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 It was a little rough around the edges when used with Windows XP Media Center (the OS it was originally made for), but it got a lot better in Vista and Windows 7.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

USB Insanity

A while back, I wrote about how I have a lot of USB devices hanging off my computer.

Well, these days… I have even more.

My current computer has 4 USB ports on the back and 2 on the front, which is pretty typical. (The ports on the front though aren’t very useful for stuff I keep attached permanently; I like to keep my wires in the back & out of sight.)

I also recently added a USB 3.0 card, giving me another 2 ports on the back, and I have an old 4-port (powered) USB hub plus a 2-port (unpowered) port in my keyboard. This gives me a total of 14 USB ports (some of which are taken up connecting the hubs of course, so really there’s just 12 available).

And it’s still not enough.

I had recently picked up a new 7-port powered USB hub, but it turned out to be rather cheap and died on me (freezing and taking down the entire USB subsystem with it!). So I had to go back to my old 4-port hub… which leaves me a bit pressed for ports to plug in the simply obnoxious amount of USB devices I have connected to my computer.

And if that wasn’t enough, one of the ports on my old 4-port hub recently died after a power fluctuation, so now it’s a 3-port hub.

So, I’m on the lookout now for a new hub – a good one this time – that has at least 5 ports (preferably more) and is externally powered (a necessity for using USB to charge devices).

In the meantime though, I figured I’d update my list of USB devices, just for fun.

  1. Dell Multimedia Keyboard (my favorite keyboard, both for its volume knob instead of just buttons, and for the fact that it has a 2 port hub built-in – very handy for where to plug in mice)
  2. Microsoft Comfort Mouse 3000
  3. Logitech Trackman Marble (for when carpal tunnel pain forces me to switch mouse hands)
  4. Printer
  5. Microsoft LifeCam VX-1000 webcam (for the bunnycam)
  6. Microsoft LifeCam Studio (for Skype)
  7. Logitech headset (for Skype, audio recording, & other VoIP stuff)
  8. UPS (battery backup)
  9. 1 TB external hard drive (for local backup, in addition to my cloud-based backup)
  10. Microsoft eHome infrared receiver (for using my Windows Media Center remote)
  11. 8 GB USB flash drive for Windows ReadyBoost

I think it’s fair to say… I have an obnoxious number of USB devices! And this doesn’t even count the USB gamepad (only sometimes connected) or the USB bluetooth receiver (also only sometimes connected).

Breathing New Life into an Old Netbook

Lately I had been getting a bit frustrated with the performance of my old netbook, Ryo-Ohki. Oh, it’s still a great little computer, but it was beginning to show it’s age… or rather, I was starting to notice it. Basically, I was getting frustrated that everything took so long to start up – Windows, Ubuntu, Firefox, etc.

The two typical ways to speed up an older computer are to:

  • Add more memory (RAM)
  • Add a bigger (or faster) hard drive

Generally speaking, what you upgrade depends on what is being “stressed” in your computer at the moment. For example, if you have plenty of hard drive space, but only 1 GB of RAM, you’re probably hitting your RAM limit more often, which means you should upgrade that first. Likewise, if you have only a 250 GB hard drive, but dozens of large programs (Photoshop, Office, etc.) and a large collection of music, movies, and pictures, then you’re probably hitting your hard drive’s space limits, so you should upgrade that first.

In the case of my netbook, RAM was not the issue – while it does only have 1 GB of RAM, it can only hold (at most) up to 2 GB – and I usually only have one or two programs open at a time, and they are generally not RAM-intensive (just a browser or video player).

Instead, the real limit for my netbook – and, increasingly, the limit on almost everyone’s computer these days – was the hard drive. While my hard drive of 160 GB was technically rather small, I don’t have a lot of files, so the problem wasn’t the amount of space – the problem was the speed.

Hard drive speed isn’t just a limiting factor for netbooks and laptops, either – hard drives have been the slowest thing in computers (of any type) for years now.

SSD drive iconFortunately, the past few years have seen a new type of hard drive appear which helps us get past this hard drive performance problem – the Solid State Drive, or SSD.

Solid State Drives are sort of like giant USB memory sticks; they are the same sort of chip-based non-volatile (i.e., it doesn’t lose its contents when the power goes off, like RAM) memory that you see in USB drives or even in memory cards for your digital camera.

