openSUSE Linux on a Dell Inspiron 3646 | Low Budget Multimedia Configuration for a Small Church

Churches generally have no budget for technology and frankly, I don’t think that a church should really avoid spending on technology as much as possible. I’m sure this isn’t a view many people share but it is my view. I believe it using whatever is available whenever possible and only making upgrades or purchasing new hardware when it is absolutely necessary.

There are several pieces of equipment in varying states of age and functionality. I haven’t sorted out everything, yet, and it is also not completely on my shoulders, as another tech and audio enthusiast in the church, Phil, has taken care of the audio equipment. It is all a work in progress.

My focus, for now, is to restore multimedia capabilities of the computer, Dell Inspiron 3646 and even improve it somewhat. Upon my initial assessment, I knew what my first steps were.

The Problems

Dell Inspiron 3646-04-System.jpgThe machine originally came equipped with Windows 10 which would annoyingly upgrade at the the most inopportune time and using it on under powered hardware is often problematic. The few times I spent any amount of time on the machine, it didn’t perform very well but it was working and I wasn’t really interested in thrusting the greatness of Linux on those not ready for it.

At some point in time, the system fell into disarray and I was recently asked to see what I could do to make the computer functional. Phil had already made the sound system functional enough to be used so it was my turn to make the computer functional.

Like it or not, sometimes your volunteers have things come up and just don’t make it in one day leaving the available workers short handed. Back in my days of childhood, multimedia meant slide show or overhead projector, but it’s hard to convinced a 20 something pastor that the right investment with no budget is a slide projector…

The Limitations

A budget of zero, or rather, whatever I am willing to dig up to make improvements. Since I had already been informed there is no budget for any upgrades or equipment, I was only going to do what was necessary to make the computer system as functional as possible. I already knew, with the power and capabilities of Linux, I could make substantial improvements very easily.

Here is the hardware I have to work with:

  • Dell Inspiron 3646
  • Intel Celeron CPU J1800 @ 2.41 GHz
  • 4GB RAM
  • Single Head Video Output
  • A bunch of other audio equipment with which to integrate

Preparing the Installation

I prepared a USB drive with openSUSE Leap 15.0. I downloaded the ISO from here and put the image on an ISO using SUSE Studio Imagewriter. Once the image completed writing, I inserted the drive into the Dell Inspiron 3646 and powered it up.

In order to access the BIOS, when the machine is going through the POST process and you are greeted with the Dell Logo, press F2. Since openSUSE is capable of handling secure boot without issue, I didn’t have to change anything. I just wanted to be sure that the BIOS was picking up the USB drive and I wanted to see the main screen so I could record the main bits of the hardware.

Dell Inspiron 3546-01-BIOS

I set this machine up with KDE Plasma because, is there really another choice? I mean, yes, of course there is but I didn’t want to have to fiddle with anything to get the features I wanted so my only real choice was of course going to be Plasma.

Since I like what I like when setting up the partitions, I did it manually to my preferences. I prefer the swap partition over the swap file and I am using BTRFS on root with snapshots enabled. BTRFS has been a rock solid performer in this capacity. I use XFS on /home. I was going to use Ext4 but the only reason for that would be for Dropbox compatibility and frankly, I just stopped using Dropbox due to their technical shortcomings.

Dell Inspiron 3546-02-partitions

After boot up, the system was all set. It required a few more software packages, firstly, the Plasma Browser Integration. In terminal:

sudo zypper install plasma-browser-integration

It actually may not be necessary to have to explicitly install this software package as the desktop it is supposed to automatically ask you if you want it installed.

Next I installed the Plasma Add-on for Firefox.

Plasma Integration Add-on

Finally, I installed all the Codecs and VLC into this machine using my multimedia codecs and VLC player instructions for Leap 15.0.

The last bit to configure was KDE Connect. Initially just with my Android phone, mostly for demonstration purposes. I also was presented with an opportunity to do a “live test” as well.

After some tests, it all worked just as expected and the machine performed much better than it did previously… exceptionally better… Not to belabor the point but before the machine was rather sluggish and I didn’t expect anything fantastic but this machine really does perform fantastically well.

Changes and Upgrades

This machine has only one VGA output and it was previously set up with a splitter cable that when plugged into both the monitor and the projector, the output would shut down. I don’t know if that is how it has been used or not but I determined it needed a proper splitter. I picked one up, hooked it up and I now have a unified output between the screen and projector.

