Installing and Configuring NextPVR as a Replacement for Windows Media Center

If you follow me on Google+ you’ll know I had a recent rant about Windows Media Center, which after running fine for about a year suddenly decided as of January 29 it was done downloading the program guide and by extension was therefore done recording any TV shows.

I’ll spare you more ranting and simply say that none of the suggestions I got (which I appreciate!) worked, and rather than spending more time figuring out why, I decided to try something different.

NextPVR is an awesome free (as in beer, not as in freedom unfortunately …) PVR application for Windows that with a little bit of tweaking handily replaced Windows Media Center. It can even download guide data, which is apparently something WMC no longer feels like doing.

Background

I wound up going down this road in a rather circuitous way. My initial goal for the weekend project was to get Raspbmc running on one of my Raspberry Pis. The latest version of XBMC has PVR functionality so I was anxious to try that out as a potential replacement for WMC.

Installing Raspbmc was easy enough and the base install is working fine, but based on what I’ve read it may not (yet) be up to functioning as a full-blown PVR like I’m used to, and will likely serve better (as some folks on Google+ suggested) as a front-end to something else.

That led me to searching around for a WMC replacement that will run on Windows 7.

Given my huge preference for free (as in freedom) software why continue to use Windows and not move to something like MythTV? Honestly I’ll probably go the MythTV route eventually, but in the near term I was just looking for something that would quickly allow me to schedule and record shows again. I’m running WMC on a very nice Acer Revo, which has a DVD player form factor and is designed to function specifically as a media center, complete with a nice pop-out dual-function mouse/keyboard pad. I’ll go the full free software route another weekend.

As I looked around I came across this article on Lifehacker about turning a Raspberry Pi into a media center, and it too was focused on the Pi as a front-end to another machine that does the heavy lifting. Honestly I like this idea anyway — sticking a quiet, low-power Raspberry Pi behind every TV other than the one with the NextPVR box seems like a slick solution.

Installing NextPVR

Installing NextPVR is very straight-forward — I mostly just did what’s outlined in the Lifehacker article.

  1. Download the latest version
  2. Download the patches and copy them into the directory in which you installed NextPVR
  3. Start NextPVR and adjust the settings

The specifics of that last step will be dependent upon your hardware. Note that the default buffer directory of C:Temp may not exists so if you get an error related to that when you fire up NextPVR, just create that directory and restart NextPVR. I also did enable the background recording service as recommended.

In my case I’m using a SiliconDust HDHomeRun as my tuner, which means I do not have a tuner card in the media center PC. The HDHomeRun makes three tuners available over ethernet, and NextPVR sees them out of the box, though there is some configuration and installation of codecs necessary to get things working properly.

Watching Live TV on NextPVR

Next you’ll want to configure NextPVR to be able to watch live TV, and the first step in this process is to have NextPVR scan your tuner devices to get a channel listing.

With the HDHomeRun I simply had to go into devices, choose each tuner, and click the “Scan” button. I have digital cable so this pulled back a little over 500 channels. Note that you have to do this for each tuner. You can tell it to copy a configuration from one tuner to another, but I found that to be much slower than performing the scan on each one individually.

The first problem I ran into after the channel scan is that although NextPVR sees the HDHomeRun fine, when I tried to watch live TV I got no picture or sound. I could see that it was talking to the HDHomeRun since I saw the tuner light come on and it was going through the motions of changing channels, and even had the channel names correct, but there was no picture or sound.

If you have this issue don’t panic; it’s very likely you just need to go into the NextPVR settings and choose the correct decoder. If you don’t have valid MPEG2 or AC3 codecs installed, which are the video and audio formats the HDHomeRun uses, you’ll have to do that separately.

In my case to get the video working I had to enable the MPEG2 and H.264 video decoders, and for those I selected the “Microsoft DTV-DVD Video Decoder” that was already installed on my machine.

As you change these settings, make sure and restart NextPVR. I’m not sure that’s supposed to be required but with both audio and video I had to restart NextPVR for the changes to take effect.

To get the audio working, I had to install additional codecs since I didn’t have any on the machine that could handle AC3 audio. For MPEG1 audio the Microsoft DTV-DVD Audio Decoder should work (though I can’t confirm since I’m not sure I tested any MPEG1 audio specifically), but it definitely didn’t work for me for any of the other audio types.

Some suggestions for fixing this issue were to install Windows Media Center since it comes with codecs that won’t otherwise be on the machine, but from what I could tell anything WMC installs is pretty MS-specific, so you’re better off installing more agnostic codecs.

Luckily there are some excellent free (as in beer) codecs available. What I ended up installing was the Windows 7 Codec Pack. This comes with codecs for just about every audio and video format you can imagine and gave me what I needed to fix the lack of audio.

One the Windows 7 Codec Pack was installed, I selected “ffdshow Audio Decoder” for all the audio types other than MPEG1, and after restarting NextPVR I was getting audio. Again I think the only audio type I was really verifying was AC3 since that’s what the HDHomeRun uses, so if you have a different setup that requires different decoders, you may need to try some different options.

