Media Centers

Building a Media Center – Rebuilt using Windows 8

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Its been a while since I wrote an article about Media Centers, and in truth, its kind of overdue.
My current ‘primary’ Media Center at home is showing its age, as is my server and workstation. Recently I find myself thinking more and more about successors to these venerable systems that have served me so well over the years…

My server and workstation will have to wait for another day as they have always been more closely related so the focus today is on my primary Media Center which lives in the living room attached to the TV. So with that in mind, I rebuilt it last weekend. I thought I’d document some of my experiences.

At the most basic level, and as far as I can see, my choice was either to 1) Continue and see if I can further its life a little more by (Within reason) upgrading or reinstalling the hardware/software or 2) Cut my losses and shed out to build a new and better system. I chose the former as I think the old dog still has a bit of fight in it yet.

So here is what I did. Read the rest of this entry »

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Farewell Boxee Plex is better – RasPlex also

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Well, its official, I’ve finally dropped Boxee after a long time of dragging them along with me.

It almost hurts me to say it, but Boxee missed a real opportunity with their fans that other projects embrace…

yes, I’m talking about Plex, which is single-handedly taken my home media experience to the next level. I say this after nearly a year of using Plex full-time as a solution and watching it get better in that time.

Boxees fall from grace?
Well, it became obvious that they forgot where they came from and who supported them to start with, and they instead wanted corporate fame. Current recent announcement confirms also that Boxee has officially been purchased by Samsung.

It all started a long time ago when the Boxee Box (Which I was really looking forward to) was being released.

After nearly a year of delay, it finally arrived, at the expense of the Desktop application which made them so popular to begin with. By that time many people (Myself included) had become disillusioned with the lack of updates and fixes to their application and had begun to look elsewhere already. The disparity between the Boxee Box and the desktop application was clear as day, and Boxee had made it clear that the Boxee Box was the only way to go for their fans… Even those who were not ready.

I remember voicing my concerns on the Boxee Forums all those years ago, only to be shouted down as a heretic by the Boxee community who doggedly followed them. I was one of them too, at one point. I believed in Boxee, but now I know better.

So, Plex then?
Yes, Plex! It works so well and has a clean and consistent interface that works across all my devices and platforms. The platforms that I use are Windows, Android and I have recently discovered RasPlex, which is still in alpha but I have running on my ‘release’ Raspberry Pi and works as my bedroom media center. Besides this Plex runs on a whole bunch of things from iOS, Windows Phone to Google TV and there is even a Windows 8 native Metro App.

This is the variety of platform choice and ecosystem that I wish Boxee would have attempted to achieve, but they have gone in their own different direction.

In future I hope to talk some more about my Media Center and Media Server configurations, and how I use Plex in my own way, but for now I’ll leave this with a couple of YouTube vids I found.

Plex:

RasPlex:

Raspberry Pi delivery!!!

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I have previously written about how much I like the Raspberry Pi.

At release I ordered a unit, and have played quite a bit with it.A few weeks ago, I ordered 2 more new Raspberry Pi units, and today they finally arrived!

I’ve got some vague plans for these units, to add to the existing release unit that I have (At release, a Raspberry Pi came with 256MB RAM, these have 512MB).

Raspberry Pi shenanigans ahead!

Raspberry Pi – I WANT YOU SO BAD!

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There are no words to explain my recent muted excitement over the past few months regarding the coming release of the Raspberry Pi board. Read the rest of this entry »

Building a Media Center – Part 1

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The core mantra I try to stick to when building a Media Center is: KEEP IT SIMPLE. If something goes wrong, its likely to happen when you’re watching something you want to or when you’re showing off your cool Media Center to friends/family/spouse/potential-girlfriend/boyfriend.
Another secondary (But crucial!) rule I have is what I refer to as the ‘WAGs Test’ (WAGs meaning ‘Wives And Girlfriends’ for those who may be unaware). This isn’t meant to be a negative thing, but something I discovered when I handed the remote to somebody else (Not only women). I found that people got confused when faced with a device when they need to do more than just choose a channel feed.

With Media Centers, navigation can be confusing for those not used to the interface and/or system and the concept of browsing directory structures and/or folders, having ‘Apps’ in the Apps section and web feeds in the feeds section etc, can sometimes seem bewildering and overwhelming. This need not be so, as it provides a separation of the functions that a Media Center experience provides. You also don’t need to use all the features included, they’re just there if you want them. At the end of the day, we’re human beings and in being so we’re creatures of habit; We’ll boil our activities down to a few things we do well and often and sometimes try new things.

With those words in mind, lets begin!

Note: HTPC stands for Home Theatre Personal Computer (PC), which is basically more or less the same as what I and many others refer to as a Media Center PC. I thought I’d mention this as I use this term a few times, and it is often used in details on other sites (Shopping sites especially).

