Budget Computer Upgrades

I’ve noticed that most pre-teens have desktop computers that were old hand-me-downs from their parents or relatives. Usually someone in a person’s extended family likes to upgrade their computer every year or two, so there’s always an older computer available for someone’s kid. In my case, I usually give my older computer to my father-in-law who welcomes something that’s a bit faster than what he currently has.

Recently, my niece has been trying to install her Webkinz and Barbie software on her ancient Windows 2000 OS machine without any luck. It seems that most software these days require at least Windows XP, so her computer is getting really too old. She also has trouble browsing certain web site that require special Flash plugins, and the older hardware (slow disk drive, minimal memory, etc.) isn’t helping much. Unfortunately, her parents can’t afford to buy or upgrade her computer, so my wife and I decided to help out. Continue reading

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ZuneTV For Downloading Video Files

ZuneBoards.com recently released ZuneTV, which is a web site for downloading video files. It operates much like YouTube.com, except it allows you to also download videos in Zune compatible format. So far as I can tell, the video downloads are free (you need to have a ZuneBoards account to download files).

The nicest thing about this site, is that you won’t need to use external programs (such as Orbit Downloader) to download the files and convert them. The limiting factor for me, is that the video content seems lacking (having similar user-generated videos as YouTube.com). I’d rather download TV episodes, documentaries, etc. than Charlie the Horse in Candyland.

So for now, I’m still sticking with hulu.com and veoh.com for TV Show downloads. And, I’ve got my TV Tuner card with Vista Media Center recording and converting scheduled TV shows for my Zune!

Video Attributes Application

When converting video files to MP4 or WMV format for the Zune, it’s often helpful to know certain facts about your source video. Information such as frames per second (fps), video codec, audio bit rate, screen resolution, etc. are important for setting the parameters in your video conversion software. For example, if you convert a video file using a setting of 29 fps but the video source is at 24 fps, your audio may slowly become out-of-sync with your video. So, it’s important to identify information such as frame rate when doing video conversions.

Normally, I recommend the freeware program called GSpot which can open most video files and display relevant information about them. However, GSpot is a bit overkill for some, as it displays lots and lots of information (maybe too much at times). To simplify matters, I decided to brush up on my Visual Basic programming and create a basic application called zVideo which displays pertinent video/audio information for a source video file.

You can download my application from this link. My simple application basically runs the program called FFMPEG and parses through the output from that program to get the relevant video/audio information. It then displays this information in a dialog box window. You can also activate an option for it to display the optimum screen resolution dimensions that you can use for your video conversions (if the video source resolution is larger than 320 by 240).

To use this application, download the zVideo.zip file and unzip the contents in a folder on your Windows system. Then, double-click on the zVideo.exe application icon. Note, that you need to have the file called FFMPEG.exe located in the same folder as the zVideo.exe file. Sorry that I don’t have a slick installer application to load this software.

Now, this program doesn’t do any actual conversion. It only shows the attributes of a selected video file.

Have fun with my simple application, and let me know if you find any bugs or have any issues.

Applications for your Zune

With the recent release of the XNA SDK for game development, a lot of resourceful people have already started creating applications (not games) for the Zune. This link on GotZune.com shows three such applications (e.g., clock, calculator, and calendar). With this capability, a developer could create whatever application they wanted so long as it stays within the boundaries of what is available for game programming. Wouldn’t it be cool to have your MS-Outlook calendar and contacts synced to your Zune? What about having the ability to use a WiFi connection at a local coffee shop to check emails, or web browse? Of course, this is assuming the XNA SDK would allow for such access to the device’s WiFi and other system functions. Also, you’re limited to what you can input using a touchpad control and a few buttons. I’m sure some clever and resourceful developers will come up with some interesting applications for the Zune!

Currently, the only major limitation is installing such applications on your Zune. So far as I can tell, you need to install the Visual Studio C# Express development software on your PC to make a connection to your Zune to upload the applications. This is still a bit too techie for most people, so I don’t think a lot of Zune owners will be installing applications. But then again, a clever developer could probably create an simple installer application to circumvent this issue.

So, stand back and wait for the flood of cool apps soon to be coming our way for the Zunes!

DVRMSToolbox New Public Release

If you’re a user of DVRMSToolbox for automated video conversions of DVR-MS video recordings, you’ll be interested in knowing that there is a new version (1.2.1.2 Public Release) available. I absolutely love this program, as it has worked flawlessly for me converting my recorded TV shows (from a TV Tuner Card with Vista Media Center) to WMV format and auto syncing with my Zune. I just upgraded to the latest version, and everything seems to be working fine.

My biggest problem, is recording too many shows using this method and filling up my 80 GB Zune! I’ve got so much stuff to watch, I’ll never run out when on a long plane flight or on a business trip.

Downloading Videos From Web Sites

In a previous posting I explained how you can use the utility program called Orbit Downloader to download FLV files from web sites onto your PC. For good TV video content I mention two web sites (veoh.com and hulu.com), however, you can use this technique on most web sites that play FLV files. For example, nbc.com and cbs.com have FLV videos which you can “sniff” out using the Orbit Downloader and download to your PC. I tested this by downloading a few episodes such as Numb3rs, Big Bang Theory, Bionic Woman, and an old Twilight Zone show. In fact, CBS has all the old Star Trek original series episodes available for viewing (or downloading) if you’re into some retro-SciFi.

Note, that some web site (like http://www.abc.com and http://www.fox.com) use a different method for streaming video (not FLV) and thus this technique didn’t seem to work. But, there’s plenty of web sites that play FLV files just waiting for Orbit Downloader to save to your PC’s hard drive.

And after you save the FLV file, you’ll need to go through the process of convert it to WMV format for your Zune (again, see my previous posting for details).

Games for the Zune

I think we all have heard that games will be coming for the Zune in the near future. A person at ZuneBoards describes how to install games on your Zune NOW. It’s a complicated procedure, but supposedly you can install a few games. Since I don’t play a lot of games (and don’t want to be a guinea pig) I probably won’t be trying this. But, if you’re adventurous and want to try out Zune games now here’s the link to the instructions.

Here’s also a link to the Zunescene.com site that shows a preview of games running on the Zune. And another on Gizmodo.com’s site.