Media Centre update

Posted on January 9th, 2014 in Technology | 1 Comment »

My approach to obtaining television material to watch is currently undergoing a significant change, but before we get there, it might be as well to update you as to the continuing evolution of my set-up since I last wrote about this subject a little over three years ago.

First to go was the £30 remote which utterly failed the Wife Compatibility Test. It’s replacement, a Logitech Harmony One for £150, with its snazzy touch-screen, was deemed more suitable, but when repeated harsh treatment bust the snazzy touch-screen it was replaced with an even snazzier Harmony Touch and then more recently a Harmony Ultimate which allows for control of devices hidden in a wooden cabinet and also controls my Philips Hue lights.

When we moved into our new flat, a number of other changes took place. We got our own Sky dish nailed to the outside wall, avoiding all of those tedious single feed issues. I bought a cheap-and-cheerful Sony Blu-Ray/AV receiver which generally did a much better job of filling the room with 5.1 sound and so I eventually took the step of consigning the wheezing, puffing Windows Media Centre PC to the scrap-heap. Having experimented with a WD Live box which was hugely reluctant to access the files on my NAS drive reliably, I ended up with a Boxee Box shortly before they were discontinued. Despite the fact that no further updates will be forthcoming, I have yet to find online evidence of a device which will do a better job of getting a variety of video files off my NAS and on to my TV.

So, let’s recap. I want to accomplish three things. Watch DVDs and Blu-Rays. Watch broadcast TV (and time-shift it). Watch video downloaded from the Internet. The first two are easily covered by the Sony and Sky boxes respectively and the Harmony remote takes care of selecting all the right inputs. Let’s have a little talk about downloads.

Most of the shows I’m watching at the moment come from the USA and not all are promptly broadcast in the UK. Not just the premium “box set” dramas like Game of Thrones, Mad Men, and Masters of Sex but also mainstream network dramas like The Good Wife, sit-coms like Parks and Recreation and Community, and even some reality shows like Mythbusters or Kitchen Nightmares. It’s a complete lottery which of these will turn up on any of the various Sky channels, even though Sky’s On Demand service makes it easy to catch up on what you’ve missed.

Enter BitTorrent and, in particular TVTorrents.com. Within a couple of hours of the latest episode of Modern Family airing, a copy will be available on the site in your choice of compact .mp4 or hi-def .mkv file. I have an RSS feed set up with my favourite shows on it, so my laptop downloads the torrent file automatically, usually overnight, copies it over to my NAS drive, where the Boxee finds it, identifies it and adds it to the list of shows, downloading the episode title and synopsis, all ready for me to watch it that evening.

Now, Modern Family airs on ABC in the states which arrives free in people’s homes. So I’m not really depriving anyone of an income here, am I? True, I get an ad-free version, but I would skip the ads if I recorded it legally anyhow. Is this a crime? What about True Blood which airs on HBO in the states? Well, I would give HBO money to let me watch their shows if I could but they aren’t interested in taking it, so what choice to I have? Wait a year for the box set to come out? C’mon.

Of course, I could go to iTunes instead, but UK iTunes doesn’t have a complete (enough) library of these shows either. So, I’ll stick with the torrenting, please and thank you.

However, some notable torrent sites have bit the dust recently, and so it occurred to me to wonder what I would do if TVTorrents were just to disappear one day – in the middle of a particularly gripping storyline in Orphan Black, say.

Okay, now enter Netflix.

It certainly was convenient that the final half-season of Breaking Bad was on UK Netflix. But I didn’t have an easy way of getting it on my TV. Hooking up my iPad to the TV was possible, but not convenient and didn’t always work (seemed to be much more reliable with my iPad 3rd gen than my iPad Air – not sure why). So I tended just to torrent it and watch it via the Boxee anyway.

But that wasn’t an option for the various Netflix original series – Arrested Development, House of Cards and best of all Orange is the New Black. And while it’s fun to snuggle in bed watching on an iPad, sometimes you want to take advantage of that big screen out there. And none of my existing devices – TV, AV receiver, Boxee, Sky – had Netflix built in. They all had streaming services of some sort, but not that one. Was it worth buying an Apple TV just for Netflix?

