You're looking at all articles on The Hickensian tagged 'mediacenter'

Removing MLB from the Apple TV 2 menu

If like me, you have no interest in MLB, will never use it, and would rather you didn’t have it so prominent in your Apple TV menu, this tip is for you.

It’s a bit of a rigmarole, but if you’re really keen to remove it, here are the steps you need to take:

  1. First of all, if you haven’t already done so, jailbreak your Apple TV with Seas0n Pass
  2. ssh into the Apple TV (in something like Transmit, Flow, Cyberduck etc.) using apple-tv.local as the server, root as the username, and alpine as the password. You can of course do it Terminal, using ssh root@apple-tv.local but I find the file editing part a right faff personally!
  3. Navigate to /private/var/stash/Applications/AppleTV.app/Appliances/Internet.frappliance
  4. Open info.plist (I used xcode)
  5. Find ‘FRApplianceCategoryDescriptors’, and delete Item 1, and save.
  6. On the Apple TV, restart lowtide via Maintenance > Settings (or just pull the plug out and pop it back in again)

…and it’s gone!

ATV Flash and Boxee 1.1

Two media-centre related things I’ve done recently: Jailbreak my Apple TV to install ATV Flash Black, and update my Boxee Box to v1.1. Heres a quick report of how it went:

First the ATV: When the beta of ATV Flash Black was announced last December, I looked into and disregarded, the jailbreak process. Too much hassle if you had updated your ATV from the factory supplied version. Now, the process is straightforward with Firecore’s Season Pass app and a micro-usb cable. Likewise, installing ATV Black was easy when following the instructions, and I was able to add extras onto my Apple TV.

The result, I have to say, was promising, but not wildly exciting. I had hoped that Coachsurfer (the Browser) would allow me to use BBC iPlayer, but sadly, videos wouldn’t play. Vimeo did work well however! The Plex client and Media Player work OK, but they are in Alpha, with playback issues ranged from taking an age to buffer, quitting mid-play and stuttering on high res files. What I really liked though was the Last.fm plugin which was a joy for playing my ‘recommend artists’.

Overall, worth a look, but I’m undecided whether it’ll be worth keeping up with the updates.

On the flip side though, installing the 1.1 update on the Boxee Box has invigorated it. The UI has seen some refinement, and it’s all the better for it. Gone is the murky background, replaced with a rich, dark starry sky reminiscent of the v0.9 backdrop. Simple thing, but it makes such a difference. The typeface is improved (if a little tightly spaced) and the section icons are simple, but no longer over-simplified. This is just the tip of a raft of the many improvements and fixes that make the Boxee Box feel like its fulfilling it’s original promise. Along with the impending announcement of UK content providers, things are looking up! Hurrah!

(Music is still shunted off into a ‘files’ menu sadly…)

Boxee Box UK Pre-orders

We’re getting very close to the release of the Boxee Box, so Boxee have a published a list of retailers who are stocking it at launch. UK folks be aware, that the release date is now November 15th (not 10th). What’s more, I’ve been told that D-Link are only shipping 250 units to the UK for that date, with more coming later on.

I’m not sure whether that’s a normal amount for a device like this, but it sounds very small. So if you want to get one, get your order in early!

The Boxee Box wins

I’ve been banging on about them for ages, but I’d finally whittled down my choices of “what Media Center to adopt next” to just 2 choices: the New Apple TV or the Boxee Box.

Why not a HTPC? I’ve tried that route before, and while I could run Boxee/Plex/whatever from a PC such as an Acer Revo, I want to use something that was designed to be controlled by a remote, and run just the media center app. No OS getting in the way, or needing a mouse and keyboard to keep it running.

Both ATV2 and Boxee Box appealed to me. ATV is small, relatively inexpensive and slots in easily to my current Mac ecosystem. I’ve been hoping to see ATV apps, either official or jailbroken, which would really make it useful in a Netflix-starved country like the UK. I can’t make a purchase based on what might happen though (might never happen?).

