Reviews

Aug 05 2008

Review - Life With a Plugin, Episode 14: SageTV - Netflix for SageMC

Today, Life With a Plugin is going down a slightly different path and we're looking at a plugin for SageTV. In particular this plugin works only with the popular SageMC STV for SageTV. Since Mike looked at every Netflix plugin possible for VMC, I thought that I should take a quick look at installing and living with the Netflix addon available for SageTV. I am currently running CenterSage as my SageMC skin which slightly alters the look of the plugin. The menus should look the same for you, only with a different background if you are using one of the many other skins for SageMC.

Overview

The Netflix for SageMC plugin has been around for a few months, but Morgan keeps putting work into it and making it better all the time. This past week version 2.05 was released with some great new features making this the perfect time to try out the plugin. The Netfilx for SageMC plugin has the following major features:

  • Browse DVDs by genre or search by title
  • Browse Watch Now DVDs by genre
  • View movie trailers, descriptions, ratings, cover art and more
  • Manipulate items in your queue (add, remove, ordering, etc...)
  • Launch Watch Now movies including on an extender
  • Download movies and watch them later
Netflix Button
Main Menu
Netflix for SageMC added to my menu. I decided to place it at the highest level so that it would be easy to access. The main menu of Netflix for SageMC

Now if only Netflix would start streaming HD, I'd be just about the happiest guy around. 

 

Aug 02 2008

Review - Life With a Plugin, Episode 13: TVTonic Olympics

Ok, so I know that I just recently covered TVTonic , but then they went ahead and released probably the coolest and well implemented plugin in all of Media Center--Olympics!! If you haven't already noticed, Vista Media Center (U.S. only, sorry international folks) now has under it's Online Spotlight, a central icon for the Olympics. Clicking on that link entered me into the most seamless plugin installation ever for Media Center! Just as a teaser, I was able to install the plugin with just my remote!

Overview

If you read my review on TVTonic, then you will probably find some of these screenshots redundant, as it shares the similar controls and UI of the regular TVTonic. Additionally, by installing the Olympics plugin, you are automatically given the latest TVTonic package as well, whether you want it or not.

olympics9-thumb.JPG olympics10-thumb.JPG
Your Channels hold all your sports
Browse and Add your favorite Events

For years, people have been clammoring for a plugin which offers enticing material, at a price that's reasonable. Well, welcome to TVTonic's Olympics, because they aim to bring you actual Olympic event footage for whatever event you are interested in (oddly enough, Wrestling was not yet available). Add the sport of interest to your "Channels" just like you would an Vidcast, and voila, it will automatically download the events for your convenience....without needing a TV Tuner! 


 

Above & Beyond

TVTonic continues to impress me, but it's not even the actual Olympic Events that have me excited (this is where the geek in me takes over the jock). What really had me floored and smiling ear-to-ear, was the INSTALLATION!! Yes, I said installation. For years I have been BEGGING Microsoft and all its developers, to make installing plugins EASIER, and 10 Foot--meaning, let users install plugins without having to get out their keyboard and mouse.
olympics2-thumb.JPG olympics4-thumb.JPG
Finally! An easy install 10' Option!
Remote can still control the popups

As you can see from the screenshots, they are still not on the same level as Meedio had regarding the gorgeous 10' installations of applications but, considering that NO other plugin I have ever installed has even come close to this, I was still floored. I was able to complete the entire installation, from start to finish, with just my remote! So now even your grandparents will have no excuse to not have the plugin installed and be able to watch as much trampolining as they want.

Falling Short

Not really falling short since it is really light years ahead of other plugins, but to do the installation, the Media Center screen was changed to half screen. Once the installation was over, you can resize the Media Center screen to full screen by clicking the Green Button twice.

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Doh! Not exactly 10' still, but so close!
Monitor the install

Grade: Approved for Everyday Use

If you have even a mild interest in the Olympics, you have to install the TVTonic Olympics plugin! It's arguably the biggest leap Microsoft has taken to make a wildly appealing application exclusively for Vista Media Center, and best of all, for FREE! I hope the installation process catches on to future plugins, as I honestly believe that 10' Installs will dramatically increase usage strictly for the ease of use factor.

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Allocate hard drive space sport by sport
Nothing yet, but events soon to come!


In addition to the very refined and easy to use TVTonic channels and guides, the list of sporting events you can download for free is impressive. I already added Basketball, Boxing and Swimming, and will keep my eye out hoping for Wrestling. Adding sports is one button, and you are able to view the exact event for the exact sport that you want. Might sound "duh-worthy", but if you have not lived through an Olympics with Media Center before, you will learn that NBC televises events in 4 hour blocks (at least), and then mentions ALL of the events covered. So if you just want one track race, you need to record the entire 4 hours!! 

The Olympics plugin will not only make sure you don't miss a single event, but also will save you hard drive space as well. Picture quality was very acceptable as well. While of course it won't be as high as a high definition feed through your digital tuner, for anyone that might forget to record, or is traveling, or simply doesn't get TV reception, then this is a MUST HAVE!

Overall, this is easily approved for Everyday Use, so enjoy it while it lasts. Remember, the Olympics start on 8/8/08 and won't be going forever, so take advantage of this fantastic plugin for Media Center while you can!

Product Vitals

Website: TVTonic.com

Creator: Wavexpress, Inc

Price: Free! 

Jul 31 2008

Review - D-Link DSM-330 DivX Connected Extender

DivX made its name as the first truly popular way to pirat...err....watch compressed movies over your computer. It caused tons of hassles for those of us who had built lower powered HTPC's, only to have lip sync or stuttering problems as our poor left over 400MHz CPU's could not handle it. My how times have changed... DivX is arguably the defacto video compression codec used around the world. For those unaware, DivX compresses a video file into a much smaller file (think what MP3 is to those huge WAV files).

The D-Link DivX DSM-330 is the first hardware venture from the company as they try to join the constantly growing number of set top box devices aiming to hold a place on your entertainment shelf. The idea is simple--deliver not just your DivX video content, but most multimedia content, from your loud media server wirelessly (or wired) to this low powered, silent and small device connected in your home theater. So how does it fare against the more well known and established Windows Media Center Extenders hitting the market with a similar price tag? This $250 device clearly has it's work cut out for DivX, so let's see how it does!

 

divx_connected.jpg

 

Jul 23 2008

Review - Life With a Plugin, Episode 12: TVTonic - The Internet Channel

Video podcasts within your Media Center simply make SENSE! It makes so much sense, that even Microsoft developed their own application to let you enjoy some online programming, for free--Internet TV Beta. That being said, Internet TV really is more of a "push" technology, with very little customization. As opposed to TVTonic, which is geared entirely around full user control of their content.

Overview

TVTonic has been around since the original Windows XP Media Center days. I recall playing around with it back then, but had not touched it for several years, until I was informed by its developer that they have a very nice MCML interface! And you know me and my love for MCML interfaces!

So a brief overview. First, as I'm sure some of you are asking: "What is a Video Podcast??" Per Wikipedia,

"Video podcast (sometimes shortened to vidcast or vodcast) is a term used for the online delivery of video on demand video clip content via Atom or RSS enclosures. The term is an evolution specialized for video, coming from the generally audio-based podcast and referring to the distribution of video where the RSS feed is used as a non-linear TV channel to which consumers can subscribe using a PC, TV, set-top box, media center or mobile multimedia device."

To put it simply: it is a bunch of TV shows which are broadcast over the Internet, and you can stream them to your system on demand. TVTonic is designed to allow you to have the download of your favorite podcasts automated so that you can view the shows whenever you choose, from the convenience of your remote control.

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Playback of HD Vidcasts Overlays with Show Descriptions
Jul 08 2008

Review - ArcSoft TotalMedia Theatre

arcsoft_logo.jpgArcSoft has had the buzz for the last few months in the HTPC Blu-ray player world. Out of the nether regions of photo slide show software, a lesser known company, ArcSoft has developed their own Blu-ray and HD DVD playback solution called TotalMedia Theatre. It includes all the features a player should have and some features only ArcSoft has implemented.

Click on for the full review...

The basics:

  • Full support to play
    • Blu-ray (BDMV, BDAV, BD-Java) [Profile 1.1 and 2.0 support in newest builds],
      HD DVD, AVCHD, DVD, VCD, CD 
    • High definition interactive content, including HDi and BD-Java 
    • High definition multimedia files: QuickTime, RealPlayer, DVR-MS, WMV HD, DivX HD, H.264 HD 
  • Advanced video decoding
    • MPEG-1
    • MPEG-2
    • MPEG-4 
    • VC1 (SMPTE 421M) 
    • H.264
  • Support for advanced audio decoding
    • Dolby Digital, Dolby Digital Plus, Dolby TrueHD
    • DTS, DTS-HD High Resolution, DTS-HD Master Audio [DTS-HD MA in latest builds]
  • Support for music playback: CDs, MP3 CDs, and other music discs
  • Region code setting
  • AACS support for HD DVD and Blu-ray
  • Parental control
  • Smart Stretch
  • Time Stretch
  • Auto Enhance
  • Screen capture (DVD only)
  • Auto-resume play
  • Playlist creation
  • Easy to use: pop-up menu, shortcut keys for playback actions
  • The system requirements:

    For TotalMedia Theatre with Blu-ray and HD DVD playback:

    • Windows XP SP2/Vista 32
    • Intel Pentium EE 3.2 GHz, Intel Core Duo, or equivalent; AMD Athlon 64 or equivalent
    • 120 MB free hard disk space
    • 512 MB RAM (1 GB recommended)
    • Blu-ray or HD DVD drive
    • NVIDIA GeForce 8400 and above, or AMD(ATI) HD2400 and above.
      Notes: AMD(ATI) graphic cards are only supported on Windows Vista 32 at this time. Please contact AMD for updated drivers.
    • 256 MB graphics card or above
    • HDCP compliant display for digital output (HDMI connection); TV or VGA monitor for analog output

    A Look at the Program

    The ArcSoft player has two faces...

    One is a rather typical desktop video player application interface.

    windowed_gui.jpg
    Stock desktop interface

    And then there is what really makes ArcSoft's solution stand out...

    fullscreen_mc_style.jpg
    10 foot Media Center-like user interface for remote/couch use 

    ArcSoft's main claim to fame is that it installs a special Media Center mode. During installation TotalMedia Theatre (or "TMT" for short) is registered with Media Center, and for Vista Media Center the autoplay handler for HD DVD and Blu-ray is correctly registered, so inserting a disc from either format automatically launches the remote controllable 10' version of TMT.

    Windows Media Center Integration

    mce2005_integration.jpg
    Media Center 2005 integration

    The special remote navigable version that launches when called from inside Windows Media Center (both MCE 2005 and Vista versions) is an industry first for PC high definition players. Not only does it launch properly from inside Media Center upon installation, but it responds to the Media Center remote commands just how you think it should.

    The DVD Menu key calls up the HD DVD or Blu-ray discs' popup menu, not the legacy DVD Root command that other applications trigger which results in going to the main menu and not using the advanced interactive pop-up menus of Blu-ray or HD DVD.

    Next, it responds to the number pad on the MCE remote for direct chapter skipping. Other programs have rudimentary support for the common media commands (Play, Pause, Stop) of the MCE remote, but do not have proper number pad support.

    vmc_integration_1.jpg
    Vista Media Center integration

    To get back to Windows Media Center the user simply presses the Back button on the MCE remote. For those of us who are used to the Back arrow being a harmless way to step back a menu in Media Center you have to stop being so "back button happy" because it quits TotalMedia Theatre. Remember that while ArcSoft's integration is nice, it is still really just a well coded face on a separate application so it has to have a command to quit itself and return to Media Center. However, unlike other products, TMT is Media Center aware and correctly restores the Media Center GUI from its minimized status upon exit, making things nearly seamless.

    The "i" Information button of the MCE remote opens the TMT main menu which can be used to jump audio tracks, select subtitles, show the current audio/video format & bitrate information, or trigger the setup. The setup menu is a subset of the full configuration options in the desktop GUI. The options menu is 10 foot friendly and exposes all the important settings.

    fullscreen_info_menu.jpg
    The main menu

    fullscreen_mc_setup_resized.jpg
    The 10' Setup Menu

    Testing and Usage Notes

    As many of our community members know, both Alan and I have had TotalMedia Theatre around through various builds for some time now, and we've come to really like ArcSoft's player for HD DVD and Blu-ray material.

