Thursday, March 26, 2009

Getting TV Shows into Your Computer/Media Center "The Dark Side"

The Dark Side
Yesterday, we looked at legal sources for digitally-distributed TV shows.

Now we'll get into the controversial stuff: That demon drink known as "Peer to peer file sharing."

Peer-to-peer means that individual users are sharing files with other users on the network.
There are many cases where this is a good thing (World of Warcraft updates, Make TV), but these networks are often used to "share" copyrighted materials.

Let's be clear.
If you download or "share" programming that you don't have a legal right to own or distribute, you are violating the law.

Peer-2-Peer Technologies:

Gnutella:
Gnutella is one of the peer-to-peer file sharing networks. It has good search capabilities, but is rarely used for legitimate purposes. Because of this, it isn't really pertinent to this discussion.

BitTorrent:
BitTorrent is a method for downloading large files. It's different than getting a file from a web site or an ftp site in that it is a shared operation.

I'll cover BitTorrent in depth in a future article. But, basically, it distributes the process of transferring a file. Increasing demand does not slow down the server; it actually speeds up the download.
BitTorrent is often used for "sharing" copyrighted materials. If you plan to cross the line from Fair Use into copyright infringement, you'll probably do it with BitTorrent.

Since BitTorrent is basically just a file transfer system, it doesn't really support searching. To find new files, people use regular web search engines like Google or Yahoo! or BitTorrent-specific search sites like The Pirate Bay or ISO Hunt.

Some popular tools for downloading individual files via bittorrent:
  • bittorrent The original BitTorrent tool. Rudimentary interface, but extremely simple and reliable. It has been replaced by µTorrent.
  • µTorrent Very slick and lightweight. It's the "official" BitTorrent client. Good bandwidth controls. Nice progress display. (µTorrent is not available for PPC Macs.)
  • X-Torrent (Mac only) Built-in search functions. Very granular control over bandwidth use and excellent display of download progress. Very "Mac." This was my torrent client of choice until I started using Miro.
  • Transmission Cross-platform. Default Ubuntu torrent client. Easy to use.

Broadcatching
For TV shows or other epdisodic content, you can combine BitTorrent downloading with RSS broadcasting to get continually updated lists of available downloads.
This is often called "broadcatching," "torrentcasts" or "torrent rss."

This is the model used by Make:Television, Revision 3, and others. It provides viewers with a simple way to find new episodes, gives a very fast download, and minimizes the load on the publisher's servers.

Miro can read and download these torrentcasts just like regular podcasts.
Just add a new feed to your sidebar.

But, as always, there's a "dark" use this technology as well.

The TVRSS web site publishes RSS feeds of publicly available bittorrents for regular television shows.
These files are usually (illegally) published by a shadowy network known as "The Scene" who capture and compress TV shows and post them on these file sharing networks.


Here's how easy it is get an illegal subscription to a TV show.
1) Go to TVRSS and find a show.
2) Click on the show's title
3) On the "show" page, right-click on the "Search-based Results" link and Copy it.
4) Open Miro and select Add Feed from the Sidebar menu. Miro will automatically paste the feed in.
5) Click Create Feed.

Acquiring illegal files used to be a convoluted and technical process. Now it's trivial for anyone.
What should publishers and producers do about this?

Many people feel that programs that were broadcast over the airwaves are fair game. Even if that were true, the versions of these programs you'll find on torrent feeds don't contain commercials. So the publisher is not benefiting at all from these illegal torrents.

Some publishers are taking advantage of this new technology. Make TV and Revision 3 publish their own torrent feeds. Their programs include commercials and sponsorship messages. NBC puts out Meet the Press as a free download, and it contains ads.

Of course, some are choosing to fight these illegal downloads. The MPAA and it's related institutions are pushing legislation in many countries to criminalize peer-to-peer technologies.

While legally sound, I believe that's the wrong direction.
Prosecuting the users of these networks isn't going to create any revenue for the publishers. But we need to find a model where content producers and publishers can directly benefit from the distribution of their work.

