Moving to the Cloud

Posted on October 6th, 2016 in Technology | No Comments »

Well, hello again.

With my new life as a podcast producer, I seem to have next-to-no time available for blogging, and since the Oscars have been and gone (although they are coming up again soon) and we have no new series of Doctor Who this year, nothing has been drawing me towards the keyboard.

But, here’s a quick update regarding my digital entertainment.

We’re currently doing-up our loft, and planning on moving the TV upstairs and converting the existing TV room into a dining room. This means that there will be much less room for DVDs but of late I have found myself very reluctant to pick a DVD off the shelf, or even to buy a new movie on DVD. Buying on iTunes, or watching on Netflix just seems so much more convenient. Imagine having to get up, find a box, open the box, fish out the disc, open the drawer of the DVD player, put the disc in – Christ, it’s like the dark ages.

Surely, the right thing to do is to convert all of these existing DVDs to digital form and then play them back through the Apple TV…? Well, yeah.

Let’s look at what I wanted to achieve doing this.

  • Have copies of movies and TV shows I’ve bought on DVD available on my home network.
  • Preserve extra trailers, outtakes, documentaries.
  • Preserve commentary tracks, trivia subtitles and other elements in the main feature itself.
  • Be able to put all physical DVDs out of sight, out of mind, knowing I have high quality digital versions available on-demand.

Assuming disc space is no object (more on that later) one obvious solution would be to rip complete copies of the DVDs to .ISO files, maybe throwing away features I’m certain I don’t want, but preserving complete copies of the whole disc structure. This would mean that I definitely wasn’t trading down in terms of quality and the handful of discs which use wonky things like seamless branching would be viewable, but I don’t have an easy way of viewing those files with my current set-up.

Some time ago, a lot of my TV-watching was via a Windows Media Centre PC, connected to a NAS drive, and one reason why I didn’t jump to upgrade to an Apple TV was that this device had no ability to move files, even MP4s, from a NAS to the TV without going via a PC running iTunes, which firstly sounded a bit more Rube Goldberg than I wanted and secondly never actually worked whenever I tried it.

Acquiring the new fourth-generation Apple TV, with its emphasis on apps, also meant that much of my TV watching was via iTunes, Netflix or Hulu (since my Apple TV is firmly of the opinion that it is located somewhere in Delaware). So, I only fell back on downloaded files sent to my NAS when I couldn’t find the show or movie available to purchase or on a subscription anywhere. When this situation did arise, having tried a few different options, I settled on an app called Infuse which seemed very adept at not just playing back all sorts of files but downloading artwork and meta data too. However, Infuse is not at all willing to play back .ISO files (and in any case, part of the joy of this virtual library would be freedom from elaborate menus and unskippable copyright warnings) so some other system was going to be necessary.

When I asked Facebook friends what I should do, the most popular answer by far was Synology plus Plex. I had played around with Plex at the same time as I first installed Infuse, but it suffered from the same problem as the old Apple TV. Since my WD NAS drive is a fairly limited device, it can’t run the Plex software itself, which means I have to run Plex on my PC and then hook the Apple TV up to the PC and blah blah blah. Having looked into this further, the Synology plus Plex option does seem like the best choice, but fairly expensive; probably north of £500 (depending on the capacity and RAID option). I wanted to see if I could at least get started with what I had: my WD NAS drive and Infuse.

This brings up the issue of how to rip the DVDs and how to preserve all the features I wanted. Some years ago, when I regularly ripped DVDs to watch on my iPad (instead of downloaded content from iTunes) I remember having to choose exactly which audio and subtitle track I wanted (resulting in “burned-in” subtitles on the ripped file) but these days, it’s much easier to create MKV or MP4 files with multiple audio and subtitle tracks built in, and Infuse has no problem switching between these, so that part seemed covered. The final choice was whether to re-encode or not.

I downloaded Handbrake, which I’d used many times before, but always found it rather cryptic and awkward, and gave it Tim Burton’s Batman to play with. My laptop coughed and whirred for a very long time before eventually spitting out a very watchable 2Gb MP4 file complete with optional commentary track, which Infuse was delighted to display on my Apple TV (or indeed my iPad).

