Product Review – SoftXpand Duo 2011: Cheap HTPC with SoftXpand

As previously mentioned on my ‘Cheap guide to Home Theather PC (HTPC)‘ post – Here is my unbiased honest product review of the key product which makes this all possible…

The SoftXpand 2011 Duo by Miniframe.

SoftXpand 2011 Duo

– The cheapest Home Theather PC (HTPC) –

If you already have a powerful desktop, there is no need to buy another. Especially if you plan to buy a dedicated HTPC which support the latest games with high end graphics – these things are small, but are very much expensive and will require quite an amount of time to setup.

So how about a $0 cost to get yourself a HTPC? I am talking about the hardware that you requires. Reusing your home / gaming desktop computer hardware will cost you nothing! And in turn, the more powerful hardware you have, the more powerful your HTPC going to be! Now I am going to be honest and more specific here when I say $0 cost for hardware – this is just the HTPC itself – not including the monitor / TV, the speakers, the keyboard. mouse, and other peripherals. Got it? Ok, now that it is clear (so you don’t feel cheated) – I am going to tell you the key item which will save you big bucks in getting all this done (plus realizing the $0 hardware cost) – let me present you the SoftXpand Duo 2011.

– What is SoftXpand Duo 2011? –

As quoted from their website “SoftXpand 2011 Dou is a software product that enables two (2) users to work on a single (1) computer simultaneously.

I guess that’s the best and simplest answer to it. However, here is my long winded detailed answer below :

I see SoftXpand Duo 2011 as a powerful visualization software (for those familiar with virtual machines it is like VirtualPC, VMWare, etc). But what sets it apart is that it really turn your PC into 2. All you have to do is plug in another monitor, plug in another keyboard and mouse – and there you have it, another PC that you can use. The best part is that (based on my personal experience) there are no slow downs in performance at all when both PC is at use – and what REALLY sets it aside from the rest is that I can play games in full resolution running simultaneously on both PC without any noticeable loss in performance! Now that’s the real deal.

Here in this post, I will not only review the product, but will also guide you how to setup (don’t worry it’s easy!), show some real life applications using SoftXpand Duo 2011, and how we can use it for our cheap HTPC project 🙂

SoftXpand Duo will turn 1 PC into 2 – so it does not necessarily be a HTPC setup. You just need an extra set of peripherals (monitor, keyboard, mouse, speakers) to make this possible. But because I will be using my 40″ LED TV – that is why my setup is tailored more to HTPC.

So come on in and read on (there is also a Youtube review!). The best is to share, not to keep!

[ Using SoftXpand Duo 2011 to create a virtual HTPC ]

– The Requirements –

First, let’s recap what sort of HTPC that I required per my previous post.

My most modern and demanding HTPC requirement

HTPC requirements

Watch local live TV channels & listen to local live radio stations without antenna | Able to play DVD and Blu-ray discs | Play both SD and HD videos from my portable hard disk | Play high definition audio formats (MP3, etc) | Watch Youtube and other online streaming contents | Surf the Internet in full fledged desktop format | Play advanced PC games via a wireless controller | Run Android games and apps | must be FAST FAST and FAST! | Audio & Video conferencing capabilities

Now if you noticed, I have the first criteria marked red. This feature has been taken off as it is no longer a requirement for me. For the rest of the stuffs in green, all those features are available (with some software side limitations – I will tell you about this later), and the one marked in orange are planned feature to be included in future.

– The Hardware –

My basic machine specification running SoftXpand is as follows :

Microsoft Windows 7 Professional | Intel(R) Core(TM) i5-2400 CPU @ 3.10GHz | 8GB RAM | ATI Radeon 5700 Series 1GB GDDR5  Graphics Memory | Built in Intel(R) HD Graphics 2000 | 500GB Sata Hard Disk | Built in sound card, LAN, and display card | Edifier 2.1 Speaker set | Microsoft Wireless keyboard and mouse connected via USB dongle | Wifi USB Adaptor | 20″ Acer LED monitor 

What other hardwares I added / use to make it an awesome HTPC :

Sony 40″ LED TV with HDMI in | 5m HDMI cable | cheap USB sound card | 5m USB extension wire | 4 port USB hub | Cideko Air Keyboard | Logitech Wireless Gamepad F710 | Altec Lansing 2.1 speakers VS2721

What I could use to make it more awesome!

Asus Wavi – enable wireless HDMI and USB so 2nd PC can be anywhere without wires | WebCam

In case you are wondering – I am running on Windows 7 Professional 64bit.

