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.