I then tried a much simpler-looking, although no less powerful, product called MakeMKV which has a very simple interface and which seems to chew through DVDs of all makes and stripes without a murmur. It’s worth noting that it doesn’t attempt to re-encode the video data on the DVD, it just pours it into the MKV container (again with whatever audio and subtitle tracks you want or don’t want). This results in a larger file, but also means that with my fairly inexpensive HP Envy laptop with its new USB3 DVD drive (twenty quid off Amazon) can create a movie file in about 20 minutes instead of the two hours it took Handbrake.

And now that Virgin Media have upgraded my equipment, and I have Wi-Fi through the whole flat instead of just within twenty yards of the router, throwing big files across the network is quick-and-easy too. It seems to work much better to rip the movie to my local disc and then copy it to the NAS, but the copying only takes an extra ten minutes and can be done while the next movie is ripping. I make folders on the NAS for each movie and add the special features that I want to the same folder and on Infuse, I can see the movie and the appropriate extra features all on one screen. Nice.

So, the process is underway, with a few caveats. Firstly, the movies I’m ripping are now around 4Gb in size (blu-rays can stay on the shelf for now) and my NAS is only 2Tb. So I may very well run out of space before I run out of movies (I have around 600 DVDs, many of which are box-sets, and that doesn’t include my complete set of Doctor Who DVDs). Buying a second similar NAS would be fine and inexpensive, but I would have to have some sensible way to decide what went on what drive because Infuse will not merge the two libraries.

Secondly, one NAS (or even two) and no RAID means no redundancy and no back-ups. If there’s a drive failure or a flood or a power surge, then all my work could be undone. Of course, I’ll still have the discs, but ripping them all is going to take months, maybe a year – not something I want to do twice. So, the long-term plan has to be some kind of Synology box or similar, but for now I’m just going to see how long it takes me to rip my current collection, while they are still conveniently close to hand.

Finally, ripping without re-encoding has generated a few special features which look nastily interlaced when played back via Infuse, but so far I’ve been able to deal with these by running them through Handbrake and it hasn’t affected any main features yet.

There will no doubt be Oscar reviews and previews soon.

UPDATED TO ADD

At the time of writing, I have got to H but that leaves out a lot of TV show box-sets, all the Disney animations and all the Doctor Who DVDs as well as the ones already downgraded to an overflow shelf, but things are going smoothly. It would be a huge bummer to lose all this work of course, and my new 6Tb WD MyCloud is still not a RAID system, so I currently have no back-ups save the discs themselves. However, in theory Amazon Drive offering literally unlimited cloud storage for £55pa is the answer. I say in theory because in practice, as soon as I began the back-up process, my Virgin router immediately killed my internet connection, even when I was throttling the upload bit-rate to a stupidly low level. The solution eventually became a new router (this one) with the Virgin “Super Hub” demoted to modem only. Now slinging big files around the network is even quicker, with the process of moving the 600Gb or so of files already ripped from one NAS to the other achieved overnight with Windows Explorer (definitely not the fastest way of doing it). And testing the upload to Amazon, it seems stable, but I’m going to focus on ripping for now, and make the uploading a separate (no doubt months-long) project.

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…

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 2: Sky+ HD

Posted on September 12th, 2010 in Technology | No Comments »

Yesterday was Sky+ day, and a cheerful engineer turned up at the time he said he would, fiddled with my satellite cable, bunged a box under my telly and mooched off. I played with it for a while, and then popped off to Currys to buy a Logitech Harmony 300i remote, satisfied that all seemed to be well. I was even able to take the digital sound from the Sky box and use my PC as an amp (albeit it stereo only, not Dolby 5.1). This means that I have to switch the Sky box off in order to shut off the sound when I want to use the media centre (which was actually one of the issues I was trying to avoid) but it does mean that one sound control works for everything which is convenient, especially if you’re trying to control everything with one remote.

The Logitech remote works very well for a £30 device. There’s a very convenient web/PC interface for programming it, which has loads of remotes already in its database, and you can drag-and-drop to move different commands to different buttons if it doesn’t get it right first time. You can’t program single buttons to perform sequences of actions, and there’s no feature for switching TV inputs automatically when you switch devices, but overall I’m happy.