Downloading Program Guide Data (EPG) and Mapping Channels

With video and audio both working there was one last problem to solve, namely program guide data. Without guide data you won’t know what’s on and, as I discovered the hard way with WMC, you won’t be able to record anything.

In the case of the guide data I decided to throw a little money at this problem. You don’t necessarily have to pay for program guide data but from the little bit of research I did it seems like the free solutions would require some ongoing interaction on my part (or some scripting), and I don’t want to turn recording TV into another job for myself, so I decided to pay for it. If you want to investigate solutions like XMLTV and others, the NextPVR wiki page on program data (EPG) is a great place to start.

Specifically, I decided to pay $25/year for a Schedules Direct account. It integrates completely seamlessly with NextPVR and based on what I read was well worth the money compared to dealing with this yourself. (I’m not averse to a little scripting and hacking but I have enough side jobs at the moment!)

After getting a Schedules Direct account, you then create a listing in Schedules Direct, which is done by providing your zip code and choosing your cable provider.

Once the listing is created in Schedules Direct you then go into the Channels section of NextPVR, enter your Schedules Direct login information, pick a listing, and then program guide data will be continually updated for you.

That’s not quite the end of the story though. You still have to map the channels so NextPVR knows which channel in NextPVR goes with which channel in the lineup.

This is where I think NextPVR could use a little bit of work. You can do a bulk mapping, which works pretty well overall (though verify because it did mismatch some in my case), but if you do the bulk mapping and manually change any specific mappings it asks you every time you change one if you want to have it scan and try to do a bulk match even after it already did that. Minor annoyance but seems like it’d be an easy fix as well.

With all that in place, in the Channels section of the NextPVR setting I clicked the Update EPG button and a couple of minutes later, program guide data was available. (Take that, Windows Media Center!) Then I could finally go in and start recreating the season passes I lost when I tried reinstalling WMC.

As for the Raspberry Pi …

Since I basically took a huge detour from my original goal of getting XBMC up and running on my Raspberry Pi, that piece isn’t quite done yet. Raspbmc itself is running fine, and I installed the PVR Client for NextPVR, but it’s not working properly for some reason so I still need to dig into that.

Once I get that figured out then I can have the Raspberry Pi hooked up to a TV in another room and watch either live TV or recordings from the NextPVR box, which will be very slick. I’ll do another post on that once I get it working.

Conclusion

Overall I’m quite impressed with NextPVR so far. The installation was quite simple, it saw the HDHomeRun without any problems, and the codec issues I ran into were very easy to solve.

The UI may not be quite as slick, strictly speaking, as WMC, but it’s also a lot cleaner and zippier, and I’ll take that any day. With the guide data in place I’m very happy with the functionality and don’t think I’ll miss anything at all from WMC.

Longer term I’ll definitely look into MythTV so I have a free as in freedom solution, but this was a quick and easy project that at least got me up and running again after the WMC meltdown.

The first real test of my new setup will be when NextPVR records The Walking Dead tonight. As WMC found out if it screws that up, it’s history.

SiliconDust HDHomeRun PRIME and MoCA

Quick tip if you’re trying to get a networked TV tuner like the SiliconDust HDHomeRun PRIME working on the same jack with a MoCA box — short answer for the impatient among you is you’re going to need a diplexer. You can get something like this one which splits the signal into 5-860MHz and 950-2150MHz ranges, or something like this basic satellite/antenna diplexer from Radio Shack.

Plug the coax from the wall into the input of the diplexer, and send the lower range (which is labeled VHF on the basic diplexers) to the HomeRun and the higher range (which is labeled VHF on the basic diplexers) to the MoCA box and everything should work. Without this, when I was going wall -> MoCA box and MoCA box -> HomeRun, networking worked fine for me but there was no cable signal being sent to the HomeRun.

So longer explanation for those of you who follow my home networking trials and tribulations, with the threat of Moxi going away (though this has been put on hold indefinitely) I decided to investigate other solutions and I wasn’t at all keen on spending $1.7 trillion on TiVos. (OK it’s not really that much but it adds up quick for a three-room setup when you get the lifetime subscription.)

My brother pointed me to a deal on an Acer Revo HTPC that was too good to pass up, so I got that and an HDHomeRun for the tuner. Yes, I know, I’m always talking about how much I hate Windows, I’m an open source bigot, etc. etc. but the reality of the situation is that I’m not the only one in my house that watches TV so I have to at least be semi-congizant of ease of use, and much as I keep saying I’m going to build a MythTV box, every time I investigate things like remote controls, backend vs. frontend boxes, etc. it seems to get complicated rather quickly. If it were just me watching TV I’d go for it, but some people in my house just like to turn on the TV and have it work without any hassle. (Can you imagine?)

The good news on the MythTV front, however, is buying the Revo freed up another desktop PC I was previously using just for PlayOn and PlayLater so I’m going to put MythTV on there, and from what I’ve read it works with the HomeRun! At least that way I can maybe have MythTV in the man cave and have something more easy to use (in theory anyway) in the living room.

