Reviews

Feb 19 2009

Review - Life with a Plugin, Episode 18: SageTV - Sage Pro for HD200 Extender

New on the SageTV scene is the first custom user interface for the HD Theater extender. This UI is designed exclusively for use on the extender in stand alone mode and is based on the Sage Pro theme for SageMC. This theme (stv in the Sage world) does a great job of cleaning up the look and feel of the extender in stand alone mode.

Overview

Sage Pro for the HD Theater Standalone is a graphical alternative to the stock user interface for the Sage HD Theater Extender. It only works in standalone mode (not in SageTV extender mode). Sage Pro is also purely a graphical overhaul of the user interface. It provides no new functionality and does not alter the location of the buttons in the user interface. So everything works exactly as before, just looking nicer.

Sage Pro Standalone Main Menu

While the new theme doesn't really change the functionality of the Sage HD Theater in any way shape or form, it certainly provides a much cleaner asthetic (in my opinion). 


Feb 19 2009

Review - Life With a Plugin, Episode 17: MyDrinks

One of the reasons I began this series was to expose the community to those smaller and less well known applications. The type that would be "must have's" for 10 out of 100 people. I think MyDrinks would classify as that, so I hope you are all part of that 10, or if you're more then we sure have a lot of alcoholics here :-)

Overview

MyDrinks is a Media Center plugin designed to bring an entire menu of drinks to your big screen. It allows you to not only search for how to make a specific drink, but also browse by titles and ingredients as well. Pretty convenient if you have a handle of Vodka and can't remember how to make a screwdriver.
MyDrinks2-thumb.JPG MyDrinks4-thumb.JPG
Man! That's a lot of drinks! Simple but effective drink making instructions

It is not the most exotic application, but it gets its point across loud and clear--never be challenged by one of your friends on how to make a specific drink. Not only can you show them who's boss, but also show them the power of your Media Center!



Feb 18 2009

Review - MythTV vs. SageTV Smackdown: Part II

In my prior article, I discussed several topics to consider prior to using either HTPC software package.  This included features, cost, flexible topology, and OS friendliness.  Today, we will cover some of the differences that are found once the software is installed.

mythtv-vs-sagetv2.png

DOCUMENTATION/SUPPORT:

Nothing can be more frustrating than to find yourself beating your head against the wall due to a problem only to discover that you must be the first person in existence to ever experience that issue.  The docs are silent, Google doesn't turn up any hits, and tech support is clueless.  So much for that peaceful evening of popcorn and flicks.

Fortunately, both platforms provide a wealth of knowledge in the form of wiki's, mailing lists, forums, HowTos, FAQs, and in the case of SageTV, official techs who will reply within 72 hours of your request for support.  It is comforting to know that help is out there should you need it.  Here is a brief list for each platform:

 

MythTV SageTV
WWW
WWW
Forums
Forums
 User Guide 
 User Guide 
Wiki
 
Mailing List
 

 

COMMUNITY:

No one wants to be the only one using a particular application, and it's no different in the land of HTPCs.  As funny as it may sound, comradery plays an important factor.  It's comforting to read up on the progress, issues, or plugins that others have found.  Thankfully, both software packages have a rich community experience which is actually encouraged by the developer.  It stands to reason since it can only benefit them by fostering the spread of knowledge in the product and by providing a sense of ownership in the ultimate success of the chosen platform.

Creating hooks and generating a well documented API allows those who are handy programmers to extend the feature set or look of the product.  The MythTV camp is probably the most extreme case since the entire application source code is available for download if the user ever has a hankering to change something.  SageTV isn't quite as cavalier with it's source, but there are still plenty of ways to mod the software through their documented API.

Grassroots communities also serve as an excellent marketing tool to promote their product.  HTPC geeks tend not to buy into the typical marketing spiel, but instead choose to place their trust in a friend's candid opinion on the matter.  If things go south after the purchase, that same friend is usually there to help debug the problem.

 

INITIAL SETUP:

So, you've got the hardware assembled and powered up, the OS installed and now it's time to install the HTPC software.  How hard could it be right?  In my experience, this along with codec fiddling is one of the most frustrating tasks when dealing with a HTPC.  Due to all the possible user scenarios (we all have our preferences you know), HTPC software makers have had to include a mountain of configuration options and wizards.  The trick is how to include that flexibility without making the software look like the cockpit of a 747.

Sage has an abundance of wizards and fairly well documented menu options.  For those that are daring, you can even hand tweak the text config file.  For those of you with QAM, I feel for you.  I really do.  Why does the simple process of assigning a QAM channel to a program guide listing have to be so convoluted?  I'm sure it has something to do with how things were done in the past, but that really is no excuse.  It should not take multiple applications and several hoops to perform this process.  It should be a simple matter of select this QAM channel, select that guide listing, and press "Link".

While it's not as streamlined, Myth has improved greatly in the past couple years in the initial setup area.  QAM setup is MUCH easier.  There really is no easy way of automatically assigning QAM channels to listing data since cable providers are free to bounce them around like basketballs, so this is probably as good as it can get.  The down side is the configuration data is not stored in a plain text file, but rather in a mySQL database, so those wanting to tinker behind the scenes will need a mySQL client.

