Using the Raspberry Pi as a PVR client with Raspbmc

Raspbmc on the Pi displaying the EPG using the MediaPortal PVR client addon

When the Raspberry Pi launched I was very excited about the capabilities that it had for such a low cost device. Immediately I started to think it would make a fantastic low footprint HTPC replacement.

One of the reasons the developers managed to keep the cost low was because it did not come preconfigured to playback mpeg2 and VC-1 encoded content. Unfortunately the majority of recordable content in the UK is still standard definition and therefore uses the mpeg2 codec. This had rendered the Pi less useful than it could be when acting as a recorded TV playback device. Fortunately these codecs have recently been made available as a very reasonable  separate purchase from the Raspberry Pi Store, adding that last bit of sort after functionality.

I have since installed these codecs into a new build of Raspbmc, that utilises the experimental PVR functionality planned for the next release of XBMC. This build provides client addons for a variety of backend TV servers including MediaPortal which I use as my PVR software on my HTPC. It also includes a fantastic custom settings app for the Pi, including the ability to input the serial numbers for your codecs from within XBMC, saving you the hassle of manually editing your configuration file. I continue to be greatly impressed with Raspbmc.

Installation and setup was pretty straightforward and I soon had access to my EPG, recording schedule, live TV and radio channels and my recorded TV folder. Playback of both recorded and live content works very well. I have found there is a slightly longer delay getting the stream going than my native Mediaportal clients but it is hard to tell whether this is due to limitations of the Pi hardware or the “alpha” state of the software. I am also very pleased that I got the PVR functionality working with the TSReader options for MediaPortal which means it is utilising MediaPortal’s built in TS stream buffer instead of streaming via ffMpeg so I have access to the buffering capabilities of the MediaPortal TV server. It’s also worth noting that I have had no trouble streaming BBC HD content unlike Ian Dixon over at thedigitallifestyle.com but that might be because I have DVB-S tuners as well as DVB-T and perhaps I was streaming the from the Freesat source which might be more slightly compatible with XBMC than the Freeview stream.

I will continue testing and looking forward to improvements and fine tuning in this particular build of XBMC. I’ll also be trying out the Windows version of this build on one of my client PCs to compare the experience.

Podcasting on iOS – Review of the Downcast App

The iPhone and iPad have changed the way we listen to podcasts. We’re now more mobile than ever and able to listen to episodes as they come out on the go, no longer tied into iTunes. Apple itself just recently released a separate official app for podcasts called, well, “Podcasts“. It’s similar to the treatment that Apple gave iTunes U, allowing you to manage your podcast content separate from the music app all in one convenient app that gives you direct access to the Podcasts section of the iTunes store. While the app is pretty well designed and has some neat features, it lacks a lot of the settings and features that regular listeners to podcasts will want, especially if they listen to podcasts on multiple devices. That’s why you will want to look into apps such as Downcast.

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By Timothy “KingIsaacLinksr” Wetzel Posted in App reviews

Podcasts on iOS – Beyond iTunes

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There was a time when you wanted to listen to or watch a podcast on your iPod or iPhone, iTunes was your only option.

Nobody can deny that Apple was instrumental in the popularity take off of podcasts since the early days in 2005 when the functionality was added to iTunes but Apple haven’t really done anything revolutionary with them since. In the days of the original iPod the current support of podcasts built into iTunes made total sense. The devices were not wireless and had no Internet connectivity. They needed to be physically connected or docked to a computer to allow iTunes to update their content.

This is no long the case. iPhones, the iPod Touch and the iPad are wireless Internet ready devices and yet Apple still required users to physically connect their device to update their podcast collection up until less than a year ago. Still, when it comes to podcasts the new “WiFi Sync” feature of iOS 5 is not ideal. Podcast management still needs to be controlled from the desktop in iTunes. You still need to go to your computer, fire up iTunes and let your podcasts update.

There are very strong indications that Apple have no interest in supporting podcasts in any more than they do already and this is understandable for a couple of reasons. Firstly the podcasting medium has come full circle in the fact that there are so many applications and websites that search, index and playback podcasts on both computers and portable devices that the reliance on iTunes has all but disappeared. Secondly there is no revenue for Apple when it comes to podcasts. The majority are free and iTunes has no facility (and the content producers have no desire) to give access to subscription based shows as far as I know.

I have absolutely no clue why Apple have not added podcast management features in the mobile versions of iTunes that you access from your iPhone or iPad. Only the most basic functionality is available. You can search for podcasts and you can even manually download them individually but no facility is available to automate the process.

