Thursday, January 21, 2010

My Digital Life – Part I: Video

I start with video because it is the most difficult and due to this difficulty has forced my hand in a couple of different ways.

To recap this is what I’m trying to accomplish:

  • No physical media.  Period.
  • Access all video from any device.
    • Zune
    • TVs
    • PSP
    • Laptops
  • Rich metadata associated with the video.

That’s not a very long list but requires a metric crap-ton of software to accomplish.

I 0nly have two TVs and two different personal devices (Zune and PSP), so you would think that this would be easy.  But there are some severe challenges.

First, internet video isn’t very good yet.  Netflix is the best of the options available, but its catalog is still pretty limited.  Hulu has a pretty wide selection of content, but the catalog is really shallow – only a handful of episodes are available at any particular point in time.  This really sucks if you discover a show late and want to get caught up.  All of the other options are worse than terrible.  The network sites have all of the problems of Hulu – only a handful of episodes – but none of the positives.

This forces me to use either traditional cable television or satellite.  As much as I hate my local cable provider and I didn’t really have an option. 

Which brings me to severe challenge number two – a set-top box is usually pretty limiting and my first requirement I said no physical media so I need to figure out how to stream my digital content to whatever set-top box I decided to use.

In order to accomplish everything that I wanted to accomplish I needed flexibility which means CableCard, so I bit the bullet and bought a TivoHD and subscribed to [insert evil cable company here].

I considered several options for my set-top box:

1) An HTPC.  This was actually my first choice.  I really wanted to make this work.  Mostly because it offers the ultimate in flexibility.  Whatever you wanted to do should ultimately be possible with a full PC, right?  Just one problem – there aren’t any CableCard cards available for PC (is that unnecessarily redundant?) if you do-it-yourself.  Kinda bullshit in my opinion, but whatever.  No HTPC for me.

2) [Insert evil cable company here] provided equipment.  Just kidding, I never considered it.  They have crap for interfaces, they are slow and overall – just suck.

3) Tivo.  The first and best DVR.  The interface is so intuitive that my father-in-law had absolutely no problems just figuring it out.  The remote is the epitome of elegant design.  Plus:
*Tivo is aggressively adding internet based content like Amazon Unbox, Netflix, YouTube, Rhapsody.
*There is a well established online community doing third party development to add functionality to the platform (this becomes important later).
*They have a take-it-with-you option with TivoToGo that fits into my everywhere on any device concept.

For my second TV I considered multiple options:

1) First was the XBox 360.  Seemed to be  a logical choice, after all I was using:
*Windows 7 for a media server. 
*It’s a decent Media Center Extender
*It does HDTV natively.  
*It also does Netflix natively with Zune content and other services (I’m certain) to come. 

On paper it looks like the perfect option - however, it sucks.  Every time you start up the extender service it has to rediscover the whole library before you can actually watch/listen to anything.  Media Center is pretty, but that just isn’t enough.

2)  Windows Media Center directly connected from the my media server.  Another seemingly logical choice, especially since it cuts out the middleman of the 360 as described above.

Oddly, I liked it even less than the XBox and I’m not 100% certain that I can explain why.  I think that the primary reason is that it does not do a very good job of handling ripped television shows.  They are displayed in the same flat format that movies are shown as.  It’s options in the realm of internet video are also pretty limited, though better than the 360.

The other major shortfall is the lack of control around metadata.  You have to just trust that Media Center is going to correctly identify the movie and pick the right pictures, descriptions, etc.

3) Boxee, again directly connected to my TV.  Again, I didn’t like it, but have a hard time explaining exactly why.  It’s got a nice interface, but it doesn’t handle multi-episode content all that well.  The internet video plugins work seamlessly with the rest of the interface.  It has tie-ins with social networking if you feel compelled to tell everyone immediately exactly what you are watching and/or listening to.  But it’s missing a certain something. 

4) XBMC.  One thing that you have to admit about XBMC – its gorgeous.  Seriously, check out the screenshots and they don’t even do it justice.  If you like eye candy then there is really no choice other than XBMC.   Both XBMC and Boxee offer total control over your metadata, but XBMC is far better at automatically detecting your content and giving your some control over fine tuning the details.

XBMC also does an amazing job of handling multi-episode content by sorting shows into shows – seasons – then episodes.  It keeps track of what you have already seen and can even hide descriptions for stuff that you haven’t seen so that it isn’t spoiled.

While XBMC does offer an almost unlimited supply of internet content the integration sucks.  It is so bad as to be almost unusable.  Using the plugins that allow streaming off of sites like NBC and CBS completely destroys the continuity of the the eye candy.  Its like losing yourself in the beauty of Avatar and having jack Black wonder onscreen to tell a fart joke.  The rest of the experience more than makes up for this lacking so I’ll overlook it for now.  But at some point I may have to switch to another product just so that I don’t ever have to experience XBMC’s implementation of internet TV.

So that’s it – all of that work just to figure out that I need a Tivo and an HTPC running XBMC.    If you have noted that I haven’t gotten to gigantic challenge number 3 – making it all work together – you can tell that this is going to be a huge pain in the ass.

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