 

RELEASE CYCLE:

This isn't something that is typically thought about when planning a HTPC purchase.  Just how often is this software package going to be upgraded?  Is there a long development cycle which hopefully generates stable code, but may fall behind in features?  Or, maybe the releases are frequent incorporating new features and bug fixes, but also probably creating more issues in the process.  I suspect that each user has their own preference of which method is right for them.  Thankfully, both packages offer their users an option.  Choosing the beta route offers quick access to new features and also provides an opportunity to "give back" to the community by helping to squash bugs.  If you aren't feeling quite so daring (or your WAF just can't tolerate any more hits), then you can instead stick with the production release code.

I have found the Sage beta code to be quite solid for the most part.  In one case, beta code was necessary for me to overcome a limitation in the QAM tuning functionality.  After a few trips to the forums and a couple hours of fiddling, I was up and running without further issue.

With Myth, the beta branch can be a hairy experience.  Due to the open source nature of the software, it is possible to grab the code at any point in it's development cycle.  While this provides unprecedented access to the code, it also means that you might be grabbing something that does not even compile properly.  I have opted to run this when a new production release was only a month or so away, because the code modifications had settled down.  After a release is pushed out, the beta code can become quite distorted and broken as major changes are made.  Any user wanting to use the beta code should monitor the dev mailing list to keep abreast of these abrupt code breaks.

 

WAF:

Ah the ubiquitous Wife Acceptance Factor.  This one is a bit difficult to measure due to everyone having wives or spouses with different technical aptitudes.  I can however compare my wife's experience with both systems, but bear in mind she used Myth for several years before shifting to Sage three months ago, so she may be a bit biased.

First and foremost, she does not like the Sage UI.  She finds there to be way too many menu options when all she wants to do is watch a recorded program or listen to a song.  "Why do I have to click Watch TV, then Recordings, then scroll to the correct show, click to select the show, and then click play?" is a line i hear often.

I find two things troubling with this statement.  First, she's right.  There are too many button presses required to do one of the primary features of the software; play a TV show.  Second, why is it that the button which works to make selections in the UI, "OK", doesn't immediately play the show when you scroll to it?  It instead chooses to show detailed program information.  If you wish to play the file directly from the recordings listing, you have to remember to press "Play".  My wife finds this inconsistency to be very frustrating.  In my mind, clicking "OK" or "Play"  should play the show while pressing "Info" should bring up detailed info.

Oh, and don't get her started on trying to play music on either platform.  Why is it so difficult for UI designers to create an interface where playing music doesn't require a Doctorate?

 

CONCLUSION:

A lot of what we covered today is less technical in detail, but no less important in the design decision.  In fact, it's topics like these that tend to be the long term issues that come up in daily use.  Having a robust documentation system or community for support can be invaluable.  Also, having a system which is intuitive to operate makes a spouse (and therefor you) happy.  I'm sure there are other points which I have missed, so please comment in the forums by following the link below.

Feb 17 2009

Review - Life With A Plugin: SecondRun.tv

This program is very much in beta, as such rather than review it I will give you a preview of where it is at development. No episode # for this go around.

In it's simplest form, SecondRun provides a 10' UI for the Hulu.com TV portal website. This plugin is the biggest development to come out of the Media Center community in quite some time. As a group, Media Center enthusiasts are used to jumping through hoops to get content on our programs as there is little outside development for the various Media Center platforms.

Is it a Boxee killer? 

 

 

First off you can see, that it only provides an interface for the top Hulu.com networks such as NBC, ABC, Fox and other networks. For starting off development, this is a good place to start and should cover the needs of 90% of the users out there. The interface is absolutely gorgeous with effective use of fan art and thumbnails and posters. Navigation and UI are tops and look forward to seeing how the plugin progresses.

 

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Networks Screen ABC shows

 

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+1 For the great use of fan art
Jan 13 2009

Review - Life With A Plugin Episode 16: Photato (Facebook Photos)

I normally like to wait until an application has been released before doing a review on it, but the few times I come across an app that my girlfriend loves I have to break that rule and take a closer look. Such is the case with Photato's innovative design and creative interface into Facebook's photos.

Overview

In simple terms, Photato for Media Center is really just a way to view you and your friends' Facebook photos via your remote control. But there's much more to it as you can see from even this early beta release. I am a real fan of developers who can take their own creativity with the power that MCML allows, and Photato definitely delivers that.

photato4-thumb.JPG photato8-thumb.JPG
Simple but creative starting page
Unique layout to your photos.
Dec 08 2008

Review - Unboxing: SageTV HD Theater (HD200)

There has been quite some speculation on the SageTV forums about what the next gen SageTV HD extender would encompass since it's existence was "leaked" in late September.  Everything from an onboard Blu-Ray player, external IR sensor, to a significant reduction in cost was mentioned.  In the end when the HD200 was revealed, what we got was a more compact device, without buttons on the front panel, and a couple extra features for the same price.

