Entries Tagged as 'Entertainment'

The Media Home

It may come as a shock to you, but computers are here to stay, and there’s at least one in almost every home in the country.

Computers in the home are becoming a “fabric” around which we build and manage our lives, our communications, and our entertainment to enumerate just a few critical areas.

But, almost nothing plays nicely together… and that’s a real problem for the average consumer who’s never figured out how to set the clock on their microwave oven!

A sleepy little company in Redmond, Washington introduced a product they call “Windows Home Server”… it’s really not a revolutionary product, it’s more just a repackaging of technology they already had — it’s just designed to be easy to install and maintain; and it’s targeted at the home market (much like Small Business Server was to the small business without an IT staff).

Why has Microsoft targeted a product like this at the home market?

Easy — he who defines the fabric of the home network is most likely to reap the rewards in controlling the devices the consumer buys for them.

Microsoft has tried for years to get low end versions of Windows into just about everything (Windows CE, Windows Mobile, etc)… and the Microsoft Home Server is another attempt at that.

Now since we have cell phones, music players, video players, navigation systems, and a host of other things built on top of Windows, Microsoft is making the move to make everything work together — well, at least sort of work together (I can’t tell you how many times I’ve deleted the partnership between my phone and my PC to get them to sync).

But the key is here, they will target the consumer, and the consumer will most likely purchase additional hardware and software that is “certified” to work.

Certainly Microsoft isn’t the only company chasing after control of the infrastructure; but they are one of the biggest… and certainly wisdom would suggest that you not put yourself firmly in the cross hairs of a market segment Microsoft is targeting.

Bottom line is, keep your eyes open for a host of products for the home that leverage off of Microsoft core technology that attempt to bring the average consumer into the digital media era.

Originally posted 2008-06-05 01:10:52.

WD TV Live Plus – Network Media Player

I purchased the WD TV Live Plus about a month ago from Amazon (good price, free shipping, great return policy if you need it)… I looked at several other alternatives including the Seagate FreeAgent Theatre, Roku Digital Video Player, and Apple TV.

Rather than high light the weaknesses I perceived in the other devices, let me underscore the abilities that I felt were compelling in the WD TV Live Plus, but let me start by listing the minimum requirements.

  • support full HD (1080)
  • support component video (I have one older panel that doesn’t support HDCP)
  • support TOSLINK and/or SPDIF digital sound
  • support HDMI (video plus audio)
  • support Netflix streaming
  • support media from local sources

Additionally there were a few more items on my wish list

  • not require any proprietary software installation (ie iTunes)
  • support MPEG2, MPEG4, h.264 plus as many other CODECs as possible
  • support audio
  • support browsing SMB/CIFs shares
  • support media servers
  • straight forward user interface
  • reputable vendor with reasonable support and updates

The WD TV Live Plus (don’t be confused by the other models WD offers — only the high end one supports Netflix) did everything I required, and everything I wanted — plus it has features beyond what I care about.

Let me start by saying I unpacked the device, plugged it in, and it worked — I didn’t need to read the manual, I didn’t need to change any settings, I didn’t need to do anything to play local media off of file shares or media servers.  The only thing I had to do to play Netflix through the device was type in the device registration code on my account screen online and it was up and running.

I cannot say that the device is perfect; but I can say that it works as well as any set top box I’ve ever used (including cable boxes, satellite receivers, U-Verse IP-TV, and HPCs).

Like all those devices you’ll get sputters on occasion (though I’ve never seen any issues with playing local media that is properly encoded), but a quick power cycle (the power button on the device actually seems to do a reboot of the device — but unplugging the AC adapter is always a sure fire way of resetting the device).

My Netflix queue started with well over 100 items in it; I’m actually watching items in the queue faster than I’m adding new items to it… it’s just so easy to watch, and so comfortable.  You kick back on the sofa and watch a movie as you’re writing a BLOG post (like I’m doing now).