VGA Splitter.jpg

I actually thought that this machine was going to require more memory to function well enough but it isn’t necessary at this time. This machine isn’t being taxed at all. KDE Plasma, even with all the fun I was running did not tax the machine at all.

How it’s working now

I am sure that there are a few more “bugs” to be worked out, mostly with the human to machine interaction. Mostly, I need to properly document the process of turning it on and off the system properly as well as how to pair Android phones or tablets to allow other workers to use the KDE Connect features. I have helped two people completely unfamiliar with KDE Connect, use it and it be impressed with it.

The feature that stood out the most was the ability to share a YouTube URL from the phone directly to the computer to have it open immediately and play. A feature I have enjoy for quite some time and have become quite accustomed was new and exciting to the unfamiliar. The multimedia controls, also quite handy and when I demonstrated the ability to use the phone to switch slides on LibreOffice Impress using only the volume keys, all well received

I still need to create some documentation to allow anyone to be able to use it without my direct intervention. For now, I am going to make myself available to help people become accustomed to this “new” system.

Future upgrades

Since some of the volunteers do Add a dedicated “burner” tablet so that volunteers don’t need to install KDE Connect on their phones. After I was reviewing some of my photographs, I noticed that there is an HDMI port on this computer. I am going to see about adapting that port to VGA and for multi head capability. The next upgrade would be a memory upgrade. 4 GiB of RAM, although good enough for now it would be nice to to have just a bit more. I haven’t opened the machine up but I am guessing there are at least 2 slots and one of them filled and the other is open. Of course, I need to check for certain before I start buying hardware.

Not directly related to this computer, there is a need to make further refinements to the attached sound system and determine what the issue is with the lighting control system.

Final Thoughts

The Dell Inspiron 3646 is a fine machine that, in my estimation has many years of service ahead of it. I have to say, once again, how amazing it is how much more efficient Linux is than Windows on less capable machine. The  computer’s functionality would greatly improved with a second display.

The sound system to which it is connected and the lighting controller are going to need a bit more attention. I am not sure exactly where to start or if I should even be the one to touch it. There is an annoying 60 Hz hum that needs to be eliminated. Then there is the matter with the lighting controller. Currently, it does nothing, no lights work. I am not sure yet where the breakdown is but I will figure it out eventually.

This is only the first in many steps to slowly making the information system situation in the church better. This is not the “main effort” in the church which is perfect for me. No budget, no attention and no one else that interest in finding solutions.

External Links

openSUSE Leap Download

http://philoangelo.blogspot.com/

https://software.opensuse.org/package/imagewriter

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Power-on_self-test

Multimedia Codecs Terminal

 

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Nintendo is Suspending Netflix Service to the Wii

Wii No Longer SupportedI received a very unfortunate message on my Wii when trying to play an episode of Star Trek the Next Generation using Netflix — Nintendo will suspend all video streaming services on Wii – including the Netflix Channel – after January 30, 2019. I don’t know how many people out there still use the Wii for Netflix but I have two Wii Consoles that do use Netflix… so there are at least TWO units out there…

Oh, I know, it only supports 480p… the console has been around for over 10 years, blah, blah, blah… I just find it irritating. It is a fine piece of hardware that satisfies my needs quite nicely, it’s still fun to play games on it but now I will have to source a solution fairly soon. I would have preferred to kick that can down the road another year or three.

The other option is that I would have to somehow become smart and create a solution. There is still a lot of good information out there for developing on the Wii. Chances are, I won’t have the time or energy to really understand what to do and I will just cave and put something else in its place.

As much as I like Nintendo and the shear creativity in gaming they have provided over the years, it further underscores the tragedy of closed source, closed ecosystems to consumers. I realize, it is not a viable economic proposition to continue to support the Wii but they COULD turn it over into an open source project to keep alive for generations to come.

Further Reading

https://devices.netflix.com/en/game-consoles/wii/

http://www.codemii.com/2008/08/10/tutorial-1-setting-up-the-environment/

Wii Console Repair and Homebrew Hack

Wii_console_Hack.png

The Nintendo Wii, in my belief, was the best video game console ever created. It was a very popular family-unifying gaming counsel. Instead of the typical behavior of the gaming system monopolizing a single person’s time, this brought family together much like you would have on family game night. A vehicle of interaction. The Wii moved game night from from the dining room table into the living room.

I have had a Wii since… I think 2009 or 2010 and at some point in time the Optical Drive stopped reading discs. The machine was relegated to streaming Netflix and Amazon Prime videos only, but that changed recently as I wanted to crack open those dusty Wii game cases once again.

