Reviews

May 18 2009

Review - Winegard RCDT09A

 

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With the change over to digital television coming ever closer in the US, it is important to be aware of some of the options out there for digital converter boxes.  Today we will have a look at an offering from Winegard.

 

May 12 2009

Review - New WHS Battle - Old HP EX475 vs New EX487

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Battle of the HP WHS Boxes - EX475 vs the new EX487

If you are like me, you couldn't wait to get your hands on the initial HP MediaSmart Windows Home Server system when they first came out last year. I received one and put it to the Battle of the Windows Home Servers , and it did wonderfully going par for par and even surpassing what could be done with custom built WHS. And for the time, it was the dominant and trophy for the Windows Home Server platform. HP did not rest on their laurels however, and recently released an update to their original series with the EX480 and EX485 MediaSmart Servers. There are plenty of in-depth reviews regarding these new Windows Home Servers, but I wanted to look at this from the eyes of a happy first generation HP WHS user. I'm sure many of your owners wondered if you had made a mistake being an early adopter, and just how much of a difference is there in the new versions.

 

 

 

Appearance

 

 

At a glance, the new EX485/487 systems appear identical to their older brethren except for a few small changes. The top bezel of the unit is now a matching black color, instead of gray. And the dark blue lights for the drive bays has changed from a dark (and rather bright) blue, to a much more appearling softer, light blue color. Nothing revolutionary, but small touches that show paying attention to customer feedback.

Those changes are nice, but definitely wouldn't make you trade in your old WHS box for this, so let's move onto performance.

 

Performance

 

 

I have read every review on the EX487 systems, and read the spec changes, but I did not expect what I found. First, let's take a look at a table of the spec differences between the older EX47x series and the EX48x:

Model EX470/475                                           EX485/487
Processor AMD Sempron 1.8 GHz 64-bit Processor Intel Celeron 440 2.0 GHz 64-bit Processor
Memory 512mb DDR2 RAM 2Gb DDR2 RAM
Hard Drives 500Gb/1Tb 750Gb/1.5Tb (2 x 750Gb)
Ethernet 10/100/1000 10/100/1000
USB 4 (1 front, 3 rear) 4 (1 front, 3 rear)
eSATA 1 1

From my review, you may remember that life with the 512mb RAM in the EX475 was fairly painful, as the experience was far slower than I was comfortable with, given all the activity I do with my WHS. I often Remote Desktop into it and always enjoy playing/testing with new add-ons. I had upgraded my 475 to have 2gb DDR2 RAM, so I really didn't expect to see that noticeable a difference simply because of the CPU upgrade...boy was I WRONG!

In my initial testing/experience with the new line of home servers, is that they are significantly (even shockingly) faster than its predecessor. Having had an original version with the memory upgrade, I can only conclude that the Intel Celeron chip IS really that much faster than the Sempron 1.8.

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 Nice beefier system specs  Just a tad bit more storage than the EX475

 

Tasks such as remote desktop now promptly show up where before they would take a slight delay to appear and render the desktop. The WHS Console loads up faster as well, and browsing around also is nice and quick. It's an interesting position to be in as a reviewer--I had accepted the performance of the previous generation just based on the fact that it was a lower performance chip, but seeing this new performance simply wowed me, and makes this come quite close to my home-brewed WHS box I had built with a Core2Duo chip.

In addition to the physical performance, I've also been pleased with the noise levels from this device. A few months after owning the older EX47X, I began to notice that the fan noise had increased and began being girlfriend-noticeable--where the girlfriend asks me, "What is that noise? Make it stop." In other words, NOT good. Browsing through the various WHS forums, I know I am not alone with having fan issues, but it wasn't significant enough to service. The new EX487 I received is significantly quieter (and maybe it's just the joy of having it) than even the original EX47x when I had first turned it on.

Only time will tell if both the performance and noise benefits of the new EX48x series maintain, but it's off to a fantastic start, superceding it's predecessor right from the start.