To make matters worse not only did Apple not offer these features they prevented third party developers from offering them for a very long time. Apps that are commonly known today as “podcatchers” we’re banned from the App store until quite recently. They had a very strict policy that third party apps that replicated the functionality of native iOS apps we not allowed. Luckily this policy has gradually been relaxed and there is a good choice of apps available today.

So what is the advantage of using a podcatcher app? Let me describe two scenarios in getting new podcasts on to an iPhone.

Scenario number one: Using iTunes for podcast management, I would need to go over to my computer, fire up iTunes, give it time to go through all my podcast subscriptions and download them. Once that has finished I either have to plug my iPhone in or connect to wifi sync and update the content on my iPhone. This takes a little time, longer if I’m doing it wirelessly and iTunes may also do a backup of my device as well which will delay things further. Finally I can disconnect my iPhone and listen to my updated podcasts.

Scenario number two: I fire up my podcatcher app and it downloads the latest podcasts I’m subscribed to directly to my device. I start listening! :)

That’s the bare bones of it. Of course podcatcher apps do offer quite a few other features depending on which one you go for but even when comes to the basics it’s so much simpler. At the time of writing (as listed in Wikipedia) these are the podcatcher apps that are available in the App Store:

PodCruncher: http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/podcast-player-manager-app/id421894356?mt=8
Podcaster: http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/podcaster-4/id377195245?mt=8
Downcast: http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/downcast/id393858566?mt=8
Podcatcher: http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/podcatcher/id367314338?mt=8
Instacast: http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/instacast/id420368235?mt=8
Pocket Casts: http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/pocket-casts/id414834813?mt=8
RSSRadio: http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/rssradio-podcast-downloader/id382552897?mt=8
iCatcher!: http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/icatcher!-podcast-catcher/id414419105?mt=8

I have used a few of these and recently switched to iCatcher! so a review will most likely follow soon. In the mean time I wholeheartedly recommend you try one if you’re still using iTunes.

Update: According to this blog post Apple are planning on removing podcast functionality from mobile iTunes in iOS 6 and giving them there own app. Still a rumour, but interesting.

Review: Radiant Defense

Radiant Defense, developed by Hexage is a colorful Tower Defense game set as a “sequel” to the popular Radiant, which is a arcade/action space shooter inspired by games such as Space Invaders. Yeah, a bit of a weird sequel idea.  Your in charge of stopping alien invasions by an alien commander that is incompetent.  So is Radiant Defense a worthy Tower-defense game or one to throw into the bin? Well, read on and you’ll find out…

Radiant Defense, if I had to label it anything at all, its unique.  It is a single player game with an online score board that you can submit your scores to and compare to other players.   The colorful, yet old-style inspired graphics are a trademark of Hexage and no less impressive in this game. It is a feast for the eyes and the various colors are fun to look at.  The audio is a good, solid OST that complements the game very well.  The presentation of the game is very well done and if you’ve ever played any of Hexage’s other games, its very familiar especially for Robotek players.  There is no real difference in UI or functionality between the iPhone and iPad besides the screen size difference.  Its a great presentation.  In typical Tower defense fashion, Radiant gives you a choice of towers and you have to fend off waves of enemies.  While you do get a preset level to play on, the game also gives you a certain number of modules to dictate where the enemies will path through.  Look at the screenshot below to see what I’m talking about.  The game also has a “research unit” that allow the construction of additional towers in the level.  The research unit is also required every game in order to allow the building of the tower packs that you can purchase for 99 cents each.  The aliens that attack are varied and colorful and there are apparently over 100 different aliens that you get to fight.

One of the waves

The game begins to fall apart when you start playing in the first few levels.  Most of the towers shoot at random times and there is an accuracy/physics to each tower’s shots.  So its entirely possible for you to have enemies slip through your defenses because all your towers missed.  In all the tower defense games I’ve played, this mechanic mystifies me because I have never seen it used and for good reason.  Its frustrating to have enemies get through because your towers just happened to miss.  Also, the AI for the towers is poorly done, as they will shoot at random enemies most of the time rather than at the most important ones, the ones closest to the end of the road.  I lost several games because the towers were not shooting the most important targets.  The difficulty level is also incredibly high considering I was only on level two and failing.  Which is mostly caused by the fact that the waves seem to be unbalanced.  One wave, you can have two towers at base level easily kill them and then the next wave those upgraded towers plus additional tower are no longer able to keep the wave down and you got mowed over.  Its a very unforgiving setup which is mystifying considering how flexible the game is with allowing you to dictact where the enemies get pathed and variety of towers.  Plus, the amount of money that aliens drop per kill is simply too low for how costly the towers/research units are and they are very expensive.  Its clear they had some interesting ideas about TD, but it plays off as too random and based on chance and as such, very frustrating to play in the TD-genre.

