Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Television *Finally* Begins To Converge (or Goodbye TwonkyServer)

Yesterday, Mr. UPS delivered the following:

A little history: if you're read this blog before, you know that one of my big hobbies of late has been my home "video tank", that is, I've been accumulating lots of video on disk and using DLNA to play movies and etc back on our Sony bigscreen or on the iPad.

R has been wanting a new television for the bedroom for quite awhile, and up until now I've been unable to find a model that meets with (what I thought were pretty simple) requirements: basically, it has to play media (especially MP4 and M4V formats) via DLNA and it has to connect to my home LAN. Is that too much to ask?

Apparently so -- it's only this past weekend that I became aware of the new Samsung UN32EH5300 "Smart TV":

It has built-in Wifi and support DLNA (they call it "All-Share") and the picture is great, too. I realize that snagging the first version of a product can be hit-or-miss, but so far this Smart TV is pretty much perfect.

(Yes, I know I could just use a Roku box or something to do the DLNA / rendering, but I rather like the idea of having everything packaged together into one relatively compact, energy-efficient unit).

For instance, a bonus feature is that all of the "vanilla" features (volume control, changing channels, on / off, etc) are all compatible with our U-Verse remote: there's none of this fumbling about for another remote just because we want to mute the audio. (And that's another problem with the "Roku" solution mentioned above: if I went with a set-top DLNA box, I'd have to deal with three remote controls).

Using the Samsung remote, however, opens up a whole bunch of "Smart TV" functions, most of which I'll never use: there's some kind of Samsung PPV, all kinds of "apps", it'll play NetFlix and VUDU and all kinds of other stuff, there's a web browser, yadda yadda. It's also extremely power-efficient, which is kinda getting to be a "thing" with me of late. But the most important part is the All-Share aka DLNA feature.

Again, as some of you may recall, I have several terabytes worth of video on a couple of Western Digital MyBook Live NAS drives (2TB and 3TB). I'm a little bit embarrassed to say that I'm running out of space. Which leads us to the aforementioned Western Digital My Book Live Duo 6 TB Personal Cloud Storage drive. Yeah, 6 terabytes. It's actually 2 3TB drives that are mapped to act as a single drive. Optionally you can set it up in RAID1 to do content mirroring between the two drives -- but I'm going for maximal storage space since (insane and distrustful person that I am) I do my mirrored backups "manually".

So now I've got 3 NAS drives online, code-named "BabyBear", "MamaBear", and "DaddyBear".

And here's where I've got Good News and I've got Bad News. I'll start with the Bad News:

I've been relying on TwonkyServer 5.1.9 for awhile now, mostly because it was pre-installed on the 2TB and 3TB NAS drives. Path of lease resistance and so forth. But even with tweaks, it was still kinda glitchy. In fact, it was so glitchy that attempting to use TwonkyServer with the new Samsung tended to drive the teevee firmware off into la-la land: it'd lock up so tight that I literally had to pull the plug on it to get it to "reset". That's the Bad News.

The Good News is that the new PapaBear 6TB drive comes with a new, improved DLNA server. At this point I don't know much about it: where it comes from, how to configure it, etc. But the one thing I do know is that it works flawlessly with the new television. It streams MP4 and (unDRMed) M4V files like a champ. I need to do some digging and testing to see how well it works on MKV, AVI, MOV, and other popular formats. But since the vast majority of my video collection is in MP4 and M4V, I'm pretty happy with things at the moment.

Oh, one last thing: the television also has a USB input, and you can plug in a USB thumb drive (or, reportedly, a USB external disk drive) and play movies from that, too. Although it only shows files with an MP4 suffix. I found that changing the suffix from M4V to MP4 makes the files appear, and they play just fine.

