Small Space Technology Issue #1

My name is Eric Lipska and Kent has been gracious enough to let me do a monthly post regarding technology and how it relates to tiny houses and small space living. I love tiny homes and I love technology. Yet I noticed that nobody was talking about the ways that technology can work for people who live in tiny homes or small spaces. What I hope to bring you each month is a an idea of how technology can be used in everyday living and how it works for small homes. If you have any questions about the article you can e-mail me at smallspacetech@gmail.com. I have a website set up if you wish to download any of the articles so you can take them on-the-go or print them out at home. You can find them at http://smallspacetech.wordpress.com/
I hope you enjoy the articles!

Combining Your Entertainment and Computing into One

Do you live in a small space? Well here is an idea for consolidating your computer and your entertainment options. Many computer manufacturers offer “All-In-One” options for their computers. For this article, I will be using the iMac as an example, but there are many options on the PC side as well. Particularly the HP Omni 200t series which offers a TV tuner built in (as an option).  When combining your Entertainment and computing together it allows you to free up valuable space inside the house/dorm/etc. and it can save you some money.

First, you need to choose your all-in-one computer. After that you need to decide if you’re going to use an over-the-air antenna or are you going to download your programming. If you go with the downloading option then you can use a few different services. Netflix has many TV shows that you can stream from the site, but they do not always have recent episodes. iTunes usually has the most TV shows, but you will be paying per episodes (rent or purchase). Hulu just recently started charging for its services and is working with many some studios and networks to bring more shows to its service. There is always the option of web based shows which are usually free.

If you are going to choose OTA (Over-The-Air) then you will need to purchase an HDTV antenna and make sure that whatever you are connecting to the antenna has a QUAM tuner inside. QUAM tuner is what allows the HD signals to be decoded. For the Mac based systems I would recommend EyeTV (www.elgato.com) and then decide which option best fits you.

Next are your sound options. There are many makers of 2.1 style computer speakers and these systems consist of two small speakers and a subwoofer. Whichever system you choose, make sure it can decode 5.1 audio from the different sources. This should give you the best listening option.  For the iMac you can also convert the headphone jack into a digital audio out, should you need to output the sound that way.

If your All-in-one system gives you the option of DVD or Blu-Ray, I would invest in a Blu-Ray; this will allow you to play both HD material from Blu-Ray discs as well as the playback of standard DVDs. I say keep the options open! For the iMac, this is not an option since Apple has not placed Blu-Ray drives. You can purchase separate USB based Blu-Ray drives and there is also another option. On the 27 inch model of the iMac, there is the Mini Display port. This port can be used with other AV devices and this can allow you to plug in everything from a game system to a standalone Blu-Ray player.

If your space has more than two people in it you will probably want to go with the larger size screens, but choose the options that best fit your needs. By combing your entertainment and computing systems you can now do both and take up less room. Watch a movie, listen to music, surf the web all on the same machine. Enjoy!

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Roy - July 10, 2011 Reply

Along with all-in-one options, you can connent your computer to a flat-panel TV.

My smallish home is just over 1000 square feet, and I have my small-form-factor PC plugged into a 26-inch TV using HDMI. I have the TV tuner in the TV, and DVD in the computer. Plus I can stream from my computer to the TV for Hulu and Netflix.

    Eric L - July 10, 2011 Reply

    Dell has a small form factor computer and Apple has the Mac Mini. Both of these would work great for that approach!

asdf - July 10, 2011 Reply

the new thunderbolt iMacs can’t be used as a monitor for an xbox/playstation (yet), so thats something to keep in mind if you like your video games.

tad - July 10, 2011 Reply

my wife and I use a laptop for shows but we also have a 8in portable dvd player to watch other places if we don’t want to watch the same show as each other. We live in 140 sf with two dogs.

    Eric L - July 10, 2011 Reply

    What size Laptop screen are you using?

WMS - July 10, 2011 Reply

I use a Mac Mini connected to a 42″ LCD tv in my 8×21 tiny house. My living room area is 7’3″ x 7’3″ and with the couch and surround sound… It’s like a little theater that seat 3-4 people (depending on size of course).