After a lot of thinking, the decision was clear. It had to be the Boxee Box for me. Here’s why:

  • ATV2 requires you to have a Mac open to stream content from, which in itself isn’t too bad, but where do you put the content? If the HD isn’t large enough (that’s always going to be a losing battle), you’ll need some sort of external storage. A USB drive would do the job, but then you run the risk of losing everything when the drive fails. A RAID network drive makes so much more sense. If I copy a file to my NAS drive source, Boxee will scan it and gather metadata by itself. Much easier!
  • The Boxee Box consolidates all your media from various sources into one library type – movies, photos, TV shows or music. The ATV2 approach is to make you navigate to each source via a ‘computers’ menu.
  • Boxee plays just about any file format you have, including launching ripped DVDs with full menus. ATV2 would require me to re-encode quite a few of my movies. Life is too short.
  • Some folks give the reason of Boxee’s 1080p output compared to ATV’s 720p only as their reason. At the moment, that isn’t a problem (my telly is only 720p) but it’s good to know the potential is there should I ever upgrade.
  • Boxee gathers metadata and cover imagery for you, whereas ATV requires you to use another app like iFlicks to manually add all that information
  • Of everything I’ve tried, the Boxee interface is the most well though out and aesthetically pleasing I’ve found. ATV looks really dull and bland in comparison, and I’ve not got on the with default Plex UI. Without any fiddling around with settings and themes, Boxee looks and works how I want a media center setup to work.
  • I haven’t even started on the apps side of Boxee, particularly being able to access BBC iPlayer and 4OD.

So, I’m looking forward to getting mine as soon after the 10th November as the postal service allows, and will post a review here once I’ve had a good play!

Apple TV 2, double take


After the announcement of the new Apple TV my disappointment was perhaps inevitable. I try not to let the rumours build up my expectations of a unannounced product, but in the case of the AppleTV I couldn’t help it.

2 weeks later, and I’m coming around to the idea. I’ve calmed down about the whole rental thing, and realised that I’ve missed the ramifications of Airplay. Thinking of Apple TV 2 as more of an airport express that does video and photos, and it suddenly starts to feel right. The ability to stream from Macs and iOS devices is very appealing, and could well be the winning aspect. I can see how much better this is than syncing in the long-run, I just wish it could pick up content from a NAS drive rather than having to have a Mac running all the time.

It’ll be really interesting to see the tear-downs when the box starts shipping. How much local storage is there? Enough to run apps, or hack it? Even Steve Jobs hasn’t ruled that out

He tells Bloomberg Businessweek that when the time is right, Apple could open an App Store for the TV that could do for television sets what all those apps have done for the iPhone.

Who knows how far off that is though?

In the meantime, I’m eyeing up and deliberating over both an Apple TV2 and a Boxee Box (finally available to pre-order in the UK from Amazon !), but only one can be purchased of course.

PS3, now with iPlayer support

I really had my hopes up when it was announced that the Playstation 3 firmware v3.0 would include ‘iPlayer support’. The iPlayer site already worked rather well in the PS3 browser, so this sounded like a proper ‘iPlayer app’, allowing shows to be downloaded rather than streamed. I guess I read too much into that announcement.

Once the 3.0 firmware is installed, it places an iPlayer icon in the TV menu which then just launches the browser – business as usual. It does solve a problem with using the Blu-Ray remote though. It used to leave the cursor in the middle of the screen, which could only be removed if you used the standard controller to move it off screen (an art in itself). Now you just select the video and it immediately plays full screen without fuss. Not as much as I’d hoped for, but better all the same.

The main downside is that some of the videos that Matt Carey and I tried, were of noticeably lower quality, but not all. Hopefully this is just early teething troubles. If you’ve installed the update – how are you finding the quality?

Playstation 3 Media Centre

sony_playstation

So, in what may be my last ‘media centre’ post, here’s a solution that I’ve finally found to work for me: a Playstation 3. This wasn’t in consideration until recently – I already have a Wii, which suits gaming on a family level really well. The Wii is small, white, minimal, fun and child friendly. The PS3 is a large high definition console for the serious gamers (which I am not). I’d thought of it as a nasty, evil console for violent, bloodthirsty shoot-em-ups. At least, until I saw LittleBigPlanet on my brother-in-law’s PS3 and realised how it good it was. I also realised how capable it was a media centre.

Here was one machine (resembling the monolith from 2001 I grant you), that could do all of this:

  • Play DVDs
  • Play CDs (and get track information from the internets)
  • Play Blu-Ray discs. I don’t own any yet, but we subscribe to LoveFilm (Best UK equivalent of Netflix) and get BR discs through that
  • Play Media (Music, Video and Photo) stored on a USB Stick or drive
  • Streams Media via UPnP server. I use Medialink for OS X
  • Plays and records freeview TV with the PlayTV add-on box, which by extension, includes Radio too. More on this below.
  • With the built-in browser, and BBC iPlayer’s Big Screen Version, I have access to the one online video source I really care about. Quality is surprisingly good (perhaps some sort of upscaling happening?), and I’ve never seen the buffering spinner.
  • Oh, it also plays games.

