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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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Playstation Vita Error C2-12828-1 Help April 2, 2016

Posted by Steven in Freetime, gadgets, The-Web.
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Always on the road I really enjoy a casual mobile gaming experience. Of course a tablet and a smartphone is great for gaming. But I do use a Nintendo 3ds and a Playstation Vita every now and then.

Recently though I ran into a strange issue while playing ‘Uncharted Golden Abyss’ on my Playstation Vita.

While using the game and occasionally while booting up the game I received a tough error and the game would crash.

The Error Code: C2-12828-1

Time to find a solution.

Unfortunately the official Playstation Support Site is not of much help. Really misleading it describes a NAT / networking / demilitarised zone issue: http://community.eu.playstation.com/t5/PS-Vita/Fixing-the-Error-c2-12828-1-issue-on-your-Vita/td-p/15328217
But I don’t believe this C2-12828-1 is a networking issue at all.

From my experience with the issue (very random occurrence, usually involving large chunks of data being loaded, game-brraking) I do not believe it is networking related at all.

I would rather side with the other sources I’ve found on gamefaqs and reddit and the like. There you read a lot of warnings that this bug might get worse over time and it might destroy download data and save data. As in my experience game crashes are mentioned and worse: random shutdowns of the whole system. From all these reports this seems to be a nasty memory/file system error. The Vita uses a proprietary file-system plus heavy encryption. Something along side of heavy use, constant Vita-standby-mode and quick switching between big games may case defects in memory which worsen over time due to read/write activity. Ultimately the whole partition gets damaged and a Vita showing this bug should not be used but rather should be ‘fixed’ quickly. So how could this bug be fixed?

Fix

Based on: http://www.gamefaqs.com/boards/656455-madden-nfl-13/64026055
In short the only known fix is to backup the data of your Vita and then thoroughly wiping and rebuilding the console’s memory and then restoring.

Prerequisites for the fix:

  • Vita System and Data Cable
  • Sony Content Manager Assistant software for Windows or Mac
  • Free space on your PC/Mac (if you have a 16GB memory card the. At least 16GB free)
  • time and patience

 

Steps to fix C2-12828-1 :

  • Delete all games and apps you no longer need
  • Sync trophies / save-data with PSN server and do a full backup of your Vita using Content Manager Assistant. Basically hook up the Vita with a PC running Content Manager Assistant and copy over everything.
  • Remove any game card from the system.
  • Turn Vita off completely -> turn Vita on in SAFE MODE -> using Power button, PS button + R trigger to start it up.
  • At SAFE MODE screen select option (3) to Format Memory Card
  • Afterwards turn Vita on in SAFE MODE again, and select option (4) to Restore PS Vita System
  • Once again, get your Vita back to SAFE MODE and select option (2) to Rebuild Database
  • Turn your Vita on regularly and it should look fresh again. Icons everywhere. Don’t bother with changing any settings as the backup has it all; though you will have to re-arrange icons. At this point, go into Settings -> Format -> Format Memory Card (one last time).
  • Then get back to Settings and connect the Vita to your usual internet connection and sign in to your PSN so that it is authenticated.
  • Open Content Manager application on the Vita and Restore From Backup – connect to where your backup is stored.
  • After all is done, the icons are shufffled so get them re-arranged, make sure your time is set right using the internet

For some games the data was apparently so corrupted so it could not be restored. This happened for round about 5 out 30 games. I re-downloaded these games and downloaded save-data from PSN.

After all that was done, I was able to use my Playstation Vita as expected. The whole procedure especially re-downloading some larger games was cumbersome but in the end I seem to have a stable system now.

ResophNotes simple SimpleNote client for Windows February 1, 2016

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ResophNotes Screenshot

I have tried many things to get organized. Tried out many many different to-do-list apps (Things, AnyDo), feature-rich notes-taking apps (Evernote, OneNote). None of these really worked for me. I gather a lot of little things and to-dos during my usual days. Always on the go, I need really fast and simple synchronization between all my devices.

Most of the fancy to-do-list apps offer great features and -at least on iOS- really nice user interfaces. Overall I had some issues with inconsistent user experiences across the various devices. For example I have set up reminders or specific dates or places in an iOS app but on an Android phone the data would look different. Also I regularly use work PCs (etc.) thus a simple web frontend is essential for me. Some of the apps use Dropbox for synchronization but don’t have a specific web frontend for viewing or editing the data.