Well, I waited a while, but when at the last Apple event no update was released and Apple was knocking out the most recent model for £75 I went for it, using up the last remaining HDMI input on my TV and having to use an optical cable to get the sound to run through the AV receiver.

It’s very nice. Slick, fast and I have AirPlay back (which an update to the Boxee mysteriously killed) which means that when some of the various automated virtual moving parts in the TVTorrents – RSS feed – uTorrent – RoboBasket – NAS Drive – Boxee system fail, I can AirPlay from the iPad to the TV instead. Nice.

And – oh yes – I can get iTunes content on the TV now without having to hook up the iPad. Hmm…

So – here’s the thing. Only about a quarter of the American shows I watch regularly are broadcast on UK TV in a reasonable timeframe. But only about a third are available to buy on iTunes UK. Now, I’ve had a US iTunes account for ages (I wanted to download the Movie Trailers app which bizarrely wasn’t available in the UK app store. I think it is now.) although it doesn’t have a credit card associated with it. The reason being that while iTunes was perfectly happy to accept the fake address in Florida I gave it, I have no credit card registered at that address to assign to the account.

Surely there would be some way of getting cash in there? Actually, there is. There are plenty of services which will sell you US iTunes gift cards, and these can be delivered on-line giving you a line of credit to make purchases from the US store with. Now downloading the latest series of The Big Bang Theory is as quick and easy as a few clicks and my Rube Golderg torrent/NAS/Boxee system is starting to look obsolete. I’ve finally upgraded my home broadband to Virgin fibre-optic, so now I hardly have to wait before the episodes start streaming in full HD. And while I don’t have copies stored locally, I have access on my TV or any other i-device whenever I want and I can always download there if I need to.

Actually, that isn’t quite true. This is the most tedious part of a quite laborious post, but I’ll try and make it brief. The Apple TV, which only streams and does not store anything, is perfectly happy for me to have many iTunes accounts and lets me flick between them at will. My iPad however insists that it be “registered” to one account or the other and I can only change this every 90 days. While it’s “registered” to my UK iTunes account I can still buy individual episodes or movies or movie rentals on the iPad from the US store, but I can’t download items previously purchased and that includes newly-released episodes where I’ve bought a “season pass”. After some reluctance, I took the plunge and switched my iPad to the US store, leaving my laptop set up on the UK store (so I can download items previously purchased there and sync them to the iPad if need be).

Almost all my shows are now available to me, at a cost of between $20 and $50 per year, which I can live with, and I now have the benefit of being able to flip between the Apple TV and the iPad without losing my place. Neat. There are a couple of exceptions – US iTunes seems very slow to get Game of Thrones but Sky Atlantic doesn’t hang about so no problem there. And Saturday Night Live is only carried in an expurgated version, but honestly it’s so hit-and-miss I think I can do without seeing every single minute.

Telling the Apple TV I am using an American iTunes account also causes US apps to pop up, but these are largely useless. There’s an HBO app, but unless I can give it details of my US cable provider, no soup for me. What’s curious is the different ways in which different providers assess your location. iTunes only cares about the source of funding. Got an American credit card? Here, have access to the US store. Netflix on the other hand only cares about where you physically are on the planet. Set up a UK Netflix account and then take your iPad to the states and you will suddenly get access to the American version.

But, as I already know from using a VPN to get access to iPlayer in Europe, it’s not difficult to fool these apps into thinking that you are somewhere you are not. I wonder about the Apple TV Hulu Plus app…? With a bit of help from Unlocator.com, I had changed the DNS settings on the Apple TV and bingo! I was able to sign up for Hulu Plus at just $7.99 per month (via my US iTunes account) and get access to about half of my favourite shows including full episodes of SNL. There are unskippable ads, but they don’t last very long.

I lose the ability to download a show and take it with me, but if I opt to watch Community via Hulu and then want to take an episode on a plane, I can always pay $1.99 to download that locally on to my iPad.

Obviously this is more expensive than the torrent solution, but I feel better about giving something back to the content creators, even if I’m not always doing it in the way they want me to. And I do feel less at the mercy of the MPAA. Of course, I am now at the mercy of Apple and Hulu instead. But maybe that’s a subject for a future post.

