Media Centering

Over the years, I’ve taken a number of stabs at the Holy Grail of the media center - i.e., one that would allow me to watch a modest DVD collection without the stupefyingly idiotic warnings movies come wrapped in, browse our humungous photo album, and perchance enjoy some online content.

The X Years

With caracteristic forethought, I resisted ripping DVDs into the hateful AVI/DivX dichotomy for the longest time possible, but was won over by the original Xbox‘s hackability and finally got one on sale eight years ago for the sole purpose of using it as a media center (well, and playing Halo on it at least once).

All things considered, it worked exceedingly well for the time - it played back all my media, made it trivial to manage content, and - a major plus for me, given that I’ve always considered good quality audio as the reason to watch original DVDs - even had optical audio out (even though it was a pain to deal with 5.1 audio and multiple audio tracks back then).

But it was noisy enough that I stuck to my SliMP3 solely for music, and even though I could hack extensions for it using Python, it could be more of a time sink than an actual appliance and the software could be rather temperamental (to this day I wonder why people keep using variants of XBMC).

So I kept looking for simpler solutions.

Sony’s Missed Opportunity

A few years later I got a 60GB PS3 for media center duty and the occasional bout of PS2 gaming (this was back when Sony cared about backwards compatibility) - again, it had optical audio out and a decent amount of internal storage, so it was a nice all-in-one solution.

After a while there was no need to re-rip my DVDs (even though by this time it was still somewhat of a pain to rip new discs in H.264), it had simple - if rather brain-dead - UPNP support that worked great with MediaLink, and it was blissfully quiet.

Quiet, that is, until a firmware upgrade tweaked the fan speeds and I got entirely too much fan noise out of the deal - after that, the only way I could put up with it for watching movies was shutting it away in a cabinet (thankfully, its media remote uses Bluetooth).

This was all the more annoying given that by this time I’d moved to an AirPort Express to stream audio to the stereo, so noise (or the absence of any kind of it that wasn’t kid-originated) was foremost on my mind.

Ironically, the PS3 had (and still has) the best overall audio and video quality of any device I own - DVDs look stunning thanks to its great upscaling, multiple audio and subtitle tracks work fine, and except for the somewhat fiddly Cross Media Bar navigation, it delivers smooth media browsing and playback, so it was indeed a near miss - Sony completely missed the boat on that one by not cross-selling the PS3 (probably in a better casing) as part of their media theater range instead of pushing out crummy Blu-Ray players every three months.

I nearly sold it twice, and ended up sending it in for replacement when Sony killed it with the infamous 3.01 firmware upgrade. But when its new, slimmer (but alas, not necessarily quieter) sibling arrived I had already moved on.

Stacking Up

It gradually became rather pointless to store my media inside a console or to fish it out willy-nilly from different boxes, so I started consolidating things - before getting a Synology NAS, I started stacking up external drives in a closet, piling DVD cases safely inside another, and having media streamed to the living room instead of enduring noisy crap and leaving discs in reach of grubby little toddlers.

I eventually got myself a WDTV box and began re-ripping or re-bundling my DVD rips into MKV format, largely because my older rips failed to include Portuguese soundtracks (for the kids) or subtitles (for the grown-ups to be able to watch movies when the kids are asleep).

The WDTV is a pretty good piece of kit technically - it supports UPNP properly, does smooth 720p and 1080p playback, and can handle all sorts of audio and video formats.

But the UI sucks (it’s friendly enough to use every now and then but fiddly enough to annoy you somewhat every time you use it), and browsing my media was more of a chore than anything.

Playing Hockey

In the meantime, I tried the original Apple TV and was generally unimpressed by its technical features (mostly due to its uncanny resemblance to a waffle iron in thermal terms), but the UI was solid, the iTunes integration enviable, and an opportunity to get a cheap 2nd generation device from the US last Summer (when the Euro meant something) was simply too much to pass up.

Although the WDTV played along with the Synology NAS I got to replace my unruly stack of external drives with something more reliable, my various attempts at getting both to play nicely with my iOS devices were generally a failure, so I dumbed down my NAS to do only “pure” file serving and got my G4 mini to run an iTunes library off a network volume1.

Storing my rips in MKV proved to be the best decision I ever made regarding media formats, since converting my good rips to an .m4v envelope is as trivial as remuxing them using Subler (which I heartily recommend for managing metadata as well).