Stay tuned for a discussion of how those models might look.

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Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Getting TV Shows into Your Computer/Media Center "The Light Side"

In a previous article, I talked about watching digital video files on your Mac.
And I'm currently running a multi-part series on building a dedicated Media Center.

So now, even without an actual TV, I find myself refreshing that dent on the living room couch.
It's all just "research." Really!

Now that we have a way to easily watch video on the computer.
Let's get some files!

DVD
First, here's the crazy part: According to the MPAA and our bought-and-paid-for Congress, pretty much anything you may want to do with a movie or TV show is illegal.
Even things that unquestionably fall under the Fair Use doctrine.

The most obvious method to get a show into your computer is to "rip" your existing DVDs.
For this, I use Handbrake.

I've had the best experience with Mac 10.5 version, but it works pretty well on all platforms. If you have 10.4 Mac, check the "older versions" link.
The built-in compression profiles are pretty good nowadays. The "Film" setting will usually produce a reasonably sized file to add to your library.

In addition to creating files for viewing in the living room, I often use Handbrake for creating iPhone/iPod Touch versions of TV shows I have on DVD.
I carry the complete season of Firefly in my pocket at all times! You can't stop the signal...


PODCAST/RSS (Episodic Programming)
"Podcasts"are just like RSS news feeds you might subscribe to, except they contain links to audio or video files. Most of the episodic "internet shows" being produced are distributed in this fashion.
You can view these feeds through a web page or use special programs. The two most popular programs are iTunes and Miro. You can also subscribe to podcasts directly from within XBMC.

Most podcasts are free. Some are big network-produced shows, and some are just one person putting out a video blog. Here's what's currently on my play list:

Program Notes Feed Link
The Guild Sitcom about online gamers RSS
Geek Brief TV "Shiny Happy Tech News" RSS (HD)
Command-N Weekly tech roundup RSS
Diggnation Kevin Rose. Alex Albrecht. Beer. Couch. digg.com (Weekly) RSS (HD)
Make TV Make Magazine presents inventors, artists and geeks RSS (HD)
G4TV Daily Feed Today's top headlines and tech news RSS
TED Talks Best of the TED Conference RSS
Meet the Press The full NBC program RSS
Morning Joe The first segment of each day's show RSS
Reliable Sources The full CNN program RSS
Tiki Bar TV "Forbidden Cocktails in a Swank Pad" RSS (HD)

All the major television networks put out regular news podcasts.
I also subscribe to many audio podcasts, but today we're just talking about video.


iTunes
Anyone with an iPod already has iTunes.
iTunes, in conjunction with the iTunes Store, is one of the simplest ways to find and subscribe to Podcasts. You can subscribe to any of the shows in the above list directly from iTunes.
On the down side, iTunes doesn't support every type of video floating out in the internet. On the up side, iTunes carries shows which aren't available as a free download, like Children's Hospital and Doctor Horrible's Singalong Blog.



Miro
There's a lot of completely free content out there. Fortunately, there's a program that will allow you download almost any sort of video distribution.

Miro is available for pretty much any computer. It has a very simple method for subscribing to podcasts.
Like the iTunes Store, Miro has featured channels and top rated programs.

You can't get "paid" content using Miro because there is no accounting mechanism.
But Miro does have an advantage over iTunes in that it can download large files using BitTorrent technology if the publisher supports it. I'll talk more about BitTorrent later.

XBMC
If you're running XBMC or one of it's children (Plex, Boxee), you can subscribe to many podcasts using Scripts. Instructions for installing scripts will vary by platform. If your version of XBMC didn't come with pre-installed scripts, check it's web site for instructions on installing the standard Scripts.