It replaces the DVD player, CD player, Mac Mini and Eyetv in one go. Also, compared to a Mac Mini, it’s made to be controlled by remote, so it’s very easy to control and administer.

The Sony XMB interface is themable, and there is a Windows based compiler available to create a theme from your PNG files. I’m considering making a theme, but in the meantime I’m using the Leopard v2 theme, which looks great:

To be fair, I’ve encountered a few drawbacks, and feel I should point these out before waxing lyrical further:

  • It’s fussy about drive and file formats. USB drives must be formatted as FAT32 (which feels a bit primitive somehow), and files need to be arranged in ‘VIDEO’, ‘PHOTO’ and ‘MUSIC’ folders (yes with caps!) in the root of the drive. Using FAT32 also imposes a maximum 4gb file limit, so large HD rips may be out of the question.
  • It doesn’t support as wide a variety of codecs as the Popcorn Hour or WDTV, but you’re generally good to go with .mp4s, and that suits me fine.
  • Arranging video into folders and sub-folders is a clunky. It works better when using an external drive, or streaming, where you can arrange media exactly how you like it. Photos and Music are straightforward however, as arranging them by date and ID3 tag (such as Artist) respectively, makes sense.
  • The latest PS3 consoles come with only 2 USB ports, whereas previously they came with 4. When you’ve got a PlayTV in one, and a USB drive in the other, you’re full up. Also, they’re both on the front – my ideal would be 2 ports at the back for the permanently attached devices, and at least two at the front for the occasional USB stick and charging the controller.
  • Medialink works really, really well, with the exception of stuttering video, which I suspect is due to my home wireless network.

Also, not really a drawback as such, but I would love music playback to just show the album artwork, rather than a visualizer. If any PS3 users have found a way to do this, please let me know!

Despite these niggles, the PS3 has won me over as the solution I’ve been looking for – it suits my needs perfectly. Part of that is the PVR functionality from the PlayTV add on:

PlayTV

Play TV comes with just a USB box, cable and installer disc, giving your PS3 the ability to watch and record Freeview digital channels.

The USB plugin box rather feels large and hollow for what it does. Compare with an Elgato device, and you can’t help wonder why they couldn’t have just made it smaller. It really does feel as if it’s full of air. No matter, as once it’s in, it’s forgotten about, and everything happens smoothly from there. You insert the disc, install the PlayTV software, and once it’s scanned for channels, a TV icon appears in your XMB. I found everything about PlayTV to be smooth and easy, and the interface is very pleasing to the eye:

If you google for PlayTV information, you’ll find 2 common links: old press releases announcing that it will record using a non-drm format (like mpeg), and slightly later ones explaining that it’s actually going to use .m2ts (a sony-specific video format). There’s precious little information after that, but to clear this up: you can get your recordings off your PS3. Just copy them to the XMB, and from there to an external USB drive. You can then convert the .m2ts file easily using Handbrake. (Handbrake even has a ‘PS3’ output preset, which is also handy for your DVD backups!)

Recordings take roughly 1gb for every hour, but you can upgrade the internal HDD using just about any 2.5” SATA disk. Currently you pick up a 500GB Western Digital for about £84.

While not as feature-filled as EyeTV, I did find it easier to control, and much quicker to browse the EPG. While it doesn’t have a one-button ‘record series’ ability, you can choose a programme and ask it to repeat that recording to a pattern, such as weekly. So far, that’s working just fine for me.

Also, if you happen to own a PSP, you can use it to watch live TV or recordings in your library. If your PSP is a slim & lite version or newer, you can connect it to a TV. Having borrowed Mr Oxton’s PSP, I can confirm this works really well, at least on an internal wifi network.

So to quickly sum up, with perhaps the addition of a NAS in the future, I feel like I’m finally done here. The Mac Mini and WDTV have been sold to make way for this, and while separate components (such as a dedicated DVD player) may ultimately offer more features, I love the one-box does all approach.

Boxee and Plex

My journey to find the ideal Media Centre has brought me via Plex and Boxee. Both are media center applications based on the popular open source XBox Media Center (XBMC), with Boxee focussing on the social network slant, and Plex solely on OS X integration.