    Eric L - July 10, 2011 Reply

    Nice! What sound system?

rob - July 10, 2011 Reply

OTA HDTV requires an ATSC tuner.

QAM is used to pull unencrypted signals off of cable.

    Eric L - July 10, 2011 Reply

    My bad. I was under the impression that it was QUAM tuner for over-the-air. Thanks for the info!

Zer0 - July 10, 2011 Reply

As you said, there are quite a few options. One I like a lot is using an Asus O!play to play back hd video and audio content from a variety of external sources. The O!play has a hdmi and optical SPDIF out so I do not experience any quality loss. I set that up to work with a logitech z-5500 5.1 audio system so I could have surround sound with my video games and movies, and I’m glad I did.

For 2.0 audio solutions with your computer, you can have very good results using a usb dac. Quite a few have headphone out and/ optical or coaxial SPDIF out for hooking up to your stereo system. Mostly I use my computer to play back stereo mp3s and flac rips I made from my own cds, so this is acceptable.

If you want to go the route of having a separate tv from your computer, you can certainly get by with a large lcd computer monitor so long as it can accept hdmi. I set up a hdmi toggle box to switch between the o!play and two video game systems.

    Zer0 - July 10, 2011 Reply

    One of the neater things about the O!play setup is so long as you use an ethernet cable to stream the content from the external sources, you don’t need to have the hard drives right next to the unit, which means it’s expandable without needing a lot of immediate shelf space.

    Eric L - July 10, 2011 Reply

    I haven’t heard of O!Play, but I am curious. Thanks Zer0!

    Grant Wagner - July 11, 2011 Reply

    It’s important to point out that every single HDTV available today supports a computer input via either a VGA connector, DVI connector, or HDMI connector. DVI and HDMI have similar signals, and you can get a cable to plug into the DVI of your PC and the HDMI of your computer for cheap. Instead of looking for “Big Computer Monitors”, look for HDTVs.

      Zer0 - July 12, 2011 Reply

      It’s really a matter of what you want to use it for. If you are buying one about 27 inches the cost between the two is about the same (+/- 30 to 40 dollars), and with the computer monitor you don’t have the issue of finding the sweet spot for resolution the way you would with the hdtv: http://www.tomshardware.com/forum/51226-4-hdtv-computer-monitor-questions

Stan - July 10, 2011 Reply

Wow, I don’t have a small house and I do this anyway! I use my computer for everything, it has HDMI so I can just use it with a HDTV. Right now my monitor is 24 inch and was thinking of going with a 27 when I build a small house.

I was thinking of going one step further and getting a ARM based system so I don’t use as much power. The Panda Board outputs 1080p and uses about as much power as a cell phone. Windows will have an OS for ARM in a few years(or ten, it is Microsoft) but I use Linux right now and it runs pretty well on ARM for media watching and basic computer use.

I would never ever buy an all in one though, when the computer side is outdated that means the monitor is automatically junk also, just causing more waste. The monitor I had before my 24″ LED LCD was a 21″ CRT monitor, it lasted me 14 years and multiple computers. Combining the monitor and the PC is a bad idea in IMHO, keep them separate so the monitor will last many years and multiple computers.

Victoria - Ozarks Crescent Mural - July 10, 2011 Reply

I am so excited about these monthly posts. I think about these things a lot. For instance in line with this post, I’m going to stream my TV over my computer because rural satellite TV is far too expensive; even city cable is too pricey nowadays. I’m also going to have an all-in-one washer/dryer unit because it is so space-saving. Propane for my cooktop and an on-demand hot water heater. I look forward to learning more from your future posts.

    Zer0 - July 11, 2011 Reply

    A friend of mine ducked the whole satellite/cable thing entirely by using his high-speed internet connection to stream movies and tv shows from netflix.

      Grant Wagner - July 11, 2011 Reply

      There are even a few of us, who ducked the who fast internet, and just get the DVD’s from the library. Interlibrary loan is a great system. Already paid for by your taxes, and almost as fast as NetFlix via post.