Settings are basic and straightforward

I also have to slam the lack of iCloud sync between iOS devices or any type of sync for that matter.  This game would easily be suited for it and its rather jarring to have a game app show up on the store without some sort of sync.  And really, considering how many devices this game supports, it makes me wonder why they didn’t try something.  The iOS version also requests an iTunes password when you load the game for no explicable reason and maybe its for the IAPs, but I’d rather it would wait until I actually requested to purchase the tower packs.  The freemium based model this game uses is also questionable for a tower defense game and I don’t think it works all that well.  I certainly don’t have any compulsion to buy the tower packs that are offered.

That said, Radiant Defense looks and sounds good.  If your looking for a challenging Tower Defense game, you may be interested.  The game is certainly very unique in the mobile crowd and I’m glad to see devs trying something new.  I personally won’t be playing it after the review as I didn’t find the humor to be funny and the game mechanics poorly implemented.  The game just isn’t all that fun.  However, it is free after all so it doesn’t hurt to try it out.

Trailer:

Radiant Defense is developed by Hexage for the iPhone, iPod touch, iPad, Windows 7 Phone, Android, and Mac. Requires iOS 3.2 or later. Requires Android 2.2 or later.  Requires Mac OSX 10.7 or later. It is a universal app on the iOS store and is free on all platforms with no advertisements. It does have in-app-purchases that are optional for 99 cents in order to increase the amount of towers you can have. This review only covers the iPhone & iPad versions, but the experience should be the same on all platforms.  There is no social media integration, except an optional scoreboard hosted by Hexage.

-KingIsaacLinksr

Important Links:

Radiant Defense Website

Hexage Website

iOS App Store

Mac App Store

Android Play

Windows 7 Phone Store

Radiant Defense for Mobile Devices

Review: Air Video for iOS

iPhones and iPads only get a maximum of 64 GBs of space to store all your stuff.  16-64 GBs can usually handle most of our stuff that we need on a daily basis, except for videos.  Apple does provide TV/Movies via iTunes in iCloud, but what if your library consists of videos that aren’t from iTunes?  And you have a really large library of movies/episodes that you don’t want to sync to your device?  Well, there is an app for that and this time we are going to review the app “Air Video” by InMethod s.r.o.

Air Video is an app that lets you stream your entire library from your PC/Mac over your local area connection and Internet.  Air Video uses a Windows/Mac app from the main website The app does require some setup with your router and port forwarding.  Feature wise, the app comes with quite a few.  It includes airplay, subtitle reading, live conversion of videos, video zoom and settings for the resolution of the videos as well.  It also allows you to convert your video files into an iPhone/iPad friendly format which you can sync onto device, this is handy for those with exotic formats like MKV or AVI.  If you have a native format that iOS devices can play, the app can play them without any conversion needed.  However, the app cannot stream DRM videos such as the ones sold from iTunes.  Otherwise, this app is pretty simple in its idea but executes it very well.  The setup is fairly straightforward, the UI looks good and it comes with a good feature and setting set.

iPad look and features

iPhone look and features

Developer support has been solid for the app, and it has been kept up to date with iOS 5.  At this time, I don’t have any features that come to mind that this app could benefit from.  I have never interacted with their email support so I cannot say if it is good or bad.  For as long as I have had the app, it has never had any bugs/crashing or other performance issues.

As far as my experience with this app goes, its quite good.  I am glad that the app provides a lot of options as far as streaming goes because standard options would not have worked on my setup.  Once you get the apps all setup, the app works like a charm.  The app is well built and I like that they built their own UI into the app rather than leaning on the “norm”.  The cost of $2.99 is ridiculously cheap for the usability of this app, especially if your a big video buff.  However, if your going to run into any trouble with the app, its setting up the companion app and the iOS apps and getting them to communicate with each other.  I would recommend getting the free version of the app first and making sure that it works before buying the app.  With all the different router configurations out there, there is bound to be one that will prevent Air Video from working properly.  Besides that, the app achieves what it set out to do, providing streaming for ridiculously large video libraries on our PCs straight to our mobile devices.

