Saturday, March 31, 2012

DIY PVR 5: The Reality

After using the Media Center for about a year, here are my thoughts.

Remote Control

My decision to use the TiVo Slide caused a lot of mixed results.  On the one hand, the keyboard is awesome.  I use it all the time.  There's nothing like going to search on Netflix and busting out the full qwerty keyboard to type in your search terms.  On the other hand, since it wasn't built for Media Center, there were a number of problems.  First, since many of the buttons aren't recognized natively by Windows, I had to use Intelliremote (Event Ghost would probably work just as well).  Once that's all set up, I found that the set of buttons that Media Center uses is different from the ones TiVo uses- for instance, TiVo has no concept of stop, and thus no button; similarly, Media Center relies heavily on a back button, which TiVo does not have.  I decided to sacrifice slow-motion functionality in order to have a stop button, and zoom to have back (the decision is sound; they're in the right places to match their function, and they're little-used buttons).  Oddly, the clear button does not seem to register with Windows in any way (which sucks, since it's the one-button delete key for shows and folders of shows).  Also, until someone writes a program properly designed for this remote, holding a button down does nothing; this means you can't scroll fast through the guide or through Netflix tv episode lists.  [With Event Ghost you can configure an autorepeat, which is an imperfect solution because it doesn't work with the guide's special fast-forwarding through days of show listings.]

The main problem with the TiVo Slide is the bluetooth connection.  It's awesome that it doesn't need line-of-sight, and the slight delay when it has not been used in a while (I guess it's waking up from sleep?) is forgivable, but occasionally, it will stop working entirely.  The only fix is to unplug the bluetooth dongle and re-plug it in; sometimes it takes more than once.

Outside of my personal choice in remotes, the remote control experience is mostly good.  One major annoyance, though, is the number keys.  You can press a time (in minutes) and then play to jump straight to that time- totally awesome.  You can press a number and the skip forward (30 seconds) and it will pretend like you hit the skip forward button that many times (hit 4 + skip and you go forward 2 minutes).  But, if you press a number (accidentally!) and then don't press anything, it changes to that channel!  I think if you press clear before it goes to that channel that it will abort, but the TiVo slide's clear button doesn't work.  Also, I'm not sure if it's a bug in the programs (I've only seen it on Recorded TV HD and My Movies) or in Media Center, but sometimes the input will get "stuck"- the arrow keys don't do anything.  If you hit the start button (the TiVo button on my remote) a couple times and try again it will come back, but it's a real nuisance.

One minor thing that bugs me is the buttons work well, but not quite as good as TiVo- hit FF once and it starts fast forwarding, again and it goes faster, but if you press Rewind it doesn't decrease the FF speed, it goes straight to rewind; there's no way to slow down the FF speed.

Recording TV

The things that Microsoft has done are awesome.  The guide is fantastic- entries are color coded by type (movie/news/tv series/etc).  You can hold down the arrow keys and it will speed through the guide in a really cool way (unfortunately, due to my intelliremote/TiVo Slide remote setup, I couldn't really use this).  Hit the record button once on a show, and it records.  Hit record again, it records the series.  Hit it a third time to cancel the series (beware, if you want to stop recording an individual show of a series, if you hit record in the guide you'll cancel the series).  You can customize the guide- removing channels is easy (it doesn't seem to do a good job of detecting/removing shows you don't get), and you can add logos with My Channel Logos.  Internet TV shows appear at the top of the guide, which was awesome for watching The Guild and associated clips (the music videos were awesome).  Playback of these shows isn't quite fantastic (the ads they force you to watch can't be paused or rewound- it's as though they didn't conceive that you might actually want to see an ad).  Scheduling shows is pretty much what I was used to with TiVo- you can record shows or series, prioritize them, set up wishlists, etc- though the interface is way faster than TiVo's (with around 50+ series set to record).

