Tim nearly trashes his PC! He and Dan discuss his upgrade plans, the state of play of hardware and software in mobile and desktop gaming, and more discussion on digital entertainment ecosystems.
Tim nearly trashes his PC! He and Dan discuss his upgrade plans, the state of play of hardware and software in mobile and desktop gaming, and more discussion on digital entertainment ecosystems.
My latest HTPC project has been to resurrect a method to skip commercials for recorded TV programmes. This is something I have done in the past when I was a Windows Media Center user using third party tools to both instigate the commercial detection as well as to support the actual function of commercial skipping since WMC didn’t natively support it. Even when Media Center switched to the WTV format commercial skipping was still fairly easy to perform on standard definition content as Windows had the built in ability to convert the file to the more compatible DVRMS format and soon tools such as DVRMS Toolbox came with scripts to automate the procedure. Unfortunately high definition content that was generally .h264 encoded could not be converted in the same way and Microsoft’s WTV format was (and still is) undocumented which led to a delay in the ability to make HD content compatible with commercial skipping software. This led to me abandoning commercial skipping altogether as the hoops you had to jump through to get it working were just not worth the effort. In recent times the WTV format has been ‘reverse engineered’ for want of a better expression, allowing commercial skipping software the ability to scan it, although this is no longer an issue for me as Mediaportal records to a transport stream (TS) file. The more important improvement has been the accuracy of h.264 HD media commercial detection, which is why I have started looking into using it again.
Luckily MediaPortal supports both the initial commercial detection process via a launcher plugin for Comskip as well as giving the ability to skip adverts either manually (as chapter markers) or automatically. See this link. Comskip is free for mpeg2 media scanning but if you donate $10 or more you are given access to a version that works with h.264 media which is essential in my opinion.
As I generally don’t use the MediaPortal client to watch TV I was interested to find out if XBMC supported this feature and it does! For quite a while now XBMC has had built in support for EDL (Edit Decision List) files that tell it where not to play the media file. What you will see in the scrub bar while playing the file in XBMC is the edited file duration as opposed to the total file length with adverts. This is useful so you can tell the ad skipping is actually working. As long as the edl file (or txt file in MediaPortal clients) filename matches the media filename you are playing back you have a working commercial skipping system. Whereas in MediaPortal all clients seemlessly will honour the commercial detection in the manner you have set it up in the configuration, it isn’t quite the same with XBMC. Due to the method that the MediaPortal TV server plugin for XBMC plays back recorded TV (it streams the media instead of playing back a file directly) it doesn’t read the EDL file on clients that are not on the same machine as the server. This isn’t a major problem because all you need to do is play back your recorded TV not via the section on the Live TV tab but create a folder link to in “videos” as you would for any other video media. It then will read the EDL file. More detailed information on the XBMC client side process can be found here.
So in summary, commercial skipping via MediaPortal TV server and playback in XBMC is very doable and straight forward. Apart from the issue where the XBMC client that is on a different machine to server needing playback to occur via a media share the only other issue I have encountered is that you must wait for the recording to finish before to commence commercial detection with Comskip. The MediaPortal plugin “Comskip Launcher” does give the option to do it on the fly but it didn’t work for me and I believe this may be an issue with the TV server. You may also need to edit you “comskip.ini” configuration file to change your detection method and other settings depending the source of your TV signal and the country you reside in. I am in the UK recording from Freesat and Freeview sources but so far all I have changed is the basic detection method from “43″ to “111″ (these settings are explained in the Comskip guides) but more fine tuning can be done if you require it. Changing this has given me very good results and I am really enjoying not having to watch those pesky commercials!
Once again I was asked on to the fantastic TDL podcast by Ian Dixon to talk about this week’s technology news. We cover some MediaPortal news, talk about my XBMC home media network and social entertainment apps.
Since recording on Tuesday I discovered that support for TrakT.TV in XBMC had got a new lease of life in XBMC 12 (Frodo) and I have since installed the updated plugin. This means that both my XBMC TV and movie libraries can be synchronised as well as giving me the ability to auto post what I’m currently watching.
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.Tweet
I’ve been having great fun tinkering with the Raspberry Pi the last couple of weeks.
For those who haven’t heard of this little computer (and there can’t be many who haven’t as it has had so much press lately) it is a tiny (smaller than an iPhone) PC powered by an ARM CPU and Videocore 4 GPU system on a chip (SoC) and you can get one for about £30.
It’s an impressive little thing that already has a dedicated fan base and community growing around it. The Raspberry Pi Foundation is the charity responsible for it’s design and creation with the intention that it becomes an educational tool to try and regenerate an interest in computer programming in children.