The benefit of an SSD is that, being totally digital, they have no moving parts, and since they are purely electronic, there is no mechanical delay in reading data from different parts of memory (like there is with a regular hard drive, which has to spin a disc and move an arm to a particular part to read the data). Basically, an SSD can be as fast as the memory chips that make it up, and the interface used to connect it to the rest of the computer… which means they can be made very fast.

The downside to SSDs is that they are relatively new technology, and therefore the price is still quite high. You can easily buy a regular hard drive with 1 TB of disk space for about $99 (possibly even less these days), which works out to about $0.10 per GB of disk space. On the other hand, SSDs are currently hovering around about $1.00 per GB of space – that’s about 10 times the cost per gigabyte.

I’ve been mulling over SSDs before, and while they aren’t quite practical for my desktop computer (with its huge disk space requirements), I thought they might be a good fit for my netbook. So I started price-stalking a few different models, and eventually one of them went on sale for the very reasonable (for an SSD) price of $120 (for a 120 GB SATA II SSD), so I snapped it up.

Since the new drive was slightly smaller than my old one (which was 160 GB), I didn’t even bother with the idea of transferring my old installation over to the new drive. Spending hours trying to resize two main partitions (one for Windows, one for Ubuntu Linux) plus all the recovery & swap partitions was just not very appealing to me. Plus, my netbook doesn’t really have anything on it – all my files live on my desktop, after all – so reinstalling the operating systems was not a big deal.

So, I popped out the old hard drive and put in the new one. This involved exactly 6 screws (2 to open the cover, 4 to secure the drive in a tiny little bracket) and took all of 5 minutes.

Even though my netbook is a little on the old side, it recognized the SSD without a hitch. All that was left now was to boot from the USB drives I’d prepared with Windows 7 and Ubuntu and then reinstall my programs.

Windows 7 was the first thing I installed (I prefer to install Linux last, so that it installs GRUB as the boot loader/OS chooser, which I like), and the installation itself took relatively little time (about 20 minutes.)

After that, it took several hours to download and install all the Windows Updates – and this version of Windows 7 I installed already included Service Pack 1! (To be fair though, some of these updates were for Microsoft Office as well.)

Installing Ubuntu went much faster, thanks to its ability to download updates as you install it (hint, hint, Microsoft?).

After installing the OS, I installed the few programs I use (Firefox and Chrome, Skype, Dropbox, and VLC media player, basically) and then I was up and running!

When everything was done, I had my new SSD cleanly split 50/50 between Windows 7 and Ubuntu, and everything was back up and running just fine.

Now though was the moment of truth. I’d rebooted many times already, but always to let some updates install… now it was time to see how fast this new hard drive could be.

Long-time readers will remember I did some completely pointless benchmarks of my computers a while back. The numbers I came up with from those tests showed that my netbook booted into Windows and Ubuntu to a fully-loaded desktop, ready to use, in 1 minute and 30 seconds and 47 seconds, respectively.

With my new SSD, those numbers have fallen to 1 minute even for Windows 7 and just 27 seconds for Ubuntu – a 33% improvement in Windows startup time, and a 42% increase in Ubuntu startup time.

Also, opening new programs is now much snappier (although not instant), and in general the computer just “feels” more responsive.

Keep in mind as well that my netbook, being a little on the old side, can’t really take advantage of the full speed of the SSD – the SATA interface is probably SATA 1, unlike the SATA II or SATA III interfaces that newer computers have. (The SSD drive itself supports SATA II, but it works just fine with SATA 1, just not as fast.)

While these startup times aren’t exactly “stellar” by modern computer & SSD standards, they are a significant improvement over my netbook’s old performance. Now the major limiting factor in my netbook’s performance is actually the old Atom CPU and the somewhat-sluggish graphics adapter.

Still, the SSD reduces much of the “lag” that my netbook used to have – and that’s always the way it is when upgrading a computer with more RAM or a faster hard drive. These things don’t really make the computer any faster, but they do reduce the things that used to slow it down (a subtle but important distinction).

In the end, the SSD was a good (and cost-effective) way to lengthen the service life of my little netbook. It may not be the fastest thing around, and new netbooks (and “ultrabooks”) are almost certainly faster, but I also spent a lot less than the cost of a new netbook/ultrabook.

