How to share your digital media with your family

Standard

Introduction

If you’ve ever tried to share your digital media such as movies, pictures, or music with your family you’ll find that it can be veeeeeeerry complicated veeeeeeeeery quickly. This article will help you understand why and what you can do to simplify it.

Comparisons of Solutions

There are many products out there that will share your media, but let’s take an example that everyone is familiar with: Apple.  With an apple computer, and Apple Airport router, and even an iPod, you can share your media anywhere at home quickly and easily without any headache.  Especially with their new product: AirPlay.

Apple’s solution isn’t perfect but it works.  This is because they provide almost everything to make it work.  ITunes Store to get your media.  iMac, Mac OS X,  iTunes to hold your media, Airport Express to provide the wifi connection with an audio out jack to hook up to your stereo or speakers.  If you follow their guidelines with their products then everything will work seamlessly.

Let’s look at another solution: Windows Media Player, Windows Media Center/XBox360.  With it you can stream all your music, pictures and movies to your TV.   The Windows Media Center PC connected to the TV also offers DVR capabilities so you can record and watch the shows you want.

Notice that if you try to do anything outside these features, everything becomes harder.  Watch youtube on your Windows Media Center PC.  You can’t out of the box, it’s complicated to make it work (not really but..for my grandma it is).  Trying to record TV on your Apple network and play it on TV…it’ll get complicated.  Apple doesn’t offer any DVR features.

There are other solutions too such as UPnP/DLNA like XBMC and the Playstation 3. Or Set top boxes like the Roku Player, or  network boxes like Xtreamer or Netgear’s ReadyNAS.  They all work great if used for the services they are designed for, but if used for something they aren’t designed to do they will be a headache.

Making Everything work seamlessly: KISS

There an acronym every computer programmer learns when they start.  KISS – short for keep it simple stupid.  To make all the complicated entertainment features available at home this day and age, the fat has to be trimmed.  Plan only the features that are used 90% of the time, forget about other rarely used features.

Before you do that, you need to pick out your ecosystem.

Ecosystems

There’s two ecosystems available for multimedia devices these days.  A hub ecosystem similar to apple where your iMac is center of everything.  To set up all your music, you’ll need your iMac and iTunes, same for all your pictures.  To an extent, you’re movies, and books.  Without an apple computer the whole network will not work.  Then there’s an decentralised approach all other vendors seem to take.  Any device and work with another device in a certain way e.g use your camera to wirelessly print pictures to a nearby printer.  Display all your photos on your TV.  The centralised approach is simpler, but limited.  The decentralised approach is flexible but complicated.

This is where the concept of KISS is important.  If you’re a linux geek like me, then you’ll want to do as much as possible, if it doesn’t do the little extra feature that you like it will drive you up the wall and force you to refer to all the software as “useless crap” or complain that it just plain “sucks”.  There is a way to make it all work though.

Putting it all together

The trick is to design and choose ecosystem so that it works for you, for 99% of the things you do.  Here is the example I use at my home:
I have 5 people at home, parents, wife, sister, and me.  I like to listen to music, watch movies both purchased, rented, downloaded or streamed.  I also have pictures I like to share.  I’m not an avid fan of online services like facebook, or picasa, but I would like to browse  other peoples photo albums, or catching up with TV episodes online.  I also use youtube, or other on demand video services like yokou.com or yahoo movies.

That is a lot of digital services already but there’s more.  News, blogs, I want to make use of ebooks soon, I also watch internet only TV like miro, blip.tv or purepwnage.  I would like to skype on my TV, and I game from time to time either with myself, friends or family.

To keep things simple, I need to ask myself a question: what do we do the most?  Answer: Watch TV, and watch movies on the TV, look at pictures, and listen to music around the apartment.

Then I identified the devices we use to do all these things.  The TV, and the computers, the two desktops and the two netbooks we have.  To make everything work was simple. Buying  a PS3 for the living room solved that.  It can play movies using a USB thumbdrive.  It can even stream movies to my TV using windows media player (on windows 7) .  Any computer in the apartment can now play movies, pictures and music on the TV by just leaving their computer on and loading the movie into WMP’s library.  The playstation 3 can even store media on it’s own hard drive so other computers do not have to be on.  It can be browse youtube and catch up TV websites like the local Hong Kong TV station, TVB Pearl, or a cable channel like AXN Asia.

Playstation 3 Slim

Of course my network is more complicated than that, but I’ll explain that later.

Conclusion

Before buying a cool gadget to plug into your network, try to ask yourself “Will this gadget be useful for me”.  Chances are your answer will be “I don’t know”.  Your best bet is to identify the common things you like to do and make it easy for youself to do it.  The playstation 3 allowed me to do that.