I hope that I don't appear to be shilling for either Samsung or Western Digital. Really, the reason I'm posting this is in hopes of helping other people -- and I'm pretty sure they're out there -- find compatible components. Lemme tellya, that is a non-trivial exercise. I don't know why, but there appears to be a rather large "hobbyist" crowd out there who are looking to push the bleeding edge of Audio / Video, and they seem to be almost completely ignored by whoever does the marketing for Sony, Panasonic, LG, etc.

So I hope this proves helpful to people "out there". I'll likely be posting more as I learn more and get more familiar with the hardware. But so far, I'm extremelyl happy -- this is as near perfect a setup as I've managed to build so far.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

We See "The Hunger Games"

Saturday I took the family to see The Hunger Games at the local cinema.

I give it a "meh".

It was an admittedly decent book-to-movie adaptation, which was likely made quite difficult by knowing that 99.99% of the people who will see the movie have read the book at least once (and probably more than once), and if you get any little thing wrong, it'll be all over the blogosphere. I especially thought they did a good job of keeping things moving. For instance, there's a long, nausea-inducing section of the book where Katniss and Peeta make relationship talk that was excised, and that helped a lot.

On the downside: the production design was awful. A lot of the architecture and room interiors seem to have been taken from the ST:TOS school of design: lots of bare flat concrete surfaces, etc. Not a lot of pictures are available online yet, but look at this one of Donald Sutherland as the Evil President Snow:

Is that a cheap set or what?

Also, I've been reading misc stuff talking about all of the fashion design that went into this movie, and -- I just don't see it. First off, the decadent Capitol socialites just looked silly: it was like somebody's 'vision' of The Future was "everybody wears odd-colored hair, eyeshade, and eyelashes". I'm sorry, I'm a huge Science Fiction geek, and I've seen futuristic decadent socialites done well. On Fhloston Paradise in The Fifth Element, for example. Or check out this recent vodka commercial. I could go on, but I guess what I'm trying to say is that, fashion-wise, the movie seemed about as inspired as an episode of Space: 1999.

Secondly: as much as the book and the movie made a Big Effing D out of how Katniss was "The Girl On Fire!", the fire SFX were laughably bad; I was reminded of the "Stonehenge" scene in This Is Spinal Tap. I was expecting something more like Johnny Storm in The Fantastic Four. What was the director thinking?

I also had "issues" with the control room design:

I'm sorry, but you don't put displays flat on a desktop surface. Or maybe the government of Panem was so irredeemably evil that they wanted their tech people to have permanent aching necks and backs.

Sadly, the one piece of production design that I really liked got less than 5 seconds of screen-time, and that was the "hovercraft". It was awesome. Unsurprisingly I can't seem to find a single decent picture of it.

In summary: "meh". It's not a bad movie, and I'm sure that most fans of the book will enjoy it. But it doesn't achieve "classic" status like, say, Titanic or The Matrix or Alien or even Harry Potter. In twenty years it'll probably be as well-remembered as, say, the first Fletch movie.

Friday, March 23, 2012

New iPad - Week One

So I've had a week with my New iPad (64GB black w/ Verizon 4G LTE). I wish I could say that it's rocked my world, but the truth is, New iPad is more "evolutionary" than "revolutionary". I hope that doesn't sound negative, because it's certainly not meant that way: fitting 4x as many pixels into the screen and not raising the price or diminishing the battery life is a pretty darned amazing feat. It's just that the higher resolution in and of itself is probably not going to significantly raise your pulse rate. Maybe an app or apps will appear that truly take advantage of the resolution, but I haven't seen one yet.

My family's reception to the New iPad was pretty much what I expected: they all think it's pretty but the kids are still in love with their new iPhone 4S's and R wants to wait for the smaller form factor iPad rumored to be released later this year.

I was somewhat surprised that the high resolution display -- the one thing I'd really been waiting for -- didn't just amaze and astonish me. I thought it would have me huddled on the couch, speechless save for uttering the occasional Neo-like "woah!", for at least a week. But no.

