Reviews

Jul 13 2009

Review - Battle of the Media Center Movie Managers

Movies are the pride of many a home theater PC user. While your friends may have a wall of movies, nobody can argue with the convenience of locally (or network) stored movies, being able to view information, filter and display them all within Media Center, and play them from a single remote without ever having to leave the sofa.

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It's a good time for movie fans who utilize Media Center, as we have a number of competing developers who are vying for your usage of their applications. But which application is right for you? If you have been using a particular application for a while, is it worth jumping ship to the newest/latest fad program? Will this app be around for a long time or will it disappear?

For this article, I'm going to pit every Movie Manager for Media Center I can find against each other and see who (if any) wins it all. My guess before beginning was that there would not be a sole winner--instead I anticipate each application doing a few things better than competitors, and that for users the answer would be based on the particular feature they see the greatest.

Jul 07 2009

Review - Itox NP101-D16C


  

tn7itoxboardangle.jpg With the release of the Atom processor, Intel revolutionized the low-power computing industry.  These days more and more netbooks are being sold with these inexpensive, low-power chips due to their ability to handle most day to day activities well while providing a long lasting battery life.  Today I bring to you a Mini-ITX motherboard based on the Atom N270.  With a footprint this small and such a low power draw, will it be enough to handle all of your multimedia needs for your next HTPC?  Read on to find out.

 

Jul 07 2009

Review - Life With a Plugin Episode 23: mcShoutCast

Music is a natural player in a home theater PC environment, yet the idea of streaming has stayed in the shadows for quite some time. It could be that home theater users crave higher fidelity from their music, or that they already have the music they enjoy in their digital collections. That being said, I have often enjoyed the ability of streaming the latest hits from Pandora, Last.FM or a variety of sites when I have guests over with different listening tastes than mine.

mcShoutCast aims to continue what it's been developing for a while now, by bringing the vast collection of radio stations from the Shoutcast.com directory to the convenience of your remote and Media Center experience. While other players have been content with merely being players, mcShoutCast attempts to go above that and offer some unique things to make it appealing on the big screen.

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 mcShoutCast tile on the Music Strip
 Graphical list of stations available

 

Above & Beyond

It's always refreshing reviewing an application which throws you for a loop as to what to expect with it--in this case, I expected some basic playback and playlist functionality, and found a lot more than meets the eye. Sure, we have the normal application of a streaming radio application, being able to browse and play from a number of sources. Filtering by set categories, letters, genres, etc.

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 List of Genres
 Genre options

 

What impressed me most was with everything else. Click on a radio station, and you have the option of viewing station details, showing similar artists/albums, viewing your photos, viewing slideshow of artists playing, biography, lyrics and the list goes on! If that sounds a lot, it's because it is! Some of them are more useful than others. 

You can browse various albums of the artist, and view the track titles (the service uses Amazon for this), but there's no preview of songs or any option to download/purchase, so that's a curious inclusion. Maybe I'm just not the target. Other features though are surprisingly entertaining. I found myself testing the lyrics portion just to see how it worked, and found myself singing along with the songs!

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 Record a station  View Station Details

 

If you have company over and are ashamed of your own pictures, throwing up the artists slideshow is entertaining as well. The program will play the radio station and then show images it finds in relation to the artist being played. Even cooler when you are listening to an older band and get to see their hairstyles change for every decade.

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 View lyrics to the currently playing song (with autoscroll!)  View artist biography automatically

The last thing I'll mention is a hidden feature snuck into the configuration section--recording! Yes, you read correctly. You can schedule the application to record a specific stream at a set time. Folks new to MCE might think "of course" with this, but back when Media Center launched with FM Radio support, one of the most requested features that never came was the ability to record a station. Good to see it finally came to fruition, albeit unofficially. 

 

Falling Short

Where mcShoutcast hurts itself is exactly in their vast collection of stations available. It makes browsing through 1,000 stations quite difficult, and I did have some difficulty with search hanging up on me. The nature of the beast with streaming radio stations, is they can be taken offline at any moment--while mcShoutCast does continuously try to update itself, I still found a few stations that were unable to stream at all.

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 LauraFM - User Contributed stations, but not always reliable
 Look at tracks from albums...just the names, no playback.

The other issue I have comes with any application which does so much, and that is the time it takes to get accustomed to it. Initially the time involved is high, as there are so many stations and so many different options to play with. Once I had my set group of favorites and knew the features I would use, the app became much more efficient.

 

Grade: Approved for Everyday Use

No surprise here on the grade mcShoutCast received. Besides being free of charge, it brings a large collection of streaming music to your fingertips and also throws in some very clever features you never thought would be needed--or that would be possible.

This app throws in extras everywhere it could, with lyrics, slideshows and biographies bringing the Shoutcast music library on par with what Boxee users have been enjoying for a while now. My only wish is that mcShoutCast could tie into my own digital movie collection to leverage the online resources it has to link up artist-album information with a particular song.

