The Quest for the Perfect Media Player – or, Why I Love my Apple TV

I’ve long struggled to find the perfect media device for my home – something that can bring together the vast collection of digital media that I have saved mainly on my desktop computer.

For a while, I thought Microsoft’s Windows Media Center Extender idea was going to be the answer. So I bought one (made by Linksys) and tried to use it.

Linksys Windows Media Center Extender

In the end, the Media Center Extender was… just OK. It was a little rough around the edges when used with Windows XP Media Center (the OS it was originally made for), but it got a lot better in Vista and Windows 7.

Still, this little device could only play media that my desktop computer knew about and had saved locally. It couldn’t play YouTube videos (or any other kind of on-line video, such as Netflix or Hulu), and it couldn’t play music I’d purchased through iTunes. It wouldn’t work at all if my PC was turned off, and it had difficulties with certain types of files – sometimes crashing the entire device, or even the Media Center service on my PC!

The final nail in the coffin for this little device though was that Microsoft eventually abandoned the idea, and manufacturers stopped making and supporting them.

It was around this time that I started looking for an alternative. For a long time I thought my only option would be to buy a very small slim PC and just hook that straight up to the TV – but I really didn’t like this idea, for a number of reasons.

As it would be a fully-fledged Windows PC, it would have all the problems of a Windows PC – needing to reboot for updates, needing to have a keyboard and mouse around, driver issues, etc.

Also, it would be rather expensive to buy an entirely new PC just to play back media – after all, the media itself would be stored on a different computer.

I briefly toyed with the idea of using an XBox or XBox 360 to do the same thing – after all, they function as Media Center Extenders as well – but buying a game console just to play back media seemed rather silly to me.

Eventually I narrowed it down to some sort of stand-alone device, specifically, a Roku or an Apple TV.

I decided to try the Roku first, as it was the (slightly) less expensive option – I got a refurbished one for just $75.

Roku 2 XD

The Roku was a neat little device, but I quickly found that it was not going to do what I wanted:

  • It had absolutely NO provision for streaming media from a local source (e.g., my computer), something that was infuriatingly difficult to determine from the online information (it was never made clear if it could or couldn’t).
  • The UI for the device was a bit clunky, sharing that sort of slowness/lagging that the Windows Media Center Extender had – you’d press a button, and there’d be a slight delay before anything happened (especially noticeable if you tried to pause a movie).
  • The remote was a special non-infrared device unique to the Roku, which means I could not use my universal remote with it.

In the end, I returned the Roku after just one day.

At this point, I wondered if I’d ever find something that could do what I wanted, and I seriously expected I’d have to buy a computer just to hook up to my TV. So it was with some trepidation that I walked into my local Apple store and bought an Apple TV (the 3rd generation model).

Apple TV with remote

As with the Roku (and other similar devices), you just plug it into the power and into your TV (and, optionally, into your network – although it has wireless built-in) and you’re good to go.

Right away, I was very pleased with what I saw. If there is one thing Apple knows how to do, it’s design a simple, elegant, useable user interface – and the Apple TV is no exception.

The remote is a bit hard to get used to, as it looks like the scroll wheel from an iPod nano, but it isn’t – it’s just a 4 way controller – but this was a moot point for me, as the Apple TV works beautifully with my universal remote.

The Apple TV does exactly what I wanted it to do – it can play remote media, such as YouTube, Netflix, Hulu, or Flickr, and it can also play music, movies, and pictures from my local computer – all in full 1080p HD quality. And all this for just $99 – what a deal!

Of course that’s not to say the Apple TV doesn’t have its downsides – because it certainly does – but they are at least much more bearable than the downsides of the other options.

The biggest downside (at least for me) with the Apple TV is that in order to stream media from a local PC, you have to use iTunes – that is, you have to leave iTunes open on your computer all the time (or, whenever you want to be able to stream media to your Apple TV). And sometimes, even if iTunes is open, the Apple TV won’t connect to it.