 

Software

 

 

Outside of the technical specifications, the MediaSmart software received the most attention in its overhaul with its 2.5 Update recently released. There were some significant offerings brought to the table (again, answering the cries of their users). From the HP Press Release:

The new software enables the HP MediaSmart Server to automatically convert videos (including unprotected DVDs) into two resolutions. The original, high-resolution file will stream to most devices on a home network including PCs, Macs and gaming systems.(2)

The mobile resolution version of the video can be downloaded and played on popular mobile devices including the iPod touch, iPhone and PlayStationPortable (PSP).

The video converter will transcode most popular video formats into both high and mobile quality MPEG-4 (H.264) versions.

“Our enhanced software features will help eliminate the frustration people experience when attempting to stream their videos to connected devices in the home or remotely to their mobile devices,” said Jason Zajac, vice president and general manager, Worldwide Attach Group, HP.  

In addition, owners of an iPod touch and iPhone can download a new HP MediaSmart Server iStream application(3) at no charge from the iTunes App Store, enabling them to stay connected to their digital media stored on the MediaSmart Server. Users can easily access their pictures, listen to their music collection and watch their favorite videos  – all streamed directly to their mobile devices from their HP MediaSmart Server.

Other software enhancements include an improved mobile streaming user experience, a more robust HP Media Collector, an improved Apple Time Machine configuration, and the ability to create public and private albums in the Photo Viewer.

Full disclosure: Not suprisingly, the community has figured out how to run this 2.5 Software on the older EX470/475 boxes already...albeit with a bit of effort.

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 The new Main start page WHS Console Page
 A vastly changed web page for the server.

 

That being said, the software improvements are pretty nice, offering a facelift to the main central user interface for both the WHS Connector software as well as your remote login page. The coolest feature for users is the ability to convert your media files. While this isn't a feature that you probably haven't already learned to use with a 3rd party software, it's nice to have it integrated, and HP does a good job of making a fairly technical task seem simple. Also, the ability to stream them remotely as well really closes the loop on what users would expect from their central home server. If you can stream all your media remotely, then you never have to worry about having a separate collection for work and home!

Setting up the software with Twonky Media was nice, however, with all the benefits that Power Pack 2 includes I found myself with less need for Twonky since I am a Media Center Extender user (and PP2 does WONDERS for that). It was a slight annoyance to have to install power pack 2 myself, but it's a simple enough update that I can understand the business decision to not make new images.

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 Slick online photo share...  And the console interface to setup the photos.

 

There's plenty more that's included, but I wanted to briefly cover the main ones you home theater folks would be interested in. Those, along with the already existing features make it a wonderful addition.

For a full run-down review of all the software offerings, check out Alex's review .

Update: On 5/5/2009, HP Announced that they would offer the software update to ALL EX47x users! Kudos to HP, so now you can uncheck this as a reason to upgrade.

 

Conclusion

 

The MSRP of the new EX485/487 is $599/$749 respectively, but can be found with various deals for much less. That being said, if you already own an EX470/475, then that is a sunk cost. So you really need to weigh your options. If you are comfortable with ebay or feel you have a friend/family member who could use a bit of reliability, then sure, why not sell your old one to them and enjoy the performance benefits the new one includes.

I'm sure a lot of geeks have already done the CPU and RAM upgrades themselves, to whit there will probably not be a motivation to upgrade. The software is a nice revision as well, but a lot of that will be available to older systems as well. For me, the speed benefits provided were significant, and that along with the quiet noise levels would make it very appealing to go the sell+buy route. The money I would lose in the exchange would be worth it for the benefits. My parents on the other hand, I would probably just as well have them keep their original WHS, until maybe the next version with even bigger and better upgrades that they might notice.

Bottom line, if you never felt comfortable doing the CPU and/or memory upgrades, and have noticed the sluggish performance--or maybe you just can't help but install all the 500 WHS add-ons--then the upgrade is worth it and the speed benefits are obvious. If you have already done the CPU/RAM upgrades or you never noticed any sluggishness and are using the old one just as stock, then it would not be worth the upgrade cost.