The built-in "Recorded TV" program is probably adequate, but I found and used Recorded TV HD if only to keep the kids shows separate from ours.  The built-in one will let you choose to view by date recorded or by folder (alphabetical), but not both.  I highly recommend Recorded TV HD- it's under active development, and they're very responsive to feedback/suggestions on their forum.  A couple of my suggestions have made it into the program.  One killer upcoming feature- a "recycle bin" of shows that you delete through its interface.  Media Center deletes shows when you hit delete; there is no way to recover them.

It's also worth mentioning that there's a built-in "upcoming movies" app(?) that is really nice- you can display movies that are on, ones that are starting soon, ones that are high rated, etc.

I'll quickly mention that I encountered a problem with recording the Colbert Report, which airs multiple times a day but only the 11:30 one is new.  You can set it to record just the ones "around 11:30", which is fantastic, but a couple weeks ago it was choosing to not record some episodes because they were scheduled to air at 11:31.  It seems to me that 11:31 is "around 11:30", but I guess I'm wrong.  Outside of that I haven't had any real problems with scheduling recordings or resolving conflicts (though the UI for that could be a bit better).

Another minor quibble is that it doesn't seem to filter out future recordings that match episodes already recorded.  If you have it set to record a show including reruns, you'll get all the reruns, even if it's already recorded and not yet deleted.

Something that I miss from TiVo is the (multiple) live tv buffers- each tuner will keep its own buffer of a program, so that if you're not recording a show you can still switch back and forth and rewind.  One thing that the wife likes to do is when checking the weather, she'll switch to the weather channel and then go back to watching something else, then she'll periodically check in on it to see if they've aired the local forecast.  With Media Center, when you hit stop or play something different, the buffer is gone.  And if you start a recording from the buffer, it doesn't save any of it- the recording starts from the moment that you hit record.

DVD Library

One of the main reasons I was drawn to the Media Center in the first place was the promise of a single device; one that had all my ripped DVDs on it.  I initially tried MediaBrowser; my take on it is that it can probably be tweaked to be all I want it to be, but I didn't want to put in the effort.  I found MyMovies to be superior; you can scan in the barcodes (or type the numbers in) for all the DVDs you have, and it gets you all the metadata about it, including all the bonus features.  It works pretty well; it's probably the best non-Microsoft created part of the whole computer.  When browsing movies, it grabs the fullscreen background art; for many movies it will automatically know which youtube trailer is correct, so you can just click "trailer" on the movie screen (next to "play") to get yourself in the mood to watch the movie, or to introduce it to someone unfamiliar.  TV series work equally well, though it can be a bit hairy associating the loose files on your drive with the bar code for the box set that you have (what I found: it's best to just ignore the bar code; have it scan the appropriately-named folders and tweak it from there).

I had recently gotten the good seasons of the Simpsons used on DVD, and I was excited about (re)watching the episodes with the wife and listening to the commentary tracks.  DVD playback works great- just put the disc in; it's integrated with the rest of the Media Center experience (eg activate subtitles in the same way as you would activate captions on a recorded tv show).  Unfortunately, after a lot of effort, I couldn't find a way to get Media Center to understand my encoded videos as having subtitles or secondary audio tracks.  [Media Center uses WMF (Windows Media Foundation) for video playback, and its built-in mp4 decoder only understands a single audio track and no subtitles/captions.  I tried to create a codec that would work, but I couldn't find any GUID that I could register in its info that would make Media Center present the option to switch audio tracks.  Now, if you have a recorded .wtv file, it will understand the SAP track and the captions; I suspect that it only works if the codec registers the special ASF GUIDs.]  There are supposed to be workarounds, which consist of getting directshow to play back the video, getting ffdshow registered to play the video, getting Media Control to work, then mapping a button on the remote to tell Media Control to tell ffdshow to draw the subtitles.  I couldn't get this to work properly; it also has the potential to conflict with your recorded tv playback.