What I’m less happy with is the profoundly weird behaviour of the Sky+ system and the near-total cluelessness of the telephone advisors.

If you pore over the Sky website, somewhere on there you will find a warning that you require two connections from your dish to your box for Sky+ to work properly. Fine if your dish is on your roof, balcony or in your back garden. But I’m in a block of flats with a communal dish, and my personal access to it is through a faceplate in the living room, which only has a single connector.

However, the latest generation of Sky + software has been updated to deal with this very issue. An engineer can set the box to “single feed mode” which means that you won’t be able to watch one channel while recording another, but also means that the Sky box won’t try and do this either. Although I think Sky could do more – considerably more – to flag this up to potential subscribers, I was aware of it and I wasn’t bothered. After all, I’m used to having only one tuner and I’m used to not being able to watch one channel while recording another. No big deal. Right? Wrong.

You see, the Sky + box really does take quite some convincing that it only has one tuner available. Deep in the core of its essential being, it is built around the fact that it will have two input feeds to choose from and its behaviour, even on single feed mode, is nothing short of bizarre.

With two feeds, if you are watching one channel while recording another, and at that moment, a second recording is triggered, you will – quite sensibly – be offered a choice: do you want to keep watching what you’re watching and cancel one of these recordings, or shall I start recording the new programme? If you do nothing, the box – perfectly correctly – assumes that it is unattended and prioritises the recording. My old Media Centre solution, with its noisy images and Heath Robinson IR blaster, unable to tune into more than one channel at once, would likewise warn me that it was going to change the channel to effect a recording if I was watching another channel when a recording was due.

But the new box, if I’m watching BBC 1 and a recording is due on BBC 2, simply IGNORES the recording and stays tuned to BBC1!! This is madness. Some Sky advisors advised that setting the box to standby cured this insane behaviour, but I couldn’t get this to work. There is a work-around, which I’m trying at the moment, but before I get to that here are some other possible options.

  1. There is a second satellite feed in the bedroom, but getting that connection to my digibox means trailing a wire out the bedroom window and back in again, or drilling holes in the walls. Neither is ideal.
  2. I could (if I could get permission from the landlord) stick a dish on the balcony and do things my own way, but we’d still have to drill (a small) hole in the wall and we’d have a fucking dish on the balcony. Sky would do this for free however.
  3. The technology exists to take two inputs from the dish, pump them down a single wire at different frequencies, and then separate them back out again at the digibox end. These boxes are called a “stacker” and a “destacker” and cost about £100, but they’d have to be fitted directly to the dish which means involving the landlord and/or the managing agents. Sky might or might not do this for free. Who knows? EDITED TO ADD: The terms “stacker” and “destacker” seem to refer to older technology which was very dependent on the quality of the wiring. The proper solution is called a Single Cable Router or SCR. My building managers can fit this for me for around £250, or if I buy the box for £100, Sky may be able to fit it for free. Chapter 4 will reveal the outcome.

Here’s the work around.

Before Sky implemented this single feed setting, tech savvy Sky users sharing communal dishes and only able to access one feed would set up “dummy recordings” which would fail but which would tie up the “second” feed. This would force the box to use the first feed for the new recording, the one you wanted, instead of using that feed for watching live TV. A version of this can still be used with the new software. Here’s how, courtesy of forum member utterepicicity on digitalspy.co.uk.

Step 1: Ensure feed is on input 1.

Step 2: Turn Single feed mode ON.

Step 3: Turn Anytime back ON.

Step 4: Ensure you are tuned into a channel (eg BBC1) and it’s on the mini-tv

Step 5: Set a manual recording on a channel you never watch starting in 2 minutes time (so if its 9:00PM, set it to start at 9:02PM), have it finish at 04:00AM in the morning (assuming you never watch anything at that time of the morning). This ensures that Input 2 is tied up til 4am.

Step 6: Set up another manual recording on the same channel from 04:02AM until 04:00AM. Set the frequency to daily. This will tie up input 2 all day every day.

Step 7: Set up another manual recording on a channel you never watch from 03:58AM to 04:04AM. Set the frequency to daily. This ensures that the dummy recording never takes up Input 1.

Ensure you turn your box to Standby whenever you’re not watching it. It doesn’t matter if you forget now and then but try and get into the habit of it.