Back to the networking piece of this. When I had Verizon FIOS TV I had been using MoCA for networking and it worked great. When I switched from Verizon to Comcast, however, the MoCA didn’t work in the rooms where I needed a cable TV signal and I didn’t do enough research at the time to figure out why. I assumed it was a signal strength issue so I tried some amps but none of them worked.

Instead of digging into that more at the time I moved to powerline networking and while it’s been decent overall, it’s never been as solid and fast as the MoCA was and it wasn’t working very well for the Revo to talk to the HomeRun. The picture would get jerky pretty often or the audio and video would get out of sync, so that wasn’t going to fly. (That said, powerline networking worked quite reliably for streaming HD from the main Moxi unit to Moxi Mates in other rooms, so don’t shy away from it based solely on me switching back!)

This prompted me to switch back to MoCA since that had worked fantastically well for me before, but I again ran into the issue with the cable signal. This time I did my homework and discovered that most people that were having this problem resolved it by using a diplexer, and luckily that fixed things for me too.

Next up is putting more RAM and a bigger hard drive in my other desktop machine and trying out MythTV so when I get a chance to do that I’ll be sure and share how that goes.

It’s Official: Moxi DVR is Dead

I’ve been expecting this news for some time now, but I went to the Moxi web site tonight to be greeted by the following:

The Moxi HD DVR and Moxi Mate are no longer available for purchase. Program guide data and technial support for the Moxi HD DVR will be available until December 31, 2013.

Hell’s bells. Such a nice setup but I knew they wouldn’t be around forever.

My reason for going to the site tonight is because I think the hard drive in mine is starting to die and I was going to poke around to see what’s involved with replacing the drive. I guess I still have nearly two years of life in the thing if I can get the hard drive replaced.

But, this is timely also because maybe it’s the push I need to get off cable anyway. Particularly with the latest announcement from Amazon of their content agreement with Viacom (and more to come, I’m sure), do I need cable? I have Netflix, Hulu Plus, PlayOn and PlayLater, computers galore, Roku … is the DVR as we know it finally irrelevant?

Well Moxi it’s been a pleasure knowing you. If my hard drive holds out or if I can get a new one put in there, I guess I have about 22 months to get this figured out. Clock’s ticking.

Tom Shales – In dying color: No. 4 NBC has cast itself in the role of the fading peacock – washingtonpost.com

Might the trademark “NBC” be retired and the TV network become just another cog in a large, empty capitalist apparatus — one that plops out leisure-time product with the slick, chilly efficiency of an assembly line? It’s possible that Comcast could be even more tightfisted an owner than GE and that NBC might be the first network to prove that the whole idea of broadcast networks really is over. It could prove it by dying.

One of the networks has to be the first to go, and the most likely candidate is NBC. I was watching “Modern Family” the other night and one of the storylines (if you can call it that on a 22-minute sitcom) was about how no one in the house other than the Dad knows how to use the remote. (Tired gag, but well done in this case.)

So Dad is trying to convince Daughter to let him teacher her how to use the remote to show up Mom who says no one can learn it. Daughter exclaims, “Dad, this is stupid. I watch TV on my computer! Why do I have to learn this?”

It was said in passing but I think that pretty much sums up the future. People like myself who watch TV on the network’s schedule, even when you take DVRs into account, are a dying breed and so are the networks. I think my eyes will be really opened up to this when my Moxi arrives this week and I hook it into PlayOn. Even if I watch TV shows being served *from* a computer I don’t really enjoy watching them *on* a computer. 😉

Boxee – Boxee Box by D-Link

This looks REALLY intriguing. I read someone’s take on it in which they said it has the potential to compete with Apple TV, which made me think either that person doesn’t know what they’re talking about, or they’ve never used Apple TV.

I loved my Apple TV for a while, but with the latest software update that was the last straw. I’ve never seen a product get increasingly worse with each update like Apple TV did, and it’s more or less unusable now.

The other difference of course is that Apple TV doesn’t let you watch much of anything for free. The whole point of the Boxee Box is to let you watch free Internet content on your TV without having to futz around with a computer and a browser to do so.

This is also the promise of PlayOn (http://www.playon.tv), which once my Moxi arrives I’ll be experimenting with.

This is the wave of the future of TV, and paying per-episode for everything like you have to with iTunes and Apple TV is going to go the way of the dinosaur. Cable’s probably next to fall.

Netgear MoCA Adapters and Verizon FiOS

In my ongoing revamp of my A/V and networking setup in my house I recently added some Netgear MCAB1001 MoCA Coax to Ethernet adapters into the mix. This is a great way to get wired networking into rooms where you have a coax connection but no ethernet, and is preferable to Wi-Fi for high-bandwidth operations like streaming video because MoCA is much faster. They claim up to 270 mbps and while I haven't done any specific speed tests myself, I can attest to the fact that it's blazing fast based on using a computer hooked into the MoCA adapter.