After doing some research I found that there are two types of drives that can be used in the Wii; One that is Wii discs only and the other that does Wii and GameCube discs. The latter being more expensive but regardless, I purchased a drive that was GameCube compatible of approximately $20 on eBay.

I have yet to play a GameCube game on the Wii but I plan to give one a spin, eventually.

If you would like to repair your Wii, see this video, it worked very well for me. Lots of little steps but nothing complex. To put it back together, just reverse the steps. My advice on taking it apart is to take a piece of tape, place it sticky side up and use that as a kind of timeline for screws you remove so when you go in reverse you don’t grab the wrong screw.

The only real issues I had with the disassembly / assembly process were screws in precarious places.

DSC06582.JPG

And ensuring that the rubber grommet for the DVD drive was properly assembled onto the chassis. Rubber has a way of doing what it wants which isn’t always what you want.

Wii Repair-03.jpg

Once the machine was back together, it was working just as expected but since Nintendo has abandoned this piece of hardware, it was time to make some improvements to it.

Expanding the Capabilities

Since I do like the Wii very much, it makes me a bit sad about it’s state of abandonment but that is the way of things. I set out to expand the capabilities beyond what Nintendo envisioned so that I can do more with this machine. Very clever people have made it easy to add homebrew software to the Wii through what is call the Homebrew Channel.

The first step was to do a non-hardware modification. Using LetterBomb to enable the Homebrew requires only an SD Card and some way of transferring data to it. In my case, a Linux Laptop. Once you extract the contents and put it on the SD Card as outlined here, put it back in the Wii. There you will have a new message in the Message system on the Wii. Upon opening the LetterBomb in Messages, the system will drop down to a console and run a script that will add the Homebrew capabilities. It’s pretty simple and it sets the system up without any further user intervention.

Wii Media Center

There is no point in having the Homebrew Channel without homebrew software. My first task was to add the capability to Watch DVDs. A feature that Nintendo, irritatingly, decided not to include. To install the Wii Media Center follow this link:

http://www.wiimc.org/documentation/

I chose the New install of the WiiMC and simultaneously installed the WiiMC Channel 2.0. I downloaded the files to my Wii project folder on my computer and extracted the Zips.

Since I am using KDE Plasma, I extracted the zips as such using the Dolphin File Manager:

  • Right-click > Extract > Extract Archive Here, Autodetect Subfolder
  • That created a folder called apps and two subfolders: wiimc and wiimc-channel-installer
  • Copy the extracted folders into the apps folder on the SD Card used for the Wii.

On the Wii, Open the Homebrew Channel run the applications you just copied over. Just that simple.

WiiMC Start Pic

Now, I am able to play DVDs, seemingly without any issues. I have played a few DVDs, yes, I still buy DVDs. So far, I have only noticed one DVD with an issue. When I popped in “Star Wars: The Last Jedi”, I did get some herky-jerky playback, I am assuming due to the encryption used on the disc.

I can now play media files directly from a USB Drive or SD Card but it has proven itself to be a bit touch-and-go. Some files played very well and others not so well. I will have to investigate further about which files played better than others. At this point, I don’t know if it is the file format or the resolution of the video.

Next Steps

I intend on expanding my Wii’s capabilities into more of a retro gaming console. I have purchased a few games from the Wii Store back in the day but as of today, the selection has become very limited they have already stopped accepting payment for more credits on the Wii Shop Channel. The only solution I see is fit, going forward, is using the Homebrew Application method of adding emulators and games. I have been told that the Wii makes a great retro gaming station and I plan to follow up on that portion of my exploration of the Wii Homebrew Applications.

Final Thoughts

Looking at the dates of many of the Homebrew software titles, it looks like much of it is not being maintained or at least hasn’t been updated in several years. My guess is that the Wii is falling out of popularity, even for the homebrew scene. It is unfortunate because I believe to still be a very capable entertainment platform. I do hope that Netflix continues to support the Wii as a platform for streaming as I know Amazon Prime is planning to discontinue their service sometime in 2018. Very soon all that will be left to use on the Wii will be the original optical media titles and the large array of Homebrew software. As it goes with technology, this too has been superseded by the new and shiny so this fine piece of hardware is slowly being abandoned.

External References

Disassemble Wii YouTube Video

LetterBomb Homebrew Exploit

WiiMC Documentation

Wii U Pro Controller on openSUSE Linux

e6440-WiiU-Pro-Controller.pngI don’t do much serious gaming on Linux but I do like to play the occasional Steam or older games in an emulator. I have historically liked the PS3 controllers in Linux. There is nothing you have to do to get it to work. Plug the dongle in a USB, pop in some batteries and away you go.