On top of that, iTunes is very picky about what types of files it will play, especially when it comes to videos. If you’re a Windows user and you have a lot of AVI files (as I do), be prepared to have to re-encode all of your videos into MP4 format, because iTunes (and the Apple TV) pretty much will not play anything else.

Also, iTunes is… not that great about letting you organize videos (not surprising, as it was originally designed as a music program, not a video program). It can be done, but it’s slow and awkward – pretty much par for the course when it comes to iTunes, though.

That said, the Apple TV is a nice little media device, and it also has a few neat tricks up its sleeve – for example, if you turn on AirPlay, you can use your Apple TV as a remote set of speakers, so you can stream something from iTunes or your iPod Touch/iPhone directly to your Apple TV. Since I hooked up my home stereo (via optical cable) to the Apple TV, this means I can now fulfill part of my childhood dream to have music playing throughout my home.

You can also use “AirPlay Mirroring” to mirror your iPhone’s screen to your TV through the Apple TV – although you do need to be using at least an iPhone 4S for this to work, otherwise you’ll only be able to display some things (videos and photos). If you have a Mac and the latest version of OS X, you can use this to make your TV a remote second monitor – which is a pretty neat trick, if you ask me! (Sadly, there is no ability to do this from Linux or Windows, although for Windows there is a 3rd party program that can kind-of make it work, although there is some very serious lag to the display.)

Still, of all the media playback devices I’ve found and tried, the Apple TV is the best balance of function, form, and price… so much so that after a few months with it, I went out and bought a 2nd one for my bedroom TV!

These days, every new TV or DVD (sorry, Blu-Ray) player seems to have some sort of media playback options built in – but oftentimes these are afterthoughts, poorly executed and with horrible UI that is never updated or improved. The Apple TV, at least, is purpose-built for what it does, and has a typically Apple-ish polished UI that actually is updated (and even if it isn’t, it’s so well done to begin with – it’s like the iPod; if you get the basics right the first time, you don’t need to keep “fixing” it).

The Apple TV’s combination of (almost) perfect function, small size, good UI, and low price, make it the perfect choice for home entertainment – or, at least they do for me, anyway. If you’re looking for a media device, you might want to give the Apple TV a try… you might just be surprised.

Joining the Dual-Monitor Club

After many, many years of dragging my feet, I have finally joined the dual-monitor club:

joining the dual monitor club

My wife’s company was getting rid of some surplus equipment and I managed to grab the 2nd monitor for just $25 – you can’t say no at that price! So I decided to give this dual-monitor thing a try.

I’ve long been… well let’s say ambivalent about the benefits of having dual monitors – despite the fact that most programmers swear by them (heck, dual monitors are item #1 on the Programmer’s Bill of Rights!).

My reluctance was partly due to the cost – especially back in the CRT days, when monitors (decently-sized ones, anyway) were not inexpensive. The other reason for my reluctance was that I’d tried the dual-monitor thing years ago and found it not very useful – the monitor I tried out was an old 15″ CRT, and the desk I was using at the time didn’t really fit a 2nd monitor very effectively. Also, back then there really wasn’t any such thing as a “dual-head” video card, so you had to add a 2nd video card (probably a slower PCI card, since your main video card was probably using up the sole AGP slot on your motherboard).

However, even when LCD monitors became relatively inexpensive and easy to get I still resisted getting a second monitor. The reason for this was that I just could not see how a second monitor would benefit me, given the type of work I do. Oh, I didn’t deny that it would be useful sometimes – but not necessarily enough to justify the cost/space/hassle/etc.

I just kept figuring that I really only “focus” on one thing at a time, so why bother having a second screen if I’m not going to be focusing on it? Plus, I worried about getting cramps in my neck & shoulders from turning to the side to stare at a second monitor for any length of time.

So I rationalized it to myself for a very long time, until this $25 monitor came along, and I just figured I’d give it a try (at worst I could decide I didn’t like it and give it away to a family member or friend who needs a new monitor).

