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Friday, October 12, 2012

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Tech Up the Holidays: Building Out Your Light Display (Part 1)

By Agent Derek M

While holidays may bring out our creative side, they also bring out our crazy side. Few things bring out both like holiday decorating. As a Geek Squad Agent I love to use technology, which in this case means one thing – a computer-controlled holiday light show. Here’s a break-down of how to to put together this year’s Halloween show.

To setup your own light show, you’ll need some components to add to your digital decorations.

Light Controller

The first item on your light show shopping list is a light controller. The controller is the heart of the show. Controllers are either available as ready-to-go-devices or (if you like to assemble your own technology) there are number of good light controller kits on the market.

Pic of light controller

Because the industry has a few established standards, most controllers can be mixed across brands. In my case, I went with a D-Light ACx16 controller, which allows me to setup up to 16 different “channels,” each channel running a single set of lights.

The light controller’s purpose is to send a pre-programmed sequence of instructions on when to send electricity to the various lighting decorations in your display. They control how much electricity is sent to the light setups (allowing dimming or shimmering effects, and with the right setup of lights, animation). The controllers can also run other electrical devices, like actuators to move animated figures, and specialized devices like fog machines.

When the instructions sent to the box match up with music that’s played at the same time, you get the holiday light show many of us are familiar with. Most consumer-grade controllers will need a PC of some sort to make that happen. If the light controller is the heart of the show, the PC is the brain.

PC

The requirements for a PC to be used with a light show are not very high, but my experience has taught me that its best to make sure the PC running a show meets (or exceeds) the specifications required by the controller hardware and software. For most setups, this means a Windows XP, Vista or Windows 7 PC, with a processor that’s clocked at 1.5GHz or faster, and has 1 GB of RAM. Many home setups get away with using an old, hand-me-down PC that’s been cleaned up and put into service as a secondary computer.

Pic of nettop

Of course,(being a Geek Squad Agent), I didn’t want to just go with an old PC. I wanted to push things on the tech side. That didn’t mean getting the biggest or fastest PC I could find. since this PC needed to be running constantly and would need to be placed in a sealed box to protect it from the elements, I looked for simple and small.

I found my simple and small components in the form of a “nettop.” Nettops are the desktop equivalent to netbooks. I purchased a Foxconn nt-A3700, which is a “barebones nettop” that is roughly the size of hardcover novel and weighs less than a pound. The system is considered “barebones” because it comes with the case, motherboard and processor, but no RAM or hard drive.

An advantage of nettops like this one is the AMD E-450 processor uses very little electricity. The system as a whole uses a 65W power supply, which will help when placed in that protective box with other gear. The processor is not very powerful, but you could easily use it to surf the Internet and play many reasonably sized multimedia files, which it will do as the brains of the light show.

To complete the computer, I added 4GB of DDR3 system memory. I could have gone with far less, but RAM is one of the cheaper upgrades for a PC and extra RAM will help with performance. I also added a relatively inexpensive solid state hard drive (SSD).

Solid state hard drives feature no moving parts, which means they can be made smaller and lighter than traditional hard drives. Using a solid state drive also means I don’t have to worry about something bumping the box and causing a problem, a distinct possibility with a traditional hard drive. SSDs also tend to be faster, which will be helpful in a system with a basic nettop processor that has to process multimedia files for the show.

In the next article, I’ll cover the light show software setup, as well as how to control a PC in a box on your front lawn remotely with your tablet PC from the comfort of your home.

Agent Derek has been removing techno-stress from the lives of his Geek Squad clients since 2005. When not providing remote help as an Online Support Agent, he likes to take to the road on a vintage motorcycle for adventures through Ohio country highways.

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Categories: Home Theater | Technology

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