Build/Buy PC for use as a Media Center/HTPC:
I think this is the single most important decision to make when planning and building your Media Center. Why? Well the size, capability and even aesthetic of the PC that you physically use for the Media Center will determine where, what you can do with it. I’ll break this down further down but for example, there are many considerations when choosing the hardware. An ultra low-power machine with not-so-great integrated graphics will be able to drive different quality displays and file formats (Dont expect to play 1080p content from some old PC you had laying around for 5 years, unless you’re willing to invest a little into it).
Size: Remember that this is a PC that will be sat nearby your TV for some time and will be a lot more ‘visible’ than your desktop gaming system. Flashing lights and LEDs tend to be a no-no here as they get very distracting, especially when the lights are off and you’re watching an epic movie. It’s also worth considering buying or building a PC in a SFF (Small Form Factor) case. These can be the same size as an Xbox or PS3 and will slot neatly in between your current set top boxes and consoles if you have any. As an example, I currently use a HP dc7800 Ultra-Slim desktop (Details here) which fits perfectly under my TV, next to my Xbox. Its unobtrusive and blends in well, but an important consideration when choosing is the computing power required for your media.
Capability: This is where you want to consider a few other things like what formats of media you have or will have, what you’ll be watching and how its all hooked up to the Media Center system. The important things I personally look for and remember would be the format and capability of your TV. This is important, because I personally prefer use a 720p TV (Sony Bravia S Series) which I bought a few years back and serves me well even now. Why not 1080p? Its a personal choice; I find 1080 panels a little distracting because I focus on the detail rather than what I’m watching. Also if you watch older TV shows or media that has to be scaled upto 1920×1080 resolution, sometimes it can look odd (Which, again, is distracting to me) so I prefer a 720p panel for my personal use but its a personal choice. However, the glory and satisfaction that can be had from watching a Blu-Ray or 1080p media file on a 1080p TV is something that inspires awe in me. Remember that higher resolution requires higher bit-rates also, which in turn require a more powerful Processor(CPU)/Graphics(GPU) combination as well as more RAM. My current HP system has a Core2duo 2Ghz CPU, an Intel x4500 Integrated GPU as well as 3GB RAM, which I would consider a bare minimum unless you are recycling older hardware in which case your mileage may vary. Anything with an AM3 AMD processor or Intel Core i3/i5 is more than capable. I wouldnt say lots of RAM is required, but 2GB would be a minimum for any Media Center.
Aesthetics: Aesthetics are important due to the simple fact that you’ll be staring at the Media Center quite a lot. To most consumers, a Media Center gets lumped in with set top boxes and other ‘under-TV’ devices. Again, going back to the issue of size, a tower PC stands out and spoils the living room aesthetic. It very much depends on the individual preferences, mainly if you care about having a tower PC sat next to your TV.

Building a PC for use as a Media Center/HTPC:
Building a Media Center from parts can be a very rewarding but expensive process. Considering much of what’s important as when buying a PC for Media Center use, the basis of your Media Center build becomes the case to put it all in. Here there are a lot of options, like some cases that have integrated LCD panels in the front or others that have enough space for multiple TV cards and full-size optical drives.
As with building any PC, the most important thing to consider is what you want to do with the machine when you get/build it, so it’s not really a ‘one size fits all’ situation, but it is made easier if you consider that we’re looking at building a Media Center which is specific enough considering everything else.
The basic components to consider when building a Media Center:
Case: There are many cases in this category, but the general running theme is that they are small-form desktop format boxes. Manufacturers have clearly gotten the hint that Media Centers are to be sat in a cabinet with the rest of the set-top hardware connected to a Television. Good examples of a HTPC case include the Antec Fusion & Antec Micro Fusion, Akasa Crypto ITX, Lian Li PC-C50B, Silverstone Sugo and the OcUK Phoenix 910 to get you started. There are many others.
Motherboard: It’s a given that if the case will be small, the motherboard will be smaller. The cases that I’ve mentioned above accommodate the Micro-ATX or Mini-ITX sized boards, depending on the particular case and model. Check carefully before buying.
Discrete/Onboard graphics: I’ve thought to mention this separately. When considering Media Center hardware, the graphics card can be crucial to the overall experience. This is due to certain cards providing video acceleration for video playback, allowing for weaker processors to be used. A good example of this would be the various motherboards that use the nVidia ION and ION2 chipset and the Intel Atom CPU (which is a very weak CPU in comparison to any standard desktop CPU). I also thought to mention this separately partly because some of the cases I have mentioned, and many other HTPC cases are designed in a way that will allow add-in graphics cards to be used. This can often be a more flexible and rewarding choice.

Sound device: The vast majority of onboard sound cards support the main audio standards that may be used, but again it is worth considering your realistic intended usage of your HTPC. In terms of connectivity, if you are outputting to 5.1 or 7.1 speakers you may be using optical, phono or triple mini-jacks. You may also be outputting via HDMI using PCM, DTS or a host of other formats. The truth is though that most people output to 2 or 2.1 speakers (2.1 = 2 speakers + subwoofer) and therefore this should not be an issue. Unless you are a real audiophile (In which case you’ll know exactly what your audio requirements are), it is not worth worrying about a separate/discrete sound card.

Remote/Keyboard: The amount and selection of remotes and keyboards available for HTPC use are vast and very varied.
I’ll try to update this with more keyboard recommendations.