Air Video is available on the iOS store for free (limited number of displayed items per folder) and $2.99.  It is a universal app for iPad, iPhone and iPod touch.  The app requires a companion app for Windows and Mac.  It has an average of 4.5 stars from user reviews.  There are no other in-app purchases in Air Video as of the writing of this review.

-KingIsaacLinksr

Other Necessary Links:

Air Video Website

Windows/Mac Companion App Download

Video footage is from Clear Skies

Air Video for iOS ($2.99)

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UnoDNS – Watch Geo-targeted US content like Hulu and Netflix from the UK

 

UnoDNS from UnoTelly.com is a great way to access internet content that would normally be “geo-targeted” (restricted to you based on your location), such as Hulu, Netflix and Pandora radio.

 

There are basically only a handful of options when it comes to gaining access to geo-targeted websites. You either go the VPN or Proxy route or the DNS route. Proxies (especially free ones) can usually be ruled out straight away when it comes to streaming high quality video since they usually won’t have the required bandwidth to achieve a decent and stable stream. A VPN requires you to use a totally separate IP to “piggy back” on and with this comes the limitations of that network meaning even if your home ISP is super high speed is won’t matter, all that matters is the speed and reliability of your chosen VPN provider.

 

This is where a service like UnoDNS becomes a very attractive solution. Instead of having to tunnel through using a completely separate network the service alters the DNS (Domain Name System) settings of your existing network connection provided by your own ISP. This means you continue to use and take advantage of the stable high speed connection you are already used to, local services from your ISP that rely on detecting your IP address will still work as well.

 

I have been testing the UnoDNS service and I’m impressed. Within minutes I had access to US restricted websites and services but most importantly I didn’t lose the ability to use local UK services such as BBC iplayer. If I had been using a VPN service I would need to constantly switch off the service to use these.

Their service is structured slightly different to similar services such as Unblock-US in a couple of ways.

Firstly, instead of just offering a standard subscription to access the service they offer tiered services. The tiered model is broken down into “channels” of internet content that the service will allow you to access and what’s interesting about UnoDNS is comparison to their competitors is they have a basic tier of websites that you can access for free. $4.95 per month gives you access their Premium service that includes the Hulu and Netflix and the $7.95 Gold service adds another whole group of mostly US network content. They also offer an 8 day free trial on the Gold subscription.

Secondly, which I think is a great feature, is that you can migrate the service to different locations temporarily like a friends house or a holiday home. The service works by logging your home IP address and only allows you access via this address. This is how most of these services work to ensure you are using it fairly and not sharing your account with a friend for example. If you were to take your laptop to your friends house to watch a bit of Hulu for example and logged into their network then since the IP would be different the service would stop working. UnoDNS actually allow you to register multi IP addresses to your account so that you can use the service when your on the move by simply switching them over in your account settings.

 

How easy is it to use? Once you have an account the service only requires that you change some basic network settings and you will be up and running in minutes. The advantage of the service being so simple for the user is that these DNS settings are alterable network settings in the majority of multimedia devices such as the Xbox 360, PS3 and the Apple TV which means the service is fully compatible with these too with full set up instructions are available on the website.

 

 

TeknoCratik have teamed up with UnoDNS to offer a limited number of our readers 25% OFF any paid subscription. All you need to do to be eligible is to tweet a link to this post using the hashtag #UnoDNS making sure you include a reply to @teknocratik. In the mean time give the free trial a whirl.

 

 

Windows 8 Consumer Preview – Metro UI The new face of the HTPC?

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February 29th 2012 saw the release of the Consumer Preview of Windows 8.
Of course I had been following the progress of the new OS from the developer preview release but I had not actually installed it myself. This was partly because of the controversy surrounding the future of Windows Media Center in Windows 8 (the developer preview did not include it) and the fact that I wasn’t convinced that the new Metro UI would work on desktop systems. After watching a fantastic live video Q&A session hosted by The Digital Media Zone I was convinced to give it a try for myself and I’m glad I did.

I had a spare HP laptop to test it on and this in itself presented a bit of a challenge as the laptop, an HP Pavilion zv6000 is at least 6 years old. The minimum system requirements for Windows 8 indicate that pretty much any machine capable of running Windows 7 competently should run it. The only caveat to this I found is it would not install the x64 version of Windows 8 as it needs at least 2Gb of RAM and this machine only has 1.25Gb so instead of doing an upgrade I had to clean install with x86 Windows 8.

