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Attempting a Digital Media Overhaul: Music, Movies, and Television Any Time, Any Place

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I've been thinking about overhauling my use of technology lately. Most of that is in the form of media consumption - music, television, movies, books, etc. (Side note: This seems to be a good place to plug my article on Saving Money on Movies, Music, Television, and Books - plugged!) Why would I overhaul everything? As my old manager at a tech start-up was fond of saying, "Technology is too difficult for most people." He said it ten years ago and for the most part things haven't changed.

I love technology, and my degree in computer science probably puts me in the upper range of being able to deal with difficult technology. However, I have to agree with my boss. Technology's very nature, to be cutting edge, makes creating an easy-to-use polished product rare. Apple is one company that is great at making technology work well, but it comes at a tremendous price. That price is an article for another day. For now, let's get back to the technology overhaul.

My Media Problem

Our Netflix movie this week highlights one of the issues that we have with our current media set-up. The movie, my wife's choice, is Sex and the City 2. Perhaps it is my Y chromosome, but I'm not interested in the movie at all. It is also a sequel to a movie that I haven't seen and also have no interest in seeing. Alas, we have one DVD player for our two TVs and that's on the "good" TV with the cable box and all our DVR'd shows. Ideally we'd want to be able play movies, DVR shows, etc. on either of our televisions. Comcast allows you to do this, but you have to buy another cable box with more monthly fees. I don't want to pay subscription fees for the rest of my life for this functionality. More importantly, I shouldn't have to since Comcast's monthly service is the initial delivery of the shows. Once I've received them, I should be allowed to watch them everywhere it is technologically possible.

Adding TouchPads in the Mix

With two televisions, things haven't been very complicated. However, I can imagine them getting more complicated very soon. Tomorrow I have a couple of $99 Touchpads arriving at my house. One for me and one for my wife. The TouchPad can be used for a number of things (such as a dedicated blogging environment), but one can imagine them being a portable television. It could have movies or television shows downloaded on it, or it could use the WiFi connection to stream them over the Internet. The catch here is that I couldn't legally use it for my Netflix account (since I don't own the DVDs and I'm just renting them), but I could do them for 7 seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Due to limited space on the TouchPads, I wouldn't store music there, but if I could put them on a hard drive that is connected to my network that would give me the ability to watch them from anywhere around the house - even outside in a hammock. Likewise, I could stream them while I'm away from home at a hotel - or even on the plane if it has wifi. I wouldn't limited to video either, it should be able to stream audio too.

As you can tell, things get very complicated, very quickly.

Another Objective... Make it Pretty

As if that wasn't enough, I have another goal, to make the solution as aesthetically pleasing as possible. This means that I can't have a big hulking computer near the television with 1,000 cords coming from it. Currently, I have a cable box, a cable modem, a wireless router, Ooma for my Free Lifetime Phone Service for $150!, cordless telephone system that uses the Ooma, a Wii, a tower desktop computer, and a DVD player. That's all around the television. Each device typically has two or more cords - one for the power and one for the communication. With the 8 devices (9 with the TV itself), it is an ugly mess. I don't like how it looks, so you can imagine how my wife feels about it.

That said, I realize how difficult this is going to be, so I'll sacrifice some beauty for functionality.

The Technology Overhaul Ground Rules

Before I go into my plan chaotic, rambling course of action, it makes sense to put down a few ground rules. My solution, like everything in my life, has to fit a budget. That means I can't spend $2000 to get a new computer with the latest bells and whistles if I could get buy for $500. I can't bring in an audio-video consultant or use any specialty equipment they might have for the solution. I can't replace my television, which works perfectly fine for a version that has Netflix (or any other service built-in as a way to limit devices.

Finally, my wife should be able to use the solution with as little additional hassle as possible. It should work almost the same as turning on the television and changing the channel today.

Version 0.1 of the Technology Overhaul

(Prepare for chaotic rambling...)

Here are the devices and solutions, I'm looking at and why I'm looking at them:

  • Media Center or Home Theater PC (HTPC) - I'm looking to get something like the Dell Zino. It is the right size to reduce clutter. There are versions that have Blu-Ray and versions with a Quad-core AMD processor. The Blu-Ray option eliminates my need for a DVD player and takes full advantage of my HDTV with 1080P resolution. While the AMD isn't my ideal choice, it should be powerful enough to be a focal point of the system. I'll probably also stress it a bit by converting my existing DVD collection (and probably upcoming Blu-Ray media) into 1024x768 resolution for play on the TouchPad.

    The HTPC is also going to be the source of streaming options such as Netflix, Hulu, MLB.TV and NFL Sunday Ticket (which I'll probably cave and pay the $350 for the season to save on bar expenses).