Advertisements

A flexible home entertainment system for the whole family part 3

Standard

Streaming Media to the Living Room

Place shifting allows my family to view TV anywhere I want in my home, this section deals with the reverse.  Streaming media from any computer to the living room.  The are a number of gadgets and software that have made this possible.

UPNP and DLNA

UPnP Logo

UPnP is a standard for doing a lot of things, including streaming and sharing media files. It is supported by many programs and gadgets out there but not every gadget will work.  UPnP doesn’t have restrictions on codecs, it leaves that up to the client or gadget.  This can cause a lot of headaches since things might not work out of the box.  A lot of software like XBMC support streaming to and from other devices using UPnP.

DLNA Logo

DLNA is similar to UPnP  but it’s more restricted and targets embedded systems like phones, home entertainment appliances, computers and other electronics, it is still in its infancy and only high end electronics have support for it.  The best known devices that support DLNA are the PS3 and the XBox 360.

Playstation 3

Playstation 3 Slim

Again I’m a Sony fan so I am biased here.  One of the best supported DLNA devices is the Sony Playstation 3.  Almost any media streaming software like MythTV, XMBC, Boxee etc will be able to share all sorts of media with the PS3.  The PS3 can play a variety of media, from Divx encoded video to a slide show pictures.

Have a look at the beautiful slideshow the PS3 has.

The ps3 is also a great gaming machine, and probably a good family gaming machine too because of a upcoming Playstation Move.  It’s also a powerful movie player that supports almost anything including Blurays, DVDs, audio CDs, Photo CDs etc.  It was designed to sit in the living room.

One advantage of the PS3 is that it supports HDMI CEC, which means a TV remote can be used to control the PS3, a universal remote control won’t be needed.

Some of my friends have a PS3, also PS3’s online play is free of charge unlike X-Box 360 Live.

XBox 360

XBox 360

Similar to the PS3, the XBox stream movies from any computer and display it on the TV.  Using Windows Media Player and it’s transcoding features, almost any video can be played.  It can also handle photos and music too.

XBox is also an excellent gaming machine, and probably a great family gaming machien because of the upcoming Project Natal.  It’s also a powerful movie player supporting DVDs, CDs, Photo CDs etc.

The X-Box’s build quality is a let down though.  It’s known to cause problems, also if you haven’t seen the size of it’s external power supply I recommend you see it before making a decision.  X-Boxes also are a wiring and attachment mess.  They don’t have built in WiFi, they have an external power supply.  I doubt it support HDMI CEC which means you would need another remote for a universal remote center.

Wii

Nintendo Wii

The Wii is teh best family gaming machine, and it’s cheap too at around $120!  If it’s modded, it can also be also be used as a home media center and support a variety of formats including CDs, DVDs, and pictures. It’s build quality is near perfect, and it’s nice, small, slick.  It’s a great solution.

The only let down is that it won’t work with universal remote control.  which means there will be more remotes lying around.  Also modding isn’t a good idea for everyone, it could get you kicked off the online experience.

Slingcatcher

Sling Catcher

Slingcatcher is a beatiful set top box that sits on the TV and comes with great learning remote.  It’s capable of playing a variety of codecs and works great out of the box.  A combination of SlingBox Pro HD and SlingCatcher in the home will make a great entertainment system for the whole family.

It’s also affordable costing aroudn $150

XBMC and mini-itx PCs

XBMC

XMBC is the best option for movie buffs.  It can play anything that’s thrown at it, sans Blu-ray ..for now, and it has a slick interface to boot.

However it is the most expensive solution at the moment and can be a mess when it comes to wiring and complexity.  Combine XBMC with MythTV and you have an excellent solution that blows SlingBox’s offerings away.

However it’s going to be messy wiring and it’s also the most expensive solution at around $350-500.

Read more about XBMC on the official website http://www.xbmc.org

Boxee

Boxee

Boxee is almost exactly like XMBC in features except it has a focus on social networking.  It also has an Set Top Box coming out soon. which makes this an attractive solution.  An affordable XMBC with a remote and without the wiring headaches.

Watch the demonstration on the offical website http://www.boxee.tv

Bluray Players

Sony BDP-S370 Blu Ray player with DLNA

I’m Sony biased so I’m looking at Sony again.  Most blu ray players support DLNA or USB specs.  They work fairly well and the new blu ray player are around $170 to $199 starting price.  The $199 ones will also support 3D movies soon enough.

Blu-ray players must use HDMI so they all support HDMI-CEC.  Which means you can use one remote to control both the TV and the blu-ray player, and stream movies and TV as need.  It is worth looking into.

It is nearly impossible to find out how well the DLNA features work on this device though, few people have one, and even fewer have blog posts or reviews on it’s DLNA features.  Depending on the brand, price, or model purchase the DLNA features may differ e.g. codec support, or UI.