Don't get me wrong, I like the high resolution, but the new processor is perhaps the most noticable improvement over my original iPad. The device is simply a lot more responsive, and while I used to suffer occasional "stutters" when streaming video, that's no longer an issue.

The 4G LTE / Wifi hotspot is nice, too: I dropped $50 on some bandwidth this weekend while R was driving the family around. Setup was painless (well, the $50 hurt a bit) and the kids were able to connect easily and surf the web on their iPhones as we drove around town. Data speed varied quite a lot (1.0 Mbps to 10Mbps) as we drove around; just sitting here at home I ran a set of speed tests and got latencies running from 57 to 70ms, downloads of 9.3 to 18.0Mbps, and uploads of 1.0 to 4.0Mbps. All in all, better than my home Wifi. I just wish it weren't so darned expensive. I hate metered plans. It reminds me of when I was a kid, and long distance telephone calls were charged by the minute.

(People have asked me why I don't just get a dedicated mobile Wifi hotspot. YMMV, but when my family travels, we tend to carry waaay to much electronic stuff around: computers, phones, games, etc, and of course each device has at least one cable or charger associated with it. So a combo iPad / Wifi hotspot equates to two or three fewer things to carry around and possibly lose or leave in the hotel room)

I'm also pretty happy about going with the 64GB model -- I can always find more stuff to load onto the device. Perhaps my one major unhappiness with New iPad is that they didn't offer 128GB or 256GB models.

The voice dictation feature (also available on the iPhone 4S and maybe elsewhere) is surprisingly nice. I'm beginning to get into the habit of using it for web searches, and I like it a lot.

I've been seeing numerous articles about "consumer complaints" about the New iPad, and perhaps I'm biased, but most of them are really stretching:

  • "It breaks more easily than previous iPads" -- Until someone does a rigorous test and drops 10 or 20 of each model, I consider this complete BS.
  • "It gets hot" -- Well, yeah, quad-core GPUs will do that. As long as it's within tolerances and doesn't cause thermal shutdowns and / or damage the device, I don't see the problem. And, frankly, every serious iPad user I know has a case wrapped around theirs, which acts as an insulator and also protects the device when you drop it. Not "if" -- "when".
  • "It takes longer to charge" -- Debatable, and even if it's true, you can still get 10+ hours of battery life on a full charge, which is pretty freaking amazing.
  • "My Wifi doesn't work right" -- The only legitimate complaint I've heard so far. Personally I've had no problem with it, but if people have Wifi issues, they need to exchange their devices and Apple needs to address the issue.
  • "I use up too much data streaming movies through 4G" -- Well, *duh*!
  • "It's heavier than previous iPads" -- Yes, by 0.1lbs. Give me a break.

I could go on, but I won't. With the exception of the possible Wifi issue, these all remind me of a whining spoiled child: "... but I wanted a white pony, daddy! This one is tan!" A real "consumer complaint" is "the device won't turn on" or "I've got a bunch of dead pixels" or "the touchscreen doesn't work".

My final verdict: it's a definite win. I mean, they added all this new stuff and kept the price the same. That's pretty frikkin' awesome. Realistically, though: it was a pretty easy "buy" decision for me as an original iPad owner. But if I'd had an iPad 2 ... unless I saw New iPad in person and just fell head-over-heels in love with the display, I'd probably wait for "iPad 4".

Any regrets? Just one: I wish I'd gone for white instead of black. I'll live.

(So what will I do with my original iPad? I'm not sure, but I'm thinking that I might hook it up to my synthesizer rig and use it as a dedicated music device).

Monday, March 12, 2012


There seem to be a number of prime-time "adult fantasies" airing of late:

Touch ("A father who's a cop; a boy who can predict the future. Together they FIGHT CRIME!");

Grimm ("A cop who kills supernatural creatures; A werewolf who's gone vegetarian. Together they FIGHT CRIME!");

A Gifted Man ("He's a talented surgeon; she's his dead ex-wife. Together they ... " Umm, I'm not real sure, I've never watched it);

Once Upon A Time ("An evil queen; a fairytale princess. Together ..." They confuse the hell out of me. I've watched the show several times and I think there's giant plot-arc that pulls the series together but I'll be damned if I know what it is).