I really like this device, and I’ll buy a second one for the panel in the bedroom, but I’m hoping that WD will reduce the price to be a little more competitive, and I hope that they continue to update the firmware and improve the device.

For the moment, I recommend you read the information on Western Digital’s web site – that will help to answer questions you might have.  I found that downloading and reviewing the user manual was actually the fastest way to answer most of my questions.  You can also read many other articles about the various media players available — but always keep in mind when you read the opinions of others that they are looking at the device for their needs with their perspective… consider what they say more than their conclusions.

And keep in mind, buy it from Amazon and if it doesn’t meet your expectations the return is as easy a printing a return label with the click of a button and dropping it at the post office.

WD TV Live Plus

WD TV Live Plus

Originally posted 2010-10-16 02:00:43.

Google Music – Release

Back on the 17th of November Google announced the generally availability of Google Music…

We’re excited to announce that Music Beta by Google is officially graduating from beta today! Google Music will remain a free service, and you can continue to store up to 20,000 songs in your personal music library.

As well as an updated terms of service, and a music store (that works via Android Market).

The terms of service clarifies that each individual uploads and maintains his individual copy of a music file (unlike Apple’s service which may well substitute your copy with one from the iTunes store).

And while I think Google Music is a great value (it’s free), I think it might still be a little buggy…

My music library has in excess of 30,000 MP3 files, and while I understand that Google will not upload all of them, and that I might not be able to control exactly which 20,000 songs they upload without creating a copy of the songs I have in a separate directory structure, I’m at a loss as to why I only have 19,088 from my collection uploaded — and the error I see in the load is “too many files in account”…

While I wouldn’t have been shocked if I got 19,999 songs uploaded, it seem to me that there’s definitely a deficiency in Google’s uploader and it’s logic for determining when you’ve reached 20,000 songs in your library.

Like I said, I think the Google Music service is a good value; but it does lack the ability to use it as a “backup” of your music library (there’s really no facility to retrieve the music you upload, other than the very painful, manual effort you’d have to put into retrieving files from the cache it builds as you play them and renaming them).

An alternative is the Amazon Music service; they only provide 5GB free, but for a modest yearly payment they do allow unlimited (Google hasn’t even set pricing for raising the limit on their service); and with both the song you purchase don’t count toward your limit.  The upside of the Amazon service is that it does work nicely as a backup; you can retrieve the music you upload.

For the time being, I’ll use the Google Service; but my guess is that I’ll just migrate to Amazon if Google doesn’t really focus on making the service work correctly, and provide for additional storage.

Originally posted 2011-11-25 02:00:48.

AT&T U-Verse

I signed up for AT&T U-Verse service about two months ago — I’ve already made a post on that, but I decide to go ahead and do a series of posts on it.

This post will be an over view of what it is; then I’ll do a post on each of the services that are part of it.

The first thing to say about AT&T U-Verse is that it is offered by a company that I think very little of; a company that does not engender trust (in fact I’m suspicious of them at every turn — they seem to make mistake after mistake after mistake — and all their mistakes benefit them).  The sad thing is you might not have any substantially better company in your area to receive similar services from — so it’s not necessarily choosing the best, but often choosing the one that gives you that most without costing you the most.

U-Verse in short is AT&T’s name for an “advance” set of services — voice, television, and internet.

AT&T’s system generally provides these services to the home over copper (fibre is required in fairly close proximity as well).  The technology is called FTTN (fibre-to-the-node) and while they do have some FTTP (fibre-to-the-premises) it’s only found in extremely dense areas.

With FTTN a VRAD (video-ready-access-device) is present between the Central Office and the end node consumer; in FTTP it isn’t.  VRADs are generally fairly large pieces of equipment similar to a cable company’s “head-end” (used for digital cable deployment) and much larger than a TELCO’s mini-DSLAMs (used for DSL deployment via copper from fibre from the Central Office DSLAM).