    I saw one of these on Craigslist for $450 yesterday, but I didn't act fact enough and when I called the seller it was gone. It put me in a bad mood, because Dell doesn't have any Zino's on their site that are both Blu-Ray and Quad-core. I thought I had missed my chance until a couple of minutes ago. I was able to find what seems to have been the last one in the Dell Outlet store with a better processor and double the memory (8GBs vs. 4GBs) for around $550 including taxes and 1-yr warranty (a steal at $6). If you are looking for a similar deal, I suggest that you select a different desktop like an Inspiron (or just click this link) and then on the left navigation where you can select "Family" choose the Dell Zino. When I tried to look for Dell Zinos from the Outlet store directly it said there were none - when there were. Also, refresh your browser often, the store is always rotating stock.

    I will likely sell my existing computer on Craigslist, which will be a nice starter HTPC for someone.

  • HDHomeRun Prime - I've written about how you can end cable box rental fees with HDHomeRun Prime. One of the reasons why I wanted a quad-core HTPC is because this is able to record three streams (or 6 if I want ot ) of televsion content at the same time. I figure that I'll need as much computer processing power as possible for the decoding and writing of the cable content to disk.

    This would replace my Comcast cable box and while it is $250 on Amazon that's a saving of $16 per month. It will pay for itself in the 16th month. After that I'll save about $200 a year. In addition, if I purchase a Xbox 360 (to use as a Windows Media Center Extender) for the television upstairs, I'll get access to my library of shows at a one-time cost instead of monthly Comcast fees.

  • PogoPlug Pro - This devices allow you plug an external hard drive into it and access the data wherever you have Internet access - by just about any device. So this should solve the problem of "How do I watch my Buffy the Vampire Slayer while away on the road or on an airplane?" You can also imagine the number of business uses it would have. CNet had a deal with this last week. It usually sells for $99 (with the streaming software around $129), but I was able to get it for $40 plus shipping. For that kind of price, I can give it a shot and if it doesn't work, likely recoup all the money on Craigslist.
  • PlayOn - One of the problems with the TouchPad is that companies haven't made a lot of applications for it. For example, Netflix uses Microsoft Silverlight instead of Adobe Flash and since Microsoft hasn't written a mobile client (that I'm aware of) for any device, companies like Netflix have to create their own applications. They created an app for the IPad and Android, but not for the Touchpad's operating system, webOS, yet. PlayOn can pair with my HTPC, which can use Microsoft Silverlight to give me access to Netflix streaming video. The downside is that PlayOn is a subscription service unless you buy the lifetime membership for around $80. That's a little pricey for just Netflix access which would be my primary use for it. This may seem to be overlap with the PogoPlug, but PlayOn gives access to streaming media in real-time rather than the shows that are stored on a hard drive.

That's about as far as I've gone at the moment. Frankly that's quite a bit. The total cost for all four pieces should be around $900 (excluding the Xbox for now), which is actually a lot less than I would have expected. Err, make that $1100 with the two Touchpads. However, considering that 2 iPads cost almost that by themselves, this seems like a bigger bargain.

Ask the Readers: What am I Missing?

I feel like I am missing some very cool technology solutions. I haven't been following all the gadget websites like I used to.

Off the bat, I can say that I'm missing a way for my television upstairs to watch shows on the hard drive downstairs. For that I'd need something like a portable computer or device with hard drive and an HDMI out. My laptop would work, for instance. However, that's far from ideal, especially considering that the PogoPlug would theoretically make it available to a connected device up there. The Xbox might have a "computer" mode where it can see the files on my hard drives via the PogoPlug. I don't own an Xbox, so I'll let someone else chime in on that.

Anyone else attempt such an ambitious project? How did it work for you? Let me know in the comments.

Posted on August 29, 2011.

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18 Responses to “Attempting a Digital Media Overhaul: Music, Movies, and Television Any Time, Any Place”

  1. Paul says:

    If you get the 360 as an extender it will be able to play most video types you encounter. You can also use is a as DLNA client and use twonky, serviio, etc to trasncode and stream to it. The one thing you haven’t mentioned is storage for the zino. Accessing a pogoplug is slow. So if you want your buffy available on the zino you’ll want a better NAS or local storage for it.

    My system is,
    Downstairs:
    EMACHINES ER1401-57 hidden behind tv HDMI to TV.
    Samsun Blu-ray For Vudu, Netflix, Pandora, and dvd’s.

    Closet:
    Windows home server 6tb.
    2 HDhomeruns 4 tuners Total, connected to a Mohu leaf antenna.
    ESXI, 1 host is used to run serviio (DLNA Server/Trasncoder) Airplayer stream to IOS.