I did have an interesting thing happen with my setup that I figured I'd share in case anyone else runs into this. If you're on Verizon FiOS and have both internet and TV, chances are you already have MoCA. Typically if you have both internet and TV they give you an Actiontec router that has both ethernet ports and a coax port on the back of it. You plug the coax from the wall into the coax port on the router, and this allows the FiOS TV set-top boxes to get IP addresses, their channel guides, and also handles video on demand.

The Netgear MCAB 1001 has two coax ports on it, one in and one out. I assumed for this to work I'd have to plug one of the MCAB1001s into the Verizon router, so I took the coax from the wall and plugged it into the "in" on the Netgear, then took another coax cable and went from the "out" on the Netgear to the coax port on the Verizon Actiontec router.

This actually worked for a few days, but then suddenly stopped working. This was probably a coincidence but it stopped working after I threw a third MCAB1001 onto the network. The third one worked fine for a bit and then crapped out (to use a technical term). I assumed there was some problem with the configuration on the Netgear devices but after talking with Netgear support, they said I'd have to call Verizon to get the problem resolved since there were no IP addresses being handed out on the coax side of the network.

I was dreading calling Verizon because the Netgear isn't their device, and I already have a bit of a funky network setup since I don't use the Actiontec router as my main router anymore. I have to give massive kudos to Verizon support. I told them what was going on, almost apologetically since I figured they'd say "not our device, can't help you" (and rightfully so), but the support person I got went above and beyond to help me diagnose why IP addresses weren't getting distributed over the coax.

I hadn't ever dug around on my set-top box before but if you go to "Help" and then "Self-Diagnostics," it will tell you whether or not the set-top box is getting an IP address (along with a lot of other useful info). In my case it wasn't, which likely meant that the MCAB1001 I had plugged into the Actiontec router was causing issues. I went back to having the coax from the wall plugged directly into the Actiontec router and the set-top box successfully got an IP.

So at this point I had no MCAB1001 hooked into the Actiontec router at all. But to my surprise when I went to the other two rooms where I had MCAB1001s hooked up, the devices plugged into them were working. After I thought about it a bit I'm not sure why I was surprised, and I'm not sure why I thought I needed to have a MCAB1001 plugged into the Actiontec router in the first place. The Actiontec router is already using MoCA to get the set-top boxes on the network, so the MCAB1001s plugged into the coax jacks in other rooms will work the same way.

In short, if you want to use MoCA in other rooms in your house and already have an Actiontec router with coax going into it, just grab these Netgear devices and plug them in and you'll be good to go.

After two days of screwing around with this stuff it's all working fantastically well, with the only unresolved issue being why it ever worked with the MCAB1001 plugged into the Actiontec in the first place. One of life's great unsolved mysteries I suppose.

Thanks again to Verizon FiOS support for being so gracious in helping me figure this out. I had Comcast before switching to FiOS, and from experience I can say with some certainty that Comcast would have said "not our problem."

Home Theater PC Project – Phase 2: Decisions

I've been doing a ton of research and experimentation since my last post on this subject, and I came to a bunch of decisions that are a bit far afield from where I started. Ultimately I think I'll wind up with a very cool setup even if it doesn't meet the original Home Theater PC goals.

Ultimately I want something that works well and is easy to use. If I were the only one watching TV in the house I'd probably tolerate a ton of rough edges with something like MythTV and potentially XBMC, but since I'm not the only one who watches TV, full-time TV tech support wasn't something I wanted to get into. As I looked at everything involved with a MythTV setup and started thinking about things like channel mappings, remote controls, potential noise issues, not to mention the overall cost involved with a multi-room setup, I started thinking it wasn't a wise road to go down.

As a bit of an aside before I get to the punchline, I did get an eyeTV 250 Plus for my Mac Mini, mostly so I could see what if anything I got over FiOS TV without using a Verizon cable box. Surprisingly I get quite a bit! It tuned a total of 86 channels, but about 40 of those are encrypted. I get all the networks in HD as well as WGN and a bunch of other things (still sifting through the odd channel numbers to see what I do and don't get), so that's good to know for future use. The eyeTV is a really nice product if you're looking for a TV tuner and DVR for your Mac. Even on my 3+ year old Mac Mini (I believe it's a Core Solo) it works great.

As for the overall solution, I debated this quite a bit and wound up ordering a Moxi. Specifically I got the three-tuner, three-room bundle since cost-wise that wasn't much more than a new one-room TiVo with service. Moxi looks extremely cool, has no service fees, has the multi-room thing figured out better than TiVo, and has a ton of other very compelling features that tipped me to it over another TiVo. It's still on order but I'll post more about it once I get it. They also have a 30-day money-back guarantee so I figured I'd give it a shot.

Yes, this means I'm not building a home theater PC per se, but in the end I decided I didn't want watching TV to turn into a huge ordeal, so I'll save the DIY impulses for another project. With the Moxi I'll be able to scale back to a single cable card instead of the multiple Verizon boxes I have now, and the Moxi Mate (which are the smaller units that go in other rooms but talk to the main DVR) is getting a software update soon that lets you watch live TV through the main Moxi unit.