The whole thread is here. So far this seems to be working, but it’s not ideal. Tomorrow I’ll try running a satellite cable out the window.

UPDATED TO ADD: Couldn’t face running a satellite cable out of the window and with two windows needing to be permanently open, albeit just a crack, it’s going to be a lousy, lousy solution come the winter. This evening, the Sky box was displaying only “no satellite signal” when I got in from work. I turned off  “Anytime” and it sprang back into life, so maybe my box prefers Anytime to be off. Later tonight, it got in a paddy trying to record Dragon’s Den and I had to do a planner rebuild to get it to record anything at all. Finally, with the “dummy recording” in place, I watched it obediently flick over from BBC HD to Channel 4+1 when Him and Her ended and Jamie Oliver Tells Rural Americans They’re All Too Fat To Live was about to begin. Success! But the real solution is clearly the SCR. Since another tenant is also having this done, we may be able to effect a saving by doing two at once. By which I mean it might be £200 instead of £250. Jesus. 13/9/10.

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.

Evolution of a Media System. Chapter 0: I wouldn’t start from here

Posted on September 9th, 2010 in Technology | 1 Comment »

For about five years now, my audio visual entertainment has revolved around Windows Media Centre. This week, I’m doing a major upgrade to pretty much everything, and what’s a blog for if not to document this kind of thing in fairly tedious detail?

The process has already been slightly screwed up however. The impetus to improve my broadcast TV and DVD picture quality was motivated by the decision to get a new TV set, and this, which we got for £399 in the bank holiday sale, was due to be delivered by Currys yesterday. Currys being Currys it seems they simply forgot. It’s now not coming until next Wednesday. Meanwhile more components are arriving in the next few days, none of which are going to live up to the hype on the old TV. Anyway.

So, before all of these new bits-and-pieces get installed, I thought I’d write about what I’ve got at the moment and where I’m starting from. But before I do any of that, let me just review what I’m trying to achieve.

So, here’s what I want to happen at this end of my living room.

  • Watching broadcast TV
  • Recording broadcast TV and watching those recordings
  • Watching DVDs
  • Watching downloaded movies and TV shows (all legal, of course)
  • Access to my music collection and photos

Now, a cheap PC hooked up to a flat screen TV and running Windows Media Centre software (which is free with Windows 7 Home Premium or better) means I can do all of these things very easily, and has two other advantages to boot. One is that I can hook up a very cheap-and-cheerful set of PC speakers to said computer and get 5.1 surround sound for a fraction of the usual cost and without having to screw around with complicated AV receivers. The other is I can do everything with one remote control, because everything goes through the Media Centre software.

So, here’s my setup. I have a computer which I’ve build myself out of various bits-and-pieces and which gets upgraded as needed. About three months ago, it got a new motherboard and processor because like a clumsy idiot I managed to bust the old (very old) processor while trying to change the fan for a quieter model. Last week, it got a new graphics card because the on-board graphics were struggling with HD content.

This gets a wired connection to my router, which in turn gets a wired connection to a 1Tb Network Attached Storage Device – a big hard drive which holds all my (perfectly legal) downloaded movies and TV shows, my music, my pictures and so on. A good-old-fashioned VGA cable goes into the DVI connection on the back of my 26” TV and bingo, I can check off the bottom two items on my list. Sound, as mentioned, is provided by these PC speakers and since there’s a DVD drive in the PC, and the Media Centre Software handles DVDs just fine, that’s the third element too.

Here’s where it gets a little complicated.

From my point of view, if you want to watch broadcast TV in the United Kingdom, you really want Sky. Virgin and BT’s offerings have improved in recent years but Sky is still the daddy. If you want to watch the Oscars live, for example, Sky is the only game in town.

Now, if I were content with digital terrestrial TV, my system would work great. I would put a TV tuner into my PC (an internal card or a USB dongle, either works) and this would receive the digital signals through the air, and feed them into my computer for display on the TV. And since the signal is being received digitally into the PC, the Windows Media Centre software can record shows for me, having downloaded a suitable EPG (Electronic Programme Guide), not to mention pausing and rewinding live TV and all those other things that seemed like magic when we first read about Tivo in the United States.

Sky doesn’t make it quite so simple.

