Monday, December 6, 2010

My Home Video Odyssey

originally published 15 November 2010

So I've had this dream for quite awhile of having a totally digital home theatre system with no moving parts. I'm happy to say that I made a significant step towards that goal this weekend -- I set up an audio / video "tank" -- think of it as a "digital jukebox" -- that holds all of my family's music, pictures, and videos, including about 350 (legally) ripped DVDs. All accessible via remote control on our television / home theatre system (and, also, on our iPhones, iPads, and computers).

If you're curious, here are the results of the research I did this weekend, and what I finally settled on:

First off, I had a few loosely-defined requirements:
  • It needs an on / off switch or extremely low power sleep mode when not in use. You'd think this is a no-brainer but the early Apple TV units were powered on 24 / 7 / 365 and supposedly got quite hot and weren't power-efficient.
  • Also -- instant-on or a very short power-on / boot time.
  • 1080p support.
  • No dedicated computer required. I don't want to boot a computer just to watch a movie, nor do I want to leave a computer running all the time.
  • Wide format support, including mp4 / m4v (which is how most of my video assets are formatted).
  • DLNA support (so it'll play content directly off of a NAS).
  • "Nice" UI, preferably based on something open source like Boxee or XBMC. Ie, I want something that wasn't just hacked together.
  • HDMI output -- I think this is the only thing that was available on everything I looked at.
  • Support for Netflix, Hulu, Youtube, and any other 'net-based content delivery.
  • NAS functionality, so we don't have to pass USB drives around to share content.
All that in mind, I hit Google hard and pretty quickly came up with the Major Players in this area. The following list of devices, pros and cons is not at all comprehensive, it's primarily the features or problems that stuck out enough that I remember them from Saturday:
  • Apple TV -
    Pros: the latest 4th gen version is low-power, and the device seems fairly reliable. This last is a not-insignificant feature considering all of the reliability complaints I saw about the other devices. Neat iPhone / iPad controller apps. Neat picture / slideshow features.
    Cons: it really doesn't do what I want it to do -- it seems to be mostly oriented towards allowing one to rent movies and television shows from the iTunes store. The latest version won't take an add-on external storage device, and while there's an external storage hack for older versions, it's apparently like a roach hotel for videos: they go in, but they can't come out (ie, no NAS functionality). Finally, and surprisingly: it's only 720p.
    (I also considered buying a Mac Mini and running something like Boxee software on it -- but the Mini is kinda pricey ($700US) and for that kinda money, it should read blu-ray discs. But it doesn't)
  • Google TV -
    Pros: 1080p and it's got Netflix and a variety of other media sources. Also, it lets you browse the web while you watch television, neat iPhone / iPad controller.
    Cons: so many it almost makes me cry: it's expensive ($299 and up), saw many many complaints about reliability and failures, some odd android fluke allows you to connect an external drive of up to 869GB (?), formatted as FAT32 (?!), many complaints about how the browser was painful to use, and the "remote control" is a full-sized keyboard (although you can buy an extra tiny keyboard controller for $130 or go with Sony's implementation which starts at $400), television networks seem to be lining up to block Google TV (FOX, ABC, CBS, NBC, and SyFy block it). Basically, at this point Google TV is pretty much a new "improved" implementation of WebTV from 1996.
  • Roku -
    Pros: cheap ($99), supports Netflix and a variety of other sources (Hulu "coming soon"), lots of built-in codecs, neat iPhone / iPad controller app.
    Cons: reliability issues, they recently stopped supporting PlayOn (an interesting content source that I may subscribe to in the future), I couldn't tell if the thing would function as a NAS or not. No DLNA support, so I'll need to buy a couple of terabytes of storage ($200) just for videos and I may or may not be able to use it as a NAS device.
  • WD TV -
    Pros: cheap ($99), NAS capability (sorta), Netflix support.
    Cons: can't connect to Windows 7 as NAS device (my wife's computer runs Win7), reliability issues, there's an iPhone / iPad app controller but it's not very good, I'll still need to buy a couple of terabytes of storage ($200).
  • Boxee -
    Pros: nice GUI (maybe - there were mixed opinions on this), Netflix and Hulu "coming soon" (but they still claim lots and lots of sources of media content), nice iPhone / iPad controller app.
    Cons: kind've expensive ($199 plus the cost of 2TB of extra storage), long-ish power-on time, reliability issues (and I haven't had good experiences with D-Link products in the past). No NAS support (I think).
  • Popcorn Hour C-200 -
    Pros: lots of keen features.
    Cons: expensive ($299 plus cost of extra 2TB of disk), notso hotso iPhone / iPad remote. Many, many, many complaints about reliability and support. Not sure about NAS capability.
So those are "big names" in this field. There are a number of lesser-known players out there and I suppose it's possible that I overlooked a device that would have been absolutely perfect. But I tend to think that if something truly awesome was out there, I would have encountered numerous mentions of it while I was researching these others.

To summarize: nothing I looked at did everything I wanted. Apple TV and Google TV just weren't what I wanted at all -- Google TV was especially disappointing. The Popcorn Hour box has great specs but there were many comments from buyers who had significant problems, I kinda got the feeling that they promised more than they really delivered. Similarly, the Roku, WD TV, and Boxee weren't quite "there". My overall impression is that there's currently quite a lot of churn in this market and it's going to take time for everything to settle down to where this technology is commoditized and reliable like, say, a CDROM drive.

And so ... I basically consigned myself to waiting 6 months or so and then surveying the field again. Although I decided that now would not be a bad time to "prepare the way" by buying a NAS device. And during the course of researching NAS I learned more about DLNA, and how well it works with the XBox 360 -- which is the device my family already uses to access Netflix.


And so I hustled down to my local Fry's and bought a Western Digital MyBook Live NAS device, which includes a very nice little DLNA media server called TwonkyServer.

It works like a dream.

And I have objective evidence for this: my wife and kids actually love it and use it (which is sadly not true of every high-tech gadget I've set up at home). There's currently no iPhone / iPad controller for the XBox -- but my wife's Harmony universal remote works great with XBox, and the XBox controllers themselves aren't bad.

I've got all of our videos, mp3s and pictures up on the NAS, and they're all accessible via the XBox 360's (arguably somewhat eccentric) UI. It's one of those things you have to experience to really get "teh awesome" of it.

It actually works better than I had hoped, because DLNA / Twonky allows us to stream videos onto our iPads -- there are several for-pay apps and one free one called MLPlayer Lite. And the XBox controllers themselves aren't bad -- they're RF, not IR, so I don't have to aim it.

So ... I'm almost there. I still have some moving parts, most notably the NAS disk drives. I'm not sure how long it'll be before SSDs are down to about $100 / terabyte, but it's probably just a matter of time. I'll probably never really get it down to no moving parts: switches and speakers will be with us always, I think, and also it's going to take quite awhile before the media industry switches from rotating disks to tiny cheap SSDs and / or totally network-based distribution of content. But this was a pretty significant step forwards.

NEXT: (I do not know when this will happen) will be the integration of some kind of recording ability into the setup, so that I can record and timeshift television shows onto the NAS and bypass the (rather unfriendly) DISH Network PVR. But that's a big topic and I'm not going to go into even my preliminary thoughts here.

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