Monday, January 25, 2010

So... Video Piracy is Over Then?

In my presentations on our current media distribution systems, I often show estimates of unauthorized downloads.

I gather these numbers by watching the major bittorrent trackers and getting figures from the largest closed bittorrent communities.

But with the legal victories of the rights holders in 2009, the people distributing unauthorized file changed technologies. By moving to more decentralized models they've actually increased the rate at which files can be distributed and made it nearly impossible to track how many copies are going out.

I recently ran my analysis again for "Dollhouse." (Recently cancelled. Heavy geek audience.) Apparently, unauthorized downloads are down over 90%. Congratulations to the Television and Film industries for effectively eliminating piracy!
And download traffic in countries that have implemented "3 strikes" laws has completely stopped.

Of course, piracy hasn't stopped. In fact, anecdotal evidence indicates that unauthorized downloads of this particular program have more than doubled with recent episodes. But there is no way to confirm this based on numbers from the usual bittorrent trackers.

The producers of video content need to deal with reality and find a new strategy.

Perhaps the mythical Apple consumer device scheduled to be released later this week will give them a way to realistically play in the online world.

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Thursday, January 21, 2010

Evaluating the 2009 Predictions

At the beginning of 2009, I posted the obligatory predictions.Let's see how I did:

Increase in dog ownership
Up. way up. But oddly, cats even more.

Decline in Cable viewership
Yup. Viewers are down. But revenue is up. If you're still watching cable, you're getting ripped off.

The End of Twitter.
Not really. I assumed we'd see some sort of message discrimination in Twitter. The implementation of trends and lists certainly count towards this prediction, but I will count this as a "miss" since I really expected a larger change.

Edgar Allen Poe craze in Hollywood
Complete miss. James McTeigue started The Raven, but that's about it. Free stuff and Hollywood let it pass by.

Independent Media Productions
TWiT network really came on like gangbusters in 2009. In fact, that one "network" accounts for over half of my video viewing.
A number of terrific YouTube channels got popular in 2009.
We're seeing all of this programming become available on regular TVs with the Roku box and TVs with Yahoo Widgets.
Growth was huge, but we're not seeing penetration into the general TV-viewing public yet.

The End of "Trickle-Down Economics"
Refuses to die. Just this morning I was listening to a report that pointed out that businesses aren't spending. Of course, they're not. No sensible person will spend until they've replenished the reserves. Which adds a lot of friction to money flowing downstream.
Opinion on this topic seems to have changed, but policy has not.
"A rising yacht does not lift the tide."

Beginning of Free Energy
My prediction was that policies would be put in place that will us down the cheap energy in the United States.
That part seems to be correct.
The political battle is taking longer than expected, so that's disappointing.

Automotive Status Quo (With at least one company bankruptcy)
Nailed it.
No electric car for me. Detroit still looking almost as dumb as Hollywood.
Ford is actually embracing the Film model with high-tech gimmicks to entice customers to buy their evolutionary products.

The End of Tubes
Flat screens now account for all new TV sales, and one-half of American households now have an HDTV.  Not quite the universal adoption I was expecting, so I'll count that as "mixed."

Increased attendance at Farmer's Markets
Definitely true for the few markets I could get numbers from.
Many cities added more Farmers Markets in 2009.
This trend was already underway, so I don't think we can say the down economy was the reason people headed to the Farmers Markets in record numbers last year.

In my predictions for things We Won't See in 2009, I included "a competitor to the iPhone."
Almost made it! The Motorola Droid snuck in at the end of the year and was widely considered as the first legitimate iPhone competitor.

Most of the prediction were "half true." Two were clearly correct, and three were complete misses. At 40%, I did way better than most people who stuck their necks out with silly predictions.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Media Center Revisited Part 4 - Don't Try This at Home

The new media center is working great.
It was a fun project, and it allows me to hide another computer in the house.
XBMC is terrific software and the interface gets even better with each version.

For me, the reason for having a Home Theater PC is to watch video distributed over bittorrent, podcasts, YouTube, and internet streaming video (IPTV).
Until recently, watching these sorts of programs required a computer.