The Wii U is now a deprecated gaming console, which makes me much more interested in it. I have had one for a little while but the Gamepad digitizer has been broken for some time. I originally set out to fix the game pad but the issue with some of the buttons not working along with the digitizer, it had me thinking I should just replace the whole thing so I can start using the console. On the hunt for the replacement Gamepad, I also acquired a couple of these Wii U Pro Controllers. I wanted these in order to play this “New Super Mario Wii U” game and compare it against my favorite of the franchise. I think putting “New” in the title is a bit silly because it isn’t new now.

Upon holding the Wii U Pro Controller in my hand, it felts so good… almost perfect for my somewhat long and gangly fingers. I wanted to try out these Wii U pro Controllers on Linux, play some Steam games but fully expecting the process to be a headache; you know, because Nintendo. I made the assumption that I would have to install xwiimote to get it to work but upon reading and some further understanding of all the work some incredibly smart people have done, I only need that for the Wii Remotes. The machine I tested this on is running openSUSE Tumblweed Kernel 4.16.0 and it is my understanding that the wiimote kernel drivers have been in place since 3.1.

Setting up the Wii U Pro Controller

Screenshot_20180402_122527Nintendo chose to use Bluetooth technology in the Wii and Wii U so I started off by Pressed the Sync button on the controller and it showed when selecting Add Device on the KDE Plasma Bluetooth configuration tool. It connected, the lights stopped flashing on the controller with one solid light glowing. I checked the capabilities of the controller, to see that it was usable, in the System Settings > Input Devices > Joystick. It was just as I would expect from any other controller I own.

I opened terminal to see the kernel messages concerning this device by running: dmesg

[86905.904160] wiimote 0005:057E:0330.000B: hidraw1: BLUETOOTH HID v0.01 Gamepad [Nintendo RVL-CNT-01-UC] on 80:00:0b:82:a8:1f
[86905.904169] wiimote 0005:057E:0330.000B: New device registered
[86905.981821] wiimote 0005:057E:0330.000B: detected device: Nintendo Wii U Pro Controller
[86906.011799] wiimote 0005:057E:0330.000B: detected extension: Nintendo Wii U Pro Controller
[86906.011889] input: Nintendo Wii Remote Pro Controller as /devices/pci0000:00/0000:00:1d.0/usb2/2-1/2-1.5/2-1.5:1.0/bluetooth/hci0/hci0:34/0005:057E:0330.000B/input/input33

Now I was excited.

I opened up Steam and started the game, “River City Ransom: Underground”, completely bypassing any of the configure input device to see what would happen. To my shock and blissful amazement, everything worked as expected. I hopped out of the game to see the controller settings and it was recognized it as a Wii U controller.

Detected Controller Wii U

I also checked out this “Desktop Configuration” setup with Steam. As long as Steam is running, I can use this Wii U controller to as an input device for controlling my Linux Desktop. I like this particular interface because I can define what each button does. This is a feature that KDE Plasma doesn’t seem to have built in and I don’t want to create an Xorg configuration for this either.

Desktop Configuration

This truly is a lot of fun to play with. Sure, it is probably just a novelty for now but I am thinking that I might want to make this a controller for my living room media machine along with the wireless keyboard/touchpad device as that is almost overkill when you just want to browse and watch some Netflix.

Final Thoughts

I really was expecting to do so more to do to get this working. On one hand I am very pleased on how easy it was to get working. On the other had I am a bit disappointed as I expected a bit of a project out of this and I was going to make the whole process “easy” and simple in a short write up. Instead, I get to tell you that the Wii U Pro Controller works great in Linux and is a great choice for modern (what little I do) and retro gaming. Best of all, no USB dongles to worry about losing!

External Links

XWiimote open-source Linux device driver for Nintendo Wii / Wii U Remotes

Wii U Pro Controller

Giving Fedora Another Run

Fedora_logo.svgI hear a lot of good things about Fedora and sometimes I hear some negative things about it but I have not used it myself since some time around 2010. I wanted to make my own evaluation and I thought the time was right to kick the tires again. I am a die-hard openSUSE user, fan and member. I have happily made it my daily driver operating system. The community is great, the documentation is great, and it meets all my needs. I am firmly and happily planted in the openSUSE camp. There is no reason for me to change my distro of choice. That, however, doesn’t keep me from trying out other distributions and evaluating them against what I know and like. My other reason for doing this is that I often get questions for help with distributions other than openSUSE. I generally just fire off other web sites to help guide but I have decided to do one better and develop more practical experience of my own.

