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

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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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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

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

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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

 

Interesting Tablets: Lenovo Yoga Tablet 8 or 10 October 31, 2013

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Second edition of me exploring current Tablet choices in the market.

Today the Lenovo Yoga Tablet. Specs over at The Verge…

Also a box full of interesting ideas. This is a little Android metal tablet with an included kick-stand. It comes in 8 inch and 10 inch flavors and was promoted heavily by Lenovo and Ashton Kutcher. Here is what one would get:

  • 8 or 10 inch
  • Android 4.2
  • 16 GB Flash
  • Prices around 229 – 349 (then with LTE and 10 inch) €
  • 1280 x 800 resolution
  • Quad Core 1.2 GHz
  • 1 GB Ram
  • microSD

From my perspective the ideas are great. Seems like great and solid build quality. Nice materials and a great kick-stand. But why put such an outdated SOC into the thing? Why only 1280 x 800 resolution? Okay the price is amazing especially when comparing it to a 500 USD iPad with non-expandable storage. Still I am undecided about this one – I would love to try it out and then report back.

+ Amazing Prices

+ Great kick-stand ideas

+ Great battery life of approx 18 hrs

+ LTE is available and the build-quality seems good

– low resolution

– brains / CPU = slightly on the slow side

Interesting Tablets: ASUS T100 TA October 31, 2013

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Fact of the matter: I have sold my iPad 3. It’s a strange story.. I loved my iPad .. but also I became increasingly unhappy with the space on it and with me managing app updates / game downloads / cleaning up on the iPad. Also after updating the iPad to iOS 7 – it felt a bit sluggish. So basically I am on my iPhone all the time and I had this big iPad lying around which looses value by the day and it didn’t really make me happy anymore.

So I sold it – and I am happy with that decision.

Now I am totally aware that a tablet for me (as for most people) is a luxury device (a “third” device next to phone and laptop / computer). So I said to myself I don’t immediately need a new tablet. Also the market is so interesting right now so I want to explore all options.

So with this little series I am taking a look around at the options in the market.

First up: ASUS T100 (Transformer Book T100 TA as it is called in my country). Specs at gdgt….

I must say: I am absolutely surprised by this device. Reviewers throughout the web are touting how well it’s build how versatile it is and at 379 € what a reasonable deal it is.

Summary:

  • Full 32bit Windows 8.1
  • 10.1 inch
  • Atom Baytrail SOC (Quad Core – 1.3 GHz)
  • 32 GB SSD
  • microSD
  • 2 GB RAM
  • HD Ready Resolution – 1366 x 768 Pixel (IPS Panel)
  • USB 3.0
  • Tablet mode / Laptop mode (dock with keyboard included)

Performance seems really good and as I said this may be a reasonable device. Just the resolution is no quite retina and not up to par with things like the iPad.

+ more capacity then the compatition

+ included dock

+ good performance and reasonable price

– lower resolution

– Windows 8.1

January 2013 Reminder: Windows 8 Upgrade Offer Ends November 22, 2012

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Windows 8 Pro Pack Shot

Just as a reminder.. just until 31.January.2013 you can buy and download a cheap 29,99 € upgrade for your Windows Vista or Windows 7 from Microsoft. All the details are summarized in Microsoft’s document:

 

http://windows.microsoft.com/en-US/windows-8/terms-conditions

Windows 7 Installation – User folders to different drive June 4, 2012

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Recently I had to work my way through the task to re-install Windows 7 and to do that properly I wanted the quicky stuff on the primary SSD and the User and Configuration stuff on a regular large hard drive.

I came across this nice article describing the process at length:
http://answers.microsoft.com/en-us/windows/forum/windows_7-files/win7-how-do-i-move-user-folder-to-a-different/565f16a5-e5ed-43c9-8422-4f56aebb296e

Here is the quick rundown of what I’ve done:

  • New Windows 7 installation
  • When setup asks to confirm computer / user name: don’t. Press CTRL SHFT F3 instead. This will launch “Audit Mode”
  • In audit mode get the above script. Save it / name it: folders.xml and put into easy accessible location.
  • Reboot using this command: sysprep.exe /audit /reboot /unattend:U:\folders.xml
  • Then reboot into “OOBE” Out of the box experience
  • should be all done.

