June 18, 2009

Fit-PC2: Phone Calls From Your Easy Chair

I've always had pretty good luck with Skype on my various machines. Several years ago, when I traveled to the LinuxWorld conference in Seoul, it was very convenient to log into Skype at 7:00 AM and talk to the family back home in Florida, before they settled in for the evening.

The sound was clear with no skips or static. And the rate was great as well, at about 2 cents (US) per minute. Using the application, on my old SUSE Linux powered notebook, required a network connection, an earphone, and a small microphone. These things were easy to take along and worked well on the road.

We now have "entertainment computers", such as the Fit-PC2, that attach to high-def TVs and work alongside all the other video and audio gear.

In today's article we'll take a look at how Skype works at the convergence of computers and entertainment.

Skype On A Postage Stamp... Almost

The Fit-PC2 is a small powerful Linux device that incorporates hi-def video, wifi, a 1.6GHz processor, and a 160 GB drive. The desktop screen is handled by any HDMI device, such as an LG TV/monitor. It runs Ubuntu Jaunty 9.04 and has Skype loaded on the Gnome desktop, out of the box.

figure1.pngConfiguring Skype on the Fit-PC2 is pretty straightforward. Start Skype from the Applications -> Network menu. Figure 1 shows the main Skype login screen and the volume control sliders (in this case the Alsa mixer) on the Gnome desktop. Select the "S" button at the bottom and then choose "Options" to set the sound devices, privacy selections, blocked people, and so on (see Figure 2).

Naturally, you'll need to have a Skype account to use the service. They'll ask you for an email address and to pick a user name and password. I actually maintain two accounts for testing purposes. By the way, Skype allows you to make free calls between computers and charges a very reasonable rate for computer to land line connections. You can talk for quite a while on $US 10 worth of Skype credits.

A few things need to be hooked up before a call can be made using Skype on the Fit-PC2, which we'll cover in the next section.

Little Box, Lot's Of Wires

figure2.pngRemember that the Fit computer is only about 4"x5"x1", in size. That means that the connectors to all the various ports are packed pretty closely together. A lot of wires plug into the back of this thing.

First up is the HDMI cable. I bought a six-footer from Best Buy on sale for about US$30. Pretty steep, but the quality is good.

Anyway, an audio cable with 1/8" stereo plugs at both ends is needed to hook the Fit-PC up to the TV/monitor. You could also run a standard 1/8" audio cable to a set of regular powered PC speakers or pipe the signal into your sound system through a set of RCA connectors. Getting carried away with the volume of the sound can lead to feedback, during a call, so it is probably best not to go overboard if you plan to use Skype as a big "speaker phone".

Obviously, the microphone will have a cable that plugs into the back of the Fit box, too. I used a cheap computer boom microphone. Skype, Best Buy, and Radio Shack market a wide variety of headphone microphones that can be used with Skype. My experience has been strictly with analog audio microphones. Since the Fit has six USB slots, a USB style headphone and mike seems like it would make sense, as well. Sadly, I have not tried these yet. The Fit has 1/8" audio output and input jacks, in addition to the USB ports.

With everything hooked up and the Fit machine functioning properly, you can go ahead and make a call.

Logistics Of A Call

Calling on an entertainment computer is a little different than using Skype on a laptop.

For one thing, the microphone and headphone wires need to be managed. There will have to be enough cable for you to comfortably sit in your easy chair while you make a call. Then, what do you do with all that cable after you are finished using Skype? Something to think about.

Another issue, is what do you do with the wireless keyboard and mouse, while handling the headphone/microphone? Since, I use an old Gyromouse and matching wireless keyboard, sitting in a chair and controlling the computer is easy. The Gyromouse senses my movements as I wave the thing around in the air, much like a Wii controller. Users with a standard wireless mouse, that need a pad or surface to roll over could make using an entertainment computer a chore. We'll have to see how the market evolves, with these issues.

Another possibility is using a Bluetooth headset with the Fit. Since it doesn't have a built-in Bluetooth radio, installation and configuration of an adapter and the matching headset would be required.

I made a couple of calls to my wife's Windows Vista laptop and everything worked, in both directions, on the Fit-PC. I noticed that the sound quality coming from the Fit, seemed to have a little static. I also had to run the mixer control way up in order to hear anything on the Windows machine. Sound coming from the Windows machine to the Fit was very good. And, that was using the built in microphone on the laptop! I suspect that the little boom microphone I was using on the Fit side, just wasn't quite up to snuff and was introducing some distortion. I backed of the mic gain a little and it seemed to help. Users will probably need to fiddle around with the audio mixer settings and microphone selection, to get a nice clear voice signal.

Another area that might trip up the average user is going through their firewall(s). If any kind of firewall is running on the router or the Fit-PC, port 23399 will have to be set up so traffic make it through otherwise Skype won't be able to connect to anybody.

Now What?

Making calls from an "entertainment PC" seems like a novel idea and Fit-PC is certainly on the right track. I think that for the mainstream user, the novelty might wear off, in a short period of time as the user actually begins to use the setup to make day-in, day-out calls. I have yet to run into anybody with a wifi-enabled Skype hand held phone and I think that making calls from the Fit, might have a similar small following.

But, you never know, technology changes and a new headphone/microphone/keyboard/mouse gadget might be right around the corner.

As with everything else in the Linux world, the choice and capabilities to do cool things are there, if you want to pursue it.

Rob Reilly is a consultant and freelance technology writer. He is always interested in starting new projects, supporting conferences, and delivering value to his clients. Visit his Web site at http://home.earthlink.net/~robreilly.

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