The Moxi also hooks into PlayOn, which lets you watch Netflix streaming, Hulu, Amazon VOD, and a ton of other content from the Moxi. Watching Hulu without having to do so on a computer is going to be great. I went the Boxee on Apple TV route and never got it working, but from everything I've read about PlayOn this should be a great solution. This does mean I'll have one Windows machine in the mix (sigh), but PlayOn also lets you watch content from the Wii and Xbox 360, so it's a nice addition to the overall setup.

To get all of this working optimally from a networking perspective Wi-Fi wasn't going to cut it, so I installed a Netgear MoCA adapter in each room where I'll have the Moxi units. If you're not familiar with MoCA, it enables network traffic to travel over the existing coax lines in your house at speeds much faster than Wi-Fi. This is perfect for things like HD streaming that would tax Wi-Fi. I always had pretty poor luck with HD streaming from Netflix on TiVo over Wi-Fi even with a really good signal, so this should be a vast improvement. So far I've only hooked up my new Panasonic Blu-Ray player to MoCA but it's working great, and MoCA setup was dead simple. Plug it in and go.

For those of you who were looking to learn as I built out an elaborate MythTV setup, my apologies, but that path simply didn't make sense for me at this point. I'm very anxious to try out Moxi so at least those of you interested in some TiVo alternatives will get something out of my experience with Moxi.

Home Theater PC Project – Phase 1: Requirements

My TiVo Series 3 finally died. Over the past several weeks it went from being a bit sluggish, to not showing the Now Playing list at all, to occasionally rebooting itself, to finally being in an endless reboot cycle when it's powered on. I attempted to save it with a new hard drive and power supply from weaKnees.com, but neither did the trick. The new hard drive didn't get it out of its endless reboot cycle, and with the new power supply it won't power up at all. According to weaKnees the Series 3 TiVos fail quite a bit in comparison to other models, and they've seen cases where a known good power supply is simply rejected by the TiVo. So after throwing $300 in repairs at my Series 3 with no results it's time to give up.

I could replace my dead Series 3 with a new TiVo, but as I outlined in a previous post, the world has changed pretty dramatically since TiVo first hit the scene, and for my purposes I'm just not sure TiVo has evolved enough to justify spending $500 on a TiVo HD XL (and that's only because it's $100 off right now), plus $10/mo for service or $299 for a lifetime contract. And though I've never had a single problem with my previous TiVos, since my Series 3 failed after having it for only a little over two years, there's no way I'd risk throwing $299 away by getting lifetime service on a unit that may up and die on me.

I've also been wanting to build my own Home Theater PC (HTPC) for quite a while, so I've been paying attention to projects like MythTV, XBMC, and a few others over the past couple of years, and they're very compelling for several reasons. First, they're open source and that appeals to me in a huge way. Second, there's no monthly service fee for using them. And finally, because they're open source they support a much wider array of formats and options than any of the proprietary options.

Since the TiVo was more than a simple DVR, however, there is additional functionality that I still need, specifically Netflix streaming and Amazon Video on Demand. So the first thing I need to do is evaluate all my options so I make sure whatever solution I do come up with covers all my bases.

The Requirements

My needs are relatively straight-forward but since I'll be asking for input from others who've already done this, I thought I should be very clear about what I do and don't need my solution to do, as well as mention some specific things that are non-starters for me.

At a basic level here's what I absolutely need:

  • PVR functionality, meaning schedule recordings as well as pause, rewind, and fast-forward live TV
  • Record two HD programs at once
  • Stream video from other network resources
  • Stream music from other network resources, specifically Squeezebox Server
  • Play DVDs. Standard DVDs are fine–I'm just not enough of an HD junkie that I need Blu-Ray capabilities on this particular box.

Pretty basic requirements. Even the music is optional since I do have a Squeezebox Player, but it would be nice to free that up to use elsewhere in the house and I figure asking one of these boxes to play music is basic enough to call it a must have.

Now here are a couple of nice to haves:

  • Stream photos from other network resources
  • Be able to watch video recorded on the main PVR from other rooms in the house

Other things I need in the mix but don't necessarily expect to be on the PVR box itself:

  • Netflix streaming
  • Amazon video on demand

What I Don't Need/Won't Use

  • It can't be Windows Media Center. No offense to those of you who use and like WMC, but I can't do it, and I'm really interested in the "project" aspect of this endeavor so I really do want to build my own to a greater or lesser degree.
  • I don't really need a Blu-Ray player, and I definitely don't need a PlayStation 3.
  • I don't want or need to buy a new TV.
  • I already have a FiOS DVR. It's fine, but it doesn't do enough that it qualifies as a true HTPC, so "use the cable company's DVR" isn't really the answer I'm looking for.

What I Already Have

As most geeks do, I do have some hardware laying around already that I'm willing to sacrifice to this project or at least throw in the mix as part of the overall solution.