As I said above: I've watched Once Upon A Time and I have no clue what's going on. And I used to like Grimm but I'm getting a little tired of it: every week it's basically a variation on the same plot. Apparently some of the people who worked on Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Angel work on Grimm; I sure wish the show had more of an "ensemble" cast (ala Buffy) so every episode didn't revolve around the same two guys.

All that said, I'd like to mention an "adult fantasy" that has great writing, an intelligent premise, and solid, deep characters who hit on every level. That show is NBC's Awake. Wait, I'm afraid the show will get lost in this sea of text I've cranked out. Sooo ... I strongly recommend NBC's


(Thursdays at 10pm EST / 9pm CST).

Seriously, it's a great show, one that really pulls you in: Jason Isaacs (aka "Lucius Malfoy") plays a cop who survives a terrible auto accident, only to find himself living in two parallel post-accident worlds, one where only his wife is alive, the other where only his son survived.

Only two episodes have aired so far, but the plot is beginning to unfold and I don't know what's going on, but it looks like it's going to be fun finding out.

(WARNING: television shows that I like have this tendency to go off the air, so catch Awake while you can)

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Drinkin' The Kool-Aid

So today I pre-ordered a "new iPad": this time I'm going 64GB so I'll be able to fit my entire music collection plus apps plus books plus even some videos.

I also went with Verizon 4G LTE capability. This is kind've an experiment, since I've been totally happy with WIFI-only on my first-gen iPad. But given that the "new iPad" -- they have got to do something about that name -- will act as a mobile hotspot, I figure the family can use it when we go on road-trips, etc (lack of Internet has been a problem in the past).

Choosing between AT&T and Verizon was a tough call. In the end I went with Verizon because their coverage seemed better, and reportedly they don't charge extra to use the iPad as a hotspot. And also AT&T already gets waaaay too much of my money -- I want to try the competition.

I only bought one device this time. We'll see how well that goes. FWIW, yesterday R and I got the kids iPhones, so I think their thirst for new gadgetry is satisfied (for now, anyway). R says she doesn't want a new iPad -- in fact, she doesn't use hers much anymore since I got her a Kindle Fire. The Fire has its share of "issues", most notably the battery life is abysmal, but R likes the smaller form factor for reading e-books, which is a lot of what she did with her iPad. So we'll see how that goes. She may see the "new iPad" and change her mind. Or -- what I expect -- she'll hold out until Apple releases the rumored "small form-factor iPad" sometime later this year. I wonder what they'll call that one? "iPad Mini"? "iPad Nano"? "Li'l iPad"? "newer iPad"?

Maybe this is just me, but after Apple's Official Announcement, it seemed like people were ... well, not sad, not unhappy, but ... not happy and elated and stuff. I think this is because many of us had been watching the rumor websites for months before the event, and so -- just like kids who found their parents' stash of Christmas presents -- when Apple finally made the big announcement, it was mostly stuff we already expected. It's our own damn fault, of course, but still ... they could have at least come up with a spiffy name.

All that said, the high-rez screen is the one thing I've been waiting for, and they delivered on that, and so I'm fairly happy. On the other hand: I was hoping for a 128GB version. And it ticked me off that I had to choose between AT&T and Verizon at purchase time. I confess that I am not knowledgable in the area of wireless communications, but -- they couldn't make it one-size-fits-all?

I'll have more in the next week or so after the device arrives and I've had a chance to play with it.

But I really do question their choice (or, non-choice) of name. Calling it "new iPad" begs comparisons with "New Coke". iPad 3 or iPad HD were both fine choices, it beats the hell out of me why they didn't go that way.