So now that I’ve got it, how is it working out for me? Well, getting used to a second monitor actually takes some time and effort – when you have worked for so long with just one screen, it’s hard to “give up” a window and move it over to the second screen.

Of course, what stuff ends up on the 2nd screen is a tough choice to make. My “desktop” is now effectively twice as wide as it used to be, which means moving the mouse from the left side of the screen to the right side of the other screen takes a while – and again, I don’t like moving the mouse more than I have to (repetitive stress injuries are to programmers what black lung was to coal miners). So whatever went on the 2nd monitor would have to:

  • Only infrequently require mouse input
  • Be something I could glance at out of the corner of my eye, without needing to actually turn my head and stare at the 2nd screen for long periods of time
  • Not be distracting

Interestingly, not a lot falls into this category for me.

A lot of people using dual monitors will say how they love having their email open on the 2nd screen all the time. But I (mostly) follow the “Getting Things Done” philosophy, and I’m also a programmer so interruptions are anathema  to me, so having email always “in my face” is just not necessary. I check email when I’m ready to check email, and my computer will let me know that mail has arrived and I can then read it at my leisure.

Having IM or Twitter open on the second monitor might also seem like it might be useful, and after trying it out, I did actually decide to move my IM program to the 2nd monitor. It helps keep chats with co-workers “on the side” so I can keep working. And Twitter would probably be a good candidate, except I don’t use Twitter often enough for it to be that important to me. Plus, the Twitter client I use (Spaz) has growl-style notifications that let me know when new Tweets happen for the (relatively) few people I follow, so that’s good enough for me.

Another candidate for a 2nd monitor is for debugging – and that would be a good use for a 2nd monitor, depending on the type of debugging you are doing. But I mostly do .NET WinForms development these days, and debugging that is pretty easy on a single monitor. Perhaps when I have some web development to do, or other kinds of development, the second monitor will really come through for me – but right now, it’s just not helpful for the debugging I do.

However, a very good candidate for the 2nd monitor is for remote desktop/virtual machines. Often I have to remote control people’s computers, and putting that on the 2nd monitor allows me to effectively have their desktop right next to mine – it is very handy. Likewise for virtual machines – I will run the virtual machine on the 2nd monitor and I can keep an eye on it while working normally on my 1st monitor.

So that’s where I stand currently in regards to the dual-monitor club. I’m still a new convert, and I’m still getting my sea-legs, so to speak, as far as figuring out how best to use this 2nd screen I have. But I’m getting there.

Another Computer Conundrum: A Computer for MOM

Once again, I’m facing a computer conundrum. This time, however, it’s a bit trickier to find the “right” answer, because this computer isn’t for me: it’s for my mom.

My conundrum is this: I still have my old computer (Elysion) lying around, and since I love giving old technology a second life, I had planned to clean it up, install Windows 7 on it, and give it to my mom to replace her current computer – a very old Dell with a very slow early generation Pentium 4 CPU.

Now, you might be thinking:  “What’s the conundrum, Keith? Just give you mom your old computer; it’s obviously better than what she has!” And you’d be right – my old computer is better than what she has currently.

But there’s another choice I hadn’t considered originally: getting my mom a nettop computer instead.

To put it into perspective, he’s a handy comparison chart comparing my old computer vs. a new nettop (specifically, an Acer Aspire Revo AR2600 U9022 – gotta love Acer’s insane model numbering!):