– The setup / configuration (hardware side) –

htpc with softxpand

HTPC made cheap with SoftXpand

So this is my HTPC setup. A normal desktop sitting at the end of the living room with wires connected to my 40″ LED TV. Because it’s a budget cost setup, I also bought an Altec Lansing 2.1 speakers connected to a cheap USB sound card as the audio device and output for the HTPC. This is of course, connected with a 5m USB extension wire that is plugged to a 4 port USB Hub. I made a mistake by buying a non AC powered USB Hub as sometimes it does not produce enough power to support connected devices. So if you are buying one, make sure it is a powered USB Hub for stability purposes. Else your device will stop functioning when power overloads.

4 port usb hub

Pictured above is the 4 port USB Hub. I have (from left to right) the cheap USB sound card connected to Altec Lansing 2.1 speakers. Dongle for Cideko Air Keyboard, and also dongle for the Logitech Wireless Gamepad F710. I plan to use both the Air Keyboard and Wireless Gamepad on my HTPC – although some says that just for a few meters extra, I could have just plugged these dongles straight to my desktop – but having it within line of sight when sitting on the sofa will greatly improve both devices reception and eliminate jitter and lost of keypress.  Just don’t think about adding any more USB peripherals unless you have an AC powered USB Hub.

Altec Lansing 2.1

I locate the USB Hub at the far end of my TV cabinet. The Altec Lansing subwoofer sits beside it. I’ll talk and do a review of the Altec Lansing 2.1 VS2721 later.

htpc connections

This is how my connections are from desktop side. Starting from upper left I have a USB cable connected to my external hard disk (which is always connected). Beside that is the wireless dongle for my Microsoft Wireless Keyboard and mouse (running at 2.4Ghz frequency). Going down – the other black USB cable is for my secondary external hard disk. That white thing is my TPLink Wireless USB dongle which I use to connect to my home wifi. That blue USB cable is the 5m extension USB cord and just beside it is the audio out which connects to my old Edifier 2.1 speakers.

That white broad thing is the DVI cable which connects to the ATI Radeon 5700 series graphic card. That one goes to my 20″ Acer LED monitor. The red HDMI cable also connects to the ATI Radeon 5700 series graphic card and goes to my 40″ Sony LED TV. This setup is possible. While I can also do 1 DVI out from the Integrated Intel graphic (built in motherboard) to 20″ Acer LED and HDMI out from ATI Radeon to 40″ Sony LED TV – I found out that the Integrated Intel chip is useless and so underpowered to run games. While I can get 60fps on the ATI Radeon, I only get around 10fps on the Intel integrated chip. So I connected both to the ATI Radeon 5700 series graphic card so games run smooth on both workstations. Unfortunately this causes Windows 7 Aero glass effects to be disabled (oh and if you use dreamscene or live wallpapers on Windows 7, disabling Aero will disable these as well) – Unless I run each workstation using non shared graphic card. However I heard that SoftXpand may have an updated version coming up which enable Aero even with shared graphic card.

wires connectioon

Here’s an overview what was passed over from desktop to my ‘virtual’ HTPC. The cables shown above are (from top to bottom), Blue : 5m USB extension cable | White : 4 Gang power extension sockets (you wouldn’t be needing this if you already have a wall power adaptor / socket @ your desktop) | Striped Red : HDMI cable.

tv connection

Looking at the 40″ Sony LED TV, the only connection to it is the HDMI cable. Although HDMI is able to carry both video and audio signal, SoftXpand will not enable HDMI audio. Which is why the USB Sound Card is needed.

I know this maybe a bit lengthy or too much detail for some – so here’s a checklist to recap how things are connected :

> On Desktop : your usual keyboard and mouse
> On Desktop : usual audio out from motherboard built in sound to Edifier speaker
> From Desktop : DVI out from ATI Radeon to PC Monitor
> From Desktop : HDMI out from ATI Radeon to TV
> From Desktop : USB extension cable to 4 port USB Hub
> From USB Hub : USB Sound Card connect to Altec Lansing speaker
> From USB Hub : Cideko Air Keyboard dongle
> From USB Hub : Logitech wireless gamepad dongle

– The setup / configuration (software side) –

Most important thing to do before you launch SoftXpand setup is to configure your computer so that everything works. First thing is to make sure that you have display on both monitor and TV. You will need the display extended. To do this, right click on an empty space on your desktop and select ‘screen resolution‘.

display settings for softxpand

If you have everything connected properly, you should have Multiple displays option. Set this to ‘extend these displays‘. Then click on either one of the screen and tick ‘Make this my main display‘ to make it primary (if it is not primary as of yet). Then click OK or apply to save these settings. Make sure you set both resolution to what you want. As my 20″ Acer LED only support up to 1600 x 900, I choose this for the Acer, and full HD 1920 x 1080 on my 40″ Sony LED TV.