    Upstairs:
    Xbox 360 upstairs Works great as and extender and DLNA client.
    Blu-ray player for Vudu and netflix.

    Mobile:
    Iphone/Ipad
    Air video to stream all video content.
    Pandora for music.

    • Lazy Man says:

      Paul, thanks for the detailed comment.

      The Zino I bought comes with a 1TB hard drive. I have spare 3TB external hard drive (it is only USB 2.0, but then again my Zino isn’t USB 3.0 either).

      I haven’t received my Pogoplug yet. If it is too slow to stream media then it seems like the product fails one of it’s main purposes. I think I should be able to download the video from my PogoPlug to local storage on something like a TouchPad or laptop while traveling.

      So you don’t pay for cable television and just use the Mohu leaf. I give you props on the saving money front.

  2. Paul says:

    USB 2 is fine for playback.

    The pogoplug / windows connection software is bad. The web interface works well. the PRO can not do real time transcoding. So I’m assuming the streaming software is the pogoplug windows software that makes your windows box act like a pogoplug on the web. The trasncoding will be limited to the box it run on.

    Haven’t paid for cable in 10 years. I can’t swallow the $70 a month for 10 extra channels I’d watch.

    Not sure what the prime will do, but the OTA HD is about 3-10gigs in hour for storage. Depending on channel and broadcast resolution. PBS is tiny. NBC/ABC/CBS/FOX is larger.
    PBS This old house hour runs about 3.5 gigs.
    NFL Game 4 hours recorded about 38 gigs.

    • Lazy Man says:

      My thought was to transcode my videos in two formats. A native and a TouchPad optimized one.

      I say this now, not having tried it, but I can see the Blu-Ray native taking something like 25GB. I imagine I’ll have to look into Xvid or other options. Any advice on this front is welcome.

      An NFL Game being 38GB is certainly up there – wow. At least my 3TB drive could store some 70 of them or so, which is better than what I get with Comcast now. One game will take up a third of my DVR.

      I’ve been trying to research what format the HDHomerun records its files in, with little luck. I think with the Prime there is DRM which would limit my ability to try to transcode it to something else to reduce file size. Of course, I need to research what I’d want to transcode it to.

  3. Paul says:

    Unless you can tell the difference. Encoding it at a lower resolution is best. Most of my rips are at 720 by X. x being determined by the original source format. Do it in h.264 and it should be playable on both.

    I don’t need perfection I’m not one of those people that can see the difference between 720p and 1080p. All my equipment upscales everything to 1080p and it all looks good to me.

    Assuming windows 7. Media center records in mpeg2 and wraps it into a .wtv file.

    All stations/shows flagged as copy freely should be fine to transcode. anythging flagged as copy once will be drm’d to the box that recorded it. BUT an extender (Xbox 360) will also be able to play it if it’s connect to that windows media center.

    • Lazy Man says:

      I can tell the difference between 720p and 1080p, but it depends on the TV size. For example, 1080P and 720P on my 55″ inch TV that sits 8 feet away from me is fairly different. In my bedroom where the distance is 12 feet and the television is 32 inches, it isn’t nearly as noticeable.

      I’ve been thinking about doing it in h.264 as that seems to be most universal. However, I wonder if that’s good compression-wise. It looks like it might be.

      I’m guessing that the .WTV is a Microsoft DRM format designed to frustrate those stealing content and distributing it. That’s unfortunate, because I don’t think there are any .WTV players for the Touchpad. I see that Apple has an HDHomeRun app, so presumably it is able to play the files (or stream them) – though someone commented that the app doesn’t work with HD files at this time (probably due to the Microsoft DRM which I imagine is limited to the HD streams).

      It looks like it will require some research.

  4. Brad says:

    LZ,

    As an early adopter by nature, I usually have something meaningful to add to a gadgets and geeks discussion. This time, I’ve got nothing. Don’t change a thing…a very sensible approach here, imo.

    Brad

  5. Wireless headphones. I usually mow the lawn while listening to a (outside of my market) baseball game or NCIS. It makes yard work suck less.

    • Lazy Man says:

      I’ll have to look into the wireless headphones.

      I was also thinking of wireless surround sound, but the article got a little long and I had to make some cuts. Speaker wire is the worst.

  6. Paul says:

    h.264 is decent at compression. It really depends on the bit rate you choose. Your best best is to take a movie and try multiple format/bit-rates till you find what you like.

    .WTV is the upgrade from .DVR-MS which is Microsoft’s wrapper. It stores the metadata and other information and is suppose to be why you can fast forward and rewind smoothly.