In the meantime – that’s my new system. I’ll let you know how it pans out…

Why I bought an iPad – and you shouldn’t

Posted on January 19th, 2011 in Uncategorized | 2 Comments »

So I bought an iPad. I seem to be going through the following three phases with new technologies, to the irritation of my friends who ask me for advice about these things.

Phase one: anticipation. “Have you heard about X? It looks really interesting.”
Phase two: dismissal. “I’m not planning on buying X, for the following reasons.”
Phase three: purchase. “I’ve just got myself an X.”

In the wake of, at the very least, Palm Pilots, the iPhone and Blu-ray, the Apple iPad followed the same rather predictable pattern. On its first release, I was fascinated by the unveiling of this “breakthrough”, “magical” device. The leverage which Apple was able to achieve by releasing a tablet computer which on launch day was able to run hundreds of thousands of apps specifically designed for the touch interface I thought was staggering. But as clever as the idea was, as slick as the implementation was, and as desirable an object as it was, I really couldn’t think of where it could fit in to my existing lifestyle.

I’m a slave to my iPhone 4. It contains my calendar (shared via Google with my work colleagues and across several computers), it’s the only camera I’ve used in years, I check my email on it with neurotic frequency, I read books and newspapers on it, I walk around London staring at the map, and travel on the tube listening to podcasts and audiobooks on it, I’ve got three stars on every level on Angry Birds and I’ve achieved all the achievements on Plants vs Zombies. It also make phone calls. Given that I’ve already shelled out for this device, which slips into my jacket pocket and which I always have on me, why would I want an iPad?

Well, I’ve also watched a number of movies and TV shows on my iPhone, typically on long train journeys. With the iPhone 4’s super-duper high-resolution “retina” screen, this isn’t too bad at all. But it’s not exactly ideal, even if you find a comfortable place to sit and a convenient way of propping the phone up. Even while promising my friends I wouldn’t be buying an iPad, I mentioned that if I was habitually making long plane or train journeys, I might reconsider. Well, I’m flying to Brisbane at the beginning of February, and then to Moscow almost as soon as I get back. I recently took the train to Birmingham and back and Stockport and back on consecutive days, and I may have to revisit both locations – Birmingham maybe quite frequently. What clinched it was seeing a 64Gb 3G model going on eBay for the about price of the regular wi-fi only model (not quite sure how this was achieved, but I didn’t get a box of used pinball machine parts for my money, so I assume it was all perfectly legal). Okay, I thought, I’ll get it now, load it up with games, movies and TV shows for these long journeys and if I get back from Moscow and find it’s gathering dust in a drawer, I can sell it and I should get back at least as much as I paid for it.

Why am I even thinking about selling my new toy? Because only an idiot would buy a new iPad in January. The original iPad was announced on 27 January 2010 and was available for sale (in the US) on 3 April. At their recent quarterly earnings call, Apple confirmed what we all knew already – that an iPad 2 of some kind is in the works. With a regular pattern now established of iPhones announced in June and iPods announced in September, Apple is sticking to an annual product cycle. So the new iPad will likely be announced in a matter of weeks, if not days, and will be available in a couple of months. If you’re considering buying an iPad – wait!

What might such an iPad 2 bring with it, to tempt me away from my new toy? I imagine there’ll be a be at least two out of the following four: a speed bump, a slimmer design, a longer battery life and an increased capacity at the top end. None of these is much of a dealbreaker for me. It’s fast enough and slim enough, the battery life is stunning and 64Gb is spacious compared to my 32Gb iPhone 4 (and I’ve kept all the audio on the iPhone and put all the video on my iPad which effectively balances the load).

A front-facing camera seems likely, as Apple continues to push FaceTime, although I regard a rear-facing camera as less likely and certainly less useful. Who the hell is going to try and take holiday snaps with an iPad, or use it as a barcode scanner? Fucksake. The Internet is also all a-flurry with reports of an iPad case which seems to include extras slot for an SD card, or a USB device or an extra dock connector. I don’t really care about any of these.