Also set your primary playback device (to use keyboard dedicated volume keys). To do this, right click on the speaker icon and choose ‘Playback devices

sound setup

Then click on USB Headphone set and click ‘set default‘ button to make it primary. As I will need more control over HTPC using keyboard dedicated volume keys – this is why I made the USB Sound Card as primary. Controlling volume on PC can be done manually using the Edifier volume knob that is within reach, or I could just manually adjust using master volume when sitting in front of the PC. I don’t have this luxury when using HTPC as I will sit on the sofa, so that is my reason for setting it up as primary as below. Update : Unfortunately this failed to work. Volume keys still control the built in sound card instead of the USB sound card. It could possibly be the cheap USB sound card limitation. But as I don’t have any extra card to test – I simply don’t know.

sound primary

Next, you should test all of your input devices and make sure that they work.

input devices

Pictured above is my TV remote, HyppTV remote, the Logitech Wireless Gamepad F710 and the Cideko Air Keyboard. Once I have both gamepad and the air keyboard plus the Altec Lansing speakers producing audio output from PC working as expected – it’s time to proceed with SoftXpand installation 🙂

– Downloading SoftXpand 2011 Duo

Open your browser and head over to http://www.miniframe.com/ then click on ‘Free Trial’ and select ‘Home users’.

download softxpand duo 2011

Fill in your Name and Email address under Get it NOW! section and be sure to select your Operating System whether it is Windows 7 32 / 64bit or the good ol Windows XP Professional. Good news is that support for Windows 8 is coming soon (oh I can’t wait!). Once done, click on the red download button to start download.

Download should start automatically and you will be greeted with some tips from Miniframe as above. Be sure to follow them before launching the installer which filename should look like SoftXpand2011Duo_64bit.exe for the Windows 7 64bit version. You should also run it as administrator just in case the admin rights did not show up.

x01

Click Next.

x02

Select ‘I accept the terms in the license agreement’ if you agree with the terms and click Next.

x03

It’s as simple as that.. click Install to begin installation.

x04

During the installation process, SoftXpand will install Microsoft Visual C++ 2010 in order to support the application.

x05

And click Finish once it is done.

x06

Of course, a restart is required in order to enable visualization. So click Yes if you would like to immediately restart, or click No should you have any unsaved documents open. Make sure to manually restart once you are ready.

x07

Windows will load as normal but you will see this in each of your display. This is the workstation identifier and upon first start you must assign both keyboard and mouse to each workstation by performing some combination keys as above. Let’s say mapping my Cideko Air Keyboard to Workstation ID 1, first I push both CTRL keys on the keyboard.. let it go. Then push 1 and let it go. Push Enter and let it go. Done, keyboard mapped.

For mouse assignment on Workstation ID 1, I push both CTRL keys on my Cideko Air Keyboard then let go. Then push 1 and let go. Then using my Cideko Air Keyboard I hold both left and right mouse button then let it go.  Done, mouse mapped.

It goes the same to Workstation 2 as well. Just push 2 instead of 1.

– But I can only log into 1 PC as I only have 1 account??? –

To enable simultaneous multi-user support, you need to create another Windows account.

x08

To do this, Click Start and go to Control Panel. Under User Accounts and Family Safety click on Add or remove user accounts.

add new account

When you get to the screen above, you should see your primary account (In my case I have it named ‘Desktop’). Down at the bottom you should see Create a new account. Click on this to create your secondary account.

htpc account

I named it HTPC and you can choose to have it as standard user or Administrator depending on the level of security that you allow. I choose Administrator for this account as I will require full access in case I would like to perform maintenance like install and uninstall of application and games. Click create account once you are done.

X10

And there you have it, 2 accounts which allow you to use both workstations simultaneously. Workstation 1 can login to HTPC while Workstation 2 can login to Desktop. If the secondary account failed to show on Workstation 2 login screen – a restart is necessary. But before you do that, you should have SoftXpand icon on your desktop now.. double click on it first and let’s head over to the application setup and hardware mapping / assignment to each Workstation.

X11

From here it is as easy as drag and drop. The top part shows all of your available hardwares – Your monitors, mouse, keyboard, microphone (recording input on sound card), speaker (audio out on each sound card), and in my case – 2 removable storage which is connected via USB. If it shows [S] this means that it is a shared resources and both workstation can use it. [P] shows that it is a primary device while [2] shows that it is mapped to workstation 2. So you decide which hardware goes dedicated to Workstation 2 and which one should be shared amongst the 2. Just drag and drop!

X12

This is my setup for Workstation 1 and 2. If you can see, each have their own mouse and keyboard and also a speaker. Remember that Logitech Wireless Gamepad before – it’s not in the list because SoftXpand could not allocate a dedicated resource for it.. If you have 2 games running simultaneously and both accept gamepad input – Let’s just say you gonna have a bad time. However, if the game have option to disable gamepad input or to select which input is for which – then yes you can use the gamepad on 1 and say keyboard and mouse on the other workstation. This will work.

