com/176978/ubuntu-doesnt-trim-ssds-by-default-why-not-and-how-to-enable-it-yourself/

Friday, March 14, 2014

Converting Desktop to Dedicated HTPC

Hello everybody, and good day to you :)

Recently, I converted my Ubuntu 12.04 Desktop/HTPC/DVR to a dedicated media center. It had previously served a dual purpose as both my HTPC and my general use "day to day" computer. This approach had both pros and cons, for one thing, it was easier to configure and work on the HTPC portions, but I also had to run unsightly cables from the machine to the TV. Having moved recently as well, I found there wasn't as much room in the new living room to use the desktop and HTPC simultaneously.

So, I decided it was time to convert the desktop/HTPC into a dedicated media center!

This was a fun project which I thought I'd share my experiences on for anybody interested.

Requirements

Like any worthwhile project, it's important to set a series of requirements and guidelines. This helps you move towards your goal using milestones and measure your success.

In this case, my requirements were as followed:

  1. Use a horizontal ("desktop") form factor case to house a full size ATX motherboard, power supply and PCI-card while being small enough to fit in my entertainment center with sufficient air-flow.
  2. The case should be aesthetically pleasing and fit match with the other elements in the center.
  3. Fit a 5.25 inch optical drive, media card reader and front-USB.
  4. Integrate in the IR Blaster and Receiver.
  5. Integrate most of the media center/MythTV controls to be run from a remote control.
  6. Find a wireless keyboard with built-in touch pad for more fine-tuned control when necessary.
  7. Set up for remote access from other computers on the home network.
Equipment

I was able to reuse most of the hardware from my previous tower, so I was able to keep the cost of the project pretty low. The only thing I had to purchase new was the tower, the optical drive, and the keyboard with built-in mouse pad.

I looked carefully at quite a few websites, but in the end, I turned to my old friend NewEgg.

The case I purchased was an APEVIA Black SECC case. It seemed to have the best features overall for a reasonable price. I measured out the spot on my media center to make sure it would fit with a few inches clearance for air flow. It does stick out the back end of the media center slightly, but this isn't noticeable unless you are looking directly from behind (the media center is "kitty-cornered", so it's not noticable).

Overall, I'm very pleased with the APEVIA Case overall. Major Pros are the size, form factor, heat dissipation. Minor cons include difficult to remove front bazel, the memory card reader not being flush with the front case, a bright power LED, and the included power supply only being 20-pin instead of 24-pin (no deal breakers).

I didn't bother with the built-in power supply since my motherboard recommends a 24-bit connector. However, it was extremely easy to remove the old power supply and reuse the one from the existing tower (note that if you do use the internal power supply, it's switched off by default, so you'll want to remove the front bezel to turn it on).

The front bazel requires some muscle to take off (then again, I'm not exactly The Hulk). Use your fingers under the lip (coming from the narrow side) and brace your other hand against the case and pull firmly. It should make a snap and come off.

The power LED is extremely bright. This was easily fixed for me with a piece of electrical tape. A small part of the LED is still visible for functionality purpose.

At first, I was a little worried about heat. My old tower had a funnel directly over the processor for air flow, while the APEVIA does not. You'll notice two fans on the back which plug into the power supply, as well as side vents and a power supply vent. My processor (an AMD) gets a fair amount of load when playing back or encoding media, however I have yet to see the internal temperature sensors get much above 35-40C, which is great.

The case fans (and my power supply) are quiet enough for a HTPC setting. At least for me, but I don't personally notice them. Obviously it's not as quiet as it could be if you were running a full fan-less system.

I use my memory card reader in the external 3.5 inch slot. Strangely, there are these two plastic "lips" on either side of the bay which prevent the reader from coming all the way to the front. But it's only recessed about 1/8 of an inch, so really no big deal and it works overall. You might even be able to file the lips down if you have lots of patience.

It took me about an afternoon to transfer all the internal guts (motherboard, processor, power supply, etc. to the new case). While I've swapped PCI cards, memory and drives many times, this was my first motherboard install from scratch. I found a wonderful guide here that you might like to read if it is your first time as well. A less detailed, but still informative guide, is here. One tip is to install the memory card reader and hard drive before the motherboard.

Sure, I could have gone even smaller (micro-ATX), but since I wanted to keep the project cheap, I'm extremely happy with the result overall.