First Impressions

Fedora GrubRight out of the gate, I must say, I like Fedora. It’s easy to install, I had no hiccups or weirdness with it at all. What really impressed me most about Fedora was the upgrade process from 26 to 27. It was such a clean and very well polished experience. The Software Center let me know there was an upgrade available at the click of a “Reboot and Install” button. I initiated the process and a reboot later (well, a few reboots), it was all done.

At the time of writing, I am using Fedora 27 running Kernel 4.15.14; more current than what I am running on openSUSE Tumbleweed, which surprised me a bit. Gnome is not my preferred desktop environment but I wanted to give Fedora + Gnome a fair shake.

Multimedia Codec Installation

Since I keep a collection of local media, it is a requirement to have VLC along with the necessary codes to consume that media.  I did a bit of searching and found a page on Ask Fedora that had the instructions for the multimedia codecs. They are pretty similar to what I use for openSUSE so this was quite familiar.

Here is where I pulled down the instructions and they worked successfully, even though they haven’t been updated since Fedora 24. It provides some options for conducting the process, I will only share here what I did.

Added Repositories:

Free

dnf install https://download1.rpmfusion.org/free/fedora/rpmfusion-free-release-$(rpm -E %fedora).noarch.rpm

Non-free

dnf install https://download1.rpmfusion.org/nonfree/fedora/rpmfusion-nonfree-release-$(rpm -E %fedora).noarch.rpm

The Packages

Base recommended multimedia codec packages:

dnf install gstreamer1-{ffmpeg,libav,plugins-{good,ugly,bad{,-free,-nonfree}}} --setopt=strict=0

If you prefer xine over Gstreamer:

dnf install xine-lib* k3b-extras-freeworld

For using to internet radio streams, you need a few more packages:

dnf install gstreamer1-{plugin-crystalhd,ffmpeg,plugins-{good,ugly,bad{,-free,-nonfree,-freeworld,-extras}{,-extras}}} libmpg123 lame-libs --setopt=strict=0

Overall the process was easy enough for a novice Linux user to set up, so long as they aren’t afraid of working in the terminal. I didn’t see instructions on installing the packages using a graphical method but I didn’t dig real hard.

What I Like

Right from the login screen, everything feels very smooth and polished. The color scheme is pleasant enough but I would prefer a dark theme by default or activating one that doesn’t require an “extension”.

Fedora SoftwareI was singularly impressed with the software center prompting for and executing the upgrade process from 26 to 27. The Software Center, kept me informed enough of what was going on, rebooted and installed the software. Everything came back and I was now, auto-magically, on Fedora 27.

The whole operating system seems very well thought out. It is as though it was curated by technically skilled artists and were just as concerned about function as they were about aesthetics. This is more of a Gnome thing, but it feels very inviting with the large and colorful buttons and banner pictures, yet clean minimalism to accomplish your tasks.

DNF is a great command line tool for installing and removing software and repositories. It works much like zypper, in fact, the syntax was largely the same for basic installation and removal. I do love zypper but I would also be happy using DNF.

What I Don’t Like

I couldn’t customize the desktop until I installed “Gnome Tweaks”. It was a little frustrating that it wasn’t included by default and the only reason I knew to install that was hearing others talk about it on various podcasts.

The software center didn’t locate the packages I was attempting to install but that was not a problem as I was perfectly comfortable using DNF in the terminal to find the packages I wanted.

Even though the upgrade process was smooth, after the upgrade was complete, there was another round of updates that required a Reboot & Install which seemed odd to me as my experience on openSUSE Leap and Tumbleweed have been that there are updates, then the restart and I’m done. It is not a problem, perhaps at most a small annoyance. Realistically, I could have just ignored the 23 additional updates.

Final Thoughts

Fedora with Gnome, both are a good as you can get Gnome experience. Under the hood, I like what Fedora has to offer. It is clear that the underpinnings of Fedora are well tested, which really makes the final product for the user, the desktop and applications, a great, solid and smooth experience.

Would I recommend Fedora? Absolutely! Maybe not to the typical brand new user but anyone that is not afraid of the terminal. I only just started to become familiar with Fedora and I can say it has been an incredibly positive experience.

External Links

Fedora Linux

Ask Fedora Multimedia Codec Installation