Broadcast TV
Of course, it would be nice to record regular over-the-air broadcasts as well.
Here are three popular ways to record broadcast video into your computer:
  • ATI TV Wonder HD 650 This full-featured external USB-2 box contains the tuner and connectors. Records up to 1080i in MPEG-2 format.
  • Elagato EyeTV This USB-2 "stick" also supports recording up tp 1080i. Elagato also has other popular products for analog TV. (There's also a Pinnacle/Avid HDTV stick. This deviced is "Powered by Elagato," so I don't know why you'd want this instead of the original Elagato product.)
  • TiVo Transfer Use the DVR abilities of a TiVo and use their software to transfer files to your computer.
These solutions will work on all platforms, but the linux methods are a bit more involved.

On my laptop, I use iTunes to pull down a number of podcasts for viewing on my iPhone.
At home, Miro pulls downs shows for viewing on the Media Center.

Using these sources, I have hours of good (and legal!) programming every day.


In part 2, I'll explain how the more "questionable" program sources work.


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Wednesday, March 18, 2009

A Media Center in the Living Room: Part 4 "DVD"

A quick update on yesterday's troubles:
  • After the re-install the Wifi manager correctly requested authentication when setting the WEP key. Now it reconnects flawlessly.
  • Finding an optical S/PDIF bracket has proven very difficult. There's someone in Australia selling them on eBay. There's a slightly overpriced Asus one on Amazon. I purchased it in a bundle with a cable to make it more reasonable. See the link to the left. Full report when it arrives.



The bulk of my "TV" watching has been TV-on-DVD. I get good programming without the big Cable bill.

Up to now, all the DVD content for the media center was ripped to the hard drive using Handbrake on the Mac. A Folder Action watches for the compressed files and moves them to the media center.
While I (and presumably most media consumers) consider this a Fair Use, it violates the "anti-circumvention" provisions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act ("DMCA").
So you're breaking the law if you copy a DVD program to your computer.
Silly? Yes.
But then again, our current copyright and patent system is so broken and corrupt...
I'll save the complete rant for later. Back to the project!

There's a number of DVDs that I don't want to add to the library. I want a way to watch those using the computer like a normal DVD player. Heck, I've got the remote!

So in goes the LiteOn DVD drive I purchased at General Nanosystems. (Raising the build total by another $22.)

But since this box is running mostly Open Source software, there's no way to legally decode the copy-protection used on most commercial DVDs.
So once again, we're going to have to defy our friend, the DMCA in order to use a product we already paid for.

Fortunately for those willing to ignore the DMCA, there are people outside the jurisdiction of the United States willing to provide the needed tools.
Of course, if the maintainers of Ubuntu provided you with these tools, they'd be in legal trouble. So they don't directly include them. We're going to have to leave the comfort of the GUI to make the DVD drive work, but it's all just cut-and-paste into the Terminal window.

I just followed the instructions at http://www.debuntu.org/how-to-play-dvd-under-ubuntu-linux.
Afterwards, XBMC was able to play a DVD complete with menus.
Here's a screenshot showing the MediaStream transport controls.

Mystery Men
Mystery Men (c) Universal Studios 1999

Total cost of upgrades so far:
Remote$22
Hard Drive$60
DVD Drive$22
Total:$104
A bit more than the "zero dollars" I had intended, but still affordable.

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A Media Center in the Living Room: Part 3 "One Step Back"

This week, I'm trying to fix the non-critical issues I mentioned in the last post.
  • I need to re-enter the wifi password whenever I reboot the system
  • Haven't figured out how to turn off the video signal so the monitor will "sleep"
  • vnc is slow. With no keyboard/mouse attached, I need good vnc performance
  • Volume level on the analog audio is lower than other components on the stereo
  • Need to auto-launch XMBC
Wifi
Researching the wifi issue led me to Widc. Widc appears to be a greatly improved Network Manager and is, in fact, included in the next version of Ubuntu.
I added the Widc repository, installed the package, and my system became unbootable.
There's plenty of room for error here, but I was very careful.
When setting the repository, they provide the example "deb http://apt.wicd.net hardy extras" but you need to manually change "hardy" to your distribution. "intrepid" in my case.
The line for setting the key is very nice:
wget -q http://apt.wicd.net/wicd.gpg -O- | sudo apt-key add -
Everything I read about this makes it sound like the way to go. Unfortunately for me, it meant booting from CD and reinstalling.

