Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Hunt for the Ultimate Media Center

Searching for Greatness

For the last five years I've been on the hunt to find a high-end media station that would meet the demands of my media center wish list:
  • connect to both my television and my A/V receiver
  • play and/or view any files from my home network (e.g. music, video, pictures, etc.)
  • play CD's and DVD's
  • run Web-service apps like Netflix and Pandora
  • simplify all of the above

I used to ponder setting up a Windows or Linux box running the latest media software joined with a bunch of non-standard hardware, all stuffed inside a custom stereo component-sized case. Although this option has become more accessible in recent years (particularly with the release of the Mac mini), the cost of such a device for the sole purpose of media playback seemed like major overkill.

My intermediate solution has been to keep an old laptop close to the TV and stereo, connected to the TV via S-Video and connected to the receiver with an old-school mini-jack to RCA connector. Although this met most of the needs on my wish list, the video memory on the laptop was not enough to handle video-streaming well; plus, getting everything ready for playback (navigating on the laptop, switching screens, connecting cables, etc.) was clunky, to say the least. Regardless, the laptop was needed elsewhere in the house for things that laptops are meant be used for, like compose long-winded blogs.

A Glimmer of Hope: Boxee

I had a similar wish list for what I thought should be in a phone, and along came the Droid (which could become another long-winded blog entry in itself). To cut to the chase, I did get a snazzy new Droid 2 and found the PDA I had always wanted. Subsequently, a family-member with an iPhone told me about Boxee. This is software that you can download to your PC for free and essentially do everything I described above in my media center wish list. Additionally, you can download an app (for the iPhone or Droid) that will utilize your WiFi to act as a remote control to your Boxee software.

Wow! This had me fairly excited, as running Boxee on the laptop would at least improve the ongoing setup and navigation complications. I would be able to use my Droid as a remote control and ... well, come to think of it, that's about the only benefit (but I was excited anyway). However, the choppy video playback from Netflix's "Watch Instantly" was even worse than before. [Please note: I don't blame Netflix or Boxee - the laptop is simply not cut out for this.]

But then I saw on the Boxee Web site that I could go to Amazon and pre-order a Boxee box made by D-Link that had all of this running on a small box that you hook up to your TV and stereo receiver with options for HDMI and digital optical audio. Bingo! I pre-ordered one instantly and counted down the days.

When my Boxee box finally arrived, I wanted to like it so much that I spent weeks trying to get it to work out. The downsides (to name a few) were that this box was ridden with bugs (video and/or audio dropping out; apps freezing and locking up), it suffered from a severe lack of functionality (no memory of where you left off, no scene-skipping, audio could only play one song at-a-time), and it didn't even come with Netflix (this felt close to false-advertising, as a Netflix app already existed in the downloadable software). Despite Boxee's claims to provide the box with a Netflix app before the end of the year, the list of downsides was simply too long - this box was not ready for public consumption.

Eureka! Sony's PlayStation - PS3

I didn't see any major resolution to the Boxee issues happening in the near future; they obviously had a lot of work to do. So, dejected, I was back to the drawing board.

As my daughter's birthday was approaching, she said she wanted a microphone for karaoke or a dancing game (like what we played at our friend's house over Thanksgiving). So I started looking into gaming systems (Nintendo's Wii, Microsoft's Xbox, and Sony's PlayStation - PS3). I'm not much of a "gamer," so the more I read about these systems, the more I realized that the answer to my wish list might actually reside in a gaming system.

I read reviews of these systems and determined that the PS3 was by far the most comprehensive. Although sold at a higher price, it involved less additional cost (no Internet service fees) and included a heck of a lot more. Sony also happened to have released the most highly-rated karaoke game, recently combined with dancing and packaged with two microphones. This was a no-brainer - I bought the PS3 Move Bundle (with Sports Champions) and also picked up SingStar Dance for my daughter.

The PS3 plays CD's, DVD's, Blu Ray, and games (of course). It has mutliple connection options including HDMI and digital optical audio output. It browses the Internet. It contains its own virtual reality world, similar to Second Life. It connects to your home network. It runs an insanely easy-to-use Netflix app for watching movies instantly. It runs Pandora (albeit through its Web browser - but hey, it works). The rechargeable Bluetooth controller makes navigation incredibly simple and intuitive. The PS3 Move technology turns the system into a better Wii (with the somewhat unfortunate side-effect of the Move controller closely resembling a glowing dildo).

Sports Champions
is a great showcase for Move and contains frisbee golf, bocce ball,, volleyball, archery, sword/shield battle, and ping pong; and let me just say, it is addictive.

The microphones that came with SingStar Dance are impressive - they have weight and resemble serious microphones; plus, the game itself is about the best out there for this sort of thing. You can download additional songs from the PS3 Store (right from your controller).

The Last Piece of the Puzzle: TVersity

One of my biggest needs has been to effectively sort, shuffle, and play my music files in FLAC format. The PS3 instantly found my Windows 7 Media Center, but the Media Center was slow to browse and didn't do much in the way of supporting FLAC.

I subsequently installed the free PS3 Media Server - this was super easy to install and worked immediately; however, it didn't offer a way to shuffle all of my music (stored in multiple folders and tagged with multiple genres).

Ultimately, installing TVersity has provided the best solution, streaming all of my FLAC files, browsing by artist, album, genre, or song, and shuffling through all of my music. TVersity was not exactly a simple thing to get running. I had to do quite a bit of troubleshooting before finally getting the PS3 to recognize my TVersity server (you need to disable the Windows Media Player Network Sharing Service and verify that MediaServer.exe is allowed through the firewall), but it's all working now.

W00000000tttt!!! My wish list has been delivered.