Friday, January 4, 2013

Home media stuff

This is about how we watch TV, and what we want to do about it.
(Not even one of the things on my list of possible topics! But a good place to dump my thoughts)
Sorry if it gets long and boring.

A few years ago, when we were considering options to cut out cable TV while still getting our content legally, we really didn't know what we were doing. And also, the options were more limited.

Long story short (and yes this is the short version), this is what we have ended up with for watching various media on the TV, and pretty much what our setup is today:

  1. Regular old "over-the-air" TV (which is still currently coming in over the comcast wire, allegedly something called ClearQAM which we may lose at some point)
  2. Playstation 3
    1. Blu Ray drive for watching disc-based movies
    2. Netflix/Amazon/VUDU/sometimes PS3-store streaming video
  3. Roku (rarely used since PS3 got Amazon video, mostly used for Pandora)
  4. MythBuntu Linux box
    1. MythTV
      1. HDHomeRun device, actually physically separate, takes in the stream of "over-the-air" TV so that MythTV can DVR it.
        1. Note: We are really down to DVRing about 2 shows, and watching the rest on Amazon or "free Hulu" (4.2.3.1)
        2. The signal coming in to the HDHR (and to the TV for that matter) is not consistent. Sometimes channels are available on one, on the other, or neither or both.  Something to do with the way we split the signal for sure, but this is still an annoyance. 
          1. We can't complain to Comcast about this because, despite it being legal for us to have the stream, they still might send a truck over to shut off the TV stream. It's complicated, as far as I can tell from reading about ClearQAM.
      2. Very rarely, watching live TV through MythFrontEnd or Mythbox (4.2.1). We don't use "pause live TV" functionality as much as we originally thought we would.
    2. XBMC, remote controlled by "Official XBMC remote" app for mobile devices, amongst other things.
      1. Mythbox add-in for watching MythTV-recorded shows.
        1. Note: The team-xbmc PPA version of XBMC 11 is stale and doesn't have necessary updates to properly communicate with MythTV 0.25. So the Live TV functionality, and playing Myth recordings "from the server", are gone unless I decide to install XBMC from source instead. I could do that, but I don't want to have to maintain my version of XBMC every time something changes. It reduces the convenience factor.
      2. Local video files
        1. We have a good chunk of these, but in practice we watch them so rarely that we don't need an always-available solution.
      3. Tons of streaming plugins
        1. Notably, Hulu
          1. Hulu's free side requires you to be watching on a "computer" and not a "device".
          2. XBMC's Hulu plugin is not perfect (don't even try to pause it!) but it is better than exiting the software to run a browser or the Hulu Desktop software.
          3. (I'll get back to this in the epilogue): The Hulu Plus service, which costs money and works on anything with a screen (including XBMC of course), is not a complete superset of Hulu. Most of the free stuff is not a part of Hulu Plus. I have been very stubborn about keeping Hulu available on the TV screen. Yet, in practice, we also don't watch the 'exclusively on free Hulu' streaming stuff very often.
          4. Hulu's policy on what recent TV is available for free, and what requires Plus, seems pretty arbitrary. For example: Fringe and Bones are both Fox shows. Fringe's latest episode is only available on HuluPlus, and 4 or 5 episodes before that are available for free. But for Bones, the reverse is true: The latest episode is free, and the previous 4 or 5 episodes require Plus.  Wut?
      4. Airplay and DLNA
        1. XBMC support for the Airplay protocol is impressive, but incomplete and somewhat buggy.
        2. It is really convenient to "send to XBMC" pretty much anything from an Android phone, though. Photos, videos, music, youtube, etc.
      5. Note: When XBMC crashes, it sucks. And sometimes it crashes just from being idle too long. And I have to kill -9 it and restart XBMC.  I can do this remotely, but again, it reduces the convenience factor of watching stuff when I'm not home.
    3. HDMI audio in Linux is a pain in the ass. Enough said.

That's the end of the "intro".  Still with me? Any questions?

(Oh, I should also mention that our house is slowly being infested by Apple products, culminating in my wife's recent switch from Android to her beloved iphone5)

So.. overall, despite being easy to control 90% of the time, the Linux box is just not working out for us.
And aside from that, we already can source most of our content from elsewhere.

What I'm thinking is this:
We could break down and subscribe to HuluPlus, and then get all of our "available recent TV episodes" without mucking with Free Hulu or XBMC quirks. HuluPlus will run on the PS3 certainly. (And of course, codec-limitations aside, the PS3 can also play content sent to it over DLNA, so we don't completely lose that aspect of XBMC). We could also get an AppleTV device (rather than a BoxeeBox or GoogleTV or whatever), which would play nicely with all of the apple devices and of course (the necessary evil) itunes.
Considering those things, I think we could significantly reduce our reliance on the TV-connected Linux Box.
Yes, it will cost us a bit more money, but convenience and stability also has a price while trying to stay legal.

All of this would also allow me to scale down my Linux server. I can't completely get rid of it because I use it for other things, so of course the content will still be there to freely stream or whatever. But, at least the machine wouldn't have to be video-connected to the TV, which adds some flexibility. And eventually I could rebuild it and turn it more into a file server.


And then there is the wildcard of "companies are working on this stuff", like Intel's plan for a-la-carte TV, and the media center feature advancements of newer consoles (I'll skip the WiiU but I am intently watching for whatever the next Xbox comes up with). And we have to replace our amp/receiver eventually, and half of those are also magically network-connected too. So there is stuff.


Added bonus content for you who read all the way to the end:
There's an additional factor.
Sooner than later, we're going to move out of our condo and into -- hopefully -- a proper house. It might even be this year!
One of my very immediate plans for a new house, where we own all the walls, is to put ethernet jacks everywhere and have a proper wiring closet.
That's a dream of mine, so that the wired-network-connected devices don't all have to be clustered around the cable modem -- which at this point means they all have to be clustered around the TV. I would be so happy to be able to hide file servers out-of-the-way in random rooms and such....

Moral of the story: YES we are STILL HAPPY that we don't have cable TV anymore. It's just that once the system evolves over years of patching and adding, you have to re-assess the situation and simplify what you can.

Any questions/commentary at this point? Something I'm missing?
Assume piracy is not an option.

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