Now the good news here is that the next release of Ubuntu ("Jaunty Jackelope") is scheduled for late April. But if you're reading this, you probably want answers now!

vnc
After reinstalling, I installed the "tightvnc" package to try and improve the vnc performance. I did not see a GUI configuration tool, and I have not been able to connect via vnc since the "upgrade."

audio
This board has a S/PDIF header, but doesn't have a connector on the back plane.
So, I stopped by my favorite spot for computer parts, General Nanosystems, to pick up a S/PDIF bracket for the case and a DVD drive. Looks like I'll have to order the S/PDIF connector online.
I got the DVD drive installed but haven't been able to test it yet.

Stay tuned for more exciting action!
Part 2: "Local and Remote"Part 4: "DVD"


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Monday, March 16, 2009

A Media Center in the Living Room: Part 2 "Local and Remote"

In Part 1, I successfully assembled a PC for the living room that can browse and play video.
In this phase, I'll add a "real" remote control, and add more storage.

The iPhone xbmc remote app works well enough but the phone often takes a few seconds to find the wifi when waking up. And of course, it's hard on the batteries. Logitech's Harmony remotes are very full-featured but can cost more than this entire machine.

Newegg had a basic Anyware MCE Remote for under $23. It looks like that model has already been replaced (did I buy the last one?) with newer, more rounded model.

Just for fun, I tried to get the remote working on a number of machines:
MacBook Pro: Nothing. Not even recognized by USB Overdrive.
Windows XP: It tried to download drivers but failed.
Windows Vista Ultimate: Worked perfectly.
and on our Ubuntu box: I had to install "lirc" using Synaptic Package Manager. Then it Just Worked.

I also installed a 1/2 TB IDE drive. Obviously, with a newer motherboard, you could opt for even larger SATA drives. By storing the media files locally on this machine, we will get the smoothest playback.

After the physical installation, we have to format and mount the drive. I caught myself bringing up the terminal before remembering that one of the goals of this project wast to everything with the GUI.

I used Synaptic Package Manager to install "gparted" and "pysdm." These packages provide graphic tools for formatting and mounting the hard drive. (You'll find them on the System::Administration menu.)

At this point, I veered off the "anyone can do it" path and set up remote volume synchronization and some streaming media services on my media server machine. This basically just mirrors the video files on my media server to the XBMC box so I don't need to stream them over the wifi. Most people won't need to anything like that...
Just rip or download your files directly to your media center.

Now, with these upgrades, I can sit on the couch, remote in hand, and watch any of the hundred of individual episodes I've ripped on my media server.

Issues with the current setup:
  • I need to re-enter the wifi password whenever I reboot the system
  • Haven't figured out how to turn off the video signal so the monitor will "sleep"
  • vnc is slow. With no keyboard/mouse attached, I need good vnc performance
  • Volume level on the analog audio is lower than other components on the stereo
  • Need to auto-launch XMBC
We will work through these issues in the Part 3.


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A Media Center in the Living Room: Part 1 "Zero Dollars"

After using Plex, Boxee, and XBMC on my MacbookPro for a couple weeks, I realized I wanted my video player permanently in the living room.

I have a lot of computer parts in the office, so I thought I could build a standalone media center that could play podcasts, DVDs, and eventually HD content (when I get a TV).

The Goals:
Spend Nothing.
2009 is still off to a very rocky start, so I can't justify any real expenditure on something for the living room when I can already watch this content on the laptop.

Install all the software without using the command-line interface.
While I normally just log in as root and manually edit all my config files, I wanted to see if it's possible for a "normal" person to install and configure the needed software using only the GUI.

Living Room Experience.
I don't just want to put a PC in the living room.
The desktop metaphor isn't appropriate when sitting across the room from the screen.
Since I like Plex, I'm going to attempt to install XBMC (Plex is an XBMC fork) with the MediaStream skin. (Plex is based on the MediaStream skin.)


