Tuesday, February 17, 2009

DTV On Your Mac

The TV has left the apartment, but I would still like to watch the occasional television show.
I spent a couple days putting some of the options through their paces.
All of the options play great-looking full-screen video.
Some of solutions work better for files stored on you local drive, some are optimized for network use.

I would like to use my old "wind tunnel" Mac to download RSS subscriptions (web and bittorrent), manage those files, and play them without needing a keyboard.
iTunes with the iPhone Remote app gets me most of the way there, but won't grab torrent files.

Let's look at the options:

Front Row
This is Apple's built-in media browser and player.
It is very slick. Fast. Fully integrated with iTunes and iPhoto.
Works with Apple's Remote.
On the down side, it only works with media you have in your iTunes repository or the DVD drive.
This makes it less attractive for use with media you didn't get from the iTunes Store.

You can expand its capabilities with Sapphire and some additional QuickTime codecs.
Understudy allows you to browse and view Hulu.
But this tinkering goes against the simplicity of Front Row in my opinion.
In my case, the Mac I want to use didn't come with Front Row, so it's not an option anyway.

Miro gives you a media player that supports popular file-sharing formats as well as a built-in client to subscribe to podcasts and bittorrent RSS feeds.
It comes preloaded with some very nice HD podcast channels.
It's very easy to add bittorrent RSS feeds.
Media management is straightforward directory and list browsing. Would be nice to have other ways to view your library.
Works best with a keyboard & mouse.

This project was originally the XBox Media Center. A terrific project to convert old XBoxes into useful media players that are appropriate for the living room. The current XBMC is available for many hardware platforms.

The XBMC interface is designed to be controlled with a game controller or remote.

There are many "skins" and plugins for customizing your XBMC installation.
You can also include Python scripts to just about anything.

XBMC really shines when playing media stored on another machine. Either a networked file store or a streaming server. It does a terrific job buffering and caching for stutter-free playback.
Plex and Boxee are based on the XBMC code.
Hulu support is available with an addon.

Formerly OSXBMC, Plex is a Mac-only version of XBMC.
Like XBMC, it is reskinnable and customizable. (Many XBMC plugins will work unaltered.)
It shares the XBMC engine so has terrific network playback.
It doesn't keep "live" video running while perusing menus like current XBMC builds.
It has RSS clients for podcasts and bittorrents built-in.
Good integration with iTunes. Good library managment/browsing tools.
Current builds don't really support Hulu.com, but that is promised by the developers in the next build.

Another project based on the XBMC source.
Boxee simplifies the menus and adds social networking features.
My first exposure to Boxee was pretty negative since I couldn't just download and test.
You have to create an account at Boxee.com before you can use the software.
In fact, you set up your RSS feeds at the web site. This was actually a slick solution, but I could see people being nervous about this if they are using less-than-legal bittorrent feeds.

Boxee's big claim to fame right now is the ability to play Hulu content.
This actually works quite well, and puts it ahead of the other XBMC-based products for people wanting to watch Hulu.* (See Updates)

I personally found the menu system confusing.
It's attractive, but not very customizable, and the some of the secondary navigation is unintuitive.
Adding your existing files to the library is confusing.

The program has been unstable for me. Crashing in nearly every viewing sesssion. I spoke with two other Mac users who are testing it and they reported similar issues.

VLC VideoLAN Client
I've used VLC for many years. It's my video viewer of choice for local files.
It can view or serve many streaming protocols.
As a TV, though, it has some shortcomings:
  • Works best with a mouse. It's really clumsy to try use with just a keyboard/remote.
  • No advanced caching for networked files. So playback can stutter when playing from a file server.

