Wednesday, November 3, 2010

A non-gaming post: On Home Media and the evils of Cable TV

I have a lot to say about this, and I have a blog, and a lot of gamers are tech geeks, so here's a bit of a digression.

Recently, a lot of options have opened up with "home media players" that stream content directly over the internet, or allow you to watch your own content easily, which can completely eliminate a cable box1. We pay almost $100 a month just for the TV portion of our cable bill, and really don't watch all that much TV, so this is an avenue the whole family would love to explore.

I've been weighing the pros and cons of a few of them lately, especially between Google TV and the "Boxee Box".

Now, being an Android2 fanatic, I was all excited about Google TV! Android apps and a Chrome Browser on TV! Holy crap that sounds awesome!

But after doing some research, it looks like Google TV is too much and too little at the same time. It does more than a media center does, but doesn't have the prettiest interface and also doesn't support all the codecs you can throw at it.

So, Boxee is actually better, for my needs.

Now, Boxee is free software that I could run on a computer. Why spend $200 on that? Well.. first of all, the computer I could really run it on has a fan that makes some noise. Second of all, it would involve installing an IR port, linux drivers for an IR port, and getting some generic Universal Remote and needing to program it, etc etc, which probably would cost far more than $200 of hassle to set up in a way that doesn't require an engineering/CS degree to use the system.
(Never mind all of the background stuff it might be doing). I am a fan of dedicated hardware, at least in this idiom.

There's another option:
We have a PS3. The PS3 is equipped to run limited Media Center Client Software.
In fact, other than the XMB interface being a teensy bit ugly, that would almost work. I can even run a PS3-specific back end media server to automatically play my own video files in a format that the PS3 is happy to play.
Unfortunately, what PS3 lacks is the ability (for contractual reasons, not technical ones) to connect to streaming sites like Hulu.
There are back-end solutions to this, but the only one I really know about is PlayOn which requires yet another piece of server software specifically running on Windows somewhere3, and makes the experience a little uglier as well. It's cheaper than a boxee box ($80 for a lifetime subscription), though.

I think the best solution for us is a combination of these:
TV Antenna, for watching over-the-air realtime content (unfortunately without DVR capabilities)
BoxeeBox, for watching all the internet streaming media.
PS3/DVD player4, for watching disc-based content and occasionally stuff that Boxee doesn't support but PS3 somehow does.
(all with a back-end media server application running on my linux server, to handle some of the content)

There is a lot of overlap between what Boxee and PS3 can do, especially if we traveled down the dark road of Torrenting TV shows ("poor man's DVR").
So it's possible that we can experiment with that for awhile too.

Another factor is fan noise.. The PS3 can get awfully loud when playing a bluray disc; if it is always going to make that level of noise while playing streaming content, then it's not much better than the "move the desktop machine into the living room" option anyway.

I think I'm babbling in no particular direction now.
So, well, your thoughts?

1other than a few things that Must Be Watched Live like sports, but let's face it...)
2the portable device platform, not the boardgame or literal robots
3of all of the machines we have in the house, what we don't have is a Windows machine that could dedicate itself to serving this sort of content, especially on a wired connection.
4Our Home Theater Receiver has a built-in DVD player, which we usually use to play DVD discs because it's a 5-disc changer; in the ultimate future plans, that will go away with a replacement receiver that can handle more variety of inputs, but for now it is part of the setup.

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