The Build

Hardware:
Digging through the office, here's what I cobbled together:
  • Biostar m7ncg 400 with a Sempron 2400
  • 2 sticks of RAM
  • Lite On CD drive
  • 350 watt power supply
  • Linksys WUSB300N USB Wifi adapter
  • PS/2 keyboard
  • 30 gB Western Digital IDE drive.
  • Microsoft USB notebook mouse
  • mini-plug to RCA stereo cable
The Biostar was already in my server rack, so I skipped hooking up the peripherals before starting the software installs.

Software:
A very simple way to get a media center working is to just run Vista Ultimate. However, with my budget of zero dollars, that's not an option for this project. Apple's Front Row also works very nicely. Again, way outside the budget.

So it's going to be some flavor of linux or freebsd...
Ubuntu has a very active community and is well supported. It probably has the best chance of completing the project using only the GUI.

I downloaded the latest ("Intrepid Ibex") Ubuntu CD image and burned it to a physical CD using the Macbook.
A quick BIOS change to allow booting from the CD drive, and the Ubuntu installer was off and running.
I had to go to the command line a couple times to get networking and video working.
This was certainly due to the fact that my server rack is not a normal "desktop" environment (unusual network zones and keyboard/monitor switcher).
So I pulled the machine out, set up a normal case, hooked up it's own keyboard/monitor/mouse and plopped it on my "office" network zone.

Second attempt went flawlessly using only the on-screen prompts and GUI.

So now I had a 6-year-old CPU running the latest Ubuntu. No wireless or media center software yet, and performance was really poor.
Time to install some software packages!

The Ubuntu desktop includes the Synaptic Package Manager. This was my first experience with a graphical package manager, and it seems to work just fine.
From the regular repository, I installed
  • NVIDIA drivers
  • ndiswrapper-common, ndisgtk, and ndiswrapper-utils-1.9
  • xbmc

The updated video drivers drastically improved performance.

I've always been a little leery of "ndiswrapper" wifi wrapper stuff because it seems crazy. How can you get Windows drivers to work on a non-Windows OS?
My fears were unfounded: Installation and configuration were a snap.

XBMC crashed my audio system whenever I hit right-arrow to fast-forward. Somehow, a fairly broken version was released as the "stable" build. Skip installing this version and go directly to the xbmc sources.

You can find more up-to-date XBMC sources at http://xbmc.org/forum/showthread.php?p=185738
Just cut & paste the deb:// lines from this page into a new source using Synaptic.
I installed xbmc, the Supported Scripts, and the MediaStream skin.

NOTE: Unless you set up the keys for these package sources, Synaptic is going to whine every time you update. The sources page also contains a link to information on setting up the keys, but if that seems too complicated, you can get by without it.


XMBC is now working!
But there are some weird bars and shadows drawing over the video content when I switch to full screen.

A web search reveals that I need to turn off desktop effects.

System::Preferences::Appearance then select the "Visual Effects" tab.

Set the Effect to "None."
Now XBMC works fine in full-screen.



Now we're getting somewhere!
A wireless box that can browse and play media.

After moving the box to the living room, I just needed a few more things to complete this phase of the project.
  • Used the RCA adapter to hook up the sound to the stereo.
  • Downloaded an iPhone application to remotely control the system. There are a number of these apps - I went with a free one, of course.

So now I have a video player in the living room. It plays all of my standard-def content just fine, but it just doesn't have the juice to show HD content.
Now, I can crash on the couch and watch Firefly!

In the next installment, I'll discuss how the current build performs, spend a few dollars on hardware upgrades and fine-tune the software.

Next steps (as budget allows):
  • Get a "real" remote control
  • Upgrade the audio path to optical
  • Install a DVD drive
  • Show and record over-the-air programming
  • Pump out smooth 1080p on an HDMI port
Part 2: Local and Remote

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