HD200 - Front
HD200 - Front
Dec 07 2008

Review - HD-PVR

Each new technology the crosses path with the rabid HTPC enthusiast seems to be the holy grail. Last year it was QAM tuning and CableCard. With the distaste of these two technologies in our mouth are we ready for a new idol that will be the object of our daily HTPC prayers? Hauppauge has decided the time is right and to much fan fare they have launched the HD-PVR. On paper, this HD-component capturing device certainly sounds good, lets see if it is worthy of our eager desires.

Nov 25 2008

Review - QNAP TS-209 Pro II

  
 

QNAP Logo

QNAP TS-209 Pro II

If you find yourself in the market for a NAS, today we are reviewing something that might just fit the bill.  Read on to see if the QNAP TS-209 Pro II will fit your needs. 

INTRODUCTION

Now that you have your HTPC working the way you want it and you're starting to build up a collection of good shows, what do you do when you start running out of space?  One option is to put together a media server to hold it all.  Another option is to start looking for a an external hard drive setup, such as a NAS.  It's this second option that brings about today's review.  On the bench today, we have for you QNAP's TS-209 Pro II NAS.  Read on to see if this is the unit that you're looking for.

Nov 24 2008

Review - MythTV vs. SageTV Smackdown: Part I

Those of you that have followed my articles in the past know that I'm a Linux fan.  I appreciate it's flexibility and potential.  I also enjoy a challenge and I don't mind doing a little digging to solve a problem.  When it came time to hatch a HTPC system for the home, I naturally went with MythTV.  In fact, I've been using MythTV for almost 5 years now.  In that time the system has grown to include several clients, multiple tuners, gigabit ethernet, and several generations of hard drives.  It has also weathered the transition from fuzzy SD to crisp HD.  You can pretty much say that I have run into just about every HTPC obsticle and have come out victorious (knock on wood).

So, why would someone who has "mastered" MythTV ever consider moving on to a different platform?  I've asked myself this question many times now, so being the Engineering type, I decided to break down the benefits and downfalls of each system to help me decide my fate.  Read on to see how things shake out.

MythTV Vs. SageTV
Oct 01 2008

Review - The Battle of the Windows Home Server Systems

Since the first day Microsoft announced Windows Home Server (WHS) was going to be available through OEM Installation Kits, not just strictly by the OEMs, we geeks could not wait to build our own. The hardware requirements were modest enough to where any respectable geek easily could assemble a functional WHS box barely having to buy parts--besides the installation disc, of course. That being said, HP's MediaSmart Server has easily become the most popular selection for even the techiest people who could build their own, but not as attractive or small. To counter those arguments, several chassis manufacturers have also released "Windows Home Server" specific chassis to jump on the smaller form factor WHS-box bandwagon. But which solution is right for you--a frankenstein home built with leftover parts, custom built with WHS-specific parts or HP's pre-built MediaSmart Server? Let's find out!

HPServer07-thumb.JPG

 

Home Brewed Frankenstein

vs

Custom Built WHS

vs

HP MediaSmart Server

HPServer10-thumb.JPG

 

Sep 10 2008

Review - Life With A Plugin Episode 15: Movie Collectorz

One of the absolutely huge benefits for using a media center is having the ability to catalog your DVD library digitally and have access to them anywhere in the house. The old stalwart of the Media Center world, MyMovies, is looking a little long in the tooth when you look at the sexy Media Portal skins, or even Apple's Cover Flow. Movie Collectorz is an option -- albeit a commercial one, that will help you organize your DVD collection, present it in a nice MCML program in Vista and even allow you to stream DVDs to your extenders.

 

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Easy on the eyes navigation screen Thumbnail viewing navigation screen

 

Aug 26 2008

Review - nMedia HTPCKB Keyboard

 

nMedia HTPC Keyboad

nMedia HTPCKB Keyboard and Remote

Everyone runs into a time eventually when a remote just isn't enough to control your HTPC, but you don't want to clutter things up with mouse and keyboard cables.  Read on to see if nMediaPC's most recent innovation will fit your needs. 

INTRODUCTION

nMedia was founded in 2004 with a goal to "create future home entertainment PC systems that are optimal for today's consumer electronic gear" and to "transform the total home theater experience by intelligently converging digital entertainment AV functions, computer and networking technologies." This vision of convergence of entertainment AV functions closely match the philosophy of an HTPC.  They create necessary devices that blend in well with todays lifestyles. Today, they have brought us the nMedia HTPCKB keyboard and remote combination for review.

Aug 19 2008

Review - AVerMedia Bravo Hybrid TV Tuner

TV tuner evolution has finally crept to the point where we have combo cards that can tune unencrypted QAM and analog cable at the same time. So why would AVerMedia introduce a hybrid software encoding TV card onto the market? Let's see if this card, associated features, and price point make sense for the HTPC market of today.

bravo_hybrid_pcie_lgview_thumb.jpg

 

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.

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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.
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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.

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    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.

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    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. 

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    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.

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    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}

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