Plex has a very slick interface, and everytime I mention Boxee, there is the inevitable “Why not Plex?’ cry from other Mac users. At the moment, the answer is that Plex doesn’t yet offer me much over just using Front Row. The slick interface has more character than Front Row though, particularly in it’s use of online databases to provide metadata and large format photographs:

It doesn’t always get the show/movie right however. The Secret Show recordings were believed to be ‘Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show’, and this couldn’t be manually removed.

The main appeal of Plex is that it’s built for OS X only, so you’re getting the best integration – no pandering to cross platform needs. In particular iTunes library scanning works really well, and plays iTunes store DRM’s material, an area where Boxee failed (see below).

What I miss from Plex are services like BBC iPlayer and EyeTV integration, which I believe are planned. That’s where Boxee comes in.

Boxee, on the face of it, doesn’t have quite as much UI sexiness as Plex, but I think it’s more thoughtfully laid out. For example, when you log in, the home screen shows you not only what you and your friends have been watching/listening to, but what you’ve recently added. Here is your new content – go straight to it.

The social network side is intriguing, but the integration of internet services (too numerous to mention) is it’s forté. In particular, the one that interests me the most, is that the latest release supports BBC iPlayer, and does it rather well, using the Beeb’s Big Screen Interface :

There are only two downsides I’ve experienced so far: Firstly, it doesn’t show all of my Music (around 800 non-DRM albums are just missing), despite leaving it overnight to process the collection. After digging around on forums, this seemed to be caused by scraping Last.fm for information, and that a different source was intended for future releases. That doesn’t explain why random songs are missing from albums though. Until then, I have to browse the folder structure to find what I want to play.

The biggie is stability. In the middle of watching a movie with the family it crashed. I installed the EyeTV plugin from XBMC and it crashed. I asked it to look for a SMB share and it crashed. When it crashes on the Mac Mini the only solution is turn it off and restart it. It feels churlish mentioning this when Boxee is in Alpha, and if you follow Team Boxee on their blog and twitter, you’ll know it’s progressing at a good pace. It just means it’s not that usable for me at the moment.

While playing with Boxee, I found a few useful tricks and add-ons, such as:

  • You can also get a Front Row appliance to put a Boxee entry into the Front Row Menu, making it easy to launch with the Apple Remote
  • If you have problems (like I did) getting TV Shows to show up in the TV Show menu, editing the filename does the trick, but obviously that’s a bit tedious.
  • To stream from your Mac, you can set up an SMB share, which will then show up as a media source in Boxee:
  • The snappily title XBMCEyeTVParser will allow you to watch EyeTV recordings in Boxee. Oddly, it places it in Videos > Internet, rather than TV Shows. As mentioned above, it did cause crashes for me, but your mileage may vary.

Ultimately, Boxee is geared up for the US market – Hulu, ABC, Netflix and such, some of which can be accessed in the UK via VPN trickery. You would then have to disable that in order to watch BBC iPlayer, which I’m more likely to watch. Not a big deal on your laptop, but when you’re trying to control a Mac Mini with a little remote, it’s going to require clever scripts and patience.

Despite stability and iTunes library niggles, I prefer Boxee over Plex. In fact, Boxee instills feelings of love and devotion in me for it’s online services, recommendations and layout. However, I’ve come to realise that the problem for me isn’t ‘Boxee or Plex’, it’s that controlling a Mac Mini remotely can be a pain in the arse. I haven’t tried Boxee on AppleTV though, which may well be the answer, but the hacky nature of it put me off.

Neither Boxee or Plex have ended up being my ideal solution, which is in fact a Playstation 3 with PlayTV. That’s for another post!

Media Center decision

Thank you for all your helpful comments on the post Popcorn Hour, WD TV or Apple TV?, I’ve made up my mind (for the time being).

I have to say though, it doesn’t feel like the ideal solution is there yet for me, although alohaglide warned be me about that. I dithered between AppleTV, Popcorn Hour, WD TV, Playstation 3 and giving the Mac Mini one more try for ages. In the end I went with two solutions.

First, here are the ones I rejected:

AppleTV: I’m not so concerned about the lack of support for various codecs, more the lack of space. I’d like play from the device, rather than have to have my laptop open to stream, but 160gb just doesn’t cut it. There are hacks to add external storage, both paid and easy or free and fiddly, but these have to be redone after each update, which wasn’t for me. Sadly, it wasn’t updated at MacWorld after all, as I had hoped.

Popcorn Hour: This had the expandability that I wanted, but I was unsure that I could live with that interface, or spend the time tweaking it to get it how I want it.