 

Here is the copy’able version of the XML:

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="utf-8"?>
 <unattend xmlns="urn:schemas-microsoft-com:unattend">
     <settings pass="oobeSystem">
         <component name="Microsoft-Windows-Shell-Setup" processorArchitecture="amd64" publicKeyToken="31bf3856ad364e35" language="neutral" versionScope="nonSxS" xmlns:wcm="http://schemas.microsoft.com/WMIConfig/2002/State" xmlns:xsi="http://www.w3.org/2001/XMLSchema-instance">
             <FolderLocations>
                 <ProfilesDirectory>d:\Users</ProfilesDirectory>
                 <ProgramData>d:\ProgramData</ProgramData>
             </FolderLocations>
         </component>
     </settings>
     <cpi:offlineImage cpi:source="wim:h:/sources/install.wim#Windows 7 ULTIMATE" xmlns:cpi="urn:schemas-microsoft-com:cpi" />
 </unattend>

Thoughts on New iPad Delivery (3rd Generation) March 15, 2012

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It is no secret: I am a fan of the PC era and also the post PC era! I love using my iPad! It is a gorgeous device, fast, powerful, easy to use and it beats the use of any netbook attempting to compete with it. I was simply blown away how fast I could get things done on a train: Just get the iPad out of its sleeve.. turn it on.. watch a movie.. switch to the email app – and answer some mail.. It’s beautiful!

So also no surprise I ordered the new iPad 3rd generation one day after the keynote (8th March 2012) via the German Apple Online Store. I was one of the lucky ones in the 1 and a half day period where the estimated delivery is the launch day (16th March 2012). Since then I have been trying to figure out if I am really getting my iPad(s) tomorrow and how they are going to reach me. Here are some thoughts on that:

  • I actually ordered two iPads both 64GB one with 4G and one WiFi only
  • The WiFi model: supposedly shipped with Hermes Logistics Group Germany
    • The Hermes bit is interesting: Hermes is an ultra cheap logistics company mainly active in Germany. Apple’s decision to rely on Hermes for the majority of its German iPad delivery summoned an outrage on the interwebs…
    • It also resulted in some coverage of the German Apple community…
  • The 4G model: supposedly shipped with UPS
    • In my tracking view on ups.com I see that Apple used International Express Saver
    • I have checked with the ups.com calculator what that means if one ships a packaged from Amsterdam to Frankfurt (see picture above / and more on that later) and it seems to work: UPS Express Saver offers guaranteed delivery next day by end of day – fingers crossed
  • In Apple’s Online order overview they always mentioned the iPads shipped on 10th March / 11th March
  • However it seems Apple uses some sort of logistics service to bring the iPads into the Netherlands
  • During the time where Apple brings the iPads from China to the Netherlands there is no shipment tracking possible for German customers
  • Once the iPads are in Amsterdam – which seemed to be the case some time early 15th March – then tracking via Hermes or UPS becomes possible

so fingers crossed for a timely delivery on 16th March!

iPhone Website CSS Animations Explained March 13, 2012

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In a very illustrative demo John B. Hall shows how Apple employed smart CSS effects on their website presentation of the iPhone 4S. Kudos to John!

Product Watch List from CES 2012 January 10, 2012

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Here are a couple of newly introduced products to watch out for:

Samsung Camera WB850F

http://www.engadget.com/2012/01/09/samsung-unveils-four-wifi-enabled-shooters-smart/

D-Link All-in-One Mobile Companion (DIR-505)