    I've done brief testing on MCE 2005, but our main HTPC rigs are Windows Vista 32-bit based. Alan has a Dell CableCARD box with an ATI Radeon HD 2600XT while mine is a more modest dual-core system with an NVIDIA GeForce 8600GT, this way we can test both ATI and NVIDIA video card compatibilty and performance. Our pertinent testing system specs are listed below. The majority of our testing was done with a pre-release build of version .113.

       Alan's Dell XPS 420  Matt's Modest HTPC
    Memory  3GB  1GB
    CPU  Intel Core 2 Quad Q6600  AMD Athlon 64 X2 3800+
    Video Card  ATI Radeon HD 2600XT  NVIDIA GeForce 8600GT

    Compatibility: 

    After a rough start for Alan due to an ATI driver change breaking things for ArcSoft in Catalyst 8.3, we both generally found TotalMedia Theatre to be responsive, and compatible with a variety of HD DVD and Blu-ray titles.

    We found TotalMedia Theatre to be quite a bit better to use then Cyberlink's PowerDVD Ultra 7.3. I have to say the compatibility of PowerDVD Ultra has been less then stellar. The 7.3 build has issues with Universal HD DVD titles playing properly (it was such a simple, yet odd, issue that was never addressed by Cyberlink, so good ol' Slysoft integrated a workaround into AnyDVD HD for PowerDVD users). ArcSoft's solution has no such issues. TMT can properly use all the "U-Control" picture-in-picture and interactive trivia features of demanding titles like The Bourne Ultimatum; something PowerDVD failed to do properly (it would often quit or just not enable the PiP feature).

    We also both tested it with a handful of Blu-ray discs with little problem. The Blu-ray support is snappy -- BD-Java heavy titles seem to load quickly (certainly much better then any set-top player).

    Performance:

    From my informal feelings in day-to-day usage I feel like TMT uses slightly more resources then PowerDVD Ultra, however the difference is negligible and shouldn't be a concern for anyone running a more modern system. I think this has more to do with running only 1GB of RAM under Windows Vista then anything specific to ArcSoft's software. Alan with his new Dell, for example, reported no such feeling.

    Standard DVD Support: 

    Ahh... the Achilles Heel of an otherwise great product... sadly for now the standard DVD playback is quite poor: it doesn't deinterlace anything, it just bobs all fields. The Hardware Acceleration checkbox is grayed out in DVD mode, which means none of the advanced deinterlacing or decode acceleration is available. Speaking with ArcSoft, they made it clear that this will be remedied, but the current focus is on being an HD player. Really, this is not much of an issue when you consider that Media Center plays DVDs all on its own just fine, and the product is aimed at HD DVD and Blu-ray users.

    Conclusions

    ArcSoft has come into the HD player arena against industry heavy weights and made a name for themselves. Their support representatives are usually quick to respond on their website forums. ArcSoft is also actively working with system vendors to test and improve their product, the same can't be said for their competitors... TotalMedia Theatre is the choice of nearly all custom Media Center PC vendors (Vidabox, S1Digital, PC Alchemy, etc).

    Also most recently they have been working with ASUS to provide proper protected path unrestricted high resolution audio over HDMI for the new ASUS Xonar HDAV1.3 sound card.

    Pros
    Integrates with Media Center!
    Properly supports the Media Center remote control
    Every Blu-ray certification you could want ...from DTS-HD Master Audio to BonusView to BD-Live
    Hasn't dropped HD DVD support from the code base, unlike other players
    Less expensive then competition ($89.99 versus $99.99)

    Cons
    Not a replacement/alternative decoder for standard DVD playing, yet
    No Vista 64-bit support, yet, but it has been confirmed as coming very soon.

    Review Update 7/10/2008: Version .119 has preliminary 64-bit support!

     

    Jul 07 2008

    Review - HP's MediaSmart Connect Extender

    HP has always been involved in Media Center, since the early days of their z-line of PC's which really wanted to be placed into the living room. Times have changed, and things are different at HP, but with the introduction of the Media Smart line of products they have shifted gears in how they attack the market. HP initially released their Media Smart Connect services only as a part of their LCD HDTVs, ranging from 37"-47". The feedback was fairly positive, and HP decided to pull the brains of that MediaSmart TV into an Extender device that could be sold for less than the $1500 of the TV, which is how we got to the MediaSmart Connect which I'll be covering.

    Click on for more.

    HP_MediaSmart_digital_media_receiver_1.jpg

     

     

    Features

      

    Features Overview

    The MediaSmart Connect has an awful lot of features, so let's see what HP has to say about it. As you can see from the chart below, there's not much missing.

    Model x280n
    Features
    Features Play your music, photos, and video from any Windows-based PC in your house on your HDTV
    Direct access to OnLine Media Services
    Integrated Windows Media Center Extender functionality
    HP Pocket Media Drive bay
    Built-in wired and wireless networking - IEEE 802.11a/b/g/n
    HDMI, Component video, and digital audio outputs
    Media playback from USB-based portable storage media
    Spec
    Specifications Video Output: 720p (60 Hz) 1080i
    Video Formats: MPEG-1, MPEG-2 MP@ML, MPEG-2 MP@HL, MPEG-4 ASP, DivX, WMV, WMV-HD, DVR-MS, H.264 (MP4)
    Photo Formats: JPEG, BMP, GIF, PNG
    Music Formats: MP2, MP3, WMA, WMA-Pro, AAC (m4a), Ogg Vorbis
    Online Services: Snapfish, CinemaNow, Live365, and others
    Media Servers: WMP11 or UPnP and DLNA-compliant servers such as HP's Media Vault and MediaSmart servers
    Digital Rights Management: Windows Media, DivX
    Windows Media Center Extender
    Automatic Content Aggregation
    Mass-Storage Media (Read only)
    Color: Piano Black
    Finish: Gloss with "Zen" pattern
    Connectors HDMI Out: 1
    Component Out: 1
    Stereo Analog Audio Out: 1
    Digital Audio Out: 1 (Optical)
    USB Ports: 1 rear, 1 front
    HP Pocket Media Drive Bay: 1
    Wireless: IEEE 802.11 a/b/g/n
    Ethernet Adapter: 1 (10/100-Base T)
    Power Requirement Power Supply: 100-240V AC 50/60Hz
    Power Consumption: 22 Watts
    Dimensions 8.5" x 8.5" x 1.8"
    Weight 3.5 lbs.

    Look and Feel

      

    Hardware Design, Look & Feel

    For the elite price of $350 (MSRP) HP does not skimp on the package. In addition to the MediaSmart Connect Extender you are also given an HDMI cable, Remote Control, 30-day trial to Vongo (versus 14-day if you just signed up) and a $20 gift certificate to CinemaNow. The case of the device is a nice high gloss black, with just the power status light on the front. Very subtle, and definitely conveys a simple yet classy appearance.

    hpc3-thumb.JPG hpc5-thumb.JPG
    Front Panel View with Doors Down
    Rear Connection Ports

    There are two drop-down panels on the front panel. On the left portion there is a single USB port which you can connect any USB device with media content to play directly. Also, there is a button which will allow you to switch between 720p & 1080i. Video output options are high definition only (sorry standard definition fans)--component and HDMI. Sound can be carried through the HDMI cable, however, it can only do a maximum of 2 channel PCM! On the plus side, there's also 2 channel analog as well as digital toslink (S/PDIF) connector which provides the only way to achieve 5.1 surround sound. Multi-room fans will be happy to hear, that all audio outputs work SIMULTANEOUSLY!!

    From what I can tell, the device is basically always on, even when it's in "Sleep." This is probably done to have the quickest bootup possible, as booting from a cold boot took about 50 seconds. Coming out of sleep mode, however, I found that the Connect booted into its MediaSmart interface in ~20 seconds.To get into the the Media Center Extender took ~40 seconds.

       

     

    hpc4-thumb.JPG

    hpc6-thumb.JPG
    Gorgeous, Reflective Gloss Panels (see my reflection!) Much Smaller than Xbox360

    Before you panic that the device is always drawing electricity, check out the power ratings on this thing: in sleep mode the Connect draws about 5 watts. In full usage mode it got as high as a measly 7 watts. Put this against the Xbox360, which in Media Extender mode draws over 105 WATTS, and you'll need to pick your jaw up off the floor as well. As a reference point, the Linksys DMA-2100 Extender draws roughly the same power figures as the HP Connect.

    The worst part of the device, and I bet 99% of the community will agree with me, was the inclusion of the MediaSmart Drive interface. Instead of including a high definition Blu-ray or even a standard DVD-ROM drive in that bay we get HP's proprietary slot for their branded removable hard drives. With all of the HP Connect's networking features I just can't imagine a demand for hard drive storage inside the device. More importantly, with the lack of a clean way to stream ripped DVDs or Blu-ray discs, this forces the user to either purchase an additional set-top disc player or use a combination of ripping and recompressing to be able to play discs with the Connect. For a device targeted at bedrooms and dens I consider this omission the most glaring, especially at this high a price point.

    MediaSmart Interface

      

    MediaSmart Interface

    The MediaSmart Interface is HP's proprietary extender-like UI which works separately from the Media Center interface. Unlike the MCX (Media Center Extender protocol) which is driven by the host Media Center PC, the MediaSmart is driven entirely off of the hardware device itself. What that means is that you do not need a single main server PC to be powered on to browse and use the interface. Note, there is a caveat: you will need a host PC with software installed if you choose to download or view content via CinemaNow.

    The device is UPnP and DLNA compliant, which allows it to interface with pretty much any of media servers you may have in your house: Windows Vista or XP with WMP 11 installed, many NAS solutions, Windows Home Server, and TwonkyVision are just a few of the compliant platforms which the MediaSmart will automatically detect on your network and add the shared media to its library of content to play. If you're not careful, the device will scan around and find some files you might not have wanted showing up in your thumbnail library. Embarassed

    hp1.jpg

    While the idea is great, In an environment with a large collection of files or several computers sharing files I found the media navigation performance to be far too sluggish to use on a consistent basis. Navigating even in the List view became a chore. The interface allows for both list and thumbnail view, and while List view was the quicker of the two, when browsing Videos in thumbnail view it took over a minute. Hopefully this is something that can be optimized in time, as the quicker bootup time versus the Media Center Extender mode makes MediaSmart mode very attractive, especially when I'll only be in a room for a short period of time and just want to play something quickly.

    In regard to the interface itself I must admit to being impressed. I have always been a skeptic of the "included" media browser interface that hardware companies have been integrating into their devices. They tend to feel cheap, sloppy, and without much thought put into them--no doubt feeling that customers will simply be purchasing the unit as an Extender, but then still being able to promote additional, albeit typically useless features. HP apparently took notice of others failures and clearly focused as much on the MediaSmart interface as they did the rest of the device.

    hp2.jpg

    The UI design is simple--a rotational 3D-like interface which you scroll to the right or to the left to navigate through the various options of Videos, Music, Photos, Online Media, and of course, Media Center Extender. Clicking on an icon takes you to a selection where you can browse how you wish to view your content. By default the "All Videos" selection, for example, will show you all the video files the Connect finds on your network. My favorite feature is a Folder view, which lets you select a specific server and then browse the folder to access the exact file you are looking for. There's also a "Search" feature as well. As I mentioned before, if you have a large collection -- stay away from the Thumbnail view, it's simply too slow to be effective. If Music and Photos are more your forte, then the MediaSmart interface works just fine. I found browsing to be simple once I got the hang of the controls, and the various ways of filtering allowed me to get where I wanted to as fast as possible.

    The bread and butter of MediaSmart is in their Online Media Services. The three services included at launch are Live365, Snapfish, and CinemaNow. With a free or premium Live365 account, you can queue up any of the music available. It was quick, and I found the quality equivalent to what I was accustomed to. Snapfish--also free--allows you to view your uploaded photo albums on your TV. CinemaNow is the only offering which requires money, but included with the Connect is a $20 gift certificate, so you can try it and see if the service is for you. The CinemaNow interface was very simple, with none of the fancy trailers and animations that are available through the Media Center version, but it was easy to browse and very quick to make a purchase.

    hp3.jpg

    In my opinion, the most basic yet revolutionary feature of the Online Services is the singular login! Rather than having to login to each separate service with the remote (UGH!!), you simply create an account at the HP website which then asks you for your login (or to sign up) for the aforementioned services sites. Once completed, you login through the MediaSmart with the HP login, and it automatically recognizes your other accounts! If this sounds trivial to you, you probably have never had to use the multitude of Media Center plugins which each require logins from a remote.

