How to share your digital media with your family

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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.

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A flexible home entertainment system for the whole family

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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