The services offered via U-Verse are: voice (“land line” telephone), television (“cable” tv as well as video on demand), and internet (“high speed” broadband).

When the service is installed it’s likely the installers will work in a team; the outside cable will be run by one person (generally the entry copper from the pole will be replaced) and new inside wiring is run.

It’s important to note that all services are digital.

Voice is provided by voice over IP (VoIP) technology; television is provided through ip video (including live and video on demand [VOD]); and of course the internet service is the core of everything (though an optional part).

The center of the system in the home is a residential gateway which handles all three of the services (along with a battery backup unit — mainly to insure that emergency services work in power outages).

Many people ask the question if they can use their own residential equipment rather than what AT&T provides.  The answer simply is NO.  Currently you must use the AT&T equipment — you may use your equipment in addition to the AT&T residential gateway, or remove your equipment and use exclusively the AT&T provided equipment.

I’ll cover the details of each service with respect to the gateway in the following posts — but your installer will work with you to provide a reasonable installation that should provide you with voice, television, and internet services much as you currently have.

The gateway itself has one WAN side connection, two telephone jacks  (it’s not clear to me whether it’s cable of three lines or four lines, but currently you can only subscribe for two lines of service), four 100-Base-T Ethernet (LAN) connections, one wireless (802.11-N) radio, one USB connection (for a PC), one “F” connector for video, and one Ethernet “broadband” connection (I’m not sure what this is for, it’s got a piece of transparent tape over it on my unit).

Initially the set-top boxes and DVR units must be cabled directly to the unit to insure proper discover; after they are configured you can use a switch if you want more ports; or you can connect your router to the gateway if you like (you will need to reconfigure the gateway if you do this to allow your gateway to work as before).

If everything goes well in the installation, once the wiring is in place the gateway, set-top boxes, and DVR units will register and come online within a few minutes — however, AT&T seems to have quite a few units that are defective, so don’t be surprised if there are some problems.

I had ordered one DVR and two set-top boxes (mainly because I wanted the maximum installation I could get for free).  One of the set-top boxes was DOA (dead-on-arrival), one of the set-top boxes worked (but I decided I didn’t really want to keep it so the install took it back), and the DVR unit wasn’t completely dead, but was defective.  Fortunately the installer had another unit he could replace it with — but since the unit had worked well enough to register itself it took quite sometime for the installer to find someone at AT&T support who was able to clear out the previous registration so my “new” DVR could register.

We also had some issues with the voice service; but by the time the DVR issues were resolved a reboot of the gateway seemed to download the proper service configuration and both inbound and outbound calling worked.

I will note that my install was originally scheduled for a Saturday (it was the first day I could select); and AT&T never informed me that they had moved my installation date to the following Monday.  I found out when I called them 15-minutes before the close of the installation window.  I was more than a little pissed since I had changed my plans Saturday to accommodate them, and now I had to change my plans for Monday as well!

Over all I give my installer fairly high marks for doing a good job (though he still owes me a jack — AT&T doesn’t give there installers a very good supply of equipment or parts); but like almost every AT&T system, it’s brittle and almost appears designed to fail.

The one short coming of my install is that he really didn’t know a great deal about configuring the gateway for a “complex” network; but since that isn’t something AT&T technically supports I can’t fault him on that, and I certainly knew enough to figure out what needed to be changed (the 2Wire device they use could be considered a “pro-sumer” grade device, so it capable of meeting most needs, but don’t expect it to have highly technical descriptions of the various settings).

I will say, that after the initial installation the system appeared to work… though before you place your order you’ll want to read my next three posts as well as do a price-feature comparison with what you have now.

Also, you may find that it turns out to be less expensive to order more services than you want.  For example, if you only want internet service — it’s cheaper to order enough service to get a free installation (well, it’s not free — I found no way to avoid the $29 activation fee — but it’s easy to see how to avoid the $149 installation fee).  If you order a bundle, the installation fee is waived; if you downgrade in the first thirty (30) days there’s a $5 fee — so as the installer is leaving, call and downgrade — save $144 of the installation fee… though taking advantage of some of the rewards and promotions may actually make it less expensive to have more services for longer.