    My only complaint with the Services area is the loading bar!! Yes, it's trivial, but for an interface as clean and smooth, I expect more from HP than a bar at the bottom reminiscent of a 1995 browser window. That aside, the combined service offerings, along with proposed future additions, and most importantly the one-time central login, show a step in the right direction, and one I hope Microsoft pays attention to!!

    Extender Interface

      

    Media Center Extender (MCX) Interface 

    Ok...so I know this is probably the part you care about most, so I'll get right to the question on everyone's mind -- No, the animations/user interface of the Media Center Extender session is NOT as good/smooth as the Xbox360. As mentioned before, as long as these Extenders utilize the graphics power of the host Media Center server to render the interface--unlike the 360 which renders it on the super powerful device itself--then I don't see them getting to the fully accelerated eye candy level unless there are serious hardware upgrades, but of course that will make them draw more power, which means more heat and likely more noise as well.

    That being said, I can vouch that the animations (navigating the Start Menu) of the HP Connect are the best outside of the Xbox360. I've used both the D-Link and Linksys extenders, and while those appear like lower resolution static images moving akwardly through the menus, the Connect gives much more of an animated look and feel...not perfection, but much better. If those smooth animations are your number one requirement in an extender, and you don't care about noise or power consumption, the Xbox360 is really your only answer.

    Animations aside, the MCX interface is very quick. Unlike the MediaSmart interface which runs off of the Extender hardware itself, the MCX session leverages the power of the Server, thus navigating around large collections of files is much faster. For those unfamiliar with the MCX session: you can only pair the Connect device to one Vista Media Center, which must always be powered on to access the interface.

    Once you get past the animations, there's little to complain about. While you sacrifice an ounce of animation, you also gain a plethora of video and audio codecs. Most popular are DivX and XviD videos. Similar to the D-Link and Linksys Extenders, but unlike the Xbox360 (which has Divx/Xvid support, but only in the Xbox Blades, not the MCX session), I was able to seamlessly play a selection of those files from within the Media Center Extender interface, both from MyMovies as well as the native Video Library.

    One other note on video playback I thought to mention is that DVD files (.VOB files) still need to be renamed to .MPG to be able to view them in your library, once renamed, I was pleased and surprised to see subtitle controls. Using the HP remote's subtitle button I was able to scroll through all the languages available from the original VOB file. If this is possible in Media Center itself I was never aware.

    Testing plugins was a breeze: I tested a few weather applets, as well as the always popular vmcNetflix and was able to start streaming a movie in a matter of moments. From a performance standpoint, I would rate this at an equivalent level to the Xbox 360 (as it should be, since most of the resources are taken from the Server hardware, not the Extender hardware).

    Besides animation, the only other complaint I have with the MCX interface --and this is more directed at Microsoft, since EVERY Extender shares this problem-- is the length of time it takes to boot into MCX. Unlike your TV or Stereo, which you turn right on and can use immediately, or even my Media Center (which is always on), the Connect, and all other Extenders, take a fair amount of time to get into the Media Center interface. Surely in this world of caches and OS tweaks, there HAS to be a faster way to get straight into the MCX session. This is especially so with a device like the HP Connect which is essentially always at the ready without causing a strain on your electricity bill!

    Remote Control

      

    Remote Control

    As with any remote control, you either will love it or hate it. I remember when I first used the Linksys DMA-2100 remote and could not believe how cheap that felt. You will be happy to hear that the HP remote is very well built. The buttons were separated and seemed of good quality which is important in a device you'll be pressing frequently throughout the day.

    hpc12-thumb.JPG
    hpc9-thumb.JPG
    Slightly bigger than Harmony 890
    Close Up


    The remote is backlit, which is a REQUIREMENT as this thing has a LOT of buttons. Geeks will probably love that part, but it scared my girlfriend at first. HP integrates both the MediaSmart controls as well as the Media Center Extender controls, and then throws in the benefit of being able to control multiple devices (TV, Cable box, DVD, Aux) as well. So the goal is definitely for this remote to be your all-in-one replacement. You may not use it for anything but your TV and the Extender but it's nice to have those features, especially at this price point.

    I found the button layout to be OK -- nothing to brag about, but nothing that shouted absurd either. The arrow buttons are right where your thumb will be, and there are direct button shortcuts around it, such as LiveTV, Guide, Info, etc. A small issue with the remote is that with all the buttons on this thing there was apparently no space to include shortcuts to Music or Photos, which is a disappointment as I'd imagine a lot of people use Extenders for music. I think the remote would have benefited from a more hybrid design --rather than have a button used in only 1 of the interfaces, why not make it a hybrid button that applies to both interfaces and save some space?

    hpc13-thumb.JPG hpc11-thumb.JPG
    Similar Thickness to the Harmony
    Slightly thicker than a quarter

    If you have smaller hands you might not be a fan, as the remote was longer than any other remote I had in my possession. Something else to note is that the remote does NOT use the same IR code as the standard Media Center remotes. I consider this both a good and bad thing. It's great if you have the device in nearby rooms and do not want it to accidentally control your server as well. It's terrible if you lose the HP remote, as you can't just go to the store and buy a generic MCE remote for it to work with. A minor quibble, but worth noting.

    Based on the remote offerings I've seen from other Extenders and similar media sharing devices, overall I was very pleased with the remote. It has the look and feel of a high quality remote, with a nice blue backlight, and reasonable layout. I sometimes wish a traditional company like HP would take some cues from the likes of Apple, and try to NOT throw the kitchen sink onto the remote. It makes it very intimidating and forces the remote to be longer than necessary. 

    Questions and Answers

      

    Questions & Answers

    I took the liberty of pinging our community for any specific questions which users had. While I couldn't get to all of them, here are a few specific ones I wanted to isolate that may not have been pointed out in the review:

    Q: Can you stream direct DVD rips, Blu-rips (.mts) or .mkv rips etc?

    A: First, the bad news, you cannot playback ripped Blu-ray content. DVD content, however, can be played back with some tweaking. As with any other Extender device you can rename the .VOB files to .MPG and they will be visible in both the Extender and MediaSmart interface. The nice part about the MediaSmart interface is you can skip from file to file while playing, versus MCX, which you need to go back to the Video Library to select the next one.

    For a full list of formats that play in both the Connect and Extender interfaces, check out Chris Lanier's writeup of the device.

    Q: Any plugin issues with the extenders? Does Netflix work?

    A: No issues with any plugins I tried. vmcNetflix worked great, as did the included CinemaNow application. For you movie fans, MyMovies worked as well without problems, and played the DivX & XviD files without having to stream (yeah!!!)

    Q: Can you customize the interface?

    A: No. Neither the MediaSmart interface nor the MCX interface offer support for tweaking the interface.

    Q: Does it support screenshots or thumbnail pictures when browsing for something to watch?

    A: Yes. When you browse through folders using the MediaSmart browser you have the option of List View (default) or Thumbnail. Fair note though, if you have a large collection, stay away from the Thumbnail view within there, as it takes a bit to load.

    Q: Any heat related issues with the device?

    A: None whatsoever. I've had the device running for several days now in a warm room and the device is remarkably cool to the touch.

    Q: I heard there was a fan in the Extender?

    A: Yes, there is a small fan behind the hard drive bay, but relax, it's 100% silent. In fact, the only way I could even hear the fan was by placing my ear against the device. This could be the main reason for how the unit stays so unbelievably cool.

    Q: Is HP's media aggregation service incorporated into MC interface or do you have to log out of MC and go into another service?

    A: All of the formats I was able to test played just as smooth within the MCX interface as the MediaSmart. Different than the Xbox360 which you need to leave the MCX interface to play DivX and other filetypes.

    Q: Does it support HDMI 1.3 & high definition audio bitstream formats?

    A: No. The highest quality sound you can get out is 5.1 Sound over S/PDIF. There is a 2-channel analog connection as well.

    Final Words

      

    Final Words

    After including their extender technology strictly with their HP branded flat panel televisions, it's nice to see that HP has put some effort into the Media Center world with the creation of the Media Center Connect device. It is by far the most attractive and refined Extender on the market, including both Media Center Extenders and other media streamers, which helps to justify the hefty $350 price tag. However, there are more than a few benefits included with that price and unfortunately there is not another refined extender on the market (Niveus EDGE not included as that is $1500).

    I was surprised to see a total lack of advanced HDMI capabilities, given the industry buzz of the HP Connect. However seeing as how no other Extender is doing advanced HDMI audio, I'd imagine it's a limitation of the current chipsets being used. The fact that the HP Connect uses nearly identical chipsets to the Linksys and D-Link makes the HP model more impressive. HP is the first to get even remotely close to the smooth 3D accelerated display of the powerful Xbox360's Extender session. While still not to the same level, it's by far the best non-360 Extender experience on the market--probably reason enough for some eyecandy lovers to justify the purchase. Combine that with the well refined non-MCX MediaSmart interface, as well as the bundle of extras included in the box, and it puts this Extender right at the top of my list. [...add a Blu-ray drive, and you'll win my heart forever HP]

    Pros:

    • Silent
    • Can run without a host server connected (MediaSmart mode)
    • Nicest animations from a non-Xbox360 Media Center Extender Interface
    • Full array of wireless networking support without ugly external antennas
    • $20 of free rentals with CinemaNow (Hey, free is free)
    • Low power draw -- uses less than 10 watts!
    • Multi-function remote control

    Cons:

    • Steep Price - $350 is getting close to building your own basic PC 
    • No 1080p Support
    • No Blu-ray support, not even DVD support!
    • No 3rd party remote control ability
    • No standard definition video output
    • HDMI audio is crippled to 2-channel PCM
    Jun 26 2008

    Review - Life With a Plugin, Episode 11: Queensberry Fight Network

    It was recently announced, that the Media Center world has been lucky enough to gain a few new online spotlight programs, including the Olympics & the Queensberry Fight Network. Being a large fight fan, I was excited to see what the Fight Network had to offer, so that's why I'll be covering it first. Having never heard of it, I was anxious to see what it had to offer.

    Overview

    The idea behind the Queensberry Fight Network Media Center plugin is very simple--bring live & older boxing matches to your home theater without having to leave the 10' interface. Sorry Mixed Martial Arts fans, but when they say "fight," they just mean boxing.

    The Network was started in part by Frank Warren, a Hall of Fame boxing promoter from the UK, and the content is primarily focused on boxing matches from England. All the content, however, comes at a cost. While a brief preview of the file is free, to purchase the content costs $2.99, and that's only for permission to view it for 24 hours.

    Fight7-thumb.JPG Fight10-thumb.JPG
    Main, Gorgeous Interface Reminder you have to pay to watch


    Above & Beyond

    As you can see from the screenshots, the interface is designed beautifully. It is extremely responsive and everything loaded quite promptly, which is a must for a streaming video portal. Also, besides the initial installation (I miss meedio) being 2', the rest of the app is completely 10', even for registering an account & paying for a fight.

    In addition to the beautiful design, one can admire what Queensberry Network is trying to achieve with their streaming of LIVE pay-per-view events. Of course, also coming at a cost, but for people around the country who may not have access to view a US PPV event, it could be an ideal situation.

    Fight12-thumb.JPG Fight14-thumb.JPG
    Simple to view purchase
    Conditions to your purchases...err...rentals


    Falling Short

    Ok, so the one thing I know everyone will harp on, is that this site is not Free at all. And to be fair, I'm not opposed to a commercial portal with content you want. However, it would have been nice to have at least a small selection of some free fights to wet someone's appetite. Speaking on behalf of US fight fans, you'd be hard pressed to name fighters other than Amir Kahn or Ricky Hatton, so maybe some free exposure would help for the fighter, as well as for the channel.

    Also a big dissapointment is the DRM restriction--and by restriction, I mean absolute control. Everything costs $2.99, and everything will only last for 24 hours. In this day & age, with so much content able to be copied, burned, shared, or at least kept, it's a big shortcoming that not only do you need to re-purchase fights to watch them, but there's no "buy" option to own it.

