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Streaming Media: Not Just For Computers

Which would you rather watch?

Which would you rather watch?

I’m a big fan of the “what we want, when we want it” model of media. I’m an even bigger fan of the “where we want it” addendum to that model. I’ve spent a good deal of time, effort, and sadly money crafting a decent home theater setup, which delivers a great viewing experience in my living room. That’s fine if the content is coming from what is increasingly being called old media – pretty much any and everything that isn’t the Internet. But what about all that new media? How do I share the love (or more accurately, share the pile of home theater stuff) with the new media?

What’s the Problem? We can solve it with more STUFF!

Traditionally (meaning last year) making this bridge to tomorrow meant building or buying a Home Theater PC (HTPC). Yes, the dreaded HTPC grail, sought after by many, including the giants Microsoft and Apple, as well as a host of companies large and small. The HTPC idea is simple: you’ve got your PC, you’ve got your TV, plug the two of them together and tada! you’ve bridged the two worlds. Ok, so it’s not quite that simple – it never is – but that’s the dream. The reality is that you’re facing several interesting hurdles before you even get to the real problem, that of the viewing experience. You’ve got your video, your audio, your Internet (which is way over there, not over here…)

The current thinking, judging from the crop of new gadgets popping up like spamvertising windows, is that the whole HTPC idea might have been too complicated so what’s needed are small single purpose devices you add to a home theater like a DVD player. A good example is the WD TV HD Media Player Julie reviewed in December, 2008. Great, so instead of one complicated HTPC, we now have one, two, or three little black boxes to integrate into our home theater. Progress!

New Media – What exactly do I want on my Home Theater anyway?

At my core, I’m a Trinitarian – when faced with a huge unorganized mass of information, I’ll nearly always put it into three bins. So, here are my three bins for New Media: Internet Video, Self-Generated Media, and The Home Box Office.

Internet Video: Let’s face it, there is a torrent of content available on the Internet. I mean that in the literal sense, not the bittorrent sense. Unless you’ve been living in a cave, you’ve no doubt noticed the exponential growth of  content “networks” like Revision3 and Next New Networks. Increasingly this content is as good as, or better then the stuff you get from old media channels. If you’re a total propeller head like me for example, you can spend a year or so catching up on your TED Talks. Not to be outdone, the old media even has content available for you via Hulu, or a network portal site (CBS, NBC, etc…) I’m not going to give you an exhaustive list, because it would be obsolete before I finished typing it up! You get the idea – there’s a ton of stuff out there to watch, and that’s not even counting readily available torrents of broadcast TV shows (a gray area for me copyright-infringment-wise, or flat-out illegal, in either case its another big pile of content.)

Self-Generated Media: I’ve ridden the wave of consumer photography from film SLRs and Camcorders the size of toasters to mexapixel DSLRs and tiny HD mpg4 digital camcorders. My current pile of gear is actually dated a bit (meaning I bought it more then a week ago!) but is still pretty powerful – a Nikon D70 for stills, and an Aipkek Action-HD camcorder that shoots very good HD 720p or 1080p mpeg4 video. I had both with me on a month-long business/pleasure stay in the UK last year, and that generated about 250GB of material. In the past I would have said “that generated 20 hours of video, and 10 rolls of pictures” but that would date me. Anyway, here’s a pile of new media I’ve generated myself. Let’s get that stuff on the big screen!

The Home Box Office: Hollywood, Bollywood, perhaps Hong Kong cinema? You can get it streamed to you off the internet. Legally, or not. If you’re a legal-type, there’s iTunes, Amazon, and Netflix – all let you purchase downloadable movies, or stream movies, or both. On the fringe of legal are the ‘buy it and rip it” folks – I’m in this camp – who like the whole DVD experience but prefer to free the content from its physical delivery system. Honestly, I’d rather select a movie from an on-screen menu then paw through a pile of DVD cases!  We’ll all agree to admit that there are also readily available rips of movies on the internet. That said,  its very easy to be legal and still have a pile of locally or remotely hosted movies you’d rather watch on the big screen!

That’s my “short list” of stuff, and it’s not even close to all-encompassing. So, how do we get it all over to the home theater?