  • Xbox 360. I don't want to hack this to bits since I do like to play games on it, but if it can serve as a front-end to the main PVR without wrecking the Xbox for other purposes, that would be fine.
  • Mac Mini. It's an older one (Core Solo if I remember correctly), but I never use it at all. I assume at a minimum I could throw software on here (something like eyeTV) and use it as a front-end box?
  • Apple TV. Apple TV is so astoundingly frustrating that it's about to go on Craig's List already, so if this can serve some purpose I'll hack it beyond recognition. I've heard it's rather underpowered for most uses though.
  • A system76 Meerkat that's currently running Amahi and nothing else. I figure at a minimum I can store some video on this box since I have about 2TB total storage available on it.

Netflix Streaming and Amazon Video on Demand

Since this is a bit of a tangent that will likely require a separate box let's get this out of the way first. Yes, the Xbox does Netflix streaming (and maybe the Amazon VOD as well; I haven't checked), but the Xbox is connected to the basement TV (as is the Wii) and needs to stay down there, so I need something for the upstairs living room.

One option would be to get a networked Blu-Ray player, but I'm not sold on Blu-Ray honestly. After getting burned by HD-DVD I'd still love to see physical media go away altogether, and I think we're closer to that than a lot of people realize.

There are networked TVs as well, but I really don't want to blow money on a new TV since I like my TVs, and also because I think the idea of having that sort of thing built into the monitor itself is a dumb idea. There's also the PlayStation 3, but I really don't want or need another gaming system and since I don't care about Blu-Ray, it's overkill to use a PS3 only for Netflix and Amazon.

Given my requirements I see only one option, namely the Roku Player. Inexpensive, simple to set up, and does exactly what I need, so this will likely solve this piece of my puzzle. If people have experience with these or other solutions I haven't thought of I'd love to hear about them.

TiVo Replacement Box/"Back-End" PVR Box

Here's where the options immediately explode. Given the myriad options it's probably good to set some general guidelines. Note that here I'm talking specifically about the box that will replace the TiVo only, meaning this is what will do all the recording and storage as well as provide the PVR functionality for other front-end boxes elsewhere in the house. If I can find a solution that works in the living room and isn't too big or loud that's great too, but a backend/front-end solution is ultimately probably more flexible.

In terms of budget, if I start spending as much or more as I'd spend on a TiVo, I'll just buy another TiVo or maybe a Moxi. I want a solution that works and works well, but I don't need the be-all end-all of every component in the system. So the cheaper the better, but it needs to be decent stuff and work well, and I absolutely don't mind buying the components individually and putting everything together myself.

With respect to form factor/size, how loud the thing is, etc. I'm OK with the main PVR box being a bigger, louder box I can stick in the basement so long as it will support (and support well) a small, quiet front-end box in my living room. Note that it needs to support streaming over Wi-Fi since my basement and living room aren't wired. I do have very good wireless signal strength throughout the house, but if doing HD over Wi-Fi isn't going to work, then I'll have to re-think the solution and make sure the PVR that would sit in the living room isn't too obtrusive.

Now for the software. As far as I can tell based on what I've researched, MythTV is pretty much the only full-blown solution for doing a real PVR, and the nice thing with MythTV is I believe it supports both MythTV and XBMC on the front end, which gives me some options. Also from what I can tell MythTV is DLNA, which a lot of hardware (including something like Moxi) supports.

I'll cover hardware, tuners, etc. in a separate post. There are way too many options to cover here, and at this point I'm still evaluating all my options even if it means I'm not actually building something myself.

Front-End Boxes

At a minimum since I'm assuming the PVR box itself may be something bigger and louder than I want in my living room, I'll need at least one front-end box (potentially more).

  • Small form factor. Something like the system76 Meerkat Ion or even smaller (like an Acer Aspire Revo) would be ideal.
  • Works with a remote control. I don't want to mess around with a mouse and keyboard in my living room. Ideally it would work with my Logitech Harmony remote.
  • Quiet
  • Built-in HDMI output
  • Supports 1080p

Other Options/Components

Some of these I've just read about so mainly I need to do more research, but these are some interesting components that could play a role in the overall solution, so if anyone has experience with these or others I may not be aware of, I'm all ears.

  • HDHomeRun networked tuner. This is a REALLY interesting solution at least on the surface. My main concern is if it causes tons of network traffic, since my girlfriend and I both work from home and do VOIP, VPN, video teleconferencing, etc. I can't have my TV tuner sucking up all my internal network bandwidth.
  • WD TV Live. Love the price and form factor, but it's a bit difficult to tell what it would and wouldn't support. I assume this would work as a front-end box and would connect to MythTV

Other Questions/Miscellany

If anyone has answers to these I'd love the feedback. I've read quite a bit on these issues but still get mixed signals, which ultimately probably means YMMV applies, but particularly if someone reading this has FiOS TV and has experience with any of these issues it would be great to hear from you.

  • What channels will I get on a tuner card? I have Verizon FiOS TV and I'm not sure what they do and don't encrypt. Since I scaled my FiOS service back to more or less the basic channels, so long as I get the major networks in HD I'll probably be fine.
  • Can I use the firewire out on my cable box to interface with the HTPC? I've read mixed reports about whether ot not this works.
  • Are there non-TiVo options like Moxi people have had good luck with? I like a good DIY project, but I don't need this to consume my life, and the Moxi apparently does Netflix streaming as well, plus no monthly fees.
  • Any other devices either on the front or backend that I'm overlooking?