Another mysterious issue is that fast forwarding and rewinding my mp4s would go at a crawl.  I had heard that with, say, mkvs Media Center will refuse to ff/rew at all, but this is a different issue.  Fortunately, typing in a time and hitting play to jump to a position combined with the meager ff/rew made a sufficient solution.  I posted to the forums but nobody knows of a solution.

On a positive note, Auto Rip-n-Compress is pretty awesome at ripping DVDs and Blu-Rays using DVDFab and Handbrake; you can have ripping and encoding going on at the same time and multiple encodes queued up.  Plus, the interface (once configured) is all within Media Center.

I chose Arcsoft Total Media Theater 5 for blu-ray playback because it integrates with Media Center.  It works ok, but the experience is not the most pleasant.  It's somewhat slow- fast forwarding is not snappy (responsive, yes, but a bit of a slideshow).  I couldn't get the 3d to work right- it's got several options, but none of them sent it to the TV correctly (by contrast, the PS3 did the right thing the first time; I don't know if it even has any options).  Also, for some reason, they refuse to allow left/right to bring up the onscreen menu like it does in regular media playback.  Instead, you have to hit the Info button (which my intelliremote/tivo slide setup borks- it either does a double-press or it doesn't work one place or the other).  Overall, it meets expectations, but does not impress.


It was easy to setup Windows Live Mesh to sync our pictures over to the media center.  We didn't really use it to browse through the pictures (maybe twice in the last year), but what is awesome is that it will use your photo library as a screen saver.  The wife loves this feature; it's probably the only thing that kept her going through the difficulties.


Similarly to the pictures, I also synced my music.  It has a decent interface to play music, but it's not something we used more than once or twice.  I must say, the visualizer that displays all the album covers is really cool.


I spent a fair amount of time setting up emulators for SNES, TG16, N64, PS1, PS2, and GC/Wii.  I bought a ps3 controller and bluetooth dongle from and used the MotionInJoy driver/software.  It's tricky to get setup, but it did work.  I'm not sure if the driver actually interfered with the TiVo controller; I suspected it, though, so it got uninstalled, but I think now that it could be made to work ok.  It was really cool to get setup, but I never really had the time to get into any of the games.  The one problem that I had with the setup was that the connection between the computer and the controller was flaky; if working correctly, you're supposed to just hit the PS button and it all wakes up and autoconnects, but it always required plugging in the mouse & keyboard and fiddling around before it would work for me.


One of the things I was most excited about was Airplay support, wherein an iPhone/iPad could easily send the video over to it, just like an Apple TV.  Initially, things worked fine using the free software, but iOS 5 broke it, and it has yet to be updated.  I shelled out some money for Aerodrome, which does work with iOS 5, but not particularly greatly.  It's been a while since I used it with the Apple TV, so it's possible that Aerodrome performs as well as that, but I'm not sure.  It definitely can't do protected video (aka purchased movies/tv), so keep that in mind.

Remote Viewing

During the year we got a second Xbox 360, so I put it in the basement so that (among other things) it could act as an extender.  It did indeed work, but the experience isn't so great.  It streams the video without transcoding, and apparently wireless N isn't quite good enough for its bandwidth needs.  Often during a video it will say "Network Error" and stop playing the video.  Also, navigating around (at least in Recorded TV HD) is super, super slow; this might be fixed with a future update.

What worked better for me is Remote Potato, which is awesome.  It transcodes and streams any recorded tv to your iPad/iPhone or web browser.  When we were in LA, we were able to watch some Parks and Recreation streamed across the country.  Unfortunately, it doesn't work on protected content (Dexter on Showtime), but it's awesome to be able to sit Kari down with one of her shows on the iPad without having to do anything.  It would be even better if it integrated with Recorded TV HD and filtered the shows accordingly (it can only group shows by name or show them in order recorded), but it's still great and well worth the couple dollars for the iOS apps (everything else is free).