My Old Computer (Elysion)
Acer Aspire Revo AR36010 U9022
CPU: Pentium 4 w/HT Intel Atom 330 w/HT
CPU Type:
32-bit 64-bit
CPU Architecture: “Prescott” “Diamondville”
CPU Cores: 1 (2 logical) 2 (4 logical)
L2 Cache: 1 MB 1 MB
Clock Speed: 3.2 GHz 1.6 GHz
Front-side bus: 800 MHz 533 MHz
Thermal Draw: 82W 23W
RAM: 1 GB DDR2 PC4300 + 2 GB DDR2 PC5300 2 GB DDR2 PC2 6400
Hard Drive: 160 GB + 500 GB (7200 RPM) 160 GB (5200 RPM)
Video: ATI Radeon X300 NVIDIA ION integrated graphics
Other Drives: 1x CD/DVD writer, 1x CD/DVD player SD/MMC/MemoryStick/xD memory card reader/writer
Cost:
Free (+ about $120 for a Windows 7 upgrade) $330 (all inclusive)

The problem I have is that I’m not always very good at picking out technology for other people – especially for people who plan to use technology in a very different way than I would. While my recommendations are still very, very good (the reason why people keep asking for my recommendations in the first place), they are still a little bit… biased.

On the surface, it seems like the Acer nettop is the way to go – although it may be a bit slower in terms of raw clock and front-side bus speed, it is a true dual-core CPU, with all the benefits that go along with that. (Astute readers might also remember that when I upgraded from Elysion I actually took a drop in raw CPU clock speed from 3.2 GHz to 2.6 GHz, and yet my new computer is much faster than my old one.)

On the other hand, there are other aspects of the Acer nettop that would suggest that maybe sticking with a full-fledged desktop PC is the way to go. The nettop is, with a few exceptions, basically a desktop version of my Acer Aspire One netbook. The CPU in my netbook runs at the same clock speed (although it is not dual-core) and has the same size (and same RPM speed) hard drive. And although I love my netbook and think it is a great little computer, it is not exactly “zippy” in terms of performance.

However, again, there are differences between the netbook and the nettop. For one, the nettop has more RAM than my netbook – 2 GB instead of 1. And the nettop has that new ION graphics package – remember, this nettop is often marketed as a great Media Center PC rather than as a desktop computer, and as such it has the necessary graphics power to drive a big HD screen. And my netbook runs Ubuntu Linux for the most part (with the factory-installed Windows XP on a separate partition), not Windows 7, so there may be performance differences there that I’m not aware of. And there’s that whole dual-core vs. single core thing, plus the fact that the nettop’s CPU is 64-bit vs the netbooks 32-bit CPU.

However, my old computer also has the advantage of being, well, free – since I already have it (I just have to pick up a Windows 7 upgrade CD). And in this case, cost is definitely a factor.

Making the decision even harder is that it’s very hard to find performance data that can be used to compare the old Pentium 4 (with Hyper-Threading!) against the very new Atom 330, especially since things like chipsets, graphics card performance, hard drive speed, and so forth can all very significantly affect perceived (and measured) performance.

So I’m just not sure what to do in this case – I think I will have to mull this over for a bit more still before I come to a decision. (Though I invite readers with an opinion one way or the other to chime in on this debate in the comments!) When I do come to a decision, I will post about it here (and update this article), since I think that this sort of computer conundrum is bound to be a common one among techno-savvy people with not-quite-as-tech-savvy family members. But we shall see!

Windows Media Center Extender Follow-Up

Well, it’s been over a month since I set up my new Windows Media Center Extender, so now I can talk about how it works over the long term.

Keeping in mind that I bought my extender on sale for a measly $99, and that normal models can go for a lot more (I’ve seen models in stores with HDD-based DVR-capabilities running upwards of almost $500), I can’t say that I’m disappointed with it… but I can’t exactly say I’m pleased with it, either.

That’s not to say I have buyer’s remorse or anything, though. I like having it – it is handy to be able to pull up some music while I’m cleaning, for example, or to sit down and watch some movies I’ve got on my computer out in the living room (on the big – well, bigger screen) – but I guess the bottom line with Windows Media Center Extenders is that they are “not bad, but not perfect.