Next Steps

I'm asking a lot of questions in this post, but I have researched a lot of options for each of these so I'll cover the various areas individually in future posts. Once you get into things like tuner cards, etc. things get detailed rather quickly.

I'd greatly appreciate any feedback anyone might have on any of this, even if it's "just buy a TiVo and save yourself the headaches!" Not that I'll do that, but if I can learn from the mistakes of others who've gone down this road that would be fantastic.

More soon!

MPAA wants to control your TV | DefectiveByDesign.org

The MPAA is pressuring the FCC for the authority to cripple recording devices using so-called “Selectable Output Control” (SOC).

Basically, SOC would enable Hollywood to actually shut off the video outputs on your cable box, DVR, or other recording device when particular movies or shows come on. When the movie’s over, the outputs might turn back on. Your devices would dance to Hollywood’s tune.

Most cable boxes and DVRs already include Digital Restrictions Management (DRM) and operate using proprietary software — both of which we need to work to eliminate. But just because many of these devices already use DRM, that doesn’t mean we should let Hollywood and the FCC keep adding more. This new form of control would take even more freedom away from people using those devices, would restrict people using free software like MythTV to watch broadcasts and record them, and would set a dangerous precedent elevating Hollywood’s desires over the public’s freedom.

There’s a link in the full article to submit a comment to the FCC, which I encourage everyone to do.

Audacity: Why Free Software is Better Than Proprietary Software

My annoying travails with Cubase continue. I decided to give it an honest effort to release a very short podcast just making a couple of announcements tonight, and the editing experience was a far cry from Adobe Audition (running the Windows VM for this stuff is starting to look better and better). Not nearly as intuitive as Audition, no ripple delete function from what I can tell, just overall not good. Again, I was making an honest effort before I throw the product out the window (because no, they won’t take it back; they claim the use of the dongle is “well documented” and I should have known before purchasing that it worked this way).

So after I made a couple of cuts I went to export the file to MP3 format. Even exporting completely sucked–it wouldn’t export anything unless I manually set the left and right markers. Why the hell can’t it just export everything intelligently and figure out when there’s no remaining audio?

I wasn’t totally surprised not to see MP3 as an option in the export list so I did a bit of searching, and sure enough exporting to MP3 is not built into the product. I realize that MP3 is (another!) proprietary technology and that they might have to pay for that to be included in their product but FOR CRYING OUT LOUD JUST BUILD IT INTO THE COST OF THE PRODUCT!

Thinking “in for a penny, in for a pound” I went to the website to see about buying the add-on. 15 euros, OK fine, but they don’t list Cubase Essential, only Cubase SE and LE which are the older versions of the “lite” edition of Cubase. I’m annoyed enough that I call the sales number to ask, and I could not have hoped to get a more clueless guy on the phone. He had to go to the web site himself to see what they list there, and then he said “Essential is a new product so I’m not sure what’s going on with that.” So I asked, “Are they PLANNING on releasing an MP3 encoder for Essential?” His response was to have me call tech support tomorrow and ask them. Brilliant.

Then I decide to download the new Audacity beta for the Mac. Talk about a night and day better experience:

  • It’s downloadable! What a concept!
  • It’s free (not to mention open source)
  • The download took a matter of seconds
  • Installed in seconds–no dongle required!

I’ve used Audacity before so I knew what was going to happen when I went to export to MP3, but since that’s where I was with Cubase when I ripped the dongle out of my USB port in frustration, I thought I’d just walk through it to compare the experience. Remember that in Cubase’s case, MP3 just doesn’t even show up as an option, and even their sales guys can’t SELL it to me because they’re so clueless. Here’s what happened with Audacity:

  • Chose “export” from the menu
  • Chose MP3 and set my encoding rate
  • Clicked export
  • It nicely told me I didn’t have an encoder but in that dialog box it had a link directly to the LAME MP3 Project
  • I downloaded LAME and extracted the zip
  • The dialog box in Audacity was still open, so I pointed it to LAME and hit export again

In short, I went from not having Audacity on this machine to exporting the MP3, including downloading and installing the MP3 encoder, in less time than it took me to be told by Steinberg that they didn’t know anything about their own product.

Please note that I’m not comparing Audacity to Cubase in terms of features. I know Cubcase is an infinitely more capable product. It’s also infinitely more frustrating to use, and I have to pay for that displeasure.

Comments

What are your thoughts about Coldfusion vs open source alternatives like Python, Java or PHP? Doesn’t the same thing apply to programming languages?

Posted by Thijs Triemstra @ 3/19/08 5:07 PM

I don’t know that your title reflects your content.

Audacity was a better experience for you than Cubase.

Sounds like a design/forethought advantage, completely unrelated to free vs proprietary.

If you had had a positive experience with Cubase, you would have never downloaded Audacity on that day.