    Finally, the picture quality leaves much to be desired. Seems like just standard 480p from the ones I checked out. I'd imagine in time, this would progress to HD quality, but for now, be prepared for some lackluster quality. Again, not a huge deal, but it's amplified when you are required to pay for it.


    Grade: Once A Year

    British boxing fans might disagree, but for folks in the United States with ESPN Classics, we're able to watch classic boxing matches for free, everyday. Having to pay $2.99 for a 24-hour permission to watch a boxing match is frustrating with all the DRM arguments going on. Although, I can appreciate that at least the payment is with US Dollars instead of EUROS.

    The site in general is slick, and I think a great example of the power that lies with the MCML abilities of Media Center. And for fans of British boxing, there does seem to be a healthy amount of fights. If you're in the US but with limited television opportunities, then the ability to stream a live Pay-per-view event could make a weekend wonderful.

    I've said since the beginning, that the key to the Online Portal succeeding is to get large partners, with very compelling content. To be fair to our readers, I'm just not sure a British Boxing portal is going to boost Online Spotlight..well...into the spotlight. I think what it will do, and something I can appreciate, is show other companies the RIGHT way to do things, and hopefully give others the idea to how to reach you, the Media Center community.


    Product Vitals

    Website: http://qfn.miomni.com/mcml/download.php

    Creator: Miomni

    Price: Free to sign up, but $2.99 for basically everything else.

     

    Jun 02 2008

    Review - Life With a Plugin, Episode 10: MC Menu Customiser

    One of the biggest complaints I've heard throughout the years about Windows Media Center is that everything is locked down. Changing the background or appearance usually takes some sort of odd registry edit, and who wants to do that? Well, fortunately, there's some great developers out there who feel your pain & design apps to help you out. 

    Overview

    MC Menu Customiser is a 2' Application (meaning it's meant to be used with a keyboard and mouse) designed for Vista's Media Center. The goal is simple--allow users to rearrange 3rd party application shortcuts from the Media Center start menu. Before getting started, just understand there are inherent limits overall with the flexibility of the interface. If you want total control of your Media Center appearance, there are some great apps such as MythTV, SageTV or BeyondTV, just to name a few, which allow a LOT more control of the appearance.

    But for those of us committed to Vista's MCE offering, Customiser is here to allow us to add at least a bit of a personal flavor. You launch the app, and then drag & drop the tiles you want. You can also rename the two custom rows to anything you want.

    mcc1th.JPG mcc4th.JPG
    Basic Interface
    Using almost every space available!
    May 23 2008

    Review - Life With a Plugin, Episode 9: BigScreen Headlines 2

    BigScreenGlobal is one of the premier Media Center plugin companies in the world. You'd be hard pressed to find another development company which does as much customization with the MCML abilities, while still keeping things simple & easy enough to use. The expectations are a bit different than a lot of apps, however, since all BigScreenGlobal apps are commercial & cost some money. 

    headlines1_th.JPG headlines2_th.JPG
    Browse Favorite Feeds
    Check out your subscribed Feeds of course
    May 14 2008

    Review - Life With a Plugin, Episode 9: MCEfm

    Many people use Media Center to combine their music collections into one. But more & more people are learning the joy of websites like Slacker, Pandora, and the one for this plugin, Last.fm. These sites basically bring all sorts of music to you, based on particular artists that you like to listen to. Best of all, these services are free & legal--the songs are streamed across the internet, not downloaded to your system.

    mcefm2th.JPG mcefm3th.JPG
    Easy to find on the start menu Nothing fancy here...
    May 12 2008

    Review - Life With a Plugin, Episode 8: Netflix Plugins Head-to-Head-to-Head

    Netflix & Media Center users must be excited these days. With Netflix allowing for streaming of movies to your computer, it was inevitable for some fantastic developer to create an MCE plugin which would bring that to your home theater PC with the convenience of your remote control & from your sofa.

    Nobody could have predicted however, that there would not be one, or two...but THREE different Netflix plugins for MCE. So, since we're here to help, we've decided to do a special 10th edition of our Life With a Plugin series, matching up the 3 Netflix Plugins to see which is worth your time--MyNetflix, vmcNetFlix & NetflixMC.

    Due to the nature of this review, I'll be doing things a bit different, but hopefully keep things short & clear who the winner(s) are.  Click the title for the full article.

    vmcnetflix2th.JPG vmcnetflix3th.JPG
    vmcNetflix's Smooth Interface Various Play options within vmcNetflix
    Apr 02 2008

    Review - Life With a Plugin Episode 6.1 - Yougle 0.4.0 d

    Ignorance Is Bliss has been hard at work for our HTPC community and has recently released an update to his Yougle plugin. Of course, that means we need to provide an update to our "Life With A Plugin" series! As mentioned in my previous episode, Yougle takes information typically found on a webpage and presents it in a 10' UI for your remote viewing pleasure.

     

    What's New

    The same great plugin you know and love still exists. Media from You Tube, ICanHasCheezburger and Flickr is still available. His major tweaks to the plugin include some navigational tweaks, a few setting changes, and for the risque an adult source or two.

    yougleburger_thumb.jpg youglevideos_thumb.jpg

    As you can see, Yougle now has a look and feel that is closer to your traditional VMC plugins. This is a pretty large improvement in the usability of this plugin. Kudos to IIB for listening to the community and making these great changes.

    The default plugin comes installed with only a few sources.  However, by clicking on the plus sign at the end of each source, you can choose other sources.

     

    Above & Beyond

    He has made a lot of little tweaks in this release and I am very satisfied with the navigational changes he has made. Of course, my previous sentiments about his great programming skills still prove true.

    yougle settings_thumb.jpg youglevideos_thumb.jpg 

     

    Falling Short

    No real major complaints. Currently Yahoo music is not working, but that is due to website changes rather than his programming skills. That is the only real downside of scraper plugins such as this. As time goes on, I expect the community to help fill this void and keep sources current.

     

    Conclusion 

    I do want to mention that this is a great plugin that provides a nice framework for great possibilities. So let's get in there and start developing. No selfish motive there :).

    Grade: Approved for Everyday Use

    Absolutely! Small navigational complaints aside, this is a great plugin that I spend time with everyday. Hey, even I don't mind looking at lolcats every once in a while :). I think this is a no brainer and hope to see more development in the future. 

    This is a freeware plugin. If you do download it, I encourage you to donate to the project.

     

    Product Vitals

    Website: http://www.push-a-button.com.au/products/mce/vista/youglevista/index.php

    Creator: Push-A-Button

    Price: Free

    {wmv}yougle4cwmv{/wmv}

    Feb 28 2008

    Review - Life With a Plugin, Episode 7: Remote Scheduling

    Remote Scheduling allows you to view your TV guide listings & modify your Media Center recordings from anywhere in the world. Currently, there's only two real players in this category. One is Microsoft's Remote Record, and the other (Webguide), well...got bought out by Microsoft. Both are useful in their own way, and I've found a happy medium in using both at the same time.

    OVERVIEW

    The first & probably the most well-known plugin for scheduling recordings is Webguide4, a do-it-all plugin that lets you schedule your shows, manage your recordings, and even stream them! I've done a complete review of the application, which hasn't changed much since. 

    webguide-0012.jpg webguide-0014.jpg
    Main screen interface
    View & Use the Guide listings

     

    On the other spectrum lies MSN's Remote Record, a much more minimalistic approach to TV Scheduling. While Webguide4 was built from the ground to revolve around Media Center, Remote Record is much more of an app designed around the website. The website that controls it all is http://TV.MSN.com . It's a simple URL to remember, and the interface has improved in time.

    That being said, it really is a love or hate relationship with that website. It's very busy, and wastes an awful lot of bandwidth with TV show promotion banners streaming all across it. Once you get to the guide things are nice and clean, but it's not nearly as clean & uncluttered as Webguide. Regarding speed, it depends on your connection - Users with fast internet at home will see a very speedy response with Webguide...but if you're on the slower end of the spectrum, you will appreciate leveraging Microsoft's bandwidth and efficiency.

    ABOVE & BEYOND

    Webguide easily goes above & beyond. The designer behind it spent years developing and improving it, and did not stop with being the most popular TV scheduling app. He added complete control of your Media Center & recordings, and then even threw in some streaming abilities for good measure.

    Remote record does little extra. It's a TV scheduling application, and that's all it does. Nothing more, nothing less. This isn't necessarily a knock on the plugin as it does what it does, well.

    EDIT 2/28:

    Unlike previous versions of Remote Record, the current implementation DOES SUPPORT HD Channels. So if you're used to recording ESPN-HD on channel 724 (as in the Bay Area), then that channel is available to record via Remote Record. Kudos to them for fixing that! 

    FALLING SHORT

    Webguide, in the current condition, is an amazing plugin. The only fault with it, is that it does try to do a lot, which is intimidating to new users. In addition to that, if you don't have access to your firewall/router, then you will not be able to use it from outside your home, like you CAN with Remote Record (That's actually why I use both...Webguide for when I'm on my LAN, and Remote Record when I'm at work).

    MSN Remote Record fails in it's lack of integration with Media Center. I think this is due to the fact that it wasn't designed at all by the Media Center team, and it showed in the years it's taken for the plugin to actually become reliable enough to recommend. Initial users were left with a very bad taste in their mouth as the application was very unreliable and would frequently not be able to connect to the servers. Time has improved both the service & the guide speed...but first impressions are hard to forget...and heck, it's still HIDDEN in the website (Sign in > TV Listings > Small box on the right side)

    tvmsn1.JPG tvmsn2-thumb.JPG
    Guide TV Listings View Series/Show Information

    GRADE: Approved for Everyday Use

    Bottom line with both of these applications--If you frequently forget to schedule shows, or people at your work are always telling you of great shows you should be watching...or your significant other forgets that Tom Cruise is on Oprah today--then either of these applications will be required.

    As I mentioned earlier, both are Free, so there's really no reason why you can't use both, and I actually recommend it. In case something happens with your internet at home, Remote Record will continue pinging the network until your system comes back online...a valuable tool in the event that you try to connect during a power outage. That way, you don't have to remember to record.

    The flexibility of giving you control over your recordings from everywhere makes either MSN Remote Record or Webguide4 easily given the rating of "Approved for Everyday use!"

    Product(s) Vitals

    Websites: TV.MSN.com & ASCIIExpress.com

    Creator: Microsoft & Doug Berrett

    Price: Free & Free! 

    Feb 25 2008

    Review - Life With a Plugin Episode 6: Yougle Vista

    The future of Media Center no doubt lies in its ability to present online media from the 10' UI. While the Media Center group has done some work with extras such as Internet TV and the Fox Sports collaboration; there remains a lot of media we want to see. Yougle steps into fill some of this void.

    Overview

    Yougle allows you to watch video and other media from several sites including You Tube, Google Video, ICanHasCheezburger and Flickr. The product is constantly in development and are always adding new sources for your entertainment needs.

    yougle1_thumb.jpg
    Yougle - Video Selection
    yougle2_thumb.jpg
    Yougle - Video Selection

    Above & Beyond

    The first thing you'll notice is the developer really knows his way around MCML. All the animations are done extremely well and fit right in with the Media Center look and feel.

    The biggy for me is including Yahoo Music videos :).  I am a bit of a music video buff and this add-in makes it extremely easy to see any of the Top 100 music videos.  

    There is also an SDK available if users wish to try their hand at adding their own sources. 

    yougle3_thumb.jpg
    Yougle - Inside Yahoo Music

    yougle4_thumb.jpg
    I can haz Yougle?

    Falling Short

    The navigation is a bit unusual.  You use the plus signs and arrows to navigate around the program which is quite a bit different that having your sort menu above your media like most other plugins.  Once you realize the navigation scheme, it is no big deal, but having the sort menu up top would eliminate a lot of the confusion.

    Keeping in mind this program is in alpha state, I do hope to see more sources in the future. Perhaps even a way to add your own podcast feeds? or daily comics?

    Grade: Approved for Everyday Use

    Absolutely! Small navigational complaints aside, this is a great plugin that I spend time with everyday. Hey, even I don't mind looking at lolcats every once in a while :). I think this is a no brainer and hope to see more development in the future. 

    This is a freeware plugin. If you do download it, I encourage your to donate to the project :).

