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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.

 

Silverlight / AMD Catalyst Issue – Graphics device’s driver certificate is invalid 6036 January 4, 2014

Posted by Steven in Freetime, In-Media.
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Silverlight-Issues

Once again a story of woe. With regards to my secondary PC/entertainment setup I outlined here, that I had basically two important needs: I need to have a fitting picture for my Toshiba HDTV = needing a graphics driver to set underscanning / scaling to 0 and I need a perfect software/driver setup so I can instantly watch DVB-T television. Okay with my very specific setup between the “right” AMD Catalyst Driver and all the other software I have achieved these two needs.

Now slowly a third need emerged. Not quite as high priority but well. I recently tried out watchever.de and now I am trying lovefilm.de. Both are Video on Demand services extremely similar to netflix or hulu plus. Both services use a Silverlight player with heavy DRM measures.

And the basic issue now is: Something is wrong in the setup between Silverlight, my PC, the graphics driver or any other component that has a part in playing a video.

I have tried all the suggested steps to fixing faulty silverlight playback. A lot of websites are mentioning something like this:

Well none of these common techniques helped in my case. I must also mention in Watchever there was no specific error message. But fortunately in Lovefilm something was shown. It reads:

Title not available. System Exception: 6036 An Error has occurred.

Well that is at least something. If you read up on it.. Microsoft is clearly saying something is wrong on the DRM side. In fact the specific description of 6036 on Microsofts Dev Net reads:

Graphics device’s Driver Certificate is invalid.

Oh man. Other people say that the encrypted (HDCP) path between graphics card and Screen/HDTV is not valid or there is something wrong in that line of encryption. I quickly verified that my system is generally fully HDCP compliant by using the Cyberlink BD 3D Advisor. It’s a handy utility which checks pretty much everything related to Blu-Ray playback on your PC (and HDCP and driver stuff is an important part of it). Well no issue here on my PC.

So graphics driver.. I use the AMD Catalyst Package 12.10 for my Radeon HD 6800. Should be okay. Quick web search: I am not the only one having this issue. It really seems some messy dirty corner between the AMD driver and Silverlight. Somehow causing the Silverlight DRM stuff to thing there is something wrong and playback should not start. Absolutely horrible. I poked around tried some stuff (i.e. reinstalling Playready components and reinstalling Windows Media Player none of which helped!).

So for now the only Solution I found: uninstall the Catalyst Drivers for example with the build in installer or with the AMD Cleanup Utility. Once completely uninstalled restart your system and then open Lovefilm Netflix or whatever. Voila the Video plays with no issue. But: of course with no proper AMD driver (maybe Windows picked some generic driver or you are just seeing some sort of 800x resolution). Just for fun I tried a lot of Driver combinations Catalyst 11.5 – 13.3 but none of these would work for me.

So summary: If you have the 6036 issue – All the web seems to know right now is that it’s an issue. If you’re really desperate you can uninstall the driver and the Silverlight DRM videos will play. But with no proper graphics drivers this is not a permanent solution rather a quick fix.

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.

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

 

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

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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.

I had no idea how far the Bluray industry is already going with watermarking.. December 22, 2013

Posted by Steven in In-Media.
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I recently stumbled over the Cinavia content protection on a Bluray disc. I had no idea how much the industry is doing to make the use of Bluray discs so stupid for us consumers.

I found a very nice summary on AnandTech dissecting the technology and the possible schemes behind it.

http://www.anandtech.com/show/5693/cinavia-drm-how-i-learned-to-stop-worrying-and-love-blurays-selfdestruction

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