Read more about Sony’s BDP-370 on the official website

Decision

After a long and complicated though process, I had a hard time deciding between the PS3 and an XMBC with a mini-itx case.  I also considered skipping both devices and using Blu-Ray Player and a TV with DLNA to save costs.  In the end my friends ended up buying me a PS3 for my wedding present (they refer to the PS3 as my “first wife” now) and I have to say that I am impressed with it.

One of the main features of the entertainment system in the living room was that I could do almost everything with a single remote control.  These days most apartments have a cable set top box, a game console, a TV, a DVD and Blu-ray player at least.  Each come with their own remotes and other things.  Logitech Harmony remotes and other universal remotes can handle these problems but some devices like the Boxee STB, a custom XBMC PC, a cable set top box or a game console won’t work with universal remote controls.
There are is also the complicated wiring with some devices like XBMC.  It won’t work over HDMI.  Blu-ray players and other DLNA devices aren’t usually upgradeable and are almost always limited.   Blu-Ray Players, XMBC and Boxee don’t support games.  Wii isn’t very good at streaming movies, XBox 360s and their RRoDs …

The PS3 however is able to do everything well. It’s slick, small, built well, doesn’t have much wiring, plays Games, movies, pictures, music etc.  It’s also affordable and doesn’t need an extra remote since it can be controlled using the TV remote over HDMI.  It’s also getting motion controlled games at the end of the year. Lastly most of my friends have a PS3, multi-player games here I come!

A flexible home entertainment system for the whole family

Standard

Background

In my relatively small apartment in Hong Kong, I have two TVs, an assortment of TV channels, and big family that have different tastes when it comes to TV. Dad likes his Cartoons, and older movies, mom likes the Indian soap operas, my sister and I have different tastes in TV shows.  She likes Jersy Shore and America’s Next Top Model, I like Sci-Fi, movies, Futurama, Family Guy, CSI.  This is a dilemma that needs to be handled.

I’m trying to solve this problem, by giving my family more options and leveraging as many devices I have at home to make it easier.  It seemed like a good time since I am getting married soon and I have to purchase new TVs for the living room and my room to make us comfortable.  Yes I live with my parents, I’m Indian and the only son so this is normal for my culture, and it’s normal in Hong Kong for 20 somethings to live with the parents.

Before I started I had two huge CRT box TVs.  A Sharp 24″ TV in the living room and an old Toshiba 20″ TV in my parents room.  The tuner in the 24″ TV wasn’t working so I got static all day from it, also the building was old and the TV antennae was crap so I never got good TV reception.  My family lived of Cable specifically Now TV , an IPTV service in Hong Kong that was perfect for us because it provided a wide array of content in English, Hindi, and Cantonese coming in through the high speed broadband internet connection we had at home.

There are 4 computers at home, a linux server, two desktops and one macbook which we all share.  There’s LAN cable laid out to most of the rooms for the wired network and two routers for the wireless network so we get coverage in the whole apartment.  My sister and I frequently use the computers in our room to watch DVDs, streaming videos and TV.  My Parents prefer TV, gadgets and computers seem to be too complicated for them and they prefer to stick with what they know.

The problem with Now TV in Hong Kong is that only one decoder is given out to people, you can’t have two unless you pay for it, and I rather not rack up a huge monthly bill because getting Indian TV here in HK costs a premium.  Currently I have wiring to split now TV signal so that it can be seen on two TVs on different rooms.  It’s of one the for my home entertainment prerequisites since my mom loves to watch TV in the room at night, when her favorite soap operas come on.  My sister and I prefer to watching downloaded movies or DVDs on our computers in our rooms, or we watch them in the living room on cable if we get the chance.

Recently Digital TV was rolled out in Hong Kong and my building has an antennae capable for watching broadcast digital TV.  The  broadcast channels are decent, and the local news, documentaries and other programming are useful.   Upgrading the TVs now, two years after the digital TV roll out, is a good investment since most TVs have a digital tuner built in now, and prices have dropped significantly recently.

I have tried wiring the TV to the rooms and using TV cards on the PCs to watch TV and cable on my computer, but this was before our building’s antennae was upgraded to digital TV so our reception was terrible.  Also there’s the problem of only on cable decoder, if someone changes the channel in the living room, the cable TV channel in the room gets changed.  The result wasn’t nice…  Sharing one decoder amongst many TVs wasn’t a good idea.

My home seemed outdated for today’s entertainment standard, and it’s the perfect time for me to do something about it.   Old devices, Lots of remotes, lack of options, all of us demanding control over one cable TV box for our favorite shows.  It’s such a hassle.  Plus my fiancee loves to watch TV.  Things were going to get more complicated after she moved in. I need to address this problem … so I looked at my options:

  1. Place shifting
  2. DVD/Blu-Ray
  3. Streaming TV
  4. Gaming
  5. HTPC