The big solutions like evernote and OneNote are simply too feature rich for me. There is so much to do and to try out that I easily get distracted. Also among tags and folders and collections and so on it is much harder to set up a simple stack of things to keep me organized.

So once again I realized the solution which works absolutely best for me is: Simplenote. It’s a plain and simple notes solution (by the way from the makers of wordpress). It is fast and intuitive. It gives you a list of text-only notes, a simple search function and a compact system to tag the notes. There some useful advanced features but the true beauty of Simplenote is really its simplicity. It is plain text, it is very quick and synchronization with pretty much all platforms and apps is fast and seamless.

ResophNotes

For ‘old school’ classic Desktop style windows, there is no native Simplenote app. Thus I had a quick look for a nice piece of software which could handle the job. I found a piece of software which is perfect for the job and an absolute joy to use:

ResphNotes

It is a sleek and classy Windows application it synchronizes quickly and seamlessly with Simplenote’s servers and it makes it easy to manage hundreds of notes. I have been using it for almost two years now and it supported my daily chaos really well. It was reliable and fast and never disappointed.

If you are looking for a nice and fast windows application to manage text notes you must give it a try!

OnePlus Two revealed July 29, 2015

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The famed flagship killer from 2014 is back. In the latest incarnation the OnePlus 2 is now the 2016-flagship killer!

That seems to be a bit of a stretch – as no one knows what 2016’s flagship phones will look like and whether the OnePlus 2 can keep up.

Nevertheless the OnePlus 2 has been revealed and it brings a huge bag of interesting features for quite an interesting price.

  • 5.5-inch touchscreen display with 1080p resolution
  • 2.0 GHz (underclocked to 1.8 GHz) octa-core 64-bit Qualcomm Snapdragon 810 v2.1
  • 4GB LPDDR4 RAM
  • 16GB or 64GB of storage
  • 3300 mAh non-removable battery
  • USB Type-C charging port (so it is easy to plug in the included charging cable whichever way you want / no more fiddling with the connector)
  • Fingerprint sensor via physical home button
  • Dual SIM
  • Mute switch

The design is also quite interesting. A brushed metal frame is bordering the huge full HD display. The sandstone backing of the original OnePlus One is also back and gets company in the form of additional StyleSwap back panels. Bamboo and kevlar are joined by wood finishes include ‘black apricot’ and rosewood.

OnePlus 2 Invite System

Same procedure as every year: You cannot simply go and buy a OnePlus 2. You have to be invited to get one. The Chinese company claims it has much more devices ready for sale and there will be more invites around.

But the system essentially works like last year: Sign your name onto a waiting list, keep an eye out on social media channels and get in touch with friends who may already plan on getting a OnePlus 2.

Once you get your hands on a precious invite code then you have 24 hours to buy the phone in the company’s online shop.

OP_s01_c004

First impressions using a BlackBerry Q10 (Blackberry OS 10.3.1) April 26, 2015

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bb10-q10-i0120

I am an iPhone 6 (Plus) user. However while planning some trips to the U.S. this year I checked ebay for a modern and unlocked phone I could use while traveling.

I found a really good deal on a BlackBerry Q10.

I was reluctant at first but I read some reviews of the new powerful BlackBerry 10 Operating System. Most critics where quite pleased by the power and flexibility of that recent OS. So I decided to give it a try.

The new device arrived on my doorstep early last week. I’ve put in a SIM and I have been using the Q10 for a couple of days now.

I must say I am impressed.

The device is compact and very well made. It feels dense and reliable, the metal frame adds the feel of value and durability while the glass-weave material is really nice to grip. Even in the office some people stopped me and wanted to look at that strange novel device with that amazingly structured back. The keyboard is amazing. Every key feels tight and gives great clicky feedback when you press it. When I look over at my iPhone 6 physical Home-Button where I had lots of issues in the last years, I must say BlackBerry really knows how to make physical keys.

Reading the reviews I knew I had to get used to some new gestures in order to use the device properly. The setup process was very smooth and with the help of just the right amount of unobtrusive on-screen tutorials BlackBerry made it really easy for me to find my way around.

The “Swipe up to go home” gesture is really intuitive. Also I use “Swipe up to – to wake-up the device” all the time. Just after a few days I caught myself wanting to unlock my iPhone with that gesture!

Although the Q10 is by no means a recent release (in the smartphone cosmos) – it was released 2 years ago in April 2013 – it handles the software extremely well! The unlock gestures give instant feedback with slick transparency animations. The casual swipe up brings you home instantaneously, the peek shows the hub quickly. In may days of using the device and with two large Gmail accounts set up plus Instagram and whatsapp and the like – I was not able to see any stutter at all.