The Two Ways

As I said a few hundred words ago, you have two choices for getting all this stuff off the small screen and onto the large one (or at least onto the large one with the couch and remote.) The first (and I still think, the best) way is to add a PC to your home theater. This actually has a lot of advantages – with the right hardware – over the single-purpose boxorama we seem to be heading towards. The second way is the way of many boxes – you gots your “netflix ready” box, your media-on-a-card-or-disk box, your media-from-the-internet box, Apple TV box, and maybe toss in a TiVO for good measure. That’s a lot of boxes.

Let’s go back to the first way for a moment. Remember I said “with the right hardware”? You’re looking at needing a few key things for this to be a win: a decent graphics card with HDMI or DVI out, and S/PDIF (coax or optical) audio out. Graphics to the flat screen, audio to the receiver, and all your media is connected. Yep, as I said, that’s the dream. You might want to add a digital capture device as well, and plug your incoming source into that – yes, that means splitters, cable cards (oh, wait, no cable cards for PCs!) and more wires – so your HTPC can also be your PVR.

Assume you’ve got the thing connected correctly, and it actually works right as a Home Theater component – hey, it could happen – what you’ll need next is a big fat network connection. Preferably a gigabit wired connection, to your nice home LAN, where you have a massive storage appliance humming away – far away – from your nice quiet living room. What about wireless, you ask? Too slow. Even 802.11n is too slow. Well, that’s not exactly true, 802.11n is almost not too slow for everything except for ripped DVDs, most of the time. Go ahead, try wireless, and when that doesn’t work then start pulling Ethernet cables.

Still with me? Great! Now you have the hardware and the network and the storage. Your garage or basement looks like a data center, and your family is pretty sure you’ve lost your mind. You’ve learned a lot about your attic or basement. Now, grab the remote (you did remember to get some kind of remote on your HTPC, right?)  and have a ball. Only now you need software! Here at last there is very good news, as boxee does a lot of what you want and even has a passable interface that’s not too geeky. Boxee runs on top of something – MacOS X (so, all the above stuff about hardware is replaced with, mostly, “buy an Apple TV or Mac mini”), Windows (not quite yet), or Linux. You can also go with GBPVR, or some other home theater software. Whatever you do, it’s all on you to make it all work. Think of it as a hobby, and you’ll feel better about the amount of time you spend getting it to work.

Ok, stop laughing. You’re either laughing at me, or with me at this point, but you should be laughing either way. If you’ve done the HTPC thing yourself – successfully or not – you’re laughing with me. You know it works. You also know its the elegant solution, for once it does work it is a thing of beauty. All your stuff is there, all that other stuff on the Internet is there, and it doesn’t even feel too much like a computer while you use it. Assuming your time is worth about $0.05/hour you even saved a few bucks! If you’ve never done the HTPC thing, you’re laughing at me as you watch your stuff on one (or maybe two, or three) of those little single-purpose boxes, having invested a few hours and a couple inputs on the Home Theater to get them hooked up.

You’re Soaking In It

These are your choices for alternate universes in the future. One future can be set up today without calling in the Nerd Herd, but leads to  a pile of single-purpose boxes that do one thing reasonably well. Another future has a single converged device, just maybe a boxee appliance, that finally gets the HTPC right. I’m hoping for the latter future because convergence is inevitable, even if it takes a few trys to get right.

{ 10 comments… add one }

  • Shkermaker May 10, 2009, 10:12 am

    one word – PS3 :-)
     Install vuze on mac/pc and stream all you content
     Get a decent wireless keyboard for the PS3
    et voila! Blu-ray player, HTPC with 5.1 sound and internet. Install a linux system on it and you can even install openoffice and a printer if you really wanna do work on your tv!

  • Ken May 10, 2009, 10:44 am

    1. Build a computer with one of the Gigabyte AMD 780G chipset mobos and give it 4GB RAM, 1TB Drive and an AMD 5050e processor. You now have a very low cost, low power using HTPC. Get a BD drive for about $100 more if you want. No video card needed for even BD playback. This runs cool and quiet

    2. Install Windows 7 RC1 which includes Windows Media Center

    3. Pinnacle Media Center Remote control and an Adesso Wireless keyboard

    You now have a media center computer that plays all your videos, music, hows pictures, plays DVD and BD discs…and will allow you to play whatever you want off the net.
    ….
    Second solution
    http://www.popcornhour.com

  • John Schettino May 10, 2009, 3:52 pm

    Thanks for the examples – in fact I have a nice shuttle-based HTPC (you can see it in the lower left corner) but getting there is hardly the same as the plug-n-play experience of the “many little boxes”. There are a million ways to make a HTPC, all of which require much more effort. Sure, its possible – some might even enjoy it – but it hardly passes the gadget test.