The price of the software in question doesn’t guarantee that it will be a better or worse experience in any individual case, however you would think that people getting paid for making it would be more professional about what they create, but that isn’t always the case.

Posted by Calvin @ 3/20/08 12:52 AM

@Calvin–you’re focusing on “free” meaning cost. That isn’t what I meant. I was pointing out how an open source (aka “free software”) solution was, in this case, far better than an antiquated proprietary solution.

To me that gets at the heart of the free software movement. In Steinberg (the maker of Cubase’s) case you have a commercial company and the #1 thing that comes across in dealing with their product is “DON’T STEAL THIS SOFTWARE!” They don’t give a care about the user experience or having happy customers who feel good about using their product.

On the other hand you have people building free software and their #1 concern is making the experience good for the user. If I’m giving someone money for a product, don’t you think that should be THEIR #1 concern as well?

I think my title reflects the point I was trying to make, but maybe I didn’t make it very well. My point is that if you build software with “everyone’s trying to rip us off” in the back of your mind the whole time, that certainly comes across in the final product and user experience. If the software’s free and open source you don’t care about that, so you can focus on the things that SHOULD matter in software, namely creating a good experience for the users.

Posted by Matt Woodward @ 3/20/08 4:33 AM

Matt,

So when do you plan to drop ColdFusion and go with a free open source web development solution? I’ve already decided that Django looks much better to me than ColdFusion even if my work disagrees for now. But when we have to spend $50000 to run WebSphere and ColdFusion, Django looks much better. Not to mention that its a framework that has 0 lines of XML configuration in it. There’s a reason that open source works. Its not written based on marketing results.

Posted by Jeff @ 3/20/08 6:02 AM

@Thiks and Jeff–there are things I can control and things I can’t, and also what comes into play with the ColdFusion argument is what you get for your money, not to mention that even though CF is technical proprietary software, I don’t feel like Adobe treats me like a criminal and has such a nasty anti-customer stance.

So while I’m a huge advocate for open source/free software, in the case of CF, it does what it does extremely well and I find that for me the cost, features, etc. all justify its use. This is the same reason I use Macs as opposed to Linux as my primary machines. I love Linux, I’ve used it on and off over the past 12 years or so, and while I realize that Macs are proprietary hardware running (largely) proprietary software (although OS X is based on Darwin, which is an open source BSD variant), I’m willing to give up some of my freedom for something that does a job extremely well.

Some people aren’t willing to do this, and while I don’t go as far as they do, I applaud their steadfastness and think that their efforts are having an extremely positive impact on the industry and even how people think about software.

This post was really intended to be but one example of how a free software solution, in this particular context, provides a vastly superior experience from a setup standpoint, and this is solely because in the case of Cubase, the proprietary software licenses get in the way and make for a horrid user experience. From the dongle to Cubase’s inability (or refusal) to include MP3 encoders in their product, it just puts quite a burden on me to even be able to use the product as a paying customer. Free from all the licensing concerns, the free software solution gets in my way a helluva lot less.

By illustrating these points using this specific example, what I’m hoping to point out is that draconian companies like Steinberg can learn an awful lot from the free software community, and that they should think much more carefully about how they treat their customers.

In the case of ColdFusion, I’m perfectly happy with the balance Adobe has struck between protecting their assets vs. me being able to use it as a paying customer. I don’t have to stick a dongle in a server and worry about losing it or it becoming defective thereby rendering the product unusable. Also CF isn’t a small desktop app I’m using to do hobbyist type stuff, it’s a proven enterprise-level solution and that’s worth the license fee in this particular case.

In short, I’m a free software advocate but at the end of the day I’m a pragmatist, and CF gets the job it does done extremely well while not treating its users like criminals. With the open source edition of BlueDragon on the horizon, we’ll have that as an option as well, so there soon will be a “free” (both in cost and freedom) option for CFML developers.

Posted by Matt Woodward @ 3/20/08 6:57 AM

Isn’t “No Dongle Required” the name of a Phil Collins album?

Posted by Chris Vigliotti (hibiscusroto) @ 3/20/08 9:32 AM

I’ve been using Audacity on Windows for a couple years now for light editing, and I’ve been thoroughly pleased with it. I’m no audio expert, but I was able to be productive with it in minutes and have not needed to do anything that it could not handle.

I have used expensive audio editing suites in the past (it was a long time ago – CoolEdit Pro – which eventually became Audition) and they were expensive and still awful to work with. Audacity is a great Open Source success story.

Posted by Rachel Maxim @ 3/21/08 6:57 AM

Audacity is really great software. If you are not professional user.

Like GIMP. It looks a bit strange, but very functional.

Posted by Alicem @ 3/28/08 9:57 AM

is enouph to learn

Posted by al-kaon @ 6/3/08 10:57 AM

As an audio pro, I have to weigh in that I find audacity pretty awful compared with protools/logic/wavelab or pretty much any pro editing application. For the simplest tasks it’s adequate but pretty clunky, and the quality of some of the effects processing is frankly dreadful. Wish it wasn’t so but there ya go.

Posted by Mike G @ 6/20/08 6:09 PM