Next to the hardware and the overall feel of BlackBerry 10 – I was most eager to try out the “BlackBerry Hub”. I tend to use smartphones more for messaging services than for other apps or even phone calls itself. The concept of having a truly universal inbox feels utterly compelling to me.

A place which summarizes all your notifications and all your email- plus instant-messages. That is really great. And I must say with some tiny caveats it works really well on my BlackBerry Q10 (10.3.1). In detail: notifications in general are not as polished as on iOS or Android. They are usually really simple texts / a blinking LED or in some cases cute overlays are shown similar to iOS’ banner style notifications. But the hub does an amazing job in summarizing and sorting all your basic details. Missed phone calls, text messages, emails from multiple accounts, Facebook and Twitter notifications. The biggest gripe – and I am sure by now you have heard of it – comes down to native BlackBerry 10 App support. There simply aren’t so many Apps and thus the hub cannot really be extended. That is a shame! I would love to see better support of Google+ places in there… But what by now I cannot live without is Instagram support. So you can download an App called “iGrann” (1,99 USD) which does a fine job of integrating Instagram. However browsing Instagram is a clunky experience and not as fluid and quick as on the official iOS App for example.

Again the biggest gripe is the choice of Apps you have. While BlackBerry integrates Twitter and Facebook directly these Apps still don’t seem as snappy and polished as their iOS or Android counterparts. Look for Instagram, Pinterest, Flickr etc. and you simply won’t find anything.

You can use Android Apps (as I understand based on an Android 4.4 JellyBean runtime which BlackBerry has included in their 10.3.1 OS) and they work fine for the most part. But still you can tell these Apps were not designed for the phone. They take time to load, some controls don’t work or you have to fiddle around with screen settings or back-gestures. So to me Android Apps remain more of a workaround solution.

I do like the Q10 and I am very impressed with BlackBerry’s ideas and highly professional concepts included in the offering. From solid hardware to the impressively designed hub to hundreds of accessible but powerful settings which let you tweak the BlackBerry to your needs. It is unfortunate that some things simply aren’t there yet. So BlackBerry remains an interesting option but needs to improve the App selection to become a true daily driver!

Gallery App from the CyanogenMod Team now available for Testing “GalleryNext” January 16, 2014

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Gallery-Plus-Cyano-Icon01

Google is on an interesting path with its latest release of the Android operating system 4.4 “KitKat”. For example on the Nexus 5 Google went so far as to make the search app the default launcher. So Google’s closed source search is the part that defines how your icons look on a Nexus 5. Also Google+ is being pushed more and more. Not too long ago Google added a special little App to Android which offers dedicated access to the Google+ Gallery. It also seems that step by step this new app shall replace the default Android Gallery.

So to sum things up: rather generic features on an Android device (Launcher, Gallery) are slowly being replaced with “enhanced” Google services (Google Search, Google+ Photos). So if we follow Google’s arguments we get exciting new features and interesting cloud stuff at the expense of being 100% tied into the Google ecosystem. I am sure there is more to come and other features will be tied into Google’s services as well.

So for people who like the flexibility and openness of Android it may be time to look around for viable alternatives to the “Google way”. For example if you do not want to keep your pictures on Google+ and you are a big fan of yahoo’s flickr then other gallery apps may be better.

Recently I checked out CyanogenMod’s GalleryNext. A sleek little gallery app coming from the people bringing beautiful Android versions to older devices. I must say I like it. It’s lightweight, it integrates Facebook-, Flickr- and Dropbox-pictures (as well as the usual Picasa albums) and it basically has a similar look and feel as the former default Android gallery app.

If you would like to give the app a try – it is currently in a testing stage, so backup your stuff an follow these steps (outlined here https://plus.google.com/110558071969009568835/posts/KFiGREqst3P) :

Optimized Android Libraries found on Moto X will speed up your Nexus 4, 5 or 7 January 6, 2014

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kitkatsegment01

Interesting developments in the semi-hacker-tech Android space: XDA-Developers forum member “kszaq” posted a nice FAQ / Guide on how to replace certain system libraries on your Nexus Device with Moto X versions.

Apparently by comparing benchmarks the tech-folk discovered that the Moto X scores better than similar devices with Android 4.4 KitKat. By taking the library-innards apart people found optimized versions of  Bionic and Dalvik.