Oh, and one last word — make sure you keep copies of everything you “read” online to do with any promotional credits, rewards, requirements.  As I’ve already said, AT&T does not engender trust.

Originally posted 2010-05-14 02:00:22.

Video Encoding

A little over a year ago one of my friends with a Mac wanted to get into re-encoding video; I knew about the tools to do it on a PC, but none of the tools really had a OS-X port at that time, so I set out on a quest to find tools that could enable a person who didn’t know much about video encoding to accomplish it.

One of the first tools I stumbled on was HandBrake; it was an Open Source project leveraging off of a number of other Open Source products intended on creating a cross platform suite of tools for video encoding that was reasonably straight forward to use and produced reasonable good results.

Well, the version I tested was a near total failure… but the project showed promise and I keep tabs on it for quite some time.

Over the past year it’s steadily improved.  In fact, I’m probably being a little hard on it, since right after I played with an early version a much improved version was available that did work, and did allow my friend to accomplish what he wanted.

Last month HandBrake released a new version — a much improved version.

With Windows, OS-X, and Linux versions you can try out HandBrake for yourself and see the results.

I did two separate tests (and for some reason I always use the same two DVD titles — Saving Private Ryan, and Lord of the Rings — the reason is that both movies have a wide range of  video type from near still images to sweeping panoramic views to everything in motion (blowing up)…

I had two separate machines (a Q9300 and a Q9400 both with 8GB of DDR2) doing the encodes, and did both normal and high profiles; one test was H.264 into a MPEG4 container with AAC created from the AC3 5.1 track; the other was H.264 into a MKV container with AAC created from the AC3 5.1 track in addition to AC3 5.1 pass-through and Dolby Surround pass-through with [soft] subtitles.

For the high profiles: Lord of the Rings took a little over three hours; Saving Private Ryan took just under two and a half hours — so don’t get in a hurry, in fact, run it over night and don’t bother the computer(s).

The high profile achieved about a 2:1 reduction in size; the normal profile achieved about a 4:1 reduction in size.  The high profile’s video was stunning, the normal profile’s video was acceptable.  The AAC audio was acceptable; the AC3 5.1 was identical to the source, and in perfect sync.

There are a number of advantages to keeping your video in a MPEG4 or MKV container verses a DVD image… it’s much easier to catalog and play, and of course it’s smaller (well, you could keep the MPEG2-TS in a MKV and it would be identically sized, but I see little reason for that).

The downside of RIPping your DVDs is that you lose the navigation stream and the extra material.  Do you care???

HandBrake will read source material in just about any format imaginable (and in almost any container as well)… you can take a look at it’s capabilities and features online.

I’ve got some VCR capture streams in DV video that I’m encoding now — trying a few of the more advanced settings in HandBrake to see how it works (well, that’s not really testing HandBrake, that’s testing the H.264 encoder).  My expectation is that once I get the settings right, it will do a fine job; but with video captures you should never expect the first try to be the best (well, I’m never that lucky).

While HandBrake is very easy to use, your ability to get really good results from it is going to partially depend on how willing you are to learn a little about video re-encoding (which will require a little reading and a little experimentation).   But that said, NO product is going to magically just do the right thing in every case…

Overall I would say that HandBrake is one of the best video encoders you’re going to find, and you cannot beat the price — FREE!

Here’s some additional notes.

For Windows 7 you will want to download the DivX trial and just install the MKV splitter (nothing else is needed) so that Windows 7 can play media in a MKV container using it’s native CODECs.