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 Photo list of artist
 Slideshow during playback

If I had one request it would be to bring on a bit more of social interaction--something to help rank stations, or help you find more popular stations easier. If my friend listens to 5 stations, and I happen to listen to 1 of them, then it could recommend me the other 4. Something like that would really help educate users on some other stations that they may not have come across otherwise.

That being said, I can't say enough great things about this app, so if you like music at all go download it and give it a go! 

 

Product Vitals

Website: http://en.mcetools.de/mcShoutCast/tabid/83/Default.aspx

Creator: MCETools

Price: Free

May 28 2009

Review - Hulu on the Desktop, Remote Friendly...Officially

When Hulu started shutting down Boxee and other addins that utilized its service for a 10' experience interface, people assumed one of the following--either the big content providers were uncomfortable blurring the line for television shows on their computers via a remote interface, or that they were working on something themselves and wanted the market to themselves. For better or worse, it appears that it was the latter.

Hulu just announced a Hulu Labs section of their site, and to kick things off have launched the Hulu Desktop application. The idea is exactly what you would imagine: to bring the Hulu content to a 10' friendly interface. If that sounds eerily familiar, it's because it is the same idea that Boxee, Secondrun, and a wealth of others had been trying to achieve...it just took them longer. 

Either way, the good news is that we now have an application that will bring Hulu to the 10', without fear of it getting shut down (we think, right?). So witout further adeu, let's take a closer look and see how Hulu does. As I have started on a few other reviews, here is a video showing the experience in whole, and the speed you can expect:

 

 

 

May 19 2009

Review - Life With A Plugin Episode 22: Netflix in Media Center

Netflix in Windows Vista Media Center--not a new topic, having reviewed three community-developed applications exactly one year ago (May 2008)--but this time fully supported by Microsoft. This has been a dream of many since Netflix announced the availability of streaming content and dealt with the buginess of the unofficial applications in the aforementioned review. It has finally arrived, for Vista Media Center, fully supported by Netflix and Microsoft. So does it live up to the wait?

I've taken a video of Netflix within Vista Windows Media Center which should give you a good idea of the features of the application. Since internet speed has an impact on this application, this was tested on a Comcast High Speed Cable internet service, with 2mb down...so results may vary for you if you have faster/slower speeds:


Above & Beyond

The Netflix application in Media Center is one word: SLICK! Having used the previous Netflix in Media Center applications, this one from Microsoft is miles ahead of those. The UI is slick, while the colors do not, the interface itself mimics Media Center in general. Scrolling was very responsive and I found the interface to be very fast to access, from the scrolling around to the beginning to stream.

Having the Media Center progress bar that you can scroll through the selected video quickly was fantastic! You can easily jump around a video, and the app also supports resuming of a video you had previously started--ironically something Windows Vista Media Center does not support (but Windows7 does).

 

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The color scheme is a complete departure to Media Center's traditional blue gradients, but I found them to be a pleasant style consitant with the familiar Netflix experience.

Falling Short

The only true issues I found with the Netflix application were in the support of the operating systems, having no support for Media Center Extenders is a big miss in my book. This application is going to be quite popular, and completely abandoning the Extenders will definitely frustrate Extender owners (see: Jennyfur). As of right now, this only works in Windows Vista, so if you are running the RC version of Windows 7, you're out of luck. Now, understanding common sense, I can assume once Windows7 gets released officially, that there will be something similar (if not even better!), but until then you will have to roll back to Vista.

Another complaint for the application itself has to do with the installation process. Since most add-ins do not do it much different, I cannot fault them much for the need to exit Media Center and go to a 2 foot installation of silverlight and the application. What is frustrating however is the need to restart the Media Center after install. I am sure this is required due to whatever is being installed, but I just wish Microsoft would have done whatever necessary to prevent this. There is nothing more dissapointing than getting excited, installing the application, and then having to wait for your system to reboot (and if you are recording a show, then you need to wait even longer).

 

Grade: Approved for Everyday Use

The Netflix for Media Center application brings up an interesting dilemma--with so many movie choices at your fingertips the necessity for having to wait for the actual discs has decreased (this could be why Netflix requires a certain membership level to stream). The benefits are universal for those familiar as you have access to Netflix's growing library of online movies. I consider myself an avid movie watcher, and it's impressive how quickly the Netflix streaming selections have grown. While initially it was a lot of odd or lesser known films, they now have a vast amount of current movies and tv series. Between the TV and Movie offerings, you could cancel your cable and stay occupied for a long, long time.

 

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My only real question would be, "What took so long?" Having had the other 3 community-developed Netflix applications since their inception, it's unclear why this needed to wait until a few months before Windows7 launch. That question aside however, good things come to those who wait, and this is a fantastic plugin. It's refined interface, smooth and quick playback, and impressive quality makes it a must-have for any Netflix subscribers.

And it wouldn't surprise me if many of you non-subscribers test this out and convert after experiencing it. The lack of Extender support is dissapointing, but as long as you are just on the PC, this will become one of those apps you will be hard pressed to live without. 

 

Product Vitals

Website: Netflix.com

Creator: Microsoft

Price: Free

 

clubhouse, media center, windows media center, how-to, Tip

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.

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