Even though Sky broadcasts have been digital for years, the problem is that Sky regards the decryption of its broadcasts as very much its own concern. The little card you shove in the front of your Sky box authorises it to decrypt only the channels you’ve paid for and how it does this is Sky’s business and nobody else’s. So, the only way1 to insert Sky TV broadcasts into the Windows Media Centre environment is as follows. Sky box receives pristine digital signal from dish and decodes it. Sky box outputs audio and video signal via old-fashioned analogue SCART lead. This gets converted to composite video and stereo audio (three RCA or “phono” plugs) and is then fed into the analogue TV tuner in the PC. This takes the analogue signal and redigitises it so that Media Centre can work with it.

The picture doesn’t look quite as bad as you’re maybe imagining. But HD it ain’t.

Changing channels on the Sky box is fun too. Remember, the Sky remote plays no part in this set up. One simple remote control is a big feature of my audio-visual life and using the Sky remote would be hopeless for timed recordings. What’s the Media Centre PC going to do? Pick up the Sky remote and change the channel to BBC1 two minutes before Doctor Who starts? Well, almost.

What actually happens is that when a channel-change is required (either by me pressing a button or because a timed recording is nearing), the Media Centre machine has to send a duplicate of the required infra-red pulses down a wire, to a little “button” which I’ve stuck to the IR receiver of the Sky box. Of course, there’s no feedback from the Sky box to the computer after one of these events, so if – as occasionally happens – the Sky box fails to correctly interpret one of the pulses, the Media Centre computer has no way of knowing and so just records whatever is coming down the SCART lead.

Clearly this is less than perfect. But, you may be saying, Tom, you complete fucking idiot,2 you may be saying, don’t you realise that Sky has their own solution to recording live TV!? It’s called Sky+. Yes, I’m well aware of this. But you know what Sky+ would mean don’t you? Two remotes. Probably three remotes since I’d also need to switch the TV between the Sky+ box (live and recorded TV shows) and the Media Centre PC (everything else). So I’ve strongly resisted the urge to go the Sky+ route for some time.

But while I can get away with this double-conversion of TV pictures on a 26” TV, they aren’t going to cut it on the new 42” beauty, and furthermore, I am increasingly discomfited at not being able to receive the HD broadcasts trumpeted on every station. Then there’s Blu-ray…

So here’s the plan…

  1. Have new TV delivered and nailed to the wall.
  2. Add Blu-ray DVD drive to PC and hope that I can find the necessary software to make it all work properly – Microsoft have been slow to provide proper support for Blu-ray, Xboxes excepted.
  3. While I’m about it, upgrade the onboard audio which has never worked properly on this new motherboard.
  4. Have Sky+ HD installed and regrettably bypass the Media Centre for watching and recording broadcast TV.

This will leave two problems unsolved. One is audio. I want to avoid having to blow £200 or more on a “proper” home theatre audio system, giving me yet another box and yet another remote control to worry about. But if I simply run separate HDMI cables from the Sky box and the PC to the television, I’ll get stereo sound out of the TV speakers when I’m watching TV, but 5.1 sound out of the Media Centre when watching (legally) downloaded movies or DVDs. It would be better to have 5.1 sound for everything.

The second problem is the profusion of remotes. I’ll probably need three – TV, Sky and Media Centre. It may be that the Sky remote can be used to control the TV, or it may be that a universal remote will be required, in which case I think I favour something like this which is fairly inexpensive, can be configured through the computer (nice) and doesn’t need its own docking station to stay powered up.

As mentioned however, Currys sudden attack of amnesia regarding my order means that things are not going to work out exactly like that, so here’s the new revised plan.

  1. Upgrade Media Centre with Blu-ray and decent audio. Listlessly watch Blu-ray discs on old telly’s 1280×768 display.
  2. Have Sky+ HD installed and try to figure out how to connect it to a TV with no HDMI socket.
  3. After Sky engineer has gone, have new TV installed and nailed to the wall and have to connect up Sky box myself.

All of this, and no doubt more will be lovingly documented right here, starting tomorrow with the PC upgrade. See you then.

  1. All right, it’s not the only way, but it’s the only way I regard as being practical.
  2. That’s a bit much, isn’t it?