In terms of storage, my taste for decent audio does not come cheap - a freshly ripped movie takes up somewhere between 1.3 to 2.5GB if I go for the maximum of four audio tracks - two in Portuguese and two in English (i.e., AAC stereo and AC3 5.1 audio), but I strip out the extras using Subler in a couple of minutes if, say, I’m downsizing a file for playback on iOS or if it’s something like a cartoon that I’ll never really want to watch myself, and most of my kids’ content clocks in at well under the 1GB mark.

The only two real downsides so far (besides some asinine limtations in Home Sharing that I’ll get to in a bit) are that the UI could handle large libraries better and that the Apple TV 2 is completely blind to bitmapped subtitles.

Like many people, I don’t really need HD (although I have a few 720p shorts I downloaded from Vimeo and plenty of footage of the kids), so the overall performance and video quality is fine - I can always fallback to the PS3 for watching the the grand total of four Blu-Ray disks I own…

Thou Shalt Not Browse Thine Own Content Easily

For starters, there is no search option for movies - the option is there for music, but not for video - and you get a better experience browsing through YouTube or Vimeo, where the UI renders a full-screen grid - a view that is not available to any of your own content except photos (and even then, Apple has a long-standing bug regarding the sort ordering of those and a maximum limit of 200 photos per folder that they seem unable - or unwilling - to fix).

So browsing through more than a couple dozen movies using the Apple TV’s own UI is, in a word, difficult, and, if (like me) you rip cartoon DVDs into separate episodes, it becomes, in two words, completely insane unless you use smart playlists and some magic.

Everyone Should Be An American, Right?

A recurring issue with stuff designed in California is their grudging take on internationalization essentials like subtitles.

So the Apple TV, like most of QuickTime, is utterly blind to ripped DVD subtitles (it only seems to support 3GPP Text and not mp4s bitmap streams from direct VOBSUB conversion, so I have to fish around in shady subtitle sites for .SRT files crammed with typos).

And even if you do manage to find proper subtitles, it is somewhat hostile to them, persisting in rendering them inside a shaded overlay that completely ruins the movie watching experience and that I’ve come to hate with a passion.

Fortunately, I seldom need subtitles (and if push comes to shove, I can always burn them in during the ripping process in HandBrake and have my brain ignore them automatically).

Saving Grace

But there is one killer feature that has made a significant difference for me - the ability to use any of my iOS devices as a remote on steroids.

Even my original iOS 3.x iPod Touch can act as a full-blown remote for both the Apple TV and Home Sharing, so I invariably use it instead of the built-in UI to navigate playlists and to easily pick out a specific movie or cartoon in a couple of seconds - a very kid-friendly (or rather parent-friendly) feature.

Sadly, and even after the wireless syncing features added to iOS 5, I’m completely unable to directly download my own media from Home Sharing onto my iOS devices, a limitation that is, quite frankly, rather dumb, and impossible to explain to normal people.

But on the plus side, there’s nothing quite like being able to flick media from my devices via AirPlay - I’ll be browsing through my RSS feeds, chance upon something worth watching, and boom - there it is on the TV, or I’ll simply stream audio and have it play back on my stereo via the optical output.

A Word on Metadata

Finally, I also got something else out of the bargain: iTunes as a metadata editor, something that is not to be taken lightly considering that despite needing to have a Mac running to enjoy my media2, I get a lot of flexibility out of smart playlists and the playback count mechanism.

Also, metadata is saved on and read dynamically from the .m4v files themselves, which is reassuring and makes it possible to do some clever tricks with Subler.

So far, this seems to be the best setup yet - small, unobtrusive, flexible, and despite some quirks and oddball limitations, quite satisfactory and involving absolutely zero hacking - yes, you can jailbreak the thing and do a lot more, but I just don’t have the time or patience for those things and prefer sending in feedback and hoping for the best.

  1. Synology supports old-style DAAP and some of the playlist trickery I need (they even have pretty good iOS apps), but not the extended Home Sharing authentication protocol, so all of their current products are pretty useless for me right now as media servers. ↩︎

  2. Something I expected Apple to have licked by now, but alas, their priorities are clearly leaning towards getting us to pay for cloud content first and enjoy what we already own second. ↩︎