Either way, you can't go wrong, as both systems are great and have set the bar quite high for other competing WHS boxes.

clubhouse, media center, windows media center, how-to, Tip
Apr 19 2009

Review - Life With A Plugin, Episode 21: SageTV - Auto Aspect Ratio Switcher

Today we have a plugin that is not even close to new...it's actually been around since 2005, which pretty much makes it a classic. Sometimes things lose their relevance over time, but not so when you're talking about a plugin that will help you out by automatically switching aspect ratios to match the material you are watching.

Overview

The Auto Aspect Ratio Switcher is a plugin that allows you to establish different rules under which the plugin will automatically switch between the four aspect ratio settings configurable in SageTV. This plugin is available for both the stock STV and for SageMC. The rules for when to switch aspect ratios can be defined on three characteristics: show title, channel, and capture device or any combination of the three characteristics. For instance, it can switch to my Source AR when Law & Order records in HD on WHDHDT on any tuner, or it can switch to 16x9 AR whenever it records Law & Order in SD on WHDH or USA on any tuner.

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Apr 06 2009

Review - Logitech diNovo Mini

 

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Logitech diNovo Mini

Over the years, many have tried with little success to introduce a wireless keyboard into the living room home theater environment. Logitech has a number of wireless keyboards, but the diNovo Mini is the first introduced which brings about a small form factor along with a convenient array of hot media buttons to integrate seamlessly into any entertainment center without being a sore spot for the eyes. In a field that has failed many times before, Logitech bravely takes on the experience in a way never tried before.

Mar 29 2009

Review - Zenith

 

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With the change over to digital television coming ever closer in the US, it is important to be aware of some of the options out there for digital converter boxes.  Today we will have a look at an offering from Winegard.

 

Mar 24 2009

Review - Life with a Plugin Episode 20: Media Center's Sports Channel

I was conflicted at how I wanted to address the new Sports Channel which found its way onto the Sports row of my Windows Vista Media Center--such a good idea, but with so many flaws, so I felt it only fair to give it the same time and analysis as I give all Plugins and let users decide for themselves.

 

Overview

The Sports Channel is a new flash based plugin for Vista Media Centers and brings a variety of sports content to your living room for use with remote control. It's the integration of primarily content from CBS Sportsline's vault of videos and news, but it also attempts to tie in news content and videos from the Fox Sports, MSNBC and Queensberry providers from one interface.

 

Above and Beyond

The video below should give you a pretty good idea of what the experience is like. For the most part, the guys at Mimio who designed the app did a nice job. The interface is clean and peppy. The NCAA interactive bracket is easy to navigate and understand, and videos tended to load much faster than any other sports MCE app I have used in the past.

I did also love the fact that you can play the thumbnailed Queensberry fights from the Boxing tab without having to exit the app, and they start right away. I only wish that type of integration held true throughout the application.

 

 
Mar 24 2009

Review - GE Analog to Digital converter

 

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The digital TV changeover is coming.  It's been delayed a bit, but the train is coming down the tracks.  In order to be prepared for the inevitable, today we are going to see how the analog to digital converter box from GE fits our needs.

INTRODUCTION

As you've most likely heard by now, broadcast television in the US is changing over from analog to all digital.  Any television for sale today should include a digital tuner that can pick up these broadcast signals, however, older sets only have analog tuners.  For those that wish to continue to use their current analog televisions, the U.S. government has offered a rebate program on the purchase of an analog to digital converter box.  Today we are going to look at one of the eligible Coupon Eligible Converter Boxes (CECB) from GE.

Feb 25 2009

Review - Life With A Plugin Episode 19: Radiotime

If you remember the days of the initial Windows Media Center with that wonderfully never used Radio button, then you will be pleased to see that there's a plugin created which aims to increase the power of that. Of course, as I hinted, I don't know many people who have or ever use an actual FM tuner inside the Media Center interface so I was curious as to what RadioTime would offer over the built-in application in MCE.

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.
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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.

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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.

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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!

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Home Brewed Frankenstein

vs

Custom Built WHS

vs

HP MediaSmart Server

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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.

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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!

 

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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
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