    Product Vitals

    Website: http://www.push-a-button.com.au/products/mce/vista/youglevista/index.php

    Creator: Push-A-Button

    Price: Free 

    Feb 10 2008

    Review - Antec Fusion Black 430

    The search for a great frontend has met its match today in the Antec Fusion Black.  Sporting a black front panel, LCD with integrated IR receiver and a quiet design, what more could you need?  Read on to find out.


    tn_fusion_lcd_off.jpg

    Intro

     

    Antec is a name that most have heard before.  They have a number of great computer cases and power supplies, as well as many other products.  Here is what they have to say about themselves.

    Antec, Inc., is the leading global brand of high-performance computer components and accessories for the gaming, PC upgrade and Do-It-Yourself (DIY) markets. Founded in 1986, Antec is recognized as a pioneer in these industries and has maintained its position as a worldwide market leader and international provider of efficient, quiet, and reliable products. Antec has also achieved great success in the distribution channel, meeting the demands of quality-conscious system builders, VARs and integrators.

    Antec’s offering of enclosures includes a large range of cases, such as its technically advanced Performance One Series, cost-effective New Solution Series and server grade cases designed for the needs of all workstation and server markets. Antec’s products also include front line power supplies such as its TruePower Trio series, Quattro series, and EarthWatts, the most environmentally friendly power supplies available. PC gamers are an increasingly significant consumer of performance components, and many Antec products are geared toward the gaming demographic, like the Nine Hundred, the premier gamer enclosure. Antec also offers a computing accessories line comprised of many original products, including its patented LED Fans and Notebook Cooling solutions.

    Antec is headquartered in Fremont, California, with additional offices in Rotterdam, The Netherlands. The company’s products are sold in more than 30 countries throughout the world.

     So let's go check out one of their newest offerings, the Antec Fusion Black 430.

    Specs

    Today on the bench, I am going to explore the Antec Fusion 430.  Part of the newly renamed Veris family, it is the newest of the Fusion series.  Here are the specs from Antec:

    • Aluminum plate front bezel with Liquid Crystal Display (LCD) and Volume Control to work with media center applications.
    • Windows MCE & VISTA® compatible IR receiver included for use with remote control
    • Triple chamber structure to separate heat and noise of power supply, hard drives and motherboard for cooler and quieter operation
    • Quiet high-efficiency 430 Watt ATX12V v2.0 power supply with universal input and active PFC
    • Removable HDD brackets with extra soft silicone grommets to reduce vibrational noise
    • Advanced cooling system:
      - 2 x sidemounted 120mm TriCool 3-speed fans
    • Low profile desktop height to fit in any environment
    • 3 Drive Bays
      - Front Accessible: 1 x 5.25"
      - Internal 2 x 3.5"
    • 4 Expansion Slots
    • Motherboard: Micro ATX form factor (9.6" x 9.6")
    • Front-mounted ports for easy multimedia connections
      - 2 x USB 2.0
      - 1 x IEEE 1394 (FireWire® i.Link®
      - Audio In and Out
    • Durable 0.8mm cold rolled steel construction
    • Unit dimensions:
      - 5.5"(H) x 17.5"(W) x 16.3"(D)
      - 13.97cm(H) x 44.5cm(W) x 41.4cm(D)
    • Net weight:
      - 18.7 lb
      - 8.5 kg

    So you might be asking how this one is different from the previous offerings such as the original Fusion and NSK2400 cases.  Here's a nice little table for you:

      NSK2400 Fusion Fusion 430 Fusion Black 430
    Front Case Color Silver Black/Silver Silver Black
    LCD/VFD None VFD VFD LCD
    IR None None
    Integrated
    Integrated
    Volume Knob None Integrated Integrated
    Integrated

    So let's get on to the fun part.

    Outside

    The box from Antec came in nice sturdy packaging.  The delivery man tried his best to ding it for me but failed miserably.  The shipping box is a very think cardboard that took a little bit of damage, but the box for the case itself wasn't even dented.  The front of the inner box has a nice glossy picture of the front of the Fusion case, while the back of the box tells you about the main features in three different languages.   Inside the box, the case was well packed in foam and even the volume knob had a block around it to ensure that it did not get damaged during shipping.  Antec gets very good marks here.

    tn_fusion_shipping_box.jpg tn_fusion_box_front.jpg
    Fusion shipping box Fusion case box front
    tn_fusion_box_back.jpg tn_fusion_packaging.jpg
    Fusion case box back

    Fusion packaging

    Next is the outside of the case itself.  The Antec Fusion Black 430 is an all black HTPC case as the name indicates.  On the front of the case, from left to right, you will find an LCD screen with an integrated IR receiver (more detail about these later), a Firewire port, two USB ports, headphones in, Mic in, reset and power buttons, and a volume knob.  Mostly this layout is the same as the previous Fusion, the main difference here being that the VFD was replaced with an LCD screen with integrated IR receiver. 

    As you can see in the photos below, there are a few changes since the original case in this series, the NSK2400.  First is the addition of the LCD screen/IR receiver and volume knob.  Also added was a firewire port, and the stealthed optical drive bay.  Plus the color was changed from black and silver to all black.

    tn_fusion_front_top.jpg tn_fusion_front.jpg
    Antec Fusion  Fusion front
    tn_fusion_nsk2400_front.jpg tn_fusion_knob.jpg

    Fusion and NSK2400 fronts

     Fusion knob

    On the back you will find the rear I/O panel, four expansion slots with air vents, and the power supply.  The PSU mount has extra holes so that you can mount the PSU "right-side-up" or "up-side-down".  Note that the power supply included with the Fusion Black 430 has an 80mm fan on the back and no 120mm fan on either side, so it doesn't really matter which way it is mounted.  As you can see from the second shot below, the rear of the Fusion hasn't changed much since the original NSK2400 case.

    tn_fusion_back.jpg tn_fusion_nsk2400_back.jpg

     Fusion back

     Fusion and NSK2400 backs

    On the right side of the case is where you will find the main cooling, two 120mm fans.  I will go into more detail on the cooling scheme later, but for now I will say that both fan locations came populated with Antec TriCool fans that work well.  The left side of the case has some ventilation holes for the PSU chamber which will be described later.  The top has venting where a video card would sit.  The bottom has venting for the hard drive chamber.  Also of note on the bottom are the two silver feet with black rubber tips in the front of the case that are visible from the front looking very stylish, and the two white rubber feet in the back that help reduce vibration noise.  One more thing that I will point out on the bottom that will be discussed later are the rubber grommets for mounting the hard drives.

    tn_fusion_fans.jpg tn_fusion_side.jpg
    Fusion right side
    Fusion left side
    tn_fusion_top.jpg tn_fusion_bottom.jpg
     Fusion top
    Fusion bottom 

    Inside

    The inside of the case is arranged very well using three chambers to optimize cooling performance.  The main chamber is just large enough for the motherboard and the two side fans with openings into the PSU and hard drive chambers for cable routing.  Towards the front of the main chamber are two cable tie wraps that help with cable routing.  As mentioned previously, to one side of the main chamber are two 120mm fans.  If both fans are not needed for system cooling, there is also an included plate that can cover one of the fan openings.  On the rear wall of the main chamber are four expansion slot covers with openings, a mesh opening for the airflow, and a baffle to route air over the CPU area.  The baffle comes in four parts allowing you to use only as many pieces as needed to reach the heatsink on your CPU.  On the wall between the main chamber and the PSU chamber is a panel that opens to allow cable routing and closes to seal the chambers from each other for more efficient airflow.

    tn_fusion_chambers.jpg
    System chambers
    tn_fusion_in_front.jpg tn_fusion_in_back.jpg
    Fusion inside looking to the front Fusion inside looking to the back
    tn_fusion_psu_cable_open.jpg tn_fusion_psu_cable_close.jpg
     PSU chamber open PSU chamber closed
    tn_fusion_front_cables.jpg
    Front panel cables 

    In the front of the case is the hard drive chamber.  Antec put a lot of energy in designing the hard drive mounting.  The hard drive sits in a well padded holder.  It is padded on every side.  The drive is attached with rubber grommets that isolate vibration noise from the rest of the case.  To fully secure the hard drives in the case, a second piece is attached to the top of the drive with rubber grommeted screw holes, which is then itself fastened to the case with four screws.  In order to add or remove a drive, eight screws need to be removed from the top of the case, and if used, four screws need to be removed from the bottom of the case, assuming both drives are used.  The problem with this setup is that in order to remove the screws from the bottom of the drive attachment, you need to have access to the bottom of the case.  This can be an issue if using the case in an entertainment center.  Fortunately, the drive sits securely without the screws in the bottom.

    The optical drive bay is removable.  The top bay can be used for mounting something internally but is not accessible externally due to the LCD screen.  The lower bay is used for mounting an optical drive.  The bay is stealthed on the outside with a door that drops down when the drive is opened.  There is a fixed point for mounting an optical drive in the lower bay that ensures that the drive lines up flush with the front of the case so that the eject button works properly.

    tn_fusion_hdd_mount.jpg tn_fusion_dvd_bay.jpg
    Fusion HDD mounting area
    Fusion optical bay

    The PSU used in the Antec Fusion is a 430W model built by Antec.  The power rail specs on the PSU are as follows:

      Max Min
    5v 25A 0.3A
    12v1 16A 1A
    12v2 16A 1A
    3.3v 25A 0.5A
    -12v 0.8A 0A
    5v SB 2A 0A

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

    The power supply chamber consists of the optical drive bay and the PSU.  Air moves in from the side of the chamber and out the rear via the 80mm fan inside the power supply.  The PSU sits on top of four rubber feet that dampen vibrations.  There are another two rubber feet located on top of the optical bay that also dampen vibrations.

    tn_fusion_psu.jpg
    tn_fusion_power_cables.jpg
    PSU info PSU cables
    tn_fusion_psu_chamber.jpg tn_fusion_psu_rubber.jpg
    PSU/Optical chamber PSU mounting points
     

    Airflow

    Antec spent a lot of time designing the cooling aspect of this case and it deserves special mention.  As mentioned earlier, the PSU chamber is fairly simple: in on the sides, out the back of the PSU.  Cooling in the hard drive chamber is also fairly simple.  Air comes up through the holes under the hard drives, over the wall between the chambers and out through the closest fan.  The main chamber is a little bit more involved.  In the CPU area, air comes in from the grid of holes above the rear I/O panel, forced towards the CPU by the plastic bezel and then out the two fans.  If you have a video card installed in the case (represented by the blue block), air comes in via the slotted expansion brackets, around the video card, and then out the fans.  It is all very efficient and all the major components get covered.  The only potential dead zone is up by the LCD/optical drive but that generally doesn't heat up much.

    tn_fusion_airflow.jpg
    Airflow in Fusion case

     

    LCD/IR

    Here are a few screenshots of the setup of the software that is included with the Antec Fusion 430.  It's fairly a basic setup.  The main thing to point out here is that one of the screens has a slider bar for contrast that I had to play with on my setup because the default "contrast" set the background of the LCD so bright that I couldn't read the text from more than about three inches away.  I don't think I would call this contrast either.  It appeared to control the backlight brightness, not contrast.  It took me a bit of tweaking to find a comfortable setup of enough brightness to be able to read it from any distance but not too much brightness that the background would overpower the text.  Take your time and find something that suits you.  I will also note that there are newer drivers available on the Antec website that have a few more options.

    tn_fusion_lcd-config1.jpg tn_fusion_lcd-config2.jpg
    Common info setup
    Auto mode setup
    tn_fusion_lcd-config3.jpg
    tn_fusion_lcd-config4.jpg
     Graphic Equalizer setup
    System Information setup
    tn_fusion_lcd-config5.jpg tn_fusion_lcd-config6.jpg
     Media Information setup
    Email setup 
    tn_fusion_lcd-config7.jpg tn_fusion_lcd-config8.jpg
    News setup City Information setup
    tn_fusion_lcd-config9.jpg tn_fusion_lcd-setup1.jpg
    System setup
    Equalizer message

    I will also note that while not officially supported by Antec or Soundgraph, the Linux community has shown some good talent again in reverse engineering the LCD protocol and created some Linux drivers that, while still in development, work very well. 