Denny - July 10, 2011 Reply

I’m using an old G4 MacMini (2004) as a media server and an AppleTV, 23″ flatscreen in my remote 12×16 cabin. I live here full time and also work freelance doing web and database development using a 3G iPad for Internet and tethered MacBook Pro for getting work done. My sister and brother-in-law also use an AppleTV for movies in their 10×20 summer cabin (also served by my MacMini). Works great!!

BigGoofyGuy - July 10, 2011 Reply

I think it is a very clever use of space for or in a one room apartment or studio apartment.

Dave - July 10, 2011 Reply

+1 on the mac mini approach, i had a pretty powerful pc. Hooked up to my 56″ lcd, big quad core, dual video card monster… When it started getting flakey a year ago i re-evaluated my needs and replaced it with a mac mini with hdmi out. The mini handles EVERYTHING i need it to, i never did any hardcore gaming on the old system… And i swear i saw the difference in my power bill! I can surf, email, do some multitrack music, and watch tv and movies, the mini sips on power and looks killer too!

ginmar - July 10, 2011 Reply

On the more mundane side, you can get rid of DVD cases—-many used DVD stores will take the old ones for re-using—–and put all your DVDs and Blu Rays in albums. I’ve cleared out more than a dozen shelves that way. You can also burn DVDs to a portable hard drive and then sell or give away the DVD entirely.

    Stan - July 10, 2011 Reply

    I agree on getting rid of DVD cases. If you have box sets you can sell just the boxes and booklets on ebay for almost as much as you could get for the box sets with DVDs because people like to replace damaged cases. With ripping and giving the DVD away that is illegal depending on where you live, or even getting rid of the original copy(strange as that sounds), need to be careful about that. I rip everything high quality on a program called Handbrake, runs on windows, OSX, and Linux, to a .mkv file and just watch those, the discs are just backup.

    I also agree with you on raw horse power, I have a mid sized tower that is pretty powerful and one of those book sized Asus eee boxes and I use the eee box since it is so quite and does 99% of what I need anyway. I still use my mid tower for ripping movies and a few games though, but it is not on much any more.

      ginmar - July 11, 2011 Reply

      I think the law on DVDs is like that on CDs; you’re allowed to make a backup. For travel, that’s very handy. Imagine stoaring all those VHS tapes! They’re immense compared to DVDs.

        Grant Wagner - July 11, 2011 Reply

        The US has a interesting side problem. While copyright law gives you to right to make personal backups (ripping CDs is perfectly legal), it is illegal to attempt to decrypt and encrypted piece of data without the express consent of the owner of the data.

        That means that while you can make a copy of a DVD, the act of removing the encryption (transcoding or watching) it is illegal. The makers of commercial dvd and blu-ray players (both software and hardware) pay the MPAA a license fee with each device they sell, providing they also follow certain rules, like honoring the flags which prevent you from fast forwarding through preview clips.

        A stupid law, I think, but there it is for you. Decide what to do with it at your own leisure.

Virgil - July 10, 2011 Reply

I have to criticize this post for a number of reasons…

First, the reason many people adopt a small home lifestyle is to save resources and be more environmentally friendly. For all their hoopla, Apple has a terrible environmental record, mostly due to their short product life cycle which cannot be upgraded and gets replaced too often.

Second, everything you say can be done with a regular old style PC which anyone with a modicum of tech knowledge could build for less than $400. There is no need for an “all in one” machine. If something in it breaks, it’ll be expensive to fix, and laptops are notoriously difficult to upgrade. Stick with a regular PC in a regular size box, and you’re more future-proof.

Third, who the he’ll needs 5.1 surround sound in a 10×10 room?

Fourth, blu-ray… Seriously? Why would I want to lock myself in to a bunch of proprietary technology which they will pull the plug on any time?

Fifth… All that lovely shiny wireles Apple loveliness. Did you mention all the AA batteries those mice and keyboards eat thru and Ned to be charged up (assuming you even own rechargeables, and have the kitchen drawer space for a charger)?

As with all technology, the best approach, albeit less “sexy” is to keep it simple. Wired accessories, a serviceable box which can be repaired and upgraded, and is more flexible in the long run. Most of all, no buying into proprietary hardware formats until they are mainstream. Blu-Ray is anything but.

    Stan - July 10, 2011 Reply

    I see your point, my post above I stated I don’t like all in one PCs because one thing is outdated and the whole rig goes out the door.