For the optical drive, I debated rather or not I even needed one. My old tower did not have one, and I used an external USB DVD-optical drive when required. I could simply have kept using that. But that detracted away from the integrated media center affect, and I was also hoping to upgrade to BluRay burner so I could backup many of the home movies and photographs I've acquired over the years onto a larger media format (also working on transferring stacks of home movie VHS tapes I recently acquired from my mom).

I again purchased the BluRay burner from Newegg. So far I've had no problem reading and burning DVD's, but I have yet to try any BD-R or BD-RE discs. I purchased quite a few for a low cost at a local store, so hopefully I'll have a chance to try them soon.

The keyboard with integrated touch pad was quite interesting. I wasn't even sure 100% sure they actually existed. But I happened to come across one while out on a shopping trip for a good deal, and couldn't pass it up. It's a Logitech K400. It works great as a HTPC keyboard. The keys are a little small if you were doing a lot of serious typing, but for a HTPC, it's perfect. The integrated touch pad works great. The receiver is very small, it actually includes an extension USB receiver in case you find it too small! I use one of the front USB ports for it, so I can easily move it to another machine if necessary.

One neat feature of the K400 is that it has an "on/off" switch. So you can conserve the battery life when it's not in use, which is great.

Finally, what media center is complete without a Logitech Harmony? The particular model I chose was the 700 model, which is pretty fantastic. Of course, I already had the Harmony for a while now (ergo I didn't include it in the cost of the project), but wanted to mention it overall. It works great with the HVR1600, if you are wondering. I was able to get it for significantly cheaper than retail price on a "Boxing Day" sale here in Canada, so keep an eye out!

Software

Thankfully, much of the software was already configured and in place from when I used the machine as a tower. I did make a few tweaks though.

The main OS is Ubuntu 12.04 and the "DVR" and Media Center software is MythTV. The IR Blaster works as before. MythTV allows me to play back any recordings, or other media I might have.

People who build MythTV boxes tend to keep them running 24/7. Personally, this isn't my style, since I don't like to waste energy needlessly. But, if the box isn't on, it can't record anything.

If your BIOS supports it, there is a really nifty feature called RTC Wake. Basically, it allows you to write a simple Unix time to a file, usually in the Proc system. You can then start your system at the appropriate time from a completely powered off state.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Linux Conversion for ASUS S56C (Part 2)

Welcome back!

In Part 1, you saw how to create recovery media for Windows 8.

Sadly, booting to that recovery media (or the install disc for an alternate operating system), isn't trivial.

You might be familiar with older-style systems where you could bring up a boot menu by holding down a hot key on boot, as well as a hot key for booting into the BIOS.

For the ASUS S56C (and possibly other machines as well), that key is Esc. Hold it down as the computer is rebooting (I'm having trouble getting into the BIOS from a cold boot, i.e. from powered-off state, it only seems to work on a reboot. Not sure why yet.)

However, when the menu comes up, you'll notice that you have only two options: The Windows Boot Volume, and "Enter Setup" the BIOS. There are no options to boot from LAN, a USB Key, or an Optical Drive. Very disappointing.

The reason for this is a new form of BIOS called UEFI, and a feature of UEFI known as Secure Boot, which prevents you from starting any unsigned boot loaders with the system loads. The introduction of this has led to a lot of controversy, though it has both good and bad features (think malware which can attack the boot sector). In my option, the most important thing is that it's possible to disable it, or add additional signing keys, so that you can boot a custom operating system. I'll save you the nitty/gritty details (but I encourage you to read them here), and will hop into the details on how to get this thing to boot from something other than the hard drive.

Once you enter the setup, there are four options we need to be concerned with. Sadly, these options are anything but clearly labeled or explained. It took me some time to find the right combination of options to get it working, which was one of my motivations for writing this post.

Security Tab / Disable Secure Boot

1) Much of the documentation you'll read on UEFI/Secure Boot will tell you the first step is to disable the "Secure Boot" option the BIOS. In this System, Secure Boot is called "Secure Boot Control". It's enabled by default, so switch it to "Disabled"

Boot Tab / Enable Legacy BIOS

2) Next, go to the "Boot" tab. The first option you are concerned with here is "Fast Boot". Disable it.
3) The next option is called "Launch CSM". CSM stands for "Compatibility Support Module", as is part of the EFI framework to support legacy BIOS. Change it to Enabled.
4) When you enable Launch CSM, you'll notice the "Fast Boot" option disappears, and a new option called "Launch PXE OpRom" appears. Enable it.

Now, save your changes and reboot. When holding down "Esc", this time you should see new boot options for the optical drive, LAN and USB. Horray! From here, you should be able to boot to the newly created recovery media