I’m chiefly using my iPad to consume video – on trains or in bed – and so I care most about how this kind of content looks and sounds. Let’s take sound first. The iPhone has two identical-looking grilles at the bottom edge. To the confusion of some users, one is a mic and one is a speaker. Try covering one with your thumb while playing music to see which is which. The iPad has a similarly-positioned speaker. Holding the device with the home button at the bottom, the single speaker is on the bottom edge, towards the right. This is fine if watching video in portrait mode (which almost nobody does), but in the more usual landscape orientation, with the button at the left (which is how my Jack Spade case prefers things) all the sound comes out from the left. I’d dearly love stereo speakers, one on each side. Of course, if I were watching video in portrait mode, I’d want the speakers to be in the long sides instead of the short sides, so we’d actually need four speakers, triggered by the accelerometer. As far as I know, no such innovation is planned. Bah!

Now let’s talk about the screen. What made the iPhone 4 a must-purchase for me, more than anything else, was the astonishing screen. The original iPhone, and the first two revisions had a screen resolution of 320 x 480. Given the size of the screen, this works out as around 163ppi (pixels-per-inch) which was relatively high for 2007. The iPad has a resolution of 1024 x 768 (so it’s a little squarer than the iPhone screen) with a pixel-density of 132ppi. Given that one typically holds a larger screen further away, the iPad screen tends to look as good if not better than the iPhone screen, and obviously feels more spacious, having more physical room and more pixels.

“Native” iPad apps obviously tend to take up the whole screen, but apps originally designed for the iPhone sit in an iPhone-sized oblong in the middle of the screen, unless or until you tap a little 2x button in the corner of the screen, whereupon the iPad doubles all the pixels, so you get a 960 x 640 oblong taking up most of the 1024 x 768 space available, but all looking rather blocky. The iPhone 4, released after the iPad blows all of this out of the water. It already runs at double the resolution of previous incarnations, with older apps looking blocky (but no worse than on the old models) and newer apps written to take advantage of the whole 960 x 640 space, with its eye-watering 326ppi.

Amazingly, even after the recent software update, bringing to the iPad iOS 4 features such as multitasking, unified inbox, folders and so on, full-resolution iPhone 4 apps still run at the old resolution on the iPad, which is a horrible and pointless compromise. I can only hope that this will be corrected before iOS 5 comes out, presumably in June or July. The eye-popping screen of the iPhone 4, and the convenience for developers of a screen resolution exactly double (or half) that of another model has led many pundits to the conclusion that the iPad 2 will also come with an upgraded display – 2048 x 1536 which would work out to 260ppi.

But it’s not pixel-density which is going to be the issue here. 2048 x 1536 is over three million pixels, which is a staggering amount. All MacBooks sport 1280 x 800 pixels (about a million pixels). The 21.5” iMac has a 1920 x 1080 screen (about two million pixels). Only the very top-end 27” iMac has more pixels, and then only just – 2560 x 1440 which is about three and a half million pixels. Those who imagine that a 2048 x 1536 screen will be found on the iPad 2 are imagining that – without sacrificing battery life, speed and all-important responsiveness – about the same number of pixels found on the 27” screen of a top-end $1700 desktop will be found on the 10” screen of a $500 tablet. Some very significant breakthroughs in processor speed and efficiency will be required to bring this to pass.

And if it did – what would we use it for? All of Apple’s “HD” content on iTunes is 720p – 1280 x 720 pixels. This doesn’t quite fit onto the iPad, but video content scaled down generally looks okay. On the proposed iPad megascreen, 720p content floats around the middle or is stretched out to fit – and scaling up makes content look blocky. True HD is 1080p or 1920 x 1080 pixels. Today, that only really means Blu-ray. Remember, no iTunes content is currently available at this resolution – the file sizes would be much bigger for only a small visible increase in picture quality. And yet even images at this size would have to be scaled up, or float around in the middle of the 2048 x 1536 screen.

Given all the foregoing, I don’t think a 2048 x 1536 iPad is likely. I can’t rule it out, of course. No-one expected a 326ppi resolution from the iPhone 4, and Apple is certainly prepared to push the envelope. If they do it, I’ll probably upgrade. If not, I’ll probably stay put or even sell my existing model. So far, my assumptions have been pretty much correct. For watching video, it’s great (and if, like me, you have a big networked hard-drive with lots of video content on it, then the Air Video app is a must). I do use it and prefer it to the iPhone to read Kindle books, or The Times newspaper (there’s no Guardian iPad app yet), or flip through RSS feeds (I like Reeder). Given the choice, I’ll use the iPad to check my email or look at my calendar. But when, as today, I go for a meeting without it, I’m perfectly happy to do all those things on my iPhone.

