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Do-it-all Media Center and Streaming Media Player January 5, 2017

Posted by Steven in gadgets.
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Perfect-Home-Theater

Introduction

I know I am whining too much about this. But I would like to give my backstory here. Years ago I thought about the perfect home theater solution. And basically I could not find the perfect gadget. So I bought an off the shelf Windows PC. The machine is big and generates fan-noise but hooked up to the HD TV it can do almost anything (play DVDs, stream, play MKV files and so on). Now the PC is 5 years old and I’ve got trouble with it again. It’s horribly strange: Windows 7 won’t check for updates and some strange hang-ups and crashes happened – although there was never an error message or bluescreen. Oh well slowly I said to myself the much used system is reaching its end of life.

This brings me once again to the search for the perfect home theater system.

If I won’t be able to rely on the good old Midi Tower anymore I would have to find something else suiting my needs. And given my needs seemed basic enough (more on that later) I refused to think of another $1000 PC tower as the next media center. If I just need to play files off my hard drives and stream Netflix and Amazon Video and be able to stream one of the European live TV providers as an alternative to Antenna TV then there should be a simpler and quieter box which can do all this.

The Search Continues…

Well it turns out the search for an answer here is still -in 2017- very hard. Here are my absolute requirements again:

  • Play MP4 and MKV (mostly h264 encoded) video files off of several USB hard drives (most drives around 2TB in size and formatted with NTFS)
  • Stream Netflix
  • Stream Amazon Video
  • Easy Access to YouTube
  • Play music via Radio App and from large MP3 folders
  • Full HD

Nice to have features would be:

  • Stream content from an iOS device to the box
  • Stream content from an Android device to the box
  • Play content from network attached storage – i.e. via DLNA
  • Access to a Web Browser
  • Some comfort would be great – speed, easy setup, easy remote control, sleep timer and so on.
  • I don’t have a huge stack of 4K content but If the solution can support 4K – great

The market for streaming boxes is quite large – there are things like the hugely successful Amazon FireTV (Android) or many people praise the possibilities of the low cost Raspberry Pi (Linux). Then there are specialized solutions like the AppleTV (iOS – Apple aiming to re-invent TV with Apps). To be honest I believe these solutions totally make sense. There shouldn’t be a need for an Intel i7 processor and a dedicated graphics card for organizing some well established HD media files and streaming some stuff.

But when looking into these solutions and taking into account my basic feature requirements there are still some question marks.

I have summarized my current findings in this table:

MSHTPC

So a couple of quick take aways from that :-) : There is quite a price range between the products. A cheap and basic Raspberry Pi (Version 3 – with integrated bluetooth and wifi) can do a lot of the heavy media lifting. On the other end of the spectrum would be the sleek and capable Playstation 4.

Apart from the price range and the related additional features – the core app support (according to my feature list) is interesting. Netflix seems well established and independent enough that it is supported by almost all the devices (except for the Raspberry Pi – I guess the open platform and a very compact linux is still a challenge for streaming well-secured video formats). Amazon may be more of  a new comer here and it clearly follows a strategy to support its own devices first (FireTV and FireTV Stick). Support for other platforms is more a nice to have for Amazon. Another note rg. the Raspberry Pi: There are hacky unofficial solutions to getting Netflix and Amazon Video to run. I skimmed through some of the articles online but I decided for me: This stuff is too complex right now.

The other hotspot for me is the USB hard drive support. It is staggering how hit or miss this is. I still have large drives lying around with tons of shows (whole seasons) and movies on them. I take it it is mostly a sin from the past when networks were not that fast and when downloading a file first and thus avoiding heavy buffering was a real plus. Also in a mobile / on the go life it is good to store and manage some entertainment locally (so it won’t eat up your data cap). For convenience purposes most of the drives are formatted in NTFS format. This may pose a challenge for modern linux and Android platforms – as NTFS is an older but proprietary format developed by Microsoft. It is however interesting to see how a compact linux for the Raspberry Pi can read and write to NTFS and loads of otherwise capable Android distributions can’t. Nvidia must have built something into their Shield devices so there it seems to work but on other devices (even on rooted FireTVs) playing a file off a NTFS formatted drive is a real challenge. Conventional antenna driven TV is coming to an end at least it is getting more and more fragmented throughout Europe and the US. In central Europe the DVB-T2 standard starts to mature but usually HD channels are encrypted and require a yearly subscription fee (which to some extend seems expensive when there are alternatives to watch TV online on multiple devices for a similar fee). I researched Zattoo and Magine.tv as good enough alternatives for me to watch some live TV. These services do not offer apps on all platforms but they are already moving to consoles and have been well established for iOS and Android so my hope is eventually they will be broadly available on most platforms.

Conclusion

Going back to the introduction: It’s a shame the good old windows PC is showing its age. Even with all the research my conclusion is: A Windows PC does it all and still in this day and age it feels like a great tool. All these fancy new gadgets promise much but don’t really fit into my every day life.

The best candidates for me right now seem to be the Nvidia Shield and the Xbox One. Both support my core use cases and seem to be fast and reasonably mature. The Xbox has a great game library for me and a nice controller – while the Shield can be accessed easily from iPhone and Android Phones. Well I would say the search continues and one has to keep an eye on this type of technology.

 

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