06 November 2007

Media Center Extenders

At home, I've been running a Pinnacle ShowCenter 200 (older model), which has been fine for the past year or so -- until last week, it suddenly stopped displaying any of the text in the menus. This was really wierd -- the system would boot just fine, showing the logo, and the showcenter logo in the upper right corner -- but the names of TV shows would not appear at all.

At first I suspected this was due to a recent upgrade of the Linux-based back end -- I'm using the Linux MTPCenter, which has done a great job running with Lampp on my Ubuntu system. I recently upgraded to MTPCenter 2.0, and thought this might be the issue -- but I saw the menus from the later version for a few days, and downgrading still failed to show the menu items.

A related glitch is that the fast forward capability used to show the percentage -- but this does not display (although it works just fine.) The strange thing is, I can navigate through the menus by sound, and by looking at the MTPCenter through a standard Web browser -- and the programs stream just fine. My guess is the character generator for the fonts might be broken -- I've tried everything with the ShowCenter that I can think of, and also tried hacking on the CSS in the MTPCenter to change font displays and background, but with no results.

Anyway, I decided to replace the Pinnacle with something with more capabilities. My ideal Media Center should be able to do the following:

1) Stream MP2 Video, MP3s, DivX and XVID
2) Stream from Internet Radio (e.g., ww.sky.fm.)
3) View pictures from network storage
4) Work with Linux
5) NOT require a Windows box anywhere
6) Use a remote
7) Output to HDMI or at least component with up to 1080p to my HD TV
8) Handle AC3 audio, and at least Dolby 5.1
9) Handle MKV wrappers
10) Maybe in future play either from BlueRay or HD DVD.
11) Noiseless low temperature operation
12) I don't want to spend more than 250 Euros, or "roll my own."
13) I don't want DVR or recording functionality

So, I started looking around for some options.

I first got interested in the XBMC Open Source application, which looks really cool. It does most of what I need, but only seems to work on the original Xbox (and not the Xbox 360 or Elite), which means that I won't be able to use HDMI output, or even plug in a HD DVD in future.

I considered the Sony PS3, but am not clear on whether or not it can play DivX or XVID. My guess is it's probably a "no" -- and I don't really like Sony as a brand, although getting the BlueRay drive is tempting.

I also considered the AppleTV, or even a small Apple box, but the former lacks the decoders I want, while the latter is too expensive -- and both lack HDMI (although realistically speaking, DVI output would probably suffice.)

So there are still some more options.

First up is the Xbox 360 with optional HD DVD. A little expensive, but there is the benefit of getting access to games like HALO -- but who has time for games these days? -- I barely have enough time to watch Heroes or Prison Break! I don't like supporting Microsoft anyway, although I could *console" myself (nasty pun that) with the thought that each Xbox sold is a loss for M$. I also don't like the way that the XBox 360 enforces code signing and other nasty DRM stuff, and am not aware of a simple "mod" for the 360 which won't invalidate the warranty. So that's out.

Next option is a Mac Mini. I bought one of these for my father, and he seems to use it, but not for TV. The output is DVI I think, but no HDMI -- although probably good enough. While I like Apple boxes (we already have three at home), I can't really justify spending the 600 Euros it costs here in Austria for the smallest model. So that's off the list for now, at least until I win the lottery (which isn't going to happen, since I don't buy tickets!)

I don't really want a box with a built-in hard drive, since I have enough disk space on other machines. I'm using my Ubuntu Box as my TV and media file server, running SAMBA and Azureus, and therefore simply want a box which streams over the LAN, without using Microsoft software anywhere if I can avoid it.

Looking around I found the Linksys DMA2100.

Also interesting is this D-Link box, which is only 180 Euros -- but I'm not sure if it also has a wired LAN, as well as wireless. Well, it will come out at the end of November, so we'll see. There also seems to be a US version, with different specs: the Dlink DSM-750, which looks nice, although more expensive, and I don't know if it will be available in Europe.

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