Meet me back here when the iPad 2 is announced…

Evolution of a Media System. Chapter 3: The Telly

Posted on September 17th, 2010 in Technology | 1 Comment »

Two more cheerful chaps from Currys turned up with my lovely 42″ telly – took one look at my plasterboard walls and were about to slope off again, when at the last minute, one of them thought to look in the van for some of the special rawl plugs that this requires. Once found, the whole process of nailing the awesome beast to the wall took less than half an hour, and they departed with a generous tip.

I’ve moreoreless got the Harmony remote doing all the things I want it to, and both Blu-rays and Sky HD look fantastic on this giant screen. What’s amazing is how poor some SD content looks. Frasier on the Paramount Comedy channel looks worse than YouTube.

And I woke up yesterday to discover that the Sky box was actually taping what was meant to be my dummy recording. This was accompanied by a message informing me that my box’s software had been upgraded. A bit of tinkering later and I discovered that they’ve finally made Single Feed Mode work sensibly. Now if I’m watching BBC1 and a recording is due to start on BBC2, I will see a warning, and if I do nothing, it will flick over to BBC2 and make the recording correctly. This also seems to survive turning on “Anytime”. I believe that Single Feed Mode was introduced over a year ago. Good timing for me but appallingly slow for Sky’s other customers.

So, I’ve decided to postpone both the expensive SCR installation and the free, but unsightly, dish installation and just see how I rock with Single Feed for now. This completes the upgrade process. I hope you had as much fun as I did.

Now.

Where can I get a stash of good Blu-ray movies for under a tenner each?

Evolution of a Media System. Chapter 1: Blu-ray

Posted on September 10th, 2010 in Technology | No Comments »

Sound card and Blu-ray drive arrived today and I whipped off the back of the Media Centre PC and quickly installed both. Windows 7 recognised the sound card straight away but had it outputting two channel stereo until I downloaded and installed a Windows 7 Creative driver, whereupon it all worked beautifully.

The supplied Cyberlink PowerDVD software for playing Blu-rays baulked at my having mapped the Windows video folder to my network attached storage device, but this was worked-around by using a new Windows user with administrative powers but no mapped folders which I created for the purpose. Media Centre recognised old-fashioned DVDs placed in the new drive with no problem at all, but trying to play new-fangled Blu-rays rudely dumped me out of the Media Centre environment and into the Cyberlink software. This to be fair was what I expected, but I hadn’t expected that the Cyberlink software would then insist on downloading an update which took the best part of an hour to laboriously suck down at the feeble rate of 35Kb/s. God knows what was happening with Cyberlink’s servers.

When this was finally done, and installed, and after just a touch more screwing around, the system sprang into life and the Blu-ray copy of Inglourious Basterds which I mistakenly put on my Amazon wish list and got given for Christmas was happily playing, and looking very sharp and clear even on my 26” TV. Win! The copy of Speed which I picked up on Blu-ray also looked and sounded great with lots of atmospheric sound effects during the elevator sequence reverberating around the room as all six of my little speakers worked their socks off to provide me with sonic enjoyment.

Next question – will upgrading to Cyberlink PowerDVD v10 provide better integration with Media Centre? This meant downloading the trial version (which probably meant overwriting the free version 8 I’d finally got working, but anyway…) and again this meant making use of my new user account. 15 minutes later… Big win! Integration with Windows 7 Media Centre is pretty much seamless. This is going to cost me another fifty quid but it’s going to be worth it. *opens wallet*. At least there’s 20% off at the moment because of Labor Day or something.

Tomorrow it’s Sky+HD day, when we shall face the interesting challenge of how to connect up a digibox which favours HDMI to a TV with no HDMI sockets, and only one DVI socket which is already in use. I fear we shall be falling back on to SCART. How 1997! Then we shall also see if sound from the said digibox can be made to travel into the SPDIF in on my new sound card and then out to my 5.1 speakers, thus effectively using the PC as an amp when watching TV and harmonising (hah!) all of my audio needs.