But now we're seeing televisions with some of these features, and set-top devices designed to play Internet content.
Later this year, manufacturers are scheduled to release a whole slew of Blu-ray players with internet capabilities.

There are now many alternatives to building your own system.

Small "Computers"
Marketed as general-purpose computers, these small, powerful, and quiet computers work perfectly for Home Theater PCs.
Popular choices include the Apple Mac Mini and the Dell Zino. (Although the current Mac mini lacks a Blu-ray drive.)

There are also "nettop" computers which are basically the guts from netbook computers in a very small form factor.  Lifhacker ran a nice article on using one of these as an inexpensive XBMC box.

Blu-ray Players
Many high-end Blu-ray players now come with "BD-Live," a feature that allows them to play streaming content. BD-Live isn't very compelling since the content is title-specific. But many of these internet-capable players also include Netflix streaming, and that's an excellent way to get your movies for cheap.

Most of these devices don't have extra storage, and they won't let you rip your DVD content.

Game Consoles
All three major consoles support video streaming (although the Wii is not HD). Each has some proprietary programming. ("The Guild" runs on Xbox Live before any other platform.) And the PS3 has a built-in Blu-ray player.

Internet Set-top Boxes
For me, this will be the exciting category in 2010. These boxes include all of the media features of a traditional HTPC (Home Theater PC) out of the box. Hook it up to your TV just like a DVD player, and you have access to Internet content.
Most of these boxes can connect to external drives for increased storage or have upgradeable internal drives. They are all silent or nearly so. Most support paid (Netflix, Amazon On Demand, Vudu) video streaming.

Best of all, most are priced between $100 and $200 dollars. So they make an excellent upgrade to that big flat screen you bought last year.

WD Live Plays pretty much anything.
Tivo TCD series players Strong streaming support as part of the TiVo service
Boxee Box Boxee is a variation of XBMC with strong online and streaming support.
Roku Current king of the hill for streaming and podcasts, but the competition is catching up fast.
Vudu Box Highest quality video streams currently available. The service is also available on some TVs.

As of this writing, the Apple TV is no longer a player in this category. The iTunes store integration is still nice, but the other players offer many more features at a better price.

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Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Media Center Revisited Part 3 - Settling In

In our previous installment,  the software installation went pretty smoothly.

I'm able to watch my videos, listen to music, and even watch Flash video on the web.
A few problems remain:
  • VNC terminal isn't really working.
  • DVDs aren't showing up in XBMC.
  • After restarting, I lost my sound again.
  • Video (especially HD) is tearing pretty badly.
I'd also like to:
  • Listen to internet streaming radio
  • Watch streaming video
  • Automatically download podcasts

Time to make this puppy sing.

Fixing Problems:
Problem 1: vnc
vnc is a cross-platform remote desktop system.
I use it on all of my computers.
It's really nice for the media center since trying to install software or edit settings while sitting on the couch can be a problem with the screen so far away.

Issue: Screen and mouse are visible, but actions from clicks don't show up in my vnc client.

Cause: It turns out that the stuff that makes Karmic Koala so pretty is all the screen effects provided by something called Compiz. There's a known bug with Compiz and the ATI drivers used on this computer. Since this box is used almost exclusively for video anyway, we can turn off those pretty, pretty special effects.

Go to System:Preferences:Appearance. Then click on
the Visual Effects tab.

Set the effect to None and close the window.

If you'd like to easily switch these effects on and off, there's a nice little button you can install in the menu bar.

Problem 2: DVDs
Issue: DVDs are not being recognized by XBMC.
Solution: back to Synaptic (System:Administration:Synaptic Package Manager) and install udf and libudf0. UDF is the file system used on DVDs.
Some DVD still are having issues ("Kill Bill" for example), but the TV shows I tried are working.

When I get the extra drives, I'll probably rip the rest of my TV-on-DVD shows because the experience of watching the files is much richer than watching the DVD. (Better transport controls, show notes, bookmarks, etc.)

