Category Archives: Livingroom Computing

Roku Netflix Player

Last month I tried out Netflix’s streaming video service. I thought the price was right (free with most Netflix subscription plans), but the video quality was poor, like an old VHS tape recorded from TV. The selection was so so as well, but the all-you-can-eat price is right, especially compared to the $3-5/pop it costs to rent something on iTunes.

They.’ve recently addressed another issue. Roku has just released a $99 set top box that plays Netflix on demand. Netflix doesn’t have HD content (and I doubt that most people have internet connections that would be up to streamed HD), but the device is HD ready. I’ve been thinking of replacing the computer hooked to our TV with a smaller, more efficient device, but I’d been leaning back to using a computer so we could use netflix’s streaming. The Roku device solves that problem, but, unfortunately, doesn’t seem to play anything else. Too bad. I’d happily pay another $25-50 for something that would play content from a media server.

Network Media Players: DLink DSM-320

As I mentioned a couple days back, I’m looking at “replacing my living room PC with a dedicated video player”: in order to waste less electricity and free hardware up for other purposes.

I’ve been looking around and it seems like things have improved a bit since I looked “a year ago”: DLink has an interesting product called the “DSM-320”: that seems to be going for ~$130, after rebate that does native decoding of various MPEG4 formats like Xvid. The native MPEG4 support is cool because it means that existing content doesn’t have to be transcoded on a PC and transported over the network. As a result, I should be able to stream video off my fileserver which uses a low power ~800MHz CPU. I’m also hoping that avoiding MPEG2 will mean that I can get smooth playback over my wireless network.

The DSM has some downsides. A big one is that its wireless network card doesn’t support WPA encryption, only the useless WEP, so I guess I’ll still need to use a WRT54G in my livingroom. It also sounds like video playback has been a bit wonky, but it sounds like the newest firmare versions have corrected a lot of glitches. The UI also sounds like it leaves something to be desired, but it looks like it will work well enough for our purposes.

It requires streaming media server software, but appearantly it adheres to some sort of standard, so I’m not limited to the software they provide, which is good, because I want to run the media server off my Linux box. On the downside, the most likely candidate, “Twonkyvision”: is 20 euros, adding significantly to the cost of the setup. It looks like at least part of the firmware for this thing is GPLed, so maybe someone will release support for playing media directly off a Samba share.

Another shortcoming is that the device doesn’t play AAC encoded audio (which I have a lot of since I’ve ripped all my CDs into AAC for my iPod), at least not without server-side transcoding, which is strange since the “Sigma chip it uses”: looks like it “supports AAC”:

For ~$130 (after rebate) it’s pretty tempting, but I’d hate to be stuck with it if it doesn’t work for me.
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Hauppage MediaMVP

As I mentioned earlier, I’m looking to replace my livingroom PC with something cheaper, quieter and more compact, which will still let me play back dowloaded video and, ideally, control my PC based PVR software.

The first thing I looked at was the Hauppage MediaMVP. I’ve had my eyes on this device for a while because it was relatively cheap (less than $100) and had an SDK, which created the potential for people to create software to use it as the front end for PC based media applications.

Sure enough, there is now a plug-in that allows people to use the MediaMVP as a front-end to most of the features of SageTV. Very cool. Unfortunately, the device doesn’t support MPEG4 encoded videos natively. Hauppage provides PC side software to transcode on-the fly, but image quality suffers, plus, its a kludge. Furthermore, the SageTV plugin doesn’t support any sort of transcoding.

In the long run, I hope that Hauppage will start using a chip that supports MPEG4 natively, which seems possible, given how MPEG4 support is finding its way into more and more cheap DVD players.

For now though, I’m going to have to keep looking.

Livingroom Computing

Six months ago I put together a pc for my livingroom. My first goal was to build a video recorder that could record two or more shows at a time. Towards that end, I installed a tuner card with an on-board MPEG2 encoder some very clever software from Frey called SageTV. The hardware encoder insured high-quality recording without requiring a lot from the main CPU, which also made it practical to add additional tuner cards to the same system. SageTV provided what at the time was the only reasonably polished piece of software that could support multiple tuners for recording and Tivo-style live-tv pause & rewind. Even better, it had a distributed architecture which enables the tuners and the UI to reside on different machines connected via a network. Plus, the UI for basic day-to-day use was suitable for non-geeks.

Future ambitions were to use it to hold our entire music collection, and perhaps as the base station for a few video cameras to keep an eye on our front and back yards.

None of those ambitions have been realized. I realized once I got it built that there aren’t that many TV shows I really want to record, so I’ve never bothered installing a decent antenna on my roof to get a good signal without having to retune the rabbit. I never did the fan modifications to the case and underclocked the CPU to quiet the box down, and I never tucked it into our tv stand. Instead, its sitting next to it, whirring quietly but audibly. It spends most of its time crunching numbers for Folding@Home.

It’s been well used though. I’ve been using it to play back video files I’ve acquired through other means, and recently, inspired by an post I found linked from BoingBoing, I set up Azerues on the box with an RSS plug-in to automatically download video content of interest to me.

So far, its working great. I’ve been using SageTV to manage and playback the videos, but it leaves a little to be desired. I’d really like an easy way to filter the view of files according to freshness and whether or not I’d finished watching them. For those that I’d started watching, I’d like to be able to stop in the middle, view another file, and easily return to the spot where I’d stopped at a later time.

Now a new issue has reared its head. I’d like to upgrade my desktop PC to play Halflife2, but right now, standards for video card slots and CPU slots are in transition, which forces either a high end purchase to have upgrade availability down the line, or a lower end purchase with minimal opportunity to do inexpesive upgrades in the future.

This has my eyeing my livingroom PC as the foundation of a new system, requiring only a new video card to get a decent gaming experience. Doing so leaves me without a suitable solution for playing back video content in my livingroom. My old PC is more than up to the task, but its too big to tuck anywhere in the livingroom.

So, now I’m considering my options for a networked media player. The ideal device would run windows and have enough oomph to play back high-bitrate MPEG4 encoded content using some of the more CPU intensive compression options, fit a compact form factor, and still cost less than I might spend on a new system -vid card. Other options include more specialized devices that allow playback of the vids, ideally off a standard windows fileshare without requiring additional server-side software. The ability to serve as a front-end to SageTV or an equivalent package would also be cool.

So, I’m launching a blog category to document my investigations.