With Windows Media Play 12 and Media Center I haven’t figured out how to switch audio streams; so make sure you encode with the audio stream you want as a default as the first stream.  With Media Player Classic and Media Player Classic Home Cinema it’s easy to select the audio stream.  Also, Windows Media Player will not render AC3 pass-through streams, it will just pass them through the SPDIF/Toslink to your receiver — so you won’t get any sound if you’re trying to play it on your PC.

Don’t delete any of your source material until you are certain that you are happy with the results; and you might want to backup your source material and keep it for six months or so just to be sure (yeah — I know it’s big; but a DVD will fit on a DVD).

Handbrake

Originally posted 2009-12-17 01:00:07.

Hulu

The bidding war is over, and now we know who will buy Hulu…

NO ONE.

Disney and News Corp (major investors in Hulu) decided to take Hulu off the block just after Dish Networks had shored up their bid.

To me, it seems uncertain that Hulu can really make it on their own; but it’s equally uncertain where Google or Amazon will acquire additional content to grow their streaming options.

I guess we’ll see what happens next.

Hulu Equity Owners Announce Decision To Terminate The Hulu Sale Process

Originally posted 2011-10-14 03:00:28.

HDX Media Player

I ran across this site while reading on the web.  The HDX 1000 and HDX 900 look like they could be interesting devices to hookup to your high definition panel to give you options in how you acquire and manage your content.

I haven’t played with one, so all I have to go by is what’s on the web site.

http://www.hdx1080.com/

Originally posted 2008-11-13 12:00:36.

Paw Paw Patch Song

Where, oh where, oh where is Susie?
Where, oh where, oh where is Susie?
Where, oh where, of where is Susie?
Way down yonder in the paw-paw patch.

Pickin’ up paw-paws; put ’em in a basket.
Pickin’ up paw-paws; put ’em in a basket.
Pickin’ up paw-paws; put ’em in a basket.
Way down yonder in the paw-paw patch

Come along, boys, and let’s go find her.
Come along, boys, and let’s go find her.
Come along, boys, and let’s go find her.
Way down yonder in the paw-paw patch.

Pickin’ up paw-paws; put ’em in a basket.
Pickin’ up paw-paws; put ’em in a basket.
Pickin’ up paw-paws; put ’em in a basket.
Way down yonder in the paw-paw patch

She’s a queen of old Hawaii.
She’s a queen of old Hawaii.
She’s a queen of old Hawaii.
Way down yonder in the paw-paw patch.

Pickin’ up paw-paws; put ’em in a basket.
Pickin’ up paw-paws; put ’em in a basket.
Pickin’ up paw-paws; put ’em in a basket.
Way down yonder in the paw-paw patch

She can teach you how to hula.
She can teach you how to hula.
She can teach you how to hula.
Way down yonder in the paw-paw patch.

Pickin’ up paw-paws; put ’em in a basket.
Pickin’ up paw-paws; put ’em in a basket.
Pickin’ up paw-paws; put ’em in a basket.
Way down yonder in the paw-paw patch

Originally posted 2011-09-29 02:00:46.

Google Music (Beta)

Google launched Google Music Beta a little over a month ago, and I’ve been using it since shortly after that.

Currently it’s free; allows you to upload up to 20,000 songs, and will play back that music through any browser, or through Android’s Music App (you will need the updated version that’s icon looks like a headset).

The Music Manager can be installed on a number of operating system, and can upload directories of music, or upload music from an iTune or Windows Media library… you do need to be patient, even on the fastest setting the manager will take quite some time to upload a large music library (I have 17,998 sound; origially I uploaded about 14,500 songs and it took almost 10 days).

The manager will detect changes to the files and automatically sync with the music cloud storage — and you can edit meta tags via the web interface as well.

The biggest downside of Google’s Music Beta is that there isn’t really any way to download the music from the cloud — say you had a local disk crash and wanted to get the music back in a library format (it does allow you to cache content locally for off-line playback).  Obviously the files are downloaded to your computer, but it’d take quite a bit of work to reorganize them (I’ll actually experiment with the cache to see if you could use something like MediaMonkey to reorganize the cache into a library — I don’t know if the ID3 tags are pulled down with the music stream or not).