    One of the features that I really like about the Antec Fusion 430 is the ability to turn on the computer via the remote.  In order to make use of this feature, the power button is fed into the LCD panel, which is then connected to the motherboard with red and black cables (individual connections).  In my case, the connection from the power button to the LCD panel was not already made from the factory, but I have been informed that it will be done in the future.  In fact, in my case, the jumper for the power button was too tall to fit into the LCD housing when it is screwed in so I had to use a knife to cut into it so that it would fit.  Again, this should not be an issue for anyone in the future.

    The LCD panel itself connects to the system via a USB port.  In order to help keep a clean looking system, Antec has included an adapter cable that allows you to connect the LCD screen to an internal USB header.  I tested the panel both onboard and external USB and it worked fine under both conditions.  Another thing to note is that the LCD panel gets power from a three pin connector that connects to a special split off of the main motherboard power cable.  If you plan to change PSUs in the future, you will be required to purchase a special adapter from Antec in order to use the LCD panel with it.

     

    tn_fusion_lcd_off.jpg tn_fusion_lcd_back.jpg
    LCD screen off
    LCD casing with hole cut for power button
    tn_fusion_lcd_in_front.jpg tn_fusion_front_panel_in.jpg
    LCD panel internals with IR receiver
    Front panel internals
    tn_fusion_lcd_scroll1.jpg tn_fusion_lcd_scroll2.jpg
    LCD before adjusting scroll speed and contrast
    LCD before adjusting scroll speed and contrast
    tn_fusion_lcd_scroll4.jpg tn_fusion_lcd_scroll5.jpg
    LCD after adjusting scroll speed and contrast LCD after adjusting scroll speed and contrast

    The IR receiver is integrated into the LCD panel and runs through the same USB connection (as well as the volume knob) as the LCD.  The IR receiver is setup to recognize RC6 codes which are used with the MCE remotes as well as the IMON PAD remote.  It does not recognize other formats such as the RC5 codes used by my Hauppauge remote.  In order to use my remote with this IR receiver, I needed to reprogram my Harmony 670 to emulate the MCE remote instead. 

    Conclusion

    If you're looking for an MATX HTPC case that looks good and is extremely quiet, you should look no further.  While slightly large for some entertainment centers, the Fusion 430 does a very good job creating a quiet HTPC for the livingroom.  The three chamber design makes system cooling very effective.  The included 120mm fans work very well and have switches that can adjust airflow/noise to suit your needs.  The included power supply is very nice.  430W is more than enough for almost any HTPC setup and it is very quiet and efficient as well. Even with my noisy old 5GB hard drive (yes you read that right, 5GB, not 50GB, not 500GB), once everything was installed and the lid was in place it was smooth (quiet) sailing for me. 

    The LCD screen I didn't find to be that useful from more than a few feet away because it was hard to read most of the time.  The display is nice but it's just too small to read from far away (either that or I need a stronger glasses prescription).  It worked very well from up close though once I adjusted the scroll speed and contrast.  And in my personal opinion, I wish that Antec had used something else as the default font because the default clock is kinda ugly, if you ask me.  Once the drivers were setup though, it wasn't really a problem because the font is one of the things that can be changed.

    It would have been nice if the IR receiver supported more than the MCE and IMON PAD remotes.  I got lucky since I could reprogram my Harmony 670 to work with it, but it was still an unnecessary hassle.  However, the ability to be able to turn on your PC with the remote control is a godsend for me.  The volume knob was generally left unused because, although it looks nice, I would much rather adjust the volume with my remote than get up off my couch and turn the dial.

    Pros:

    • Cool-/Quietness
    • Looks
    • LCD/IR
    • Volume knob
    • Included quality power supply
    • Remote power on/off
    • Build quality

    Cons:

    • Size
    • Some reliability issues with LCD panel
    • LCD viewing
    • Limited IR code recognition
    • Bottom hard drive mounting hole access

    While there might be some quirks with the Antec Fusion Black 430, it is definitely a good case overall and one that I would recommend to all of our readers.

    I would like to thank Antec for providing the review sample. 

    Jan 30 2008

    Review - Life With a Plugin, Episode 5: MiraWorldTV

    A large buzz has been surrounding Internet TV since you could first hookup your computer with internet into your television. It got so large that even Microsoft couldn't continue to ignore it and actually started shoving it down users throats (don't remember anyone asking you if you wanted that "Internet TV beta" app on your TV+Movies menu, do you?). That being said, there's little to not like about internet TV: It's free, it's free.....and well, with writers strikes, you can never have enough to watch on the tube.

    Mira1-thumb.JPG MCEWeather2-thumb.JPG
    Easy to find on the start menu View thumbs of popular streams

    Overview

    MiraWorldTV is a small application I came across which provides a very attractive 10' Media Center interface giving you access to a number of internet TV streams across the World. The plugin provides graphical icons and a brief description of channels available online. You can choose to view the available options based on Country, Category, or just create your own group of favorites to watch. There is a large number of channels available, and accessing them is very simple.

    Keep in mind, the resolution on these freebie feeds is average at best, think more along the lines of YouTube quality. But, the interface itself is very attractive, using MCML really makes it feel like a part of the entire Vista Media Center experience. Browsing through the various channels couldn't be easier and the number of channels available is equally impressive.

    Above & Beyond

    So MiraWorldTV does exactly what it sets out to do and gives you a large number of channels across the world to watch. But what if you have a specific TV feed that you'd like access to from the beautiful interface? The folks at MiraWebWare.com thought of that and added a manual add section where you input all the information you want, and then they'll test & add it to their database.

    Additionally, it's nice to see an application actually take advantage of MCML (Media Center Multimedia Layer), and the difference is quite noticeable from apps that use the older API. It's good to see small developers embrace the new layer, as it really makes the plugin feel like a part of the Media Center experience.

    MCEWeather1-thumb.JPG MCEWeather2-thumb.JPG
    Short but sweet channel info Multiple ways to view channels

    Falling Short

    So the idea sounds great, and I think the MiraWebWare guys have done as good as they could given the control limitations with what they're working with. They do not control the streams, so they have little to do with the performance, quality, and even availability. That means, that on any given day, the stream can just stop working, or suddenly change.

    In addition to that, not all the streams are as current as others. I hopped on a few streams that were from a year ago...but on the bright side, I now know what "Sportscentre" in Canada is like. As for quality, it definitely depends on your internet speed, so dial-up users need not apply.

     

    MCEWeather1-thumb.JPG MCEWeather2-thumb.JPG
    Sort by Countries Add your stream to their database

    Grade: Once a Month is Plenty

    I'm giving this application the 2nd best grade available, for the simple reason that, well....it's so simple. It's easy to use, and does exactly what it accomplishes. In my testing, the quality & performance was comparable to that of Microsoft's Internet TV beta, but offered a much larger collection of streams from around the world. Being Cuban, I was very impressed to see a Live TV news stream from Cuba. The global reach of this software means that you can travel anywhere in the world, and still stay connected...at least somewhat. And of course, the MCML interface is gorgeous & integrated seemlessly.

    Product Vitals

    Website: Mirawebware.com

    Creator: Mirawebware

    Price: Free! 

    Jan 21 2008

    Review - OrigenAE S16V Review

    It has been over two years since we first saw the oft-hyped S21T demonstrated at CES. The curved chassis caught our eye and we knew big things were ahead with the "S" series of cases from OrigenAE. Our first look at the "S" series will not be the opulent $1000 S21T but instead the more reasonably priced, but still quite classy, S16V. OrigenAE has been in the case game for a while.  Let's see if they have learned a few lessons from past mistakes.

    s16v.jpg
    Jan 21 2008

    Review - Life With a Plugin, Episode 4: MCE Weather

    A lot of plugins are developed because it could be a very simple feature which is for some reason omitted from Media Center itself. That's the feeling I get when I think of MCE Weather. It's probably one of the simpler features that can be very useful and yet easily displayed/controlled from the 10' UI. Fortunately for us, developers exist with the desire to fill the gaps of Media Center, and this one happens to save you from having to actually watch the Weather Channel.

    Overview

    MCE Weather is a Media Center plugin designed to give you weather for a single or multiple cities at your fingertips. The program provides access to a large number of cities and weather data worldwide, and allows you to view the data both via text & graphics. Just as the news provides, so to does MCE Weather allow you to view a 5-day forecast. You can add multiple favorite cities, so if you're a frequent traveler, it's an easy way to prepare how to pack.

     

    MCEWeather1-thumb.JPG MCEWeather2-thumb.JPG
    Weather Strip is easy to find
    5 Day forecast

    Above & Beyond

    I know what you're thinking, how much really can be done with a weather application? But the developers have done a good job of trying to include anything you could imagine with their application. One of the coolest is their satellite images. You can select from a multitude of satellites (again, worldwide) and view a number of different satellite sources--for example, you can view the temperatures across the United States with a colored map, just like you see it on the news!

    In addition to that, you can also make slight modifications to the UI, via changing the color, or even the default view that you're looking at. You can view by your current temperature, 5-day forecast or just look at the satellite images.

    Falling Short

    As with MCE Browser, the main complaint I have with the software is that it's still based on the older HTML platform for Media Center plugins. While it works perfectly well on both XP Media Center and Vista, as well as Extenders, it's not nearly as seemless an experience as with MCML plugins. 

     

     

    MCEWeather3-thumb.JPG MCEWeather4-thumb.JPG
    Satellite Images, just like TV!
    Current Forecast

     

    Grade: Approved for Everyday Use

    MCML shortcomings aside, MCE Weather is a fantastic application which covers most weather facts you would ever need or want to find from the Weather Channel itself. This particular app hasn't changed in a while, so while it's not the newest, it is very reliable and has worked well for many for quite some time. If you like to know the weather, it's really a no-brainer.

    Product Vitals

    Website: Scendix.com

    Creator: Christoph Buenger

    Price: Free! 

    Jan 14 2008

    Review - Life With a Plugin, Episode 3: MCE Browser

    Episodes 1 & 2 dealt with two of the most well known plugins for MCE, MyMovies and DVRMS-Toolbox . So I decided to venture out a bit to one of the more requested plugins which few people know about: MCE Browser.

    Overview

    MCE Browser is designed by fellow Media Center MVP, Anthony Park, and is compatible with both Media Center 2005 as well as Vista. The objective is as simple as it sounds--it allows you to browse the internet via the 10' Media Center interface using your remote to control. Using Internet Explorer as its platform, you can click and use your existing links from there (Firefox users, make sure you copy your bookmarks over first!). 

    In addition to your standard browsing features, there's also an easy way to zoom in & out, which is helpful depending on the size of the website & your TV screen. As it uses the IE 7.0 browser platform, anything that would work there, should work the same via MCE Browser. 

     

    mcebrowser1-thumb.JPG mcebrowser2-thumb.JPG
    Your Favorites Manually Entering a URL

    Above & Beyond

    There is not much extra with the application, which could explain it's small installation size. That being said, MCE Browser makes it pretty easy to browse to new webpages, allowing typing URL's via either the remote or a keyboard if you have one handy. It uses the same lettering that Media Center uses, so if you want to type the letter B, you would press the number "2" two times.

    Falling Short

    The main limitations for MCE Browser really lie in the fault of websites in general, in that they are just not designed to be used with just a remote. Getting around some sites with a healthy amount of links or forums is not the easiest nor efficient task in the world. Again, no fault of MCE Browser, but just of the way things work in general.

    Also, this is based on the former Media Center platform, so it's not exactly the most attractive plugin in the world. Similiar to MyMovies, it has not been ported over into the sexy, sleek MCML (Media Center Multimedia Layer) and to be honest, I'm not sure it's ever going to be. 

     

    mcebrowser3-thumb.JPG
    Viewing the greatest website ever :-)

    Grade: Once A Month

    This grade will really vary from person to person, as I feel that web browsing via both the 10' Media Center UI, as well as just using your remote, is a very niche audience. The majority of users, like myself, will either use a keyboard/mouse with any browser outside of MCE, or use a laptop or other system to browse. However, I've seen this request posted on forums many, many...many times, so clearly the demand is there. So, if you are one of those individuals, then I think you will be more than happy with this application...especially given that there are currently NO Alternatives for Media Center.

    Product Vitals

    Website: http://www.anpark.com

    Creator: Anthony Park

    Price: Free! 