    Being harsh on Apple in general isn’t fair though, they now make their devices to be easier recycled and if you’re not an all out Apple Nut you could just skip 5 or 6 of the upgrade cycles. Some people just can’t ‘get’ windows or Linux(my parents for two), I for one understand that, and they have to depend on an OS that is designed for them in mind and have hardware that is built around that OS. Being more environmentally friendly doesn’t mean using a specific brand of computer or excluding one it just means not needing the latest thing every month. I know a few PC people that are just as bad, replacing parts in their PCs on a regular basis, so just going with a PC isn’t being environmentally friendly.

    With media if your PC can use it then get it. If you go through a upgrade cycle and have to drop the drive for a new one that doesn’t support the media rip it to your hard drive before the upgrade.

    jlbraun - July 11, 2011 Reply

    I find it funny how people seeking financial independence and are willing to fight the zoning board to actually live in their own tiny house would be willing to lock themselves into an expensive closed system like Bluray or Apple.

    Given the frugal-DIY-fight-the-man vibe here, I would think that tinyhousers would be Linux proponents.

    Ubuntu Linux on a server in the living room runs my media center, TOR node, email server, website, SFTP server (no Dropbox for me!), security system, and home automation (lights, cameras, HVAC, solar), all for under 60W with the TV off. Every piece of hardware worked instantly when I plugged it in.

    Grant Wagner - July 11, 2011 Reply

    Even with Blu-Ray, I would still prefer to have physical media. Just like dvd’s before it, the encoding is well understood, and the encryption broken. Free software players and converters (most notably, the mplayer project) are getting better everyday. “That’s what I’ll do, even if it is unlicensed”

    smallbloc - July 11, 2011 Reply

    Virgil,

    I’m with you on this. I just can’t imagine where this fits into the Tiny House movement. I would think that most people who are into tiny homes want to spend *less* time indoors, hence having a very small indoor space. Why would they waste their time in that space watching reality TV and Nature shows when they can just go outside and live it?

    Tinyhouseblog.com – please don’t bother with these topics. I want to know about houses. That’s why I read your blog.

    Thanks!

      Dave - July 11, 2011 Reply

      People are more and more online, hell i would rather nothing instead of a TV, I surf instead of sitting watching tv, but some people still like to curl up and watch an episode of tv now and then, maybe an all in one isn’t everyone’s ideal, but i love my imac, and i am going back to apple after 12+ years away. I am a tiny home enthusiast, currently saving for a chunk of property, and I find articles like this very interesting…. It’s not like tech of this type has been featured much, if at all. Good article, you’ll never make everyone happy.

      On the subject of upgrading, i left macs 12 years ago when i couldn’t upgrade my 400mhz powermac… I was mad that apple didnt let me upgrade. After 12 years of building pc’s for myself, my loved ones and my family, i have realized upgrades rarely matter. Everty 3 years i was building a complete new pc anyways, since the chipset, cpu, ram, video card, hard drives and removable mediaa had all become obsolete, and the only thing i could re-use was the case. As for apples longevity, my first mac, a nearly 20 year old “color classic” model, is STILL on tour with a friend’s band. As a midi file player!

      Zer0 - July 12, 2011 Reply

      I respectfully disagree. THB is about making the most of a little space, and some of us want to make our small houses very comfortable. If that includes making an area to watch tv and movies, so be it.

starhawk - July 10, 2011 Reply

Interesting article, although (as always) I have my disagreements with certain parts. I’m a little opinionated when it comes to technology. Comes with the nerdiness, I think. I’ll stay away from my soapbox regarding Apple for now; suffice to say I really don’t like them.

That said, I’m currently building myself a custom small form factor computer, after mildly injuring my ASUS netbook. Specs are well behind the “latest and greatest”; the CPU is a Pentium M 1.7GHz, supported by 1GB of RAM and a 160GB hard drive. OS is Windows XP.

These specs are not because of my low-income status; I can afford better if I save up enough. I’m rather building to fit my needs. So should everyone else. If you don’t need the “latest and greatest”, then… don’t use it! Evaluate your needs, buy your parts on eBay or Craigslist (or yardsale or whatever), and build it yourself!