Bionic is a google-created derivative of the Linux standard C library. It is supposed to make developer’s lives easier. A Linux developer group called “Code-Aurora-Group” has optimized the standard library so it works faster on Qualcomm’s Snapdragon platform. Google really should use this optimized version in the Android platform but so far it hasn’t.

The optimized Dalvik library would replace the usual Android-Runtime Compiler. This optimized version seems to be developed by Qualcomm itself and it is closed source. The specific nature of the Qualcomm optimizations is unclear but what’s interesting is: the optimization is so good that this quicker Dalvik library runs even better then the next generation ART compiler.

The Android hacker community now took these optimized versions from the Moto X firmware and made them available for installation and use on Nexus 4, 5 or 7. Relying on these versions would increase performance by some 5-10% on Qualcomm devices.

Rooting your Android is not required – detailed instructions are in the XDA-Developers post.

  • basically you need to read all: http://forum.xda-developers.com/showthread.php?t=2546120 (download links included)
  • you most likely would void your warrenty
  • you need to have Android 4.4 KitKat on your device
  • to make things easier you should have a Custom Recovery running
  • then (still read the full xda post) upload the provided files to your device
  • flash the images over your current ROM using the custom recovery

Simple Non-sientific Guide to HDMI Cables January 3, 2014

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HDMI-Composition-01

Ever so often in my quest for the perfect home-theater solution I come across stores which sell HDMI cables. And I am so puzzled with all the names and numbers these wires are branded. So I have read-up again on the details, mainly in this Wikipedia article, and here is my summary.

From my perspective when looking at the current state of HD and 3D home-theater (considering what is widely used now and discarding UltraHD etc.) there are only a few things to consider when shopping for HDMI cables.

As I see it there is the original idea of an HDMI connection which transmits Audi-, Video- and some auxiliary data. Also the smart people working on the HDMI Standards have right away in the initial idea included the transmission of “Control Data” i.e. to turn TV and DVD Player on at the same time. So all that with a decent signal band width is included in Category 1 of an HDMI cable. Due to the bandwidth it only supports pictures up to 1080i resolution (so not quite full-HD and no 3D as well). This incarnation of the cable is also called Standard HDMI Cable.

Now the industry quickly became aware that 1080p full-HD and also 3D is a thing. So the bandwidth aspects in the cable were redesigned mainly asking for higher grade inner streams in the cable and now the updated cable would support all of the above plus 1080p resolution and a sometimes people would attach some marketing buzz to the higher bandwidth i.e. 3D, deep color and so on. The updated standard is called Category 2 or High Speed HDMI Cable.

Even later in the game two other clever things were brought to life: Audio Return Channel (or ARC) and HEC – HDMI Ethernet Channel. As stated in the name these things call for additional channels. Not simple defining channels for A/V Data and Control/Auxiliary data but now defining additional channels for return Audio i.e. sound coming from your TV when it serves as the tuner for DVB Television. Now I believe the way the cables are produced means that many Cat. 2 or High Speed cables can actually support ARC or HEC or both. But the key is they are not guaranteed to do so. So if you require an audio return signal or if you want to make sure all devices can access the internet (more on that a little later) than you should shop for a cable that is clearly marked as supporting ARC and HEC. I’ve mad that little summary of my cable guide:

HDMI-Cables-Illustration-01

Now a couple of things on HDMI Standards: A standard encompasses many many details not just the cable itself. In the case of HDMI standards the chapters detailing the cables are relatively short and consistent. For example you may read the important HDMI Version 1.3a Standard Specification here. I would not look for HDMI cables marked for a particular standard as a) this is not the official way the guys developing the stuff call the cables and b) the standard contains much more than what is defined by the cable so you get an HDMI 1.3 cable and you still can’t see a 3D image.. well there may be another issue on another end of the whole entertainment rig. I just find it easier to think of HDMI cables in the above categories: Standard or High Speed and then the current king: High Speed with support for ARC and HEC. That’s it.

Now once again coming back to HEC – HDMI Ethernet Channel: If HDMI in its early forms can send and receive auxiliary data and also control some home entertainment functions why does one need HEC? Well I found this guide and the images explain it quite well:

So basically: even now the chance is you have a couple of HDMI connections between for example TV, media streamer and Blu-Ray player. Earlier you would have to set up an Ethernet connection or a WiFi connection on each device that needs the internet (TV separately and media streamer separately) now with HEC you can just set up one device for internet access and path this access through HDMI to any other device. Pretty cool.