While it’s free, it’s a great value — and it works very well; I’ve had no problem streaming music on 3G (you’ll want an unlimited data plan for sure)… the only potential issue you might have is that if your home internet provider caps your transfers per month (or charges for overages) you may want to upload parts of your library over several months (my library is 128GB — so almost the entire amount AT&T allows on DSL service and half what AT&T allows on U-Verse service once they start metering ).

Provided you’re not an iPhone user — I recommend you take a look at it; now if Google starts charging, you may want to consider using the Amazon service.  It’s $20 per year for unlimited music and 20GB of anything you want; or $5GB (total) if free.  The downside of the Amazon plan is that the MPAA and RIA are allowed to scan your files (there’s no privacy), and the price may change.  I can’t really speak much about the Amazon service since I’ve only played with the free storage (which isn’t anywhere near enough to store even a meaningful fraction of my library).  If you’re an iPhone user, you’ll want to look at the Apple music cloud service.

For the time being, the Google service is the best deal in town… you can check it out via:

Google Music Beta

Originally posted 2011-10-15 02:00:09.

IPTV

IPTV has come a long way since the early 90’s and for most of the nation we’re on the edge of an era where digital entertainment in the home will be carried throughout our home (and enter our home) over a conventional data network.

At the moment, most media player devices are vendor specific in what they will do (ie, the U-Verse set-top box is an IPTV device, but is very limited in what it provides beyond allowing a consumer access to the U-Verse servers) — though there are some general purpose devices.

Sure, you can attach a Media PC or Home Entertainment PC, a XBox 360, a PS3, or a Wii to your entertainment system and use it as a somewhat general purpose media player — but it’s not really designed to provide a good user experience for media (they’re intended for general computing or gaming) – or you can purchase one of a growing number of media devices that are being offered that are targeted specifically to provide for a reasonably good consumer experience.

There are also a number of BluRay players that have media player capabilities — but since I consider BluRay a dying media format (and have since the day the format wars were decided) — I see no reason to invest in a player that’s likely to go the way of the 8-track; nor do I see a reason to pay for over priced discs (particularly when I already own a license for the material in another format, and no longer subscribe to making the MPAA richer when they offer me nothing).

There are also a number of display panels that have media player capabilities — but you’re going to find that the display panels that use the best display technology don’t contain the wizzy features to allow for streaming media. So my advice, is buy a solid panel and just realize that you’re going to have an external box (I don’t know of anyone who’s built a cable-card type module for IPTV at the consumer level let).

That leaves us with just the stand along devices — and if you decide that NetFlix is an absolute requirement you come down to three devices currently: Roku Streaming Player; Seagate FreeAgent Theater+ HD Media Player; and Western Digital TV Live Plus HD Media Player.

For my money the Roku is a joke — and I’m just going to pass right over it since I’ve already given it more attention than it deserves.

Both the Seagate and the Western Digital devices look like they have potential (note, only the WDBABX0000NBK is worth considering, the other models are in the same bucket as the Roku)/

The WD TV Live Plus; however, specifically supports the “play to” feature of Windows Media Player — which means you should be able to play any content on the device that you can play on a Windows 7 machine… which opens you up to a much larger potential source for entertainment.

Let me be clear at this point that I haven’t tried any of these devices for myself — I’m just in the phase of trying to figure out which would be worth my time to look at… once I have a device (and hopefully I’ll be happy with the first I get) I’ll write up a detailed post on the feature set — if you’re in a hurry, just read over the capabilities of each of the possibilities and decide what features you have to have to eliminate the number of possibilities down; and before you do that, if you haven’t looked at the value of the NetFlix streaming feature — acquaint yourself with that, and you too will likely consider it a “must have”.

Originally posted 2010-08-03 02:00:49.