This is a commendable cause. When I was at school all those years ago they actually taught BASIC programming as standard in what was then called “Computer Studies”. I am from the era of the BBC Micro computer and that is what I used to get my GCSE in computer studies! From what I hear, these days all kids are taught is how to make spreadsheets and word processing. Yes, these are great skills to learn but if kids aren’t exposed to programming languages anymore and their home computers (or most likely they have games consoles) aren’t geared to programming out of the box how are they going to be exposed to it? Well hopefully the “Pi” will be the answer. With it being so affordable it removes at least one stumbling block in creating the next generation’s software developers.
So what can you do with it at the moment? Well pretty much anything you can do on standard computers. The Pi primarily runs on a version of Linux, built for the ARM processor. These CPUs are predominantly used on mobile devices because of their low power consumption making them ideal for battery powered devices. Your Android or iPhone runs on an ARM processor. Linux is the de facto choice of operating system as it is Open Source, fully customisable and so portable to just about anything.
At the time of writing there are a few Raspberry Pi Linux distributions available to try. They are all a “work in progress” but are being developed and improved on almost a daily basis. I’ve tried most of them so far and having used Linux on desktop PCs and laptops for years I enjoy the tinkering that sometimes is involved.
The Raspberry Pi makes a remarkably capable “media centre” device too. It’s GPU is capable of playing back Blu-Ray quality video as libraries are available for Linux distributions to access it directly for hardware acceleration. So far there are two dedicated Linux distributions for the Pi that specialise in multimedia playback and they use the fantastic XBMC open source media centre software. OpenELEC, whose Pi distribution is based on the existing standalone Linux “distro’s” for x86 PCs and Raspbmc, a new distribution built from the ground up for the Pi. I have tried both and both work really well.
From my testing the initial OpenELEC build struggled with the XBMC menu and other CPU intensive actions but the GPU performed fantastic on video playback of HD material, streaming HDTV from my DVBLink server and other content.
Although some have had problems booting Raspbmc from certain SD cards (this issue seems to be fixed now in later builds) I never had such a problem and I found the performance of Raspbmc superior to that of OpenELEC as it didn’t have the same issue of slow down when accessing XBMC’s menus. I also got plugins to work without any issue. I installed the BBC iPlayer and TV Catchup plugins and both streamed HD quality video fantastically.
Of course, there are fully featured Linux distributions available for the Pi giving you a home computer with all the software packages you’d expect, from office suites to graphics software, with the ability to download extra packages you require via their respective software centres, all for free. The “official” Linux distribution being recommended by the Foundation is Debian “Squeeze” as this is the most user friendly version for novices but there are others if you are feeling adventurous. So far I’ve tried Debian “Squeeze”, Raspbian (a version of Debian “Wheezy” built from the ground up for the Pi), Gentoo and Arch.
If you have an interest in tinkering with computer technology I couldn’t recommend the Raspberry Pi enough. You’ll have hours of fun playing with this little computer. You may struggle to get one at the moment as the demand has been so high but keep trying, it’s worth it!
I will certainly continue to tinker with the Pi and I can’t wait to see what the community has in store for this little device.Tweet
The main XBMC app menu screen running on an iPad 2
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
BBC iPlayer in action
Hulu in action
Ability to add user profiles – a very useful feature
I’m a big fan of XBMC. Its a powerful multi platform media centre system that is capable of playing back pretty much any media format. Another great benefit to using XBMC is that it has a multitude of talented and dedicated devolpers who provide literally hundreds on addons that enhance its basic features by adding streaming audio and video services for example. One such example which is especially important if like myself, you reside in the UK, is the BBC iplayer addon. The functionality and quality of this addon is superb. Here is a short video I put together showing you the addon in action.Tweet
Well this year it finally arrived. Netflix, the premier US digital media provider came to the UK giving us access to quality movie and TV show streaming (they do not provide a disc service in the UK) for a reasonable price of £5.99 a month.
I had been waiting for this for quite some time as I had the opportunity to test out the US service a while back and I was very impressed. Due to licensing restrictions and contracts, the content available in the UK differs both in quantity and variety and it is fair to say that the American offering is currently superior. Despite this it is my opinion that the selection is much better the the offering from Amazon’s LoveFilm , who at the moment have a smaller selection, no HD content and a poorer quality streaming service technically.
How To Watch Netflix Content
Netflix offers many ways to watch their content from mobile devices such as smart phones and tablets to gaming consoles to Blu-Ray players. They also provide streaming access via their website using Microsoft Silverlight. It can be argued that Netflix see 3rd party devices as the primary method of watching as it seems to get the most support, something I personally find quite annoying. Since I consume my media exclusively via Home Theatre PCs it makes life a little difficult when it comes to Netflix.
The PC problem
Netflix provide some fantastic apps for 3rd party devices. If you have the right device in your living room you can sit back and relax using your remote control to navigate Netflix and playback your content. Unfortunately as far as Netflix is concerned, the PC user seems to be a second class citizen. There is virtually NOTHING available for the PC that optimises the experience. (There are a couple of options that I will go into later).