Testing the WD TV Play January 2, 2014

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WD-Live-Composition2

Next moves in my quest to find the perfect home-theater: I found a deal for the WD TV Play. I know this will most likely not be the “perfect” solution for a full home-theater. But the way I see it: The device seems to be a simple player capable of playing most current video standards. It seems perfect for equipping your simple bedroom HDTV and playing back your downloaded shows (h.264) or quickly playing a dailymotion clip or streaming via maxdome and netflix.

I have ordered a unit and also dug up the owner’s manual. I will post a full review here soon. The quick validation for my purchase decision came from comparing my original favorite the WD TV Live with this unit. The quick table only tells half the story:

simple-table-wd-tv-comparison

There the main point seems to be the missing MPEG2 video playback and the missing DTS audio capabilities. Well I don’t use MPEG2 very much and with DTS the WD TV Play seems at least able to pass it through (alternatively for the quick bedroom blockbuster you may quickly opt to transcode it using handbrake for example).

Nevertheless I wanted to know all the details about this cheap box and I dug around. Here is what I found in quite some useful WD forum threads:

  • Western Digital TV Play (European Model Number WDBHZM0000NBK – EESN)
  • WD Spec. Sheet…
  • Cheap entry point media player – mainly aimed at streaming (Netflix, maxdome etc.)
  • Chipset used: MediaTek ARM MT8653
  • This means the Play has the same main hardware as the Netgear NeoTV Max | So it may be interesting to check the large list of files the TV Max can play back…
  • Seemingly this hardware supports the playback of MPEG2 – Western Digital may have decided to leave this feature out due to licensing issues
  • Full HD 1080p supported
  • Wireless Wi-Fi 802.11n technology
  • DLNA streaming
  • Here is once again a list of extra features that only the WD TV Live (which is more or less considered full feature) has:
    • Support for MPEG2
    • Support for full DVD
    • Support for DTS (The Live can decode it, the Play can only pass through.)
    • Support for NFS and Samba network shares (Samba is available in BOTH directions, client and server mode)
    • Media Library for content aggragation across multiple sources (USB, Network Shares from multiple servers, etc.) – adds SEARCH / Sort / Filtering / etc.
    • Custom Themes, which opens the door to custom movie sheets
    • Content Information Display in Gallery View.

Seems no deal breaker for me. What would be interesting as well would be the power consumption – I will report back with my experiences.

Graphics Driver Woes January 2, 2014

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I want to properly record my classic “PC” experiences over the last couple of hours.

I have a rather special entertainment setup in my other small city apartment. I use VLC and Windows Media Center on a mid-range Windows 7 PC hooked up to a good Bose soundsystem and a big simple HDTV. So quite coincidentally I was given an even bigger simple HDTV from my family. It happened to be a nice Toshiba -40inch L2 series screen.

This little upgrade meant, that for the first time I was able to hook everything up to the TV using HDMI connections.

And here the trouble started. When I simply plugged the HDMI cable into PC and HDTV I saw an image. So far so good. The PC set the correct resolution but on the HDTV the image did not fill the whole panel. About 2cm on each side of the panel were left black. This also resulted in text being muddy (I guess when the PC generated image is lets say 1920 pixel wide and somehow on the LCD Screen it gets shown only on like 1400 pixels wide things must get muddy).

I was really not satisfied with that and in good old Windows 3.1 manner I poked around and during that poking found out my graphics driver was not up to date. So I updated the AMD Catalyst driver package to the then latest version (13.9). The pure update itself however did not resolve the issue.

I googled around and I found this nice tipp. There it is mentioned that the Catalyst Control Center has dedicated Flat Screen options where you can scale the image and specify desired over / underscan. Indeed I was able to locate this setting and when set to 0% overscan and using the TV’s setting “picture size – native” (not movie or wide screen) then the picture seemed perfect!

HDTV Image scaling / AMD overscan problem solved. But it left me still wondering: who’s fault was it? Is it a strange setting embedded in AMDs graphics cards? Or set by AMDs software i.e. Catalyst Control Center? Or is it the Toshiba TV that somehow reports some strange data and the image gets somehow scaled? Mhh who knows but given my next experience I suspect AMD Software to be the culprit.