For example, it goes without saying that music purchased from iTunes isn’t going to play via a Media Center Extender (unless it’s the DRM-free kind). The Linksys extender comes with a software program to “import” your iTunes playlists into Media Center, which it does… but as for playing iTunes music, well, it sort of “hacks” it. The software uses a feature of many sound cards which is often called “what you hear” – basically, it’s a way of recording exactly what is playing through your sound card (without using a loopback cable or anything). And, yeah, it works… but while it’s working, your computer is playing music too!

What the software does is when you choose an iTunes DRM-protected song from the Media Center Extender, it opens up iTunes on your computer and starts playing the song – using the “what you hear” recorder to effectively “re-record” or “transcode” the music and stream it back out to the extender. As I said, it’s a bit of a hack. (And it’s kind of annoying if someone is using the computer while the extender is in use, too.)

iTunes aside, there are also a few other niggling issues which make the experience of the Media Center Extender “just OK” rather than “really nice.”

  • It’s slow – dog slow. The UI feels like it’s made of cold molasses.
  • It doesn’t play nearly as many video formats as your computer can.
  • Managing playlists (for music) is more than a bit of a pain in the neck – sometimes playlists that you can see on your computer in Media Center don’t show up on the Extender until much, much later (as in, the next day).

Now, I know there are very valid technical reasons for some of these things – the slow UI comes from the fact that it’s sort of a hybrid of a remote desktop client, and although it’s slow, it’s at least bearable. The video format problem comes from the fact that video is not streamed in raw format across the network (it’d take up too much bandwidth, I suppose), but instead the video file is streamed, and then decoded on the extender device itself (and since the extender doesn’t have a very powerful CPU, it doesn’t have the muscle for certain video formats/codecs).

The playlist thing I really don’t understand – I know that there’s a “Media Center Maintenance” task that runs every night, and after that runs my playlists will show up on the extender – but I don’t know why that is. It’s incredibly frustrating sometimes – I’ll make a new playlist on my computer (where the UI is faster), but it won’t show up on my extender right away.

As for the video format limits – there are ways around that, of course, but they are all generally video versions of the same method used by the iTunes software – something called “transcoding.” Basically, when you choose to play a file, your computer will transform it from whatever format it’s in to a format that the extender can understand – on the fly, as you’re playing it. Sounds like it’d work pretty well, if your computer has a bit of CPU power to spare (re-encoding video on-the-fly is very CPU intensive). Unfortunately, it doesn’t work very well. I’ve tried several methods to do it, and they’ve all failed, horribly. Some people claim to have much better luck with it – I guess I’m just not one of those people.

In the end, I just seem to come back to my original conclusion – Windows Media Center Extenders are “just OK” or “not bad.” They certainly do what they are supposed to… if slowly and within some rather draconian technical limitations. You’d think with competition from things like Apple’s Mac TV thing that Media Center Extenders would raise the bar or something – but sadly they do not. (And if you own a Media Center Extender, stay away from anyone with an Apple computer hooked up to their TV – you’ll become insanely jealous. As always, the Mac does things so much better, cleaner, and more elegantly.)

So if you can get a good price on an extender (as I did), and you want that kind of functionality (and you’re a Windows household, of course), I’d say go for it. It won’t be great, but you’ll still be able to do things you couldn’t before. But if you paid a lot of money for an extender… well, you have my sympathy.

Trying out a Windows Media Center Extender

I’ve kind of been interested in the whole “Media Center Extender” idea, ever since XP Media Center Edition came out oh so long ago. The idea of being able to play the music, movies, and pictures on my computer way over in the livingroom was really interesting to me – it’s such a logical idea, once you think about it.

Sadly, however, during the days of Windows XP’s Media Center’s life, the number of Extenders was very small – and those that existed were rather expensive. And the whole “play movies from the computer on the TV” idea, although cool, was never a necessity – so it was never “in the budget,” so to speak.

When Vista came out, there were a whole slew of new Windows Media Center Extenders – because, of course, the interface between them had changed. So, in a way, I was glad I hadn’t bought an extender yet!