Upgrading to an SSD is a great way to extend the life of any older computer – assuming that you don’t mind having to re-install all your programs and data. If you don’t want to do that, then you’ll need to buy an SSD that is the same size (or larger, if you can afford it!) as your old hard drive so that you can just copy (or “clone”) your old drive onto the new SSD. But at the current price of SSDs and the typical size of an average desktop or even laptop hard drive, that might be a very, very pricy option… at least for the next few years.

To put it another way: if you have the means, I highly recommend picking one up!

SSD image credit: Thrasos Varnava (via Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial, no derivative works license), USB drive image credit: Crystal Icon Set

Acer Aspire One: Life So Far

I’ve been living with my new Acer Aspire One D150 netbook for a while now, and now that I’ve actually used it for a bit, I have some observations to make.

First, let me say that using this netbook with Ubuntu Netbook Remix is awesome. The UI is like something out of science fiction, and even from a cold boot it starts up way faster than Windows does. However, there have been a few glitches.

First was the built-in microphone – it just didn’t work for some reason. Fortunately, the support community for Ubuntu is freakin’ huge, so I was able to track down an answer fairly easily – I just needed to upgrade to the latest ASLA drivers for the sound card.

It’s worth noting, however, that Acer themselves doesn’t exactly help with troubleshooting problems with these netbooks. The actual model number for my netbook is D150-1577. If you can figure out what that all means, then you’re cleverer than I am. I figure the “D” stands for the fact that this is a disk-drive based model (as opposed to a solid-state drive), but the rest of it is a bit of a mystery to me. The “D150″ bit seems to be the general model, with the 1577 saying something about what specific revision of that model it is. But I’m guessing here – it might be something else; who knows?

The problem is that these different model numbers (and there are a lot of them) actually do mean that the computer underneath is different – different sound card, different wireless chipset, and so forth. So when there’s a problem, it might be with certain models – or it might be a similar problem on different models, but what works for one person with one particular model might not work for you, with a slightly different model. Whether this is true of other brands of netbooks I don’t know, but it’s certainly true of the Acer Aspire One netbooks.

That aside, this really is a sweet little machine. The  keyboard is easy for me to type on (I’m actually writing this article on my netbook, and my typing speed is not appreciably affected by the slightly smaller keys) and the touchpad, although small, is easy enough to use. The touchpad button is one button with two “ends” that you click on, so it’s not quite as easy to click as two distinct buttons would be, but it’s not hard to use, either. Most laptop buttons are rubbish anyway, in my opinion – your mileage, of course, may vary.

The truly AWESOME look of Ubuntu Netbook Remix

The truly AWESOME look of Ubuntu Netbook Remix

The advertised battery life of around 5 hours is right on the money – I’ve gotten very consistently that sort of life from it, with the wireless turned on all the time. And it is so lightweight – just under 3 pounds with the 6-cell battery – that you hardly even notice it’s on your lap.

Of course, all the glowing things I’ve had to say about this netbook stem from the fact that I’ve been using it under Ubuntu, not Windows. In fact, I’ve hardly ever switched over to the Windows installation I left on it, except to play a game of Alpha Centauri with my wife this past weekend.

Ubuntu really is a great replacement for Windows – it was incredibly easy to install (and it even kept the original Windows installation on hand for me, in case I need it for anything). In fact, installing Ubuntu was even easier than installing Windows (and I’ve installed Windows more than a few times over the years). It boots up fast, everything works (with the one exception of the microphone) and it’s just great to use. And having a huge repository of really excellent (and free!) software readily at hand is a great bonus, too!

All-in-all, you really can’t go wrong with the combination of the Acer Aspire One and Ubuntu Netbook Remix. Of course, if you’re in the market for a netbook, I strongly urge you to try out the keyboard on several different models if you can – given that most netbooks have pretty much identical specs (CPU, RAM, hard drive space) these days, the comfort of the keyboard and the touchpad will probably be the biggest deciding factors for most people (well, that and price of course!). Fortunately, Ubuntu Netbook Remix runs just fine on almost all of the major tier-one netbooks, so you can take your pick, and then combine whichever one you choose with what is quite possibly the sweetest OS for netbooks out there today.

You really won’t be disappointed!

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.