So with the one problem solved and with super new drivers installed all should have been well – but I noticed another very strange issue. Again a bit of back-story: In the PC I use a TV card for occasional TV viewing pleasure in Windows Media Center. The model I employ is a Terratec Cinergy PCIe Dual DVB-T Card. Up to now it always worked nicely and Terratec provides simple 32 and 64 bit drivers for Windows 7. In terms of other software I really just use Windows Media Center. It’s decent for quickly jumping into a TV show (with EPG data provided) and to record a movie etc.  So enough back-story. With this setup usually working flawlessly I now noticed, that each time when I open Windows Media Center and turn on live TV then the sound would come on (from the TV show) but there was no image. After about 30 seconds of Audio-Only Playback, the playback would stop completely. The ad-hoc “fix” for this strange issue is even stranger: I just needed to change the channel and then back for example and then there was image and sound for my TV programming. Given that this mid-range entertainment setup really doesn’t have to do much (boot up play a h.264 file, play a tv show, browse the web, shut down) I was disappointed but these new glitches.

I googled around again. Interestingly I found reports that people experience similar issues while just being upgraded to a super new NVIDIA graphics driver. So wait a minute.. didn’t I just update my AMD Catalyst driver? Oh man. So I quickly tried out the driver roll-back Device Manager function on my AMD Radeon HD 6800. And voila the Media Center TV stuff worked again flawlessly. But guess what happened: Windows rolled back to a Microsoft driver and there was no Catalyst Control Center anymore. Meaning: Toshiba’s LCD in combination with the Radeon card would do that nasty underscan thing again and my PC image is not filling the LCD properly again.

Not good.

So I spare you the next 2 hours of poking around. So what I basically needed was: some version of AMDs drivers and Catalyst Control Center where I could set the underscan / scaling to 0 – but the driver must not be so new that it shows the Media Center issue (or TV card driver combination what-not-issue).

My technique to achieve that in short was:

  • making sure that all new / old bits of AMDs software = AMDs CCC were removed from my PC
  • I used AMDs Cleanup Utility – which unlike the regular uninstallers and Windows functions I tried – seemed to fully remove AMDs stuff from my system. Sadly this tool seems no longer actively being supported by MAD. Oh well.
  • Then I installed version 12.10 of AMDs Catalyst package
  • And voila now I was able to disable underscan and I can comfortably watch TV again – weeehhhh what a hassle it’s been

So in short: just plugging in my AMD driven PC into my Toshiba LCD results in a stupid looking image. One needs to flip switches in AMDs software to make it work. However new AMD software breaks features along with my TV card / Windows Media Center. All this causes trouble and long long research sessions jumping from Windows resources to AMD resources to Terratec resources and so on. All that in the light of my really simple consumer goals (watch a bit of TV and use a bigger LCD). Horrible. And an absolute stellar example why I am really moving more towards Apple. This PC and driver stuff is so endlessly complex and even for simple tasks there are so many points where things can go wrong. Drivers, connections, updates and so many different manufacturers. Really bad. I like my Windows stuff but please dear AMD,,, dear PC industry get it together and put functioning well working parts that function as a whole out there!

Home-Theater: Who builds up to date and affordable media players? December 30, 2013

Posted by Steven in gadgets.
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Perfect-Home-Theater

Back in the days when I was picking out my first DVD player I was so up to date with all the set-top box and media player manufacturers. But today? Now when every $60 Samsung and Sony Bluray player plays back all kinds of files.. where are those companies that are leading the market?

I had to do some research.

I found there some promising and reasonably priced products from a handful of manufacturers out there.

Sadly xoro – the brand that I gave my money for a decent dvd player – seems not to play a leading role in the media player space nowadays.

But when you look closely there maybe some promising options out there:

  • Western Digital makes WD Live TV which is a decent sub $100 player
  • The Popcorn Hour A-300 and A-400 seem like solutions for the better off with a heft of ports and price tag of >$200
  • I quite liked the mid-range Dune D1 frome dune-hd and Xtreamer Prodigy boxes. They cost between $100 and $200 and they both seem really capable with a huge software package

 

New Series [The Perfect Home Theater] December 30, 2013

Posted by Steven in gadgets.
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Perfect-Home-Theater

During the holidays one has more time than usual. Time to research the current state of the nation in terms of high speed internet and digital HD TV. I find that current state mostly very difficult. From where I’m standing my requirements seem reasonable. I need access to the nation’s common free-tv programming (preferably in HD and in some sort of recordable digital format), I want to be able to play divx / h.264 encoded videos (from all sorts of containers and without horrible lag or a horrible non-functional interface), and I hate cables and I would like to have one tiny energy saving box that does it all. There we have it and the industry has no good answer for my wishes. Follow my quest to find the perfect home-theater.

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