Another thing: don’t believe it’s hard to do this computer-building stuff. If you can match a plug to a socket, and you know how to use a Phillips screwdriver, you can build a computer. Everything fits into slots and sockets; the only “hard” part is matching parts to what they fit into.

Linux is a good (price-wise and functionality-wise) option if you can put aside the common misconception that “everything just works” in Windows, versus supposedly having to spend hours configuring things in Linux. My experience with Linux is: don’t expect it to work with the brand-newest stuff, but expect it to be coaxed into proper functionality with about as much difficulty as with Windows — if not a little less. FWIW, I recommend Puppy Linux for most folks. There are several different versions for different needs, and although the install options can be a little confusing for a beginner, the support forums are very helpful and eager to assist.

I’ll be glad to offer more advice, if anyone’s interested. You can find me at laserhawk64 [at] yahoo [dot] com.

    Grant Wagner - July 11, 2011 Reply

    Puppy Linux is a great nitch product, but it is relatively obscure, and support can be hard to find for someone not familiar with Linux at all. Getting closed source drivers, such as those for a wireless network card can be troublesome. For the new user, something based off of Ubuntu, with it’s “proprietary driver” tool, will be an easier adjustment for the new user.

    I would recommend Mint Linux to windows user looking to switch over. Between the Debian, Ubuntu, and Mint projects, they have made great strides to make Linux the easiest OS to use. You get all of the technical benefits of a Mac, but can use your current Windows computer, and it won’t cost you anything but time. The book “Ubuntu For Non-Geeks” is a great resource to get started with, and can usually be found at your local library. I highly recommend that all Windows users give it a try when you get the chance. You won’t be sorry.

      starhawk - July 11, 2011 Reply

      I am forced to disagree with you regarding Ubuntu. I’ve used it, and it was rather a turn-off for me. It’s bigger than Windows XP (4+ gig vs. 1 gig) and it’s not any faster. Plus I’ve heard some really bad things about the attitudes in their support forums.

      Regarding Puppy Linux, they have an easy to find user forum, the downloads are comparatively microscopic (~200 meg vs. 4+ gig), and you get much the same functionality in a smaller size. Further, the newer Puppies (Wary and Lucid) are very compatible with Ubuntu *.deb packages. Many of the “Puplets” (smaller, slightly-less-than-official-but-supported-just-as-well derivatives by Puppy users) share that functionality as well.

      For example —
      Wary Puppy is for older computers (Pentium 2/3/4).
      Lucid Puppy is for the “latest and greatest” or anything better than a midrange Pentium 4.
      PUPnGO is for real “antiques” (I’ve gotten it to run on an AMD K6, with few tweaks) but the versions I’ve seen would be a challenge for any novice to deal with — it’s stripped to the bare minimum.
      PupEEE is for EEE PC netbooks (might also work well on EEE BOX desktops, but I don’t know).
      Fluppy, PupEEE’s twin brother, works well on any laptop or netbook that isn’t an EEE PC.
      …you get the point.

      Puppy is just as good, as useable, and as flexible as Ubuntu, and –when used well– is actually faster and better.

      If anyone wants to try Puppy Linux, and is on a Dialup connection, email me at the address in my last post and I *will* send you a CD of any Puppy version you want. All I ask is that you send me the shipping cost ($1 will cover it). I can’t send it outside of the US, though.

Grant Wagner - July 11, 2011 Reply

First of all, I use a netbook (An Asus 1015, with a 10″ 1024×600 screen, 5 hours of practical battery, Ubuntu Linux) for my primary entertainment system. By itself, it covers about 75% of my entertainment needs, and only pulls an average of 8 watts on my power system.

I built a small computer, using a PandaBoard (same processor as a Motorola Droid 2 smart phone, but in hacker friendly board) to provide a WiFi hotspot, some network attached storage, and a DVD/CD drive for automated ripping. All for an average of 2 watts of power. Check out my web site for how I did it. I may upgrade to a blu-ray someday, but not anytime soon. My netbooks screen simply can’t make use of it. However, now that used movie and music stores are loaded with good titles and due to others making the switch, I’m not hurting. This makes up for another 20% of my entertainment usage.