    What I’m looking for is that shrink-wrapped appliance you buy at the Big Box store, yet delivers the experience of a fully tricked out HTPC, say at a sub-$300 price point. If you know of one of those, point me at it!

  • Cameron Church May 11, 2009, 9:53 am

    I would have to disagree with you on wireless being too slow, and therefore not suitable for the home theater.

    I have purchased and am running NetGear’s 5 GHz Wireless N Bridge components (http://www.netgear.com/Products/APsWirelessControllers/AccessPoints/WNHDE111.aspx) – the key here is it runs at 5 GHz which is above and beyond the 2.5GHz of every other bloomin’ wireless product out there (even your microwave)!

    The outcome is I can stream Bluray quality movies wirelessly from my PC to my Media Centre with no stuttering/buffering during playback. It’s pretty sweet.

    But will caveat this all that there are distance and price limitations that you need to factor in. If your living/renting a flat/apartment in urban areas that are littered with wireless interference and a lease that doesn’t let you put even bluetack on the wall I’d definitely recommend trying this kit out.

  • Julie May 11, 2009, 10:10 am

    @Cameron I noticed with my testing of the Popcorn Hour, that I wasn’t able to stream an 5GB ISO from less than 20 ft using WiFi.

  • John Schettino May 11, 2009, 10:12 am

    Cameron,

    I agree that for some folks, there might be some form of wifi that might work. Bluray quality movies are going to need 40mbit rock solid, which you can get out of N (not the bogus “300mbit” number, but the actual throughput) but as you noted, not in every setting. It sure will consume most of your wireless bandwidth while streaming! I did the whole N thing, and my range is only 30′ and 1 wall, and it worked most of the time for some of the content.

  • Markus May 11, 2009, 4:30 pm

    Hi,
    I see you guys are still talking about an HTPC?
    Iam dealing with that subject since 2003 and must say, that people are still spending thousands of dollars for Home Theaters which I don’t understand.

    My setup at home:
    Living Room – 24″ Samsung Monitor (just to catch the news,sports)
    Theater Room – HD-Projector, surround sound, HDD Media Player
    (both are hooked to mini-computers with Internet to get anything I want, whenever I want it). Channels are pre-set and customized
    On the Road – Zeiss Cinemizer with iPod Connector

    Setting everything up took me 1 day.
    Everything is legal and was below $5000

  • Cameron Church May 12, 2009, 5:00 am

    John and Julie

    Apologies I should have quantified things a bit more with some context: I’m running a Windows 7 box that hosts all my media files and stream, over Netgear N and 5GHz, to a Mac Mini connected to my home theater.

    You’re spot on John that you need a solid pipe of 40Mb to get a seamless playback – although N is theoretically capable of this it hardly meets the need in the real world (as seen in many review tests splashed over the interweb) – what struck me as unique about the NetGear offering is that it operates in the5GHz range, the interference of the microwave, cordless phones and the the littering of wireless AP all over the building I live in were all effecting my signal. Putting the NetGear in place seems to have solved this and, as mentioned, I haven’t noticed any degradation of quality of service.

    I will admit I haven’t perform formal speed tests but am happy to do so if people would find that useful.

    A real world example: I have a 24 Mb internet provider and downloading files at around 500Kb, at the same time I’m able to stream HD videos between points with no buffering or skipping. The distance between the machines is about 20ft, on the same floor and through a couple of interior walls. If you believe NetGear’s hype they also put QoS priority on Media files being sent around but I’m not sure how effective that is.

    The only problem is that soon enough more manufactures will be jumping into the 5 GHz range to help improve their wireless offerings and the cycle will start all over again!

  • Mark Adkins May 12, 2009, 11:23 am

    Heck, all I want is to find a portable unit that lets me show whatever is on my laptop (with no special video jacks) on a TV so I can use it for presentations, as a DVD player, etc. and I cannot seem to find anything that will do this relatively simple thing (you know, a unit that does it without getting trashy reviews).

  • Markus May 14, 2009, 11:57 pm

    Mark,

    a portable unit? nothing easier, look here:
    http://custobots.com/store/index.php?main_page=index&cPath=2&zenid=64b8a84f75bfbb18c7be48ab1634882b

    plug and play Media Players

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