Playstation 3: This appealed in many ways – a machine that would play CDs, DVDs & Blu-ray discs, as well as media from it’s internal hard drive, USB drives and streamed via MediaLink. You can also add a PlayTV unit for PVR functionality, which has a good looking UI. I loved the potential of the ‘all-in-one’ unit for entertainment. However, I didn’t want to add another games console just yet (especially one so big), and it was certainly the most expensive of the options (once you add a PlayTV). This is still under consideration for the future though!

So, I’ve gone back to the Mac MIni for one more try, using a mixture of FrontRow, iPhone Remote app and Boxee (more on the lovely, but not particularly stable Boxee in a separate post) to play the media. By keeping the Mac Mini, I’m losing the airtunes streaming I would’ve got from an AppleTV or Airport Express, but with the iPhone Remote app, I don’t miss it. I can play music via a great UI without having the TV on, or my laptop open. The thing that turned me off the Mac Mini was requiring too much ‘admin’ required to get it to work, so I’ve purchased a Logitech Harmony One Remote to see if this helps (again, more on that in another post).

However, I’ve also ordered a Western Digital HD Media player! This device intrigued me – small, sleek and not too expensive – just plug in a USB drive. Once it arrives, I’m going to give the little fella a trial alongside the Mac Mini for a review.

Plenty of follow up posts to come!

Popcorn Hour, WD TV or Apple TV?

So, with my scrapbooking system sorted, my thoughts now turn once more to my unsolved Media Centre thingy.

To catch up: I’ve given up on the Mac Mini solution after it delivered nothing but a black screen for the umpteenth time. I’ve had various problems with it, all software related and fixable, but I was getting a bit fed up with the amount of administration it required. I spent more time in screen sharing keeping it ticking over than I did using the remote. EyeTV in particular threw up problems, from bizarre errors to app updates that caused it to crash at launch. Others may have had better experiences with their Minis, but I’ve had enough.

Giving up on the PVR side (I’ll probably end up with a Sky+ box) I’d decided to go the Apple TV route, and I’ve been saving my Amazon Vouchers to get a 160gb version. What I particularly liked about the ATV was the AirTunes function, and that it’s easily hackable with a patchstick. Now that I’m ready to buy, it’s out of stock on Amazon (and seemingly everywhere else too, including the Apple Store). It’s also 2 years since it’s come out, and all this leads me to wonder – will there will be a revision announced at Macworld next week? It’s possible, but so far the rumours have been surrounding iMacs, Mac Mini’s and the supposed iPhone Nano.

It’s also given me an opportunity to look at what alternatives are out there, and there are 2 in particular that are interesting to me:

Western Digital HD TV Media Player

Rather than a networked machine, the WD TV is a simpler (and substantially cheaper!) affair. You just plug in up to two USB drives with media (such as a WD passport drive and memory stick), and it finds it all and provides a TV interface to play it. It can play just about any format you want to throw at it (with the exception of iTunes DRM’d media of course). It can output HDMI and optical audio. It’s small, cheap (£80 on Amazon.co.uk), and gets the job done.

The main downside seems to be the interface, which while it isn’t offensive, is rather ‘Vista’:

Popcorn Hour

This ‘Networked Media Tank’ looks like another good option, and has a rave review on CNet. It comes Hard Drive-less, and you add whatever size drive to it takes your fancy. So rather than be stuck with Apple’s 160gb drive, 1TB is possible. Looks wise, its quite industrial, but I rather like it (and certainly prefer it to the plasticy looking-like-an-alien trend). Again, it takes every format you can throw it at it, and also integrates extras like a bittorrent client, and content from Flickr and YouTube to name but two. It doesn’t have WiFi, but this can easily be added with a USB dongle. In short, it’s expandable and flexible.

Again, if there is a downside, it’s the interface, and in Popcorn’s case it comes off a little worse than the WD TV. As this blog review shows, some of its screens are better than others. Apparently the menus are constructed from HTML (and CSS?), and can be hacked, but I’m not sure I want to be going down that route!

Neither of these are particularly aimed at OS X users, but as far as I’ve gathered, both will work (or can be made to work without too much hassle). I have a nagging feeling that I will end up with the Apple TV, as that best suits my iTunes centric and UI design fussy world.

So, if you have either of these devices, have successfully hacked the Popcorn Hour UI, I’d like to know your thoughts! Likewise, if there is a similar device I should be considering (that doesn’t involve another games console or XMBC), please let me know too!

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