For PC users their are certain other limitations.
Firstly as the streaming method uses Microsoft Silverlight you need to be running an operating system that this supports, namely Windows or Mac OS X. There is no Silverlight support for Linux operating systems which many Home Theatre PC enthusiasts use their the basis for their “bare bones” media centres due to the fact that these installations are so customisable and have the ability to be fine tuned.
The second limitation is Silverlight itself. Although, in my opinion, it is about 500% better than Adobe’s Flash for video streaming, HD content from Netflix does not play nicely with low powered “net top” PCs which are a popular choice as HTPCs for many enthusiasts including this one. I don’t pretend to know all the technical details but the doesn’t seem to be any GPU acceleration support in Silverlight streams from Netflix. Net top machines, typically Intel Atom / Ion2 based systems rely on this feature to be able to reliably support HD quality playback. Both my HTPCs are Atom/ Ion2 based and they are capable of 1080p video and Blu-Ray playback but when fed a 720p Netflix stream the best they seem to be able to produce is a video running at about 2 FPS! Luckily for those in my position there is a workaround but you do lose full HD playback. In essence, you read a pretty beefy CPU to handle an HD Netflix stream.
If you do manage to get smooth HD playback on a PC you will find that your movie’s audio in only playing back in stereo! Netflix offers many movies and TV shows in HD and WITH 5.1 audio but this is not available via PC streaming. As far as I know this is an artificial limitation as Silverlight does have the ability to pass through 5.1 audio. I see this as another example of Netflix’s disinterest in the PC user.
But there are PC “apps”
There are PC apps available for Netflix you say? Well yes there are but all of them are really front ends to the web streams. The best one both in terms of usability and looks in my opinion is the addon for Windows Media Center. Boxee used to provide a Netflix addon for their PC users but this has since been disabled (and Boxee for the PC has been abandoned in favour of the Boxee Box by its creators) and removed. Several “media centre” systems such as XBMC and Mediaportal have their own front end plugins too.
If you are a HTPC Netflix user in the USA you most likely use the Windows Media Center plugin. This has been available for while and it is very nice. As it is basically just a sophisticated front end UI the same hardware limitations apply to it as streaming directly from the website, so using a net top for HD is a no go.
To make matters worse, it is incompatible with UK Netflix accounts. When Netflix launched in the UK I naively thought I could get this to work and I was very disappointed when it didn’t. The first hurdle is actually getting the app to appear on a UK machine. As standard it doesn’t and you have to tweak your registry a little and set your machine to be situated in the US which is a major problem as you would then lose your UK TV settings if you are using Media Center as a DVR. If you get it to appear you can log in to your UK Netflix account and browse content (only if it thinks you are in the US, but I’ll get to that later) but nothing will play. It appears UK accounts are not supported by the Netflix API which these apps use. There is a small exception as i did manage to get the XBMC Netflix plugin XBMCFlicks “partially” working which i will go into in another post.
After contacting Netflix support with the enquiry if the Media Center app would be updated for UK use and being ignored (and also finding out it was never updated for Canadian users who got Netflix over a year ago!) I’ve come to the conclusion that Netflix are just not interested in their PC customers.
Limitations and benefits of Netflix UK
So apart from it’s content is Netflix UK they same as Netflix US? Well, not quite. For some inexplicable reason Netflix decided not to grace UK users with an instant queue at the time of writing. With the amount of content available, an instant queue is pretty essential in keeping track of things you may find while browsing the catalogue for later viewing. There is no technical reason that I can see for not including this and I am baffled. Perhaps they will introduce this “revolutionary” feature later?
You may ask why I am a Netflix customer after reading this article as I don’t seem to have much that is good say about them. Although there are problems in usability for the PC user, once you get your content playing it is superb quality and a great value for money service. The other added bonus is that since Netflix went “international” so did their user accounts. If you’re abroad in a country that has Netflix you can sign in with your account and have access to the content available in the country you are currently in. The beauty of this is if you use a VPN service or something similar it has the same effect, instant access to US content for example. I have personally gone down that route as the American content is far superior.
If you are a TV and movie fan you can’t go wrong with joining Netflix. With so many viewing options it is a superb value for money service. Just don’t choose a PC as your preferred consumption method unless you are already invested in it like me!Tweet
Yes this just just another technology podcast and blog you might say. Well that’s true and there is so much wonderful content in equality wonderful podcasts and blogs out there that cover just about anything so why another?
Well, I’m hoping to put something out that just might be a little different that’s why.
I am a fan of technology. I have been tinkering with computers and gadgets since forever. I love computer hardware, software, apps, you name it. Here you find more than just news, I’m planning on reviewing and commenting on things I actually use.
I hope it is of some interest.