Little Big Planet is the video game that has it all – inventive gameplay, a truly great soundtrack, costumes, Stephen Fry narration and of course the ability to make your own games. LBP2 looks set to build on that even more, but the trouble is I haven’t finished #1 yet! (Back up your game progress folks, lest you end up like me having start all over again after a Red Screen of Death)
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?
Wifi streaming is too stuttery, and has to be connected via ethernet to NAS in order to get smooth playback. Not a big issue, but it would be lovely to lose the wires and hide the NAS and router somewhere (rather than being under the TV). I could install an ethernet network, but it seems like overkill, when other devices (such as Apple TV) can stream perfectly well.
It’s a bit too fussy on encodings, and even certain should-be-supported .mp4’s just give either ‘corrupted file’ or errors. Wider encoding support would be great.
No sub-folders with the internal drive. Seems like such a trivial thing to add, but to get a folder structure you need to use an external USB or NAS drive. (I went for a NAS)
Playing digital music isn’t the greatest experience. The only way to navigate and choose tracks is to have the TV on, where the cover art is relegated to a tiny square. The PS3 prefers annoying visualizers.
The first three could be solved by a software update, but it’s because of this last niggle that I just picked up a bargain Apple TV off ebay. It automatically grabs new music from my laptop when it’s open and gives me THE best playback interface I’ve ever used – the Remote.app for the iPhone. If I could design a perfect music system, this would be it. Due to it’s hard drive size (160gb) it’s only really suitable for our music library, and a selection of favourite movies/TV shows. The Remote.app also avoids the overly iTunes store centric menus of the TV interface.
So it’s a brilliant device for music, but I’ve not had a lot of joy with plugin hacks enabling me to play media on the NAS drive. My experience so far has been a lot of crashes and unmounted drives. Boxee works best of all, but it isn’t a system I could expect the family to use. It takes too long to get from the ATV finder to a logged-in and ready-to-go Boxee. Compared with the PS3, it easily reads media from the NAS, via Twonky server, without fuss.
So, ideally, an equivalent iPhone app for the PS3 (now that the 3.0 firmware doesn’t cripple Bluetooth, it could be possible?) that would allow music to be chosen without a TV would be the best solution. For now, it will be ATV for music, and PS3 for everything else.
(Finally, before folks start mentioning a Mac Mini, please be aware that I’ve been that route twice already, and it’s just not the solution for me. A Mac Mini is not designed to be used remotely, and in my view, requires too much ‘admin’ to be a viable option. Also, yes, yes, XMBC, Boxee, Plex etc…)
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 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:
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!)
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.