    I doubt you’ll ever find a none windows player for .WTV. ffmpeg has been updated to support .WTV so it’s easy to convert now.

    The HDHomerun app doesn’t play content. It connects to the prime and will stream copy freely channel/shows. The app is suppose to not handle HD streams. Its works for some not for others. the biggest issue is not GPU support to render the 1080i stream.

    “(probably due to the Microsoft DRM which I imagine is limited to the HD streams)” The only time DRM preventing you from reencoding/streaming/sharing .WTV should be applied is when the cable provider/channel/show has added the copy once flag. everything else should should have the copy freely flag and not be an issue. Airplayer, using ffmpeg trasncodes and streams HD .WTV files with out issue. Now if I had HBO it might not work on those. but I’ve never had a issue with the OTA recordings.

    The original implementation of of cable cards by Microsoft flagged everything copy once restricting everything to the original Media center instance. That was change within the first year so it would than follow the flag from the broadcaster.

    • Lazy Man says:

      Well this is very good news. That’s a lot less restrictive than I thought.

      I saw that there were some tools to convert .WTV files. As much as I don’t like DRM, I like to do things legally, so it’s no longer a technical question of being able to convert and transcode the files for download or streaming to a TouchPad – it’s probably more of a legal one – as in, would I be breaking the DMCA or doing anything like that by doing so.

  7. Big-D says:

    Lazy Man –
    I know this can be fun, but here is what I have.
    Basement:
    – Old 52″ projection tv (does 1080i)
    – Blu-Ray player
    – Onkyo 50x 5.1 speakers (with 5.1 speakers)
    – xbox 360 (streams netflix, and is an xbox media center extender, I have a remote for it)
    – xbox is hooked up to Ethernet network for the house

    Upstairs:
    – 37″ Vizio LCD tv
    – new xbox 360s (wireless hookup, xbox media center extender, dvd player, netflix and remote)

    Office:
    – Windows 7 PC Ultimate, Intel Q6600, 12 Gb disk, 500GB Raid 1, 4TB RAid 10, 2 Avertec dual ATSC tuners, OTA antenna
    – Hooked up to my other PCs via 1000 Mbps Ethernet

    I can sit on my PC, or either of my TVs via the xboxes and watch live TV, watch what I recorded via the remotes I have. I just bring up MCE and it connects to my PC in the office and can connect to all my media. My PC is the main and only PC I used when I am in the house. I have an OLD laptop (pentium 700) I use to futz with if I need a laptop anywhere in the house, connects via wireless, RDP into my desktop. Due to 4 tuners I can record 3 shows and watch another. I can pretty much do anything OTA. Never had a problem with trans-coding as I have a quadcore. In fact I tested it and Recorded 4 TV shows once (random crap) and watched a local movie and did not get above 55% CPU usage. My PC also runs other things (VMWARE linux installation, MAC VMWARE instance). It is a nice dual monitor setup. I torrent any shows that I want (www.eztv.it) that are on cable that I want (Mythbusters, Warehouse 13, Game of Thrones) that I don’t have normally on OTA.

    This is not the prettiest setup, but it works for me, and I can do what I want need to do. It allows me the freedom to setup what I want to watch, record, and play at any given time.

  8. Paul says:

    I doubt its against the DMCA. If it was ORB, Zumocast, and other streaming services would be shutdown by now.

  9. Paul says:

    Also for a decent conversion software try
    Xvid4psp
    http://www.winnydows.com

  10. […] a week ago, I mentioned how I was undergoing a digital media overhaul, consolidating all my music, movies, and television and making them available from any television, […]

  11. Slinky says:

    If the only reason you’re stressing over the quad core is to convert your DVDs, do that on your regular computer and copy them over. A quad core on a media center is definitely overkill. Not to mention, you can run that in the background while you check email/surf the web/write stuff instead of going to check on the media center to see if it’s done all the time. You also don’t have to worry about converting while other people are trying to watch things either.

    For our set up, we purchased a wireless mouse and a very discreet case where the whole front is plain black until you flip it down to reveal your drives and all that. Most people don’t even realize it’s a computer. Everything else for our computer was pieces that had been replaced (upgraded) from our personal computers. We did eventually spring for a bigger hard drive, but we’ve never had any performance issues with it. Ours might even still have a single core cpu. I know it doesn’t have more than a dual core.

    • Lazy Man says:

      I didn’t want to slow down my regular computer. In addition, I’m thinking about getting a TV card with multiple tuners to record multiple channels and I’ve read that processing 4 streams of high def television.

      The quad core didn’t cost too much more than a dual core and I figure I’ll get a number of years out of it.

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