That’s it – once you are done with this, go ahead and restart your machine – log Workstation 1 with HTPC account and Workstation 2 with Desktop account and you will have 2 computers that will not interfere with each others. Finally you and your son can stop fighting on who can use the computer, and have some real multiplayer battle with each others! Or you can just do whatever you and your son like – just don’t shut down the PC while you’re at it.. lol.

SoftXpand : The pros

[ It does not feel like a virtual machine! ] – No matter hard I tried, it’s either my PC is too powerful (I doubt it) or SoftXpand did a marvelous job in managing available resources that I kept forgetting that I am running a virtual machine. Everything is just so blazing fast even when done simultaneously – spreadsheet, HD movies, web browsing, youtube – including and especially games!

[ Virtual LAN for multiplayer gaming ] – Setting up multiplayer gaming does not come any easier than this. Simply host a LAN game on a workstation, and get the other workstation to find and join. It’s that simple and 0 configuration needed to enable!

SoftXpand : The cons

[ Gamepad does not appear in configuration list ] – Gamepad is considered as a permanent shared resource and will conflict both stations if used in games which you cannot specify / assign controllers. I tried this by loading FarCry 2 on both stations and unfortunately the gamepad controls them both. Some games which have assignable controllers (such as …) works fine but you will need to assign these manually every time the game loads. As SoftXpand performs very well in gaming – support for game controllers assignment to specific station are MOST WANTED.

[ Netflix does not work! Update : It works now all of a sudden ] – Yes unfortunately netflix detected SoftXpand as a remote machine and blocked me from loading any videos. This is a big disappointment as my Home Theather PC (HTPC) failed to perform when using SoftXpand. So everytime I want to watch netflix on the big screen, I have to disable SoftXpand – and what’s worst is that I have to restart every time to do that!

netflix with softxpand

Update : Netflix is now working all of a sudden. I didn’t do anything but one of Softxpand users Freakeric quoted a solution to this “What you do is open softxpand 2011 on your primary workstation. Then on the cluster manager window select the workstation you want to watch netflix on and click stop and then start it again. Log onto the workstation and netflix should work” – Thanks Freakeric! You guys can go to his Youtube video > HERE <

[ Trial version force logout every 1 hour without notification ] – I don’t mind the force logout feature but it would be great to have some early warning before it auto kick you out from windows. I learned this the hard way when many unresumable downloads were interrupted because SoftXpand auto logoff every 1 hour (I didn’t read the FAQ or trial limitation documents at first and thought something was wrong with my PC). SoftXpand will be much more of a gentleman if it displays some notification or warnings – like 5 minutes before it kicks you out from Windows. At least the user is prepared and are able to save any important documents that they work on before it auto logoff.

[ Strange volume button behavior ] – I am not sure if this is due to device incompatibility or whether I have set it incorrectly (I think I have). But when I use my Cideko wireless air keyboard in Workstation 1 (my HTPC) and press the volume up or down button – it will actually control the master volume in Workstation 2. However if I manually adjust the master volume on Workstation 1, it performed as normal. I am still trying to figure out why this happens when I am 100% sure that I have assigned the keyboard mouse and also sound cards correctly (they are not shared resources anymore). This makes it difficult for me to control the volume during video playbacks. I have a feeling that I have to setup the primary sound card first before launching / installing softxpand – this way when I use the volume buttons on my Cideko wireless air keyboard, it will control the primary sound card, no matter to which workstation I assigned it to. Bad news is that I also have dedicated volume buttons on my desktop wireless keyboard, so that will also control the primary sound card.

So that conclude my review of SoftXpand Duo 2011. If you are looking for one of the best visualization software out there which gives one of the best value for your money – You have my recommendation for this software. In fact, if you are a father and have kids who loves to play games (like me and my son), save that money (rather than buying another PC) and get SoftXpand instead for some family fun time – multiplayer gaming the cheap way!

By the way, I must mention that SoftXpand Duo 2011 is definitely a keeperstar

Head over to their website for more info by clicking > HERE < or visiting http://www.miniframe.com/ and of course, I hope this article helps!

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6 Responses to “Product Review – SoftXpand Duo 2011: Cheap HTPC with SoftXpand”

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  5. terry Says:

    I tried many times over a couple of weeks. I could not get it to settle properly. I had visual glitches on Adobe programs, erratic behavior and stuttering on games.

    There was too much compromise over the benefits. I really wanted it to work, but it was not compatible with my 18 month year old system. I even wrote a blog about it. http://www.waitingoutside.com/2013/08/softxpand-desktop-virtualization-on-one-pc/

    • Anonymous Says:

      Hey Terry, I feel bad that Softxpand didn’t work so well with your setup. I had a look at your blog and your rig surpassed mine in every level. I would suggest that you contact the company for solution (but I think you did and it didn’t help?). As for me, my rig is running great without any hiccups. Just minor slowdown during bootup process as softxpand need to load 2 accounts when booting. I think getting a SSD would make things faster.

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