     

    Jan 06 2008

    Review - Life With a Plugin, Episode 2: DVR-MS Toolbox

    In case you missed the first article of the series explaining, here's a little explanation. In the first episode, we took a look at MyMovies, arguably the most popular plugin for Vista Media Center. This time up, I'm covering a different type of plugin, one that works a lot more behind the scenes, but with an equal wow factor for the crowd.

    Overview

    DVR-MS Toolbox is designed to be a comprehensive, one-stop solution to a multitude of tasks you could ever dream of doing with your DVR-MS files. For newcomers, DVR-MS is the file format Microsoft uses for it's recorded TV files. It's basically just a special file format for MPEG-2 files with a "wrapper" containing special program data (TV show name, actors, runtime, year, etc)...think of it like metadata for your TV shows. I must add one caveat, and that is that this program WILL NOT WORK if you are a CableCard user. It's sad, tragic, and a fact of life in a copy-protected world. However, if you use NTSC, ATSC, Clear QAM, DVB, or anything else, you should be fine!

    There is a lot to cover with this plugin especially, but I'll invest the space in the most popular features: Automatic Commercial Skip & Automatic File conversion. The goal is simple, use the small application to monitor your TV files, and run the desired utility as you need it (or just have it always run its task). Feel like never having to watch a commercial again, use that profile to automatically scan shows as they record & mark where the commercial files. Note, that there's a method of this which actually doesn't touch the recording, so you don't have to worry about missing part of the show if it accidentally mis-marks it (which doesn't happen often). The beauty of this, is you can turn the feature on & off from within Media Center.

    The file conversion is a bit more intense but very customizable. There's a number of file formats, from MPEG to WMV, and you can set the plugin to automatically convert your shows after they record. If you're familiar with the feature of "ShowSqueeze" from Snapstream, it's very similar in that it runs in the background & replaces the originals. This is an ideal feature if you're limited on storage space & don't mind taking the time & resources to compress your shows. 

     

     DVRMSTB_1-thumb.JPG  DVRMSTB_2-thumb.JPG
    Select one of MANY Profiles
    Choose a folder to monitor & process

    Above & Beyond

    DVR-MS Toolbox has continuously evolved, and with the assistance of other developers, have really gotten the commercial skip down to a low resource science. Previously, users had to pay for the commercial ShowAnalyzer if they wanted to have live commercial detecting (meaning you would only need to wait 15 minutes before the commercials would begin to mark), but recently the free commercial skip analyzer now can do it as well, and it's free!

    In addition to continuing development (which trust me, is critical to the success long-term of any plugin), DVR-MS Toolbox has continued to listen to their users. Similar to the request of MyMovies users demanding Multi-Zone solutions, DVR-MS Toolbox now plays much nicer with remote storage locations, which is CRITICAL seeing as Media Center limits your abilities to record locally. Think of it this way, with this application, you can have multiple Media Centers around the house, but be able to have a single massive storage solution with all the converted shows that you can then stream from. Pretty neat huh :-)

    Falling Short?

    The only shortcoming I've ever seen with DVR-MS Toolbox, is the intimdation factor. The fact remains that this plugin is ridiculously powerful, and even I was once intimidated by its UI. There's no doubt that others have felt similarly, enough to the point where someone actually developed another plugin with just the commercial skip feature to make life easier for newbie users. If the UI could be simplified a bit, or maybe via a wizard, I think it would help the learning curve. I've often thought how great it would be to have an MCML frontend where I could tweak the simple stuff from my sofa & remote.

     DVRMSTB_3-thumb.JPG  DVRMSTB_4-thumb.JPG
    Set exactly how you want to avoid commercials.
    Select the profile to have run
     

    Grade: Approved for Everyday Use

    This is such an amazing plugin, that I actually hesitated going back from CableCard just so I could continue using it. Having to use 30 second skip is something I never used to dread, but after life with DVR-MS Toolbox, you will too. In addition to the commercial skipping, there's just so many great things you can do with your DVR-MS files to maximize space/quality, that it makes it a no brainer. And did I mention it's 100% Free?

    Product Vitals

    Website: Babgvant.com

    Creator: Andy VT

    Price: Free! 

     

    Dec 31 2007

    Review - Life With a Plugin, Episode 8: EmuCenter

    In case you missed the first article of the series explaining, here's a little explanation. Life With a Plugin is Mike's brain child, however I will be contributing from time to time. Today I will be looking at EMUCenter. This plugin, designed as a front end for ROMS, has potential to add alot of entertainment to your HTPC setup. Especially for classic gaming fans. 

    Overview

    EMUCenter is designed to be a front-end for ROMS for various emulators. 

    DVR-MS Toolbox is designed to be a comprehensive, one-stop solution to a multitude of tasks you could ever dream of doing with your DVR-MS files. For newcomers, DVR-MS is the file format Microsoft uses for it's recorded TV files. It's basically just a special file format for MPEG-2 files with a "wrapper" containing special program data (TV show name, actors, runtime, year, etc)...think of it like metadata for your TV shows. I must add one caveat, and that is that this program WILL NOT WORK if you are a CableCard user. It's sad, tragic, and a fact of life in a copy-protected world. However, if you use NTSC, ATSC, Clear QAM, DVB, or anything else, you should be fine!

    There is a lot to cover with this plugin especially, but I'll invest the space in the most popular features: Automatic Commercial Skip & Automatic File conversion. The goal is simple, use the small application to monitor your TV files, and run the desired utility as you need it (or just have it always run its task). Feel like never having to watch a commercial again, use that profile to automatically scan shows as they record & mark where the commercial files. Note, that there's a method of this which actually doesn't touch the recording, so you don't have to worry about missing part of the show if it accidentally mis-marks it (which doesn't happen often). The beauty of this, is you can turn the feature on & off from within Media Center.

    The file conversion is a bit more intense but very customizable. There's a number of file formats, from MPEG to WMV, and you can set the plugin to automatically convert your shows after they record. If you're familiar with the feature of "ShowSqueeze" from Snapstream, it's very similar in that it runs in the background & replaces the originals. This is an ideal feature if you're limited on storage space & don't mind taking the time & resources to compress your shows. 

     

     DVRMSTB_1-thumb.JPG  DVRMSTB_2-thumb.JPG
    Select one of MANY Profiles
    Choose a folder to monitor & process

    Above & Beyond

    DVR-MS Toolbox has continuously evolved, and with the assistance of other developers, have really gotten the commercial skip down to a low resource science. Previously, users had to pay for the commercial ShowAnalyzer if they wanted to have live commercial detecting (meaning you would only need to wait 15 minutes before the commercials would begin to mark), but recently the free commercial skip analyzer now can do it as well, and it's free!

    In addition to continuing development (which trust me, is critical to the success long-term of any plugin), DVR-MS Toolbox has continued to listen to their users. Similar to the request of MyMovies users demanding Multi-Zone solutions, DVR-MS Toolbox now plays much nicer with remote storage locations, which is CRITICAL seeing as Media Center limits your abilities to record locally. Think of it this way, with this application, you can have multiple Media Centers around the house, but be able to have a single massive storage solution with all the converted shows that you can then stream from. Pretty neat huh :-)

    Falling Short?

    The only shortcoming I've ever seen with DVR-MS Toolbox, is the intimdation factor. The fact remains that this plugin is ridiculously powerful, and even I was once intimidated by its UI. There's no doubt that others have felt similarly, enough to the point where someone actually developed another plugin with just the commercial skip feature to make life easier for newbie users. If the UI could be simplified a bit, or maybe via a wizard, I think it would help the learning curve. I've often thought how great it would be to have an MCML frontend where I could tweak the simple stuff from my sofa & remote.

     DVRMSTB_3-thumb.JPG  DVRMSTB_4-thumb.JPG
    Set exactly how you want to avoid commercials.
    Select the profile to have run
     

    Grade: Approved for Everyday Use

    This is such an amazing plugin, that I actually hesitated going back from CableCard just so I could continue using it. Having to use 30 second skip is something I never used to dread, but after life with DVR-MS Toolbox, you will too. In addition to the commercial skipping, there's just so many great things you can do with your DVR-MS files to maximize space/quality, that it makes it a no brainer. And did I mention it's 100% Free?

    Product Vitals

    Website: Babgvant.com

    Creator: Andy VT

    Price: Free! 

     

    Dec 20 2007

    Review - Life With a Plugin, Episode 1: MyMovies

    Welcome to the Life With a Plugin series! The purpose of the series will be to give quick reviews of all the numerous Vista Media Center plugins that are out there, and evaluate their usefulness. A lot of plugins are cool but rarely are needed that often, so I've decided to evaluate these for you and help in keeping your systems clean with only the necessary. In the process, you may just discover a plugin you weren't aware of that does JUST what you were looking for.

    The format of the reviews will be quick & easy. I'll offer a high level information view of the plugin, explaining what it does & who's behind it. After that will be the "Above & Beyond" section, where I'll evaluate the application's performance, and see how well it does at surpassing the minimum requirements for a task. "Falling Short" will evaluate where is the application lacking. And finally, I'll give the plugin a grade:

    • Approved for Everyday Use - If an application is so fantastic & useful, that one could easily use it everyday, and helps make MCE a better all-around experience for your family
    • Once a Month is Plenty - If an application is cool & well designed, but really not something you would need to use more than once in a while
    • Once a Year - This rating is for apps that are decent, but fall short in a number of steps, but still are decent enough to recommend at least an installation to try it out.
    • Never, Ever, Ever - For applications that are just bad, clunky or all-around useless. Keep these guys off your system!!

    Overview 

    I'm starting the series with arguably the most used and downloaded plugin in the history of Media Center--MyMovies. In case you have been living in a shell or are new to the HTPC world, MyMovies is a free plugin designed to help you manage and showoff your movie collection, be it a DVD or High Definition disk, stored on your hard drive, or virtually any movie file format.

    Movies can be displayed in a number of different ways, via title or the DVD cover-art. The best thing about MyMovies is the amazing forum of supporters behind it. Although there are backup options to download movie information, the default--and usually the most complete--method of obtaining the info is to use the User Managed database. Users actually input new or old DVDs not in the database and update it with both information as well as cover art! It's not an easy job, but the guys that love it see it as a way to give back to the developer as well as the community.

     

     mymovies1-thumb.JPG  mymovies2-thumb.JPG
       MCE Main Menu Strip    View Entire Collection via DVD Cover Art

    Above & Beyond

    MyMovies has always been a fantastic application which continued to evolve. In their latest version, they've answered the cries of multi-zone users, now offering MyMovies in a Server & Client version, making it even easier to configure your setup for multiple zones (other rooms with MCE PC's or Extenders). This was critical for me, as I used one machine to rip & store my movies, but my main Media Center PC is a completely different PC.

    In addition to that, MyMovies includes a feature to automatically add movies to your library. So if you just ripped a movie, you don't have to manually enter that movie's data. Assuming it can find the title, it monitors the folders you specify & adds them for you.

    Add to that DVD Changer & High Definition support (via a plugin with Cyberlink's PowerDVD Ultra), and you start to wonder why anyone would use MCE's built-in DVD Library anymore. And that's the key to why MyMovies is such a phenomenal plugin--it does its' job perfectly, and also manages to improve upon Microsoft designed applications as well. 

    Falling Short?

    If the screenshots look like you're in 2005, you're not dreaming. Although promised in a future version, at least for now, MyMovies is NOT MCML designed, making the interface just a bit clunkier than it could be. Again, the developers are pretty adament that this will be added eventually, and they have continued to innovate, so we'll be a bit lenient. The conversion to MCML should make it faster, cleaner, more attractive and reliable (current version crashes very occasionally).

    Grade: Approved for Everyday Use

    If you're even somewhat a movie fan...or not, and you just can't remember what that movie "Gladiator" is about, then MyMovies is for you. It's simple to use, doesn't get boring, and is an application which is able to be appriciated by geeks and housewives alike! 

     

     mymovies3-thumb.JPG  mymovies4-thumb.JPG
       Movie information    Movie database management

     

    Product Vitals

    Website: MyMovies.dk

    Creator: Brian Binnerup

    Price: Free! 

    Dec 18 2007

    Review - S16V Unboxing

    Today is a good day for HTPC cases! Not only were we lucky enough to bring you a first look at Omaura's new case concept , we also get to bring you a little unboxing love today. OrigenAE sent me a S16V for evaluation and here are a few pictures to get you drooling. The full review including a build will be posted a later this month. Here is a studio pic to keep you drooling.

     

     s16v.jpg

     

     

     

     

    This will be your typical blog unboxing; lots of pictures and very few comments. Its hard to say a lot about the case until you stuff a system in there and test it out. I am anxious to test out the VFD, its wiring management capabilities and of course the noise it creates.

     
    IMG_2841_thumb.JPG

    IMG_2832_thumb.JPG

    Top Down shot of box

    Front Of Box

    The box is simple and attractive. The case came packed very well and I would not expect shipping damage to occur. Spec wise, the S16V is a full-ATX case with support for one optical drive, 4 hard drives, a VFD display and a full-ATX PSU.

     
    IMG_2773_thumb.JPG
    IMG_2759_thumb.JPG

    Front of S16V

    Front of S16V with lid off

    The whole body of the chassis is one piece aluminum construction. I am amazed at how light this case is. The case itself is very solid and does not give the impression of being being flimsy and something prone to vibration. The lid is placed on noise dampening material

     
    IMG_2783_thumb.JPG

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    Card Reader and optical drive

    Slightly tilted back shot.. Too much to drink? 

    The card reader and front ports are standard fare. As has been tossed around in the forums, perhaps expansion ports would be better suited on the side so cords do not have to hang out the front. The 80 mm fans provide the exhaust for this unit. If chosen wisely, two 80mm fans will move alot of air while being quiet.

     
    IMG_2809_thumb.JPG

    IMG_2818_thumb.JPG

    Interior shot

    Angle shot

    Hard drive is relatively easy. Simply remove the two thumb screws and install the hard drives. Having to take out hard drive cages is never a fun prospect. The last picture is an angle shot of the case showing the 92 mm intake fan that blows across the hard drives.

    The tool-less approach, cable management, and aesthetics really come together on this case. This next weekend I plan on putting a few very hot parts in there to see how this case holds up. I have a hot S754 3700+ and 6800GT to test 'er out.

     

     

    Nov 23 2007

    Review - Omaura TF8

    Omaura Logo

    Omaura is a newcomer to the HTPC case market, but they have certainly started with a bang.  Today, we will be taking a look at the low-profile microATX TF8.  Curious as to how it looks on the inside?  Then read on.

    Remember, you have until 12:01 PM ESTon Monday to enter our kick ass giveaway with Omaura.

    Specs

    Specs

    • Can accept either Micro ATX or ITX Motherboards
    • Standard 5.25" ODD compatible
    • Space for 4x 3.5" Standard Hard Disk Drive
    • Highly Expandable 4x Low Profile Expansion Cards
    • Compatible with full ATX power supplies
    • Optional Omaura OLED display kit, 100% Windows MCE compatible
    • Card reader, 2x USB, 1x Firewire/1394, Audio 3.5mm Input and Output
    • Optional Omaura IR and remote kit, 100% Windows MCE compatible
    • All aluminium outer panels
    • Premium sandblast and anodized finish
    • Slide and screw-less locking 3mm aluminum top panel
    • Included drive cage rubber vibration grommets
    • Magnetically locking ports and card reader door
    • 10mm thick extruded aluminium face plate
    • Steel base panel and drive cages with scratch resistant finish
    • Designed to look great with or without an OLED display installed
    • Included Gloves, Screwdriver and Spare screws
    • 435x401x100mm (WxDxH)

    First Impressions

    First Impressions

    After removing the case from its well protected shipping container, the first thing that strikes you is its minimalistic front panel.  There are no gaudy manufacturer names or port labels to disfigure its otherwise clean looks.  On the left is a simple power button surrounded by a ring of acrylic that glows blue when powered on.  On the right is the spring loaded optical drive door with its eject button.

    Front of the TF8
    Front of the TF8

    On the lower left there is a door which hides two USB ports, a firewire port, headphone and line in jacks, and a multi-card reader.  This door is held closed by an extremely strong magnet.  In fact, one gets a feeling they may damage the door hinges in the process of trying to open the door.  After a few tries, the process gets easier.  A latching door with a push-to-open mechanism would have been more user friendly.  There also is no gliding or soft-open feature on the hinges, so the door tends to drop open once it has cleared the magnets.

    Hidden I/O ports
    Hidden I/O ports

    There are vent regions on the left and right sides of the case to promote air flow.  The right opening has two 80x15mm exhaust fans and the left has two 60x10mm incoming fans to help push the air from left to right through the case.  The openings are covered with an inserted round mesh grill rather than the efficient stamped hex pattern.  However, since the vents are on the sides, the mesh pattern is probably more in line with what other high end A/V components would use.

    Side mesh grill
    Side mesh grill

    The back of the case is the standard fare with an opening for the motherboard I/O panel, four low-profile cards, and a standard ATX power supply.  The power supply mounting hole pattern only allows for it to be mounted in one direction.  Just above the motherboard I/O panel is a mini-jack meant for IR blasters.

    Rear I/O panel and IR blaster port Rear power supply mount
    Rear I/O panel and IR blaster port
    Rear power supply mount

    The bottom of the case has some slots routed in the steel chassis to provide cooling via convection.  The holes in the area under the power supply would probably not be enough to allow a 120mm fan to breathe properly.  One option would be to break out a dremmel and improve the situation, but not everyone is comfortable with hacking away at a new case.  Option two is to pick up a power supply that is quiet, but also does not rely on a 120mm fan for cooling.  The case is held up by four square feet of aluminum with a non-skid rubber pad on each to prevent marring the surface below.

    Bottom view Bottom vent holes under power supply
    Bottom view
    Bottom vent holes under power supply

     

    Square foot with pad
    Square foot with pad

    The top of the case is made of steel with two regions of vent holes.  One group is in the vicinity of the CPU heat sink and the second group is directly over the power supply.  The area over the card slots is not vented.  It is hard to know the purpose of this second set of holes as the PSU will block most of their air flow.  The holes are again round rather than hex, but in this case it is most likely due to strength issues.  Because it is difficult to know what all might be stacked on top of this case, rigidity won out over air flow.  As in other case designs, compromises have to be made.  Near the back of the top, there are two indented areas pressed into the surface.  Wonder what those are for?  Read on to find out.

    Top view
    Top view

    Peek Inside

    Peek Inside

    So, how does one get inside this bad boy?  On the back there are two sliding latches on either end, and pressing in the button and sliding both down releases the top cover.  Using the two indented areas on the top for grip, the top can now slide out of the way.  Pretty slick and toolless.  Unfortunately, everything else requires that you own a screwdriver.  Fortunately, the case comes with just such a device.

    Latched locked Latch open
    Latch locked
    Latch open

    Once the top is off, the TF8 gives up its secrets on how it can cram all of these features into this small package.  First thing that is noticed are all the wires running every which way.  Usually this is an issue once all the components are installed, but it is a bad sign to see such a sight before anything has been mounted.  There are four fan cables, five cables for the various front I/O ports and multi-card reader, two cables from the IR board, and two cables linking the power button to the motherboard.  That's thirteen cables to contend with and nothing has been mounted in the case yet.  To compound the problem, most of the cables are almost twice as long as required.  Fortunately, the drive cages have been mounted on 3/4" stand-offs to give room for the various circuit boards.  This should give some room to stow any extra lengths of cable which would otherwise clutter up the case's interior.

    Inside from various angles 1 Inside from various angles 2
    Inside from various angles 3 Inside from various angles 4
    Inside from various angles

     

    IR board Multi-card reader board
    IR board
    Multi-card reader board

     

    Front I/O board and power switch
    Front I/O board and power switch

    There are two hard drive cages which hold two 3.5" hard drives each.  The cages need to be removed before the drives can be mounted.  Each drive location has four rubber grommets to help dampen any noise due to vibration.  The down side of this design is the drive cannot effectively transfer its heat to the chassis.  Omaura has placed two 60x10mm fans next to the drive cages to assist in the cooling, but unfortunately the cage structure looks to block most of their air flow.

    Hard drive cages Hard drive cage fans
    Hard drive cages Hard drive cage fans

    The optical drive cage also needs to be removed before a drive can be mounted.  It however does not benefit from noise dampening grommets.  The eject button mechanism is large enough it should work properly with most optical drives.  The drive door is also designed to help prevent mechanical hangups.

    Optical drive cage
    Optical drive cage

    The 80x15mm fans mounted on the right side panel are positioned properly to help exhaust warm air around the CPU.  As it stands now, this case requires a motherboard with five fan headers assuming the CPU requires a fan as well.  This may be possible on some full ATX motherboards, but this certainly is not common on the microATX format.  It would be more practical to have each group of two fans combined into one common header.  True, only one fan would be reporting its RPM, but that would seem to be an acceptable compromise.

    Exhaust fans
    Exhaust fans

    As mentioned previously, this case came with the MCE remote kit and as such includes an IR receiver and blaster.  The receiver is mounted just to the right of the I/O panel door.  It connects via a cable to the USB internal header on the motherboard.  Since it is based on a standard Philips IR chipset, driver support should be solid in MCE and Vista.

    IR blaster IR board
    IR blaster
    IR board

     

    MCE remote Lower buttons Upper buttons
    MCE remote
    Lower buttons
    Upper buttons

    Parting Words

    Parting Words

    Before this review is wrapped up, one last feature needs to be addressed.  Or rather, it would be addressed if the sample had arrived.  As it is, someone in customs has apparently been enjoying it a bit too much.  The topic of this discussion is Omaura's crown jewel, the OLED (organic light emitting diode) display.  Not only is the display clearer to read, but it is no longer confined to characters only.  It is essentially a 256x64 grid of pixels which can display anything from pictures to various font sizes.  Please see Omaura's website for more details.  If we ever do receive the display, we will be sure to provide a review.

    Empty location for OLED display
    Empty location for OLED display

    Conclusion

    The TF8 has a lot going for it.  A compact and clean exterior while providing for a plethora of options internally is hard to find in the HTPC case market.  Sure, there are some deficiencies such as excess cable length, an over abundance of fan connectors, and questionable air flow around the PSU, but in the end this can be remedied by careful component planning and some light mods.  Overall, this case has been a strong first showing for Omaura.  It will be exciting to see what other surprises they have planned.

    Nov 06 2007

    Review - Snapstream BeyondTV 4.7 Update

     

    BeyondTV 4.7

    Snapstream Beyond TV 4.7

    On September 27, 2007 Snapstream released their latest version of Beyond TV and added a bunch of new fucntionality. Let's take a quick look at some of the fun new toys they've bundled in.

    Snapstream has added some great new functionality in their latest release. Here's the official line on what's available:

    Automatically Sync Recordings to iPod and iPhone (Optional Plug-In) - This is an innovative feature that uses the H.264 format to re-compress your Beyond TV recordings and sync them to your iPod, iPhone, or Apple TV. Using an iTunes podcast rss feed you can now automatically sync your television recordings to your iPod or iPhone.

    Drive Pooling - If you are worried about running out of space for your recordings this feature will calm your fears. Beyond TV 4.7 lets you treat a group of hard drives as one recording folder. It will automatically manage and distribute the content you have recorded.

    Firefly Mobile - Now you can use your Smartphone, iPhone, or other web device as a remote control for your Beyond TV.

    Community Recordings - When enabled, this feature will automatically record the top shows each day as reported by Beyond TV Buzz.

    Beyond TV Link DVD Burning (Optional Plug-In) - Just like you can burn DVDs on your Beyond TV Server you can now do the same using Beyond TV Link.

    We’ve also improved some of the existing features in Beyond TV 4.7:

    • H.264 playback is included in all copies of Beyond TV 4.7
    • Extend the recording time while a job is currently being recorded by simply hitting the record button and adding the amount of time needed (up to 3 hours). So, if the football game goes into overtime, you can just lengthen the recording time and you won’t miss a thing.
    • We’ve improved the Record This Timeslot Recording option by adding Record Only on This Day as an option
    • Recover recordings that might have been interrupted due to a power outage, machine reboot, etc.
    • An Internet Explorer user? Now you can download files greater than 2GB in size without breaks.
    • We now have support for multiple USB-UIRT devices.
    • Beyond TV Link can now stream live TV for multiple days on end without stopping.

    So let's take a closer look at some of these. I'll do an in depth look at the Auto-Sync, Firefly Mobile and Community Recordings on the next few pages. 

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