Systems to consider if buying a PC:
Acer Revo series (Using nVidia ION graphics, cheap and effective)
Zotac ZBOX series (Also using nVidia ION, cheap and can be had with integrated Blu-Ray drives)
HP Ultra-Slim series (As I am currently using)
Dell Optiplex Ultra Small Form Factor

Other Systems to consider:
Boxee Box (Should be available now!)

Building a Media Center – Essentials

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I’ve just moved house and in my new place I’ll soon be building a new Media Center. I was thinking about it, and thought it might be useful for others if I documented the process that I use for building my own home Media Center experience.

As of this moment I still have no home Internet connection. I’m promised that in a week it will be working so writing and updating has been a case of making updates via my phone (Which I have been very impressed with thus far).

Some of this may change a little but there are a few basic topics I’ll do my best to cover over a series of articles:

Build/Buy PC:
-Size
-Capability
-Aesthetics
-Configuring PC

Choose and Install Operating System:
-Things to consider
-Windows, Mac or Linux?

Install Drivers & Codecs:
-XP specific issues
-Vista specific issues
-Windows 7 specific issues

Install Media Center Application (Optional):
-Windows Media Center
-Boxee/XBMC
-Media Portal
-Other available solutions and related projects

Install & Setup any additional software and scripts:
-Auto-login of MCE user
-Install Boxee-Integration or XBMC-Integration

Location and organisation of Media:
-This will be covered in another article (There are too many possibilities)

Free as in beer…

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Remember when people would copy a tape or even CD (illegally) and give a copy to their friends? Well the way things seem to be headed, the transition of this seems to be for people to transfer AVI/MKV/MOV/WMV/MP3/add-your-format-here files to USB keys or upload/download via the internet.

They of course do this for free, free as in beer.

To explain what ‘free as in beer’ means, you have to consider that neither beer, nor the internet is free. Somebody has to pay for it, but a beer that is bought for you, is free to you… right? Right! With that in mind, the internet is a free market where free speech (Which is a different concept entirely) is also prevalent, as well as free beer. People rip, upload, download, trade, comment, rate and otherwise break the law for things that are free… But they’re not free, because somebody paid to produce that movie that was uploaded and subsequently downloaded for ‘free’ over the internet.

If you think about it, its the same as making a mix tape. The problem years ago with mix tapes and nowadays with downloading videos or MP3s from the internet (In a very similar effect, if not method) is that it is illegal. Somebody paid to produce that content, and by ripping it the law is broken because the appropriate loyalties are not paid to those due. This is where DRM (Digital Rights Management) come in to control the illegal copying and distribution of digital media. Unfortunately, the only effect this has is to slow things down by adding an extra hurdle, and make everybody’s life more difficult to do what people have done since media was first distributed to the masses. I image that even when books were first printed, there were people who would take the time to copy paragraphs or maybe even whole chapters from books which would be breaking whatever agreement, law or moral boundary was in place at the time to prevent this.

The problem I see with DRM, and also maybe why it is ALWAYS circumvented before long, is that it is an inherently human production.
It’s unreasonable for a DRM programmer to expect their copy-protection or media management ‘solution’ to be unbreakable, and I’d hope that they don’t expect that it wont be broken.

Take a look at the current holy grails of DRM protection, which of course are Blu-Ray copy protection, HDCP stream encoding, and the Playstation 3’s security system. All of these have recently been cracked which will allow people to run their own software and/or decrypt the data stored behind these ‘restrictions’. This is the work of various groups, most of which with the idealistic view that things should be free to everybody and that people should share everything. Obviously, this is not in-line with how contemporary consumer society works, but still it can be a noble cause when observed from the right angle.

There are of course seemingly obvious good and bad examples to this, like for example the developers behind XBMC (Software which forms the basis of Boxee, which I’m very fond of, so please fogive my bias). I encountered this software originally by aquiring non-official builds of XBMC to run on my (original) ‘chipped’ xbox, essentially extending the life and use of my games console. This even encouraged me to buy an xbox360, which I have even now recently bought the updated ‘slim’ incarnation. For technical reasons XBMC will not run on the xbox360 and the developers have stayed true to their x86 roots by producing XBMC for windows , mac and Linux as binaries, but still… The project started off in a less than official capacity.

So why are these groups labelled as criminals and sued to high heaven by the ‘evil’ corporations that own these circumvented solutions?

Because they break the law, sometimes to do the good work of some groups like the XBMC team, but other times to circumvent systems for no apparent reason other than to facilitate piracy. I won’t wade into if this is strictly right or wrong, as it’s just my opinion expressed here, but I do wish to highlight it.

If anything I wish people to be aware of the humble and somewhat shady background of an epic software project (Which has spawned other abitious projects including Boxee) but also that without this we would not have benefitted from great matured applications like this.

The other important thing is that this kind of development and developer maturity isn’t as easy to spot as people may like to think. For example the XBMC development team could have have gone down the route of producing software to promote piracy, rather than giving people a choice of quality software.

Personally, I’m glad they were not stopped, but in my opinion the same cannot be said for other software developments which have circumvented protected systems to give people a free alternative.

Long live XBMC and Boxee!