Web Video

Web video is a mixed bag.  Netflix integration is awesome; it looks nice and is well-supported (unfortunately, no captions yet).  Internet TV is pretty good; the interface is nothing to write home about, but it generally worked without incident.  Amazon Unbox will work, but you have to manually initiate the download/purchase (and you can't do it on iOS devices), then you can start watching it (even as it downloads).  I've rented a couple videos this way and it works, but Amazon would have gotten a lot more business from me if they had an actual Media Center interface.  Things go downhill from there- it's possible to integrate the Hulu desktop app, but it's not great- I used intelliremote to set up the remote bindings, but the app has so few functions that it's difficult to make it work.  For instance, there is only a single play/pause button, and no dedicated ff/rew buttons (only left/right which you can either tap or hold down).  It makes the remote control experience unpleasant, but it does work, and hey, free shows.  Youtube, on the other hand, is especially weak.  Macrotube is supposed to work, and there is a community-updated fix, but it frequently breaks (when google changes the format of their html) and doesn't support any features like related videos, channels, full video descriptions, favorites, or uploaded videos.  The last time it broke I couldn't get it to work again.  When it works, it's pretty nice (you can search for videos), but more than half the times I've tried to use it I've found it broken in one way or another.


One of the strengths of Media Center was supposed to be its customizability.  To a certain degree, that's true; I was able to add all sorts of things to the start screen- emulators, plugins, etc.  There are themes out there, but they're not easy to install, so I never bothered.  Media Center Studio works well at customizing, and, once fixed, things work well.  Oddly, sometimes the fix will revert itself (that is, Windows puts it back into the broken state) for no reason- I've seen it happen when exiting Netflix and when rebooting after an unplug (Windows Update is turned off, btw).  It's a pain to fix- it requires going to the computer and plugging in a mouse (maybe it could be done via remote desktop?  I haven't tried).


Media Center is, for the most part, stable.  Sometimes it crashes, though.  When sitting idle.  When this happens, you have to dismiss the crash dialog, which can sometimes be done with the TiVo Slide by pressing space; sometimes you have to plug in a mouse.  Sometimes you'll get a dialog "Unable to change the channel..." or "...has had an error and will be closed"; you can hit ok on these and it will recover ok, though there might be many of them stacked up.  Fortunately, Windows records the shows in a separate service, so you don't even need to be logged into the computer and it will still record.  I haven't had any problems with the actual recording of shows; even if the UI crashes, it still records them perfectly.


Microsoft recently got Cablecard certified and Netflix recently updated their media center UI, but apart from that, Media Center feels like a ghost town.  Microsoft made a great product, but has all but abandoned it- their movie cover server doesn't have data for any movies past 2010, and they haven't fixed easy problems like using multiple tuners to record overlapping shows on the same channel.  The internet is full of programs written for Media Center that have since been abandoned and are no longer able to be downloaded, or just no longer work.  I'd like to have a weather program that would alert me if there was, say, a tornado watch, but that does not seem to exist.  The hardware is the same story- nobody makes media center remotes anymore; they're just selling out their stock (tv tuner card makers, like Ceton, however, seem to be doing just fine).  It's a shame, because it really is a good product, but it requires too much time and effort just to keep things working at all.

Next Steps

I really want to love the Media Center, but it's just too difficult.  I've received about 10 phone calls at work this past year from the wife to deal with problems.  I have a 2 page instruction manual for guests to tell them how to use it and what to do when something bad happens.  It has so much potential to be awesome, but there's nobody in charge of the experience.  For these reasons, as well as promising announcements about the TiVo Premiere Elite's 4 tuners, faster UI, upcoming Netflix and Youtube updates, upcoming stream-to-iPad features, and of course its full support for the Slide remote, it seems like I can get most of what I need from TiVo.  I'll have to supplement it with an AppleTV for playing my media library and for Airplay support, but who knows, maybe a future update will let me do that within the TiVo UI.  Plus, the WAF (wife acceptance factor) is high, and the UI is simple enough that my 2 year old can use it (she was using it when she was 1, actually).  The new TiVo's on its way; the wife will be happy; I will be relieved.

I will be watching the Ceton Q closely, though.

No comments: