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.

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