On the other hand, the new Extenders were rather advanced – and likewise, rather pricey. As in $300+ pricey. So my hopes seemed dashed yet again.

However, just about a week and a half ago, Dell had a one-day sale on a particular Extender model for just $99 – what a steal! So, I bought it – and it just arrived yesterday. So now it’s time to talk about it!

dma2200The Extender I bought is a Linksys DMA2200. Interestingly, this particular model also includes a DVD player – a good idea in theory (one less device to clutter up the space around your TV), but usless to me, since half my  DVD collection comes from Amanda – and is thus Australian – and is thus Region 4 coded – which means I need a region-free DVD player. So, I won’t be replacing my existing DVD player with this Extender, but I guess it’s kind of a cool feature to have.

Setting the thing up is as simple as could be. Just choose how (component, S-Video, HDMI, etc.) and turn it on. Then, follow a few steps (like choosing what video output you’re using, and what kind of network you have) and it gives you a number. Go to your computer and type in the number when prompted by Windows Media Center and you’re done.

Well, sort of.

I had originally thought that an Extender was basically a fancy “Remote Desktop” client, and that it simply used the Windows Remote Desktop protocol to “log on” to the host Media Center computer – using the same interface as on the host computer, just “streamed” across the network to the device, which displayed it on the TV. Sort of like using your TV as a second monitor, as it were.

As it turns out, this is not entirely the case. When you add an Extender to Media Center, it adds a new user account for the extender, and the Extender uses this account to connect to your computer and read the media. But, because it’s a separate user account, it seems to have to read the media independently of what you may have already set up in Media Center yourself. And when you first turn on the device and see the Media Center screen – get ready to wait a while. Because the device has to “scan” or “find” your media.

At first, I thought it wasn’t working, because I didn’t see my media, but then I let it do it’s thing (took a while, but I’ve got LOTS of stuff), and it showed up. So, it was a little different than I expected, but once you let it find your media, you’re pretty much set.

As for using the Extender itself – well, it’s exactly like using Media Center on the host computer, only slower.

I had read reviews about this particular Extender – some positive, some rather negative – but really, aside from the slight sluggishness it’s not bad. And you’d have to expect the sluggishness – this is, after all, a tiny little device, not a full-fledged computer.

Furthermore, you really shouldn’t be playing with the interface much at all – generally, I expect the way these were meant to be used was for you to just browse to music, put some music on, and then play a picture slideshow of some sort – or maybe just go in and start watching a movie. Generally, you wouldn’t be spending a lot of time in the UI, so the slowness isn’t a huge issue.

My pictures show up just fine – can’t complain about that. And my music library is all in there, too. There’s even an app that came with the device (on a CD of course) that tries to import your iTunes library into Media Center so it can be viewed with the extender – very cool. Of course, for iTunes music that’s protected with DRM, you’ll need a sound card that is capable of doing loopback recording – which mine was not, so although my iTunes music shows up in Media Center, only unprotected songs can be played. Oh well, at least it tried!

Videos are a bit more problematic, mostly because the Extender doesn’t just play anything that can be played by the host computer – it has its own codecs that it supports. So I guess that means that the video files are streamed to the device, which then decodes and plays them – rather than the host computer doing the decoding and just streaming the decoded output video to the Extender, as I had originally thought.

So if you have lots of movies with oddball codecs (or even some rather common codecs, like DivX), you won’t be able to play these on the Extender – which is, admittedly, rather annoying. But enough of my library does play that I’m not troubled – and I know for the future what codecs to use if I am making a video and want to make sure it can play on the Extender.

So all in all, I’m quite happy with the little device. It’s remote control is awful, but all Media Center remotes are interchangable, so I can use the one that I have for my PC in it’s place if I prefer.

Time, of course, will tell how well this little device sits with me in the long run, but for now, I’m quite happy with it. I just hope that when Windows 7 comes out, it doesn’t break backwards compatibility with existing Extenders!

UPDATE: My follow-up article after over a month of living with this device is available here.