The second hurdle was graphics card support. With new versions of Windows this always seems to be the area where it gets a little unstuck. Since I was installing on to a pretty old laptop it wasn’t a surprise to find that the graphics card wasn’t particularly new. In fact the ATI Radeon Mobility Xpress 200M is considered a “legacy” card and hasn’t had driver support for quite a while. This wasn’t a problem for Windows 7 as it seemed to pull the correct Microsoft WDDM driver via Windows update after initial installation. Windows 8 couldn’t seem to do this and I was stuck with the new “Basic Display Adapter” drivers of the new OS and my screen resolution wasn’t flexible enough to test out some of the better features of the Metro UI.
Countless attempts to manually install correct drivers failed and I was beginning to give up hope. After a lot of research and advice from follow users I managed to manually install a VISTA certified WDDM driver via a manual download from Windows update and it worked! So Windows Vista was good for something after all! ;)

Now that I had a fully working system I could relax and take a look at how it felt. My initial thoughts are that I am liking the Metro UI more than I thought I would. Actually I am thinking that Metro UI could be a nice interface for an HTPC. The live tiles are nice and big, colourful and the UI has basic remote support. I am a Windows Media Center user but I am also a XBMC user and I can see myself using the Start Screen and remote to effortlessly flip between the two apps. With future innovations in Metro apps when it comes to multimedia I can see this interface as a very attractive HTPC frontend.

As expected Windows Media Center itself hasn’t changed from it’s Windows 7 version at all but it does seem to feel more responsive to me. Bare in mind I am testing it on an old laptop that would chug away navigating Media Center menus under Windows 7 but in Windows 8 it glides through them effortlessly. This is perhaps due to the fact that Media Center was recompiled for Windows 8 and perhaps gained a little performance enhancement as a side effect. I am tempted to convert one of my HTPCs to Windows 8 due to this and because I really want to put the Metro UI through it’s paces in an HTPC setup. I eagerly await a Hippo Remote profile for Windows 8 so that I can control it all via my iPhone.

In conclusion, I will be keeping my Windows 8 installation on the test machine and I will be taking a closer look at some of the available Metro apps. A few have already made an impression. The handful of desktop apps I have already installed went without a hitch and setting up Metro tiles for access is simple and quite effective. Microsoft, you have won me over although being a tech geek I am in my element. I’m not so sure that general computer users (never mind business users) will be as quick to adapt to this “new way” of using Windows so it will be interesting to see how it all unfolds.

XBMC Eden Beta 3 for iOS on the iPad 2

The main XBMC app menu screen running on an iPad 2

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Very few Home Theatre PC or digital media enthusiasts would disagree that the XBMC cross platform media centre software does a superb job of giving you the ultimate in functionality. The only exception to this would be the in the DVR space, where they are frustratingly lacking support.

As a huge supporter of XBMC when I heard that it had been ported to iOS I was ecstatic. Of course with XBMC being such an open system there was very little doubt that it would ever pass Apple’s stringent regulations for inclusion in the App Store therefore it would only be available to “Jailbroken” iOS devices. At the time my only iOS device was my iPhone 3GS and although I had jailbroken it in the past I only did it because I’m a tinkerer. This time I had a great reason to do it as I wanted to see how XBMC worked on an iPhone. I installed it and I hated it. The reason being that at the time it was a straight port right down to the standard desktop skin. It was totally unusable in my opinion.

Well how things have moved on! Being the proud owner of an iPad 2 and with the recent ability to Jailbreak the device totally untethered I decided to give XBMC for iOS one more try and I’m so glad I did. The app has now been updated to run the latest beta version of the software, “Eden” and even comes by default with a fantastically design skin called “Touched” which is simplistic yet very functional and as the name suggests, is specifically designed to complement a touch interface. No doubt this will be the skin of choice when installing XBMC on the upcoming Windows 8 tablets.

From what I can tell XBMC for iOS has the exact same functionality to the regular PC version. Within minutes I had connected it to my video library on my desktop PC via a network share and also installed addons for BBC iPlayer and Hulu. Video playback of video library content I can only describe as phenomenal and it had no issues playing back 720p MKVs. The picture was pristine. The same can be said for playback via streaming services such as BBC iPlayer and Hulu.

If you have an iPad 2 and would love to have the ability to have access to a huge variety of media from a practically unlimited choice of sources and are considering jailbreaking then I could not recommend installing XBMC enough. You will not regret it.

TV shows in Library mode

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Settings menu

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BBC iPlayer in action

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Hulu in action

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Ability to add user profiles – a very useful feature

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