Feature Comparison

Miro XBMCPLEXVLCBoxeeFront Row
Local File PlaybackExcellent. Played all tested formats except Real Media and protected Windows MediaPlayed all tested formats except
Real Media and protected Windows Media.
Played all tested formats except
Real Media and protected Windows Media.
Played all tested formats except
Real Media and protected Windows Media.
Played all tested formats except
Real Media and protected Windows Media.
Played all formats supported by
To play other popular file-sharing formats, intall Sapphire and some
QuickTime codecs.
Network File Playback
No special caching for networked
file playback.
Excellent job of playing files
from networked file server.
Built-in SMB client.
Built-in UPnP Client.
Excellent job of playing files
from networked file server. Built-in SMB client.
Built-in UPnP Client.
No caching for networked file
Excellent job of playing files
from networked file server.
Only from iTunes shares
Streaming Video PlaybackNA
UPnP (untested)UPnP (untested)Supports many streaming
UPnP (untested)
RSS (Podcast) supportBuilt-in. Worked Flawlessly.Slightly complicated to set up,
but worked fine.
complicated to set up, but worked fine.NAPreset menus of podcasts. New
feeds are added using the boxee.com web site.
Use iTunes podcast feature to
subscribe to shows.
Bit Torrent ClientSupports regular torrents and
RSS feeds. Very simple to add a feed.
Not built-in.
Torrent-x script combined with Azures seems to be a popular solution.
Not built in.
NAPreset menus of "Public
New feeds are added using the boxee.com web site.
Remote ControlRequires third-party support.
Try Remote
iPhone apps and other Apple
Remote supported.
Apple Remote.
For iPhone try Snatch.
Requires third-party support. Try Remote Buddy.Apple Remote supported.
Boxee iPhone App. (Approved Feb 6, 2009. Not visible on store as of
this writing.)
Apple Remote fully supported.
Third-party iPhone apps available.
System RequirementsMac OS X 10.4
Mac OS X 10.5
Intel Processor
Mac OS X 10.5
Intel Processor
Mac OS X 10.4
Platform-specific builds available.
Mac OS X 10.5
Intel Processor
Comes pre-installed
Video ServerUPnP AV server built-inUPnP AV server built-inUPnP AV server built-inLarge number of streaming server options built-in.UPnP AV server built-in iTunes
Hulu SupportNoWith scriptScheduled for next release
Built-inWith Understudy.

Plex would be fill my needs well, except that it require Mac OS/X 10.5 and an Intel Processor. So I'm running Miro and keeping a keyboard and mouse handy. I'll probably end up repurposing one of my Ubuntu boxes and run XBMC.

* UPDATE 2/17/2009 *
Added info about Understudy.

* UPDATE 2/24/2009 *
Turns out the Plex doesn't have a built-in torrent client. It appears that most users are integrating with uTorrent. I'll discuss uTorrent in an upcoming article.
Hulu has disabled their streaming feeds. This means that Boxee and other streaming viewers can no longer show Hulu content.

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1 comment:

  1. Web casting, or broadcasting over the internet, is a media file (audio-video mostly) distributed over the internet using streaming media technology. Streaming implies media played as a continuous stream and received real time by the browser (end user). Streaming technology enables a single content source to be distributed to many simultaneous viewers. Streaming video bandwidth is typically calculated in gigabytes of data transferred. It is important to estimate how many viewers you can reach, for example in a live webcast, given your bandwidth constraints or conversely, if you are expecting a certain audience size, what bandwidth resources you need to deploy.

    To estimate how many viewers you can reach during a webcast, consider some parlance:
    One viewer: 1 click of a video player button at one location logged on
    One viewer hour: 1 viewer connected for 1 hour
    100 viewer hours: 100 viewers connected for 1 hour…

    Typically webcasts will be offered at different bit rates or quality levels corresponding to different user’s internet connection speeds. Bit rate implies the rate at which bits (basic data units) are transferred. It denotes how much data is transmitted in a given amount of time. (bps / Kbps / Mbps…). Quality improves as more bits are used for each second of the playback. Video of 3000 Kbps will look better than one of say 1000Kbps. This is just like quality of a image is represented in resolution, for video (or audio) it is measured by the bit rate.


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