A good pair of headphones can cost over $100, but provide by far the best listening experience for the money, and only need about 1/2 to 1/4 of a watt for general use. I personally use a set of Sony Professional Studio Monitors MDR-7506. To make your selection, I highly recommended that you go to a professional music store such as Guitar Center with your favorite CD (don’t use a mp3 player, unless you have lossless compressed music). They will have demo headphones for you. Take the time to find what fits well, sounds great, and is in your price range.

Finally, for that last 5%, I want a good gaming PC, with a solid 3D graphics card, and a real TV. While I haven’t done it yet, I want to get a ATSC tuner for my local news and the rare bit of OTA Television, but that should cover the rest. Currently I have an old desktop for the gaming PC, but I hope to replace it soon with a new MacBook (not the power version). Under 15″ in size, great battery life, and a GeForce 330 mobile graphics chip, that is a lot of gaming power in a small package. It’s a shame that the MacBookPro’s don’t have discrete graphics on their smaller systems these days.

Blake Brokaw - July 11, 2011 Reply

I travel/live full time in my 24′ vintage Avion travel trailer (Lily) and found this article very informative. I had no idea about the Elgato tech. and plan to get the usb driver for my Macbook. The same Macbook that I have been using since 2006 without so much as a SINGLE problem. I use my Mac for most of my entertainment needs,
music/video streaming, dvd watching, cd playing, etc.. I hook it up via hdmi to my 27″ TV which is also hooked into a HDTV antenna for OTA stuff. I used to have surround sound home theatre in my trailer but it turned it into a 24′ vibrating aluminum loaf if bread.
Now I just use headphones (happier neighbors). I plan on getting an Apple TV soon to take a load off my Mac, $100 and cool.
For the Non Radio Shack employee I think Macs are the way to go.

Brianna Olds - July 11, 2011 Reply

I’ve always thought using computing as entertainment is a great way to save space, thanks for sharing the tip!

Brianna Olds
CoolProducts Social Media Marketing Manager

Scott - July 12, 2011 Reply

Thanks for using a photo of my weebee rendering!

PBeat - July 12, 2011 Reply

Technology certainly has a place in the Tiny House blog, but, please don’t allow it to escalate onto a Battle of the Nerds. Many of us would like to minimize our resource consumption, while preserving our ability to use the occasional appliance or entertainment system. I think we’d be less interested in reading debates about the merits of various computer operating systems.

Christina Nellemann - July 12, 2011 Reply

Welcome Eric! I think that technology and the minimizing of tech gadgets has made it so much easier to live smaller and to reduce the amount of gadgets that you need/want. [Go Apple!]

Keni - July 13, 2011 Reply

I really enjoyed reading all the tech input even though I didn’t understand alot of it. By the time I complete my little bungalow, I will understand and hopefully implement alot of it.

Best All In One Printer - July 14, 2011 Reply

Good Post The All in one PC is a great piece of technology but I still would use other devices

Moontreeranch - July 17, 2011 Reply

UH…I’m just going to grab my paperback book and use my little LED reading light

P Smith - August 21, 2011 Reply

Using your computer as your entire entertainment system isn’t just space saving, energy efficient or practical, it’s also more convenient.

The only reason I have a TV is because it’s part of the apartment furnishings. If it wasn’t there, I’d be watching TV solely on my old laptop with the PCMCIA TV card plugged in. I can watch shows, and use it to record and time shift. I’ve seen newer ones in stores that work via USB and might switch to one soon.

As for music, who doesn’t listen mostly to MP3s? With all my music as files and either Winamp on my PC or on my 8GB MP3 player, music is easily and readily stored.

With all my DVDs ripped to files or VCD disks copied to hard drives, I can watch movies anytime. The cheap DVD player in the apartment can play MPEG files, so I only need to plug in a flash device and watch on TV, if not my laptop.

And as for ebooks, I can read them on a laptop screen in large or resizable print from the couch with a mouse in hand, or copy them to my old PDA to use as a book reader.

The only things I don’t keep on the computer now are books that I can’t or won’t digitize, such as old or collector’s editions that I want in hand, or a desktop encyclopedia.

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