  • lightweight
  • Wireless-N router, network repeater
  • USB recharger
  • Media streamer (with an external HDD)
  • 75 USD

http://www.engadget.com/2012/01/10/d-link-all-in-one-mobile-companion/

Samsung Series 7 Monitor

  • integrated TV Tuner
  • 1080p
  • Wireless connectivity (strange interfaces though)
  • brilliant computer monitor

http://www.engadget.com/2012/01/10/samsung-series-7-hdtv-hands-on/

Elgato Portable Thunderbolt Drive 120/240

  • Portable / no power brick
  • SSD quick and should be durable
  • Pricey 399euro and up

http://www.elgato.com/elgato/na/mainmenu/products/ThunderboltSSD.html

It’s CES 2012 time! January 9, 2012

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Holiday season is over, and it’s time for the Consumer Electronics Expo (CES) in Las Vegas again. From January 10th to January 13th (press events already scheduled around January 9th) the biggest consumer electronics and digital lifestyle companies will showcase their newest innovations in Las Vegas, NV. Popular technology sites are already buzzing with speculations and predictions: What are the hot new trends shown at CES? New feature-rich smartphones, sleek tablets and “UltraBooks” rank among the top trends spotted by Engadget and The Verge.

Smartphones…

The smartphone space right now seems very intransparent right now. At first let’s look at the broad statistics. Well it seems that iOS devices / iPhones and Android devices / Android activations show a head to head race. Whether you trust the independent figures provided by Google or Apple.. either one shows iOS in the lead (i.e. “devices sold during the Christmas period”) or Android in the lead (i.e. “number of daily android activations worldwide”).

Android and iOS is the way to go if you would like to employ a state of the art smartphone. However do we really expect significant announcements in that space? I would predict: a couple of new Samsung devices, maybe news from LG and HTC for Android but not much to be expected. Recently we have seen the Samsung Google Galaxy Nexus – which seems to be the Android flagship for a month to come.

A couple of tech-sites predict that Nokia and Microsoft may have announcements in tow. I would say: look at Microsoft’s recent idea to stay away from CES in the future. Thus Microsoft most likely sticks to their approach: announce the big news in special events not on a big show like CES.

Tablets…

This category is easy. In the light of a potential new iPad (3) with an HD retina display – there will not be many exciting tablet news. We will see the rise and fall of dozens of cheap android devices.

The potentially most exciting announcement may have already occurred at CES unveiled a pre-event leading up to CES. The “one laptop per child” project showed (via suppliers) their new “hundred dollar” tablet. An exciting new device with a very modular structure which can be used in remote locations (via manual charge or solar charge) to help teach kids.

UltraBooks…

I have always been in love with Apple’s interpretation of an ultra-usable & ultra-portable Laptop.  Now finally via Intel’s “UltraBook” campaign the PC market is trying to catch up. With exciting feature ideas like “resume”, like push-email / push-updates even if the device is sleeping etc. Intel throws in some excellent ideas. Up to now we have not seen the device portfolio that is really exciting us. So let’s see what the big manufacturers like HP, Samsung, Acer, Lenovo will have in tow for us.

Wrap-Up

It is definitely an exciting time. Although one cannot deny the fact that a big show is mostly interesting for the people on the ground and for real life networking. In terms of product announcements the producers seem to get a bit more cautious – and many of the big players may rely on their own “campus” events (i.e. Apple, Microsoft). So use the links below and keep an eye on the biggest electronics show in the world and let us know in comments what your most exciting news from CES 2012 have been.


The official CES flickr stream…

Live CES2012 Twitter stream…

Live Trendsmap for #CES2012…

Nokia E72 in the Works June 14, 2009

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Via an employee video uploaded to youtube.com the new Nokia E72 has been leaked. It is estimated that this smartphone successor of the E71 will see turn up for order in September 2009.

Here is what we know from the leak:

  • 5 Megapixel camera (with Carl Zeiss branding)
  • Relocated headphone jack – to the front left corner – possibly a 3.5mm jack
  • What looks to be an optical mouse instead / touch pad scroll device (in place as D-pad)
  • Relocated speaker (on the back next to the camera)

Here are some images and the video link curtesy of IntoMobile:

E72_06

E72_05

E72_03

E72_04

E72_02

E72_07

E72_01

http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x9kznz_nokia-e72_tech

Update – The media already confirmed the launch of the Nokia E72 for Q3 2009 – and is already boiling high with speculations about the usability of the phone.. Also comparing it to the larger competitors like the Blackberry Tour.

tour-nokiaE72

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