Problem 3: Sound Settings
Don't know why, but switching my selected audio output device from "Analog Headphones" to "Analog Output" solved the issue.

Problem 4: Video Tearing
I tried the various vertical sync and refresh option in XBMC, but many of those would cause XBMC to hang when not actually playing video. 

The ATI Catalyst Control Center was hiding under the Applications:Other menu. 
Setting the Wait for vertical refresh to Always On completely eliminated the tearing on moving video.

Adding New Services:
Podcasts (For listening/viewing in XBMC):
The built-in Rhythmbox Music Player can retrieve podcasts, but it just didn't work well for me.
There are some dedicated scripts to fetch podcasts, but I'm looking for a simpler solution.
The Banshee player did a much better job of managing podcasts. It is easily installed from the Ubuntu Software Center (Applications:Ubuntu Software Center).

Streaming Radio:
The built-in Rhythmbox Music Player streams radio just fine. Many of the presets didn't work so I just deleted them.
The Banshee Media Player also does a fine job of streaming radio.

Streaming TV:
The page on the XBMC wiki explains how to add both video and audio streaming to XBMC.
Now I have my favorite audio and video streams playing directly in XBMC so I can use the remote control.
There are no solutions available to play paid (Netflix, Amazon, Vudu) streams on linux.

I'll present a list of my current streams and podcasts in upcoming article.

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Monday, January 18, 2010

Media Center Revisited Part 2 - Software Installation

In part 1, I updated the media center by replacing most of the parts.
Now that the machine is assembled, let's install the software.

Windows 7 is really great for home theater use, but I'm keeping it cheap with free software. Just like the previous build, I will use Ubuntu and XBMC.

Ubuntu has become my usual OS because it has been easy to install and is well supported.

Use another computer to:

Now just put the CD in the new machine and boot from it.
(I set the BIOS to boot from optical media first.)
Select Install Ubuntu and accept all the defaults.
Worked out of the box!

Allow the system updates to run. This took awhile for me.

Pull up Sytem:Administration:Hardware Drivers and make sure the ATI drivers are installed and active.
(Obviously, video drivers will vary by manufacturer.)

I now have a fully functional computer!

I actually spent quite a bit of time playing with the new features in this version of Ubuntu before getting back to my installation. I can highly recommend Karmic.

Back to the install:

First Hitch: XBMC is not in the Karmic repository for some reason.
Just follow the instructions on the XBMC Wiki to add it to your software sources.
I used the non-command-line method:
Bring up System:Administration:Software Sources and select the Other Software tab.
Add  the XBMC repository:

Close the Software Sources window.
Now open Synaptic and install the XBMC meta package.
While there, install "lirc" to give you remote control.

At this point, I could browse and watch my videos... except no sound.
A helpful person on the #ubuntu irc got me the fix.
Open the terminal window (Applications:Accessories:Terminal)
type "alsamixer" and hit ENTER:

use the arrow keys to turn up the volume.
Time to watch some video!

I use "sftp" (a file transfer protocol built into Secure Shell) for most of my local file transfers. All my machines, regardless of operating system, run ssh, so it's a universal file share for me.
Open Synaptic again and install ssh-server.
Now I can easily (and securely) transfer files from my Mac Server.

Now we just need DVD playback.
I followed the instructions on this post about installing medibuntu repositories, and we're good to go.
Whole process was under 2 hours.

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Sunday, January 17, 2010

Media Center Revisited Part I - The Hardware

The ultra-cheap Home Theater PC made it almost a year before it died.

It's being replaced with slightly more expensive version based on things I learned from the old one.

My criteria:
  • Able to pump out 1080p video
  • Digital audio out
  • HDMI
  • Quiet
  • Did I say Quiet?
  • Low power
  • Easy to assemble
  • Inexpensive

The dual-core Intel processors are still pretty expensive, and the current crop of AMD processors are pretty good, so I'm going AMD.
The Phenom II can be had for about $100.
An all-around excellent computing bargain.

Video Card:
The basic choices are on-board video, and a separate video card.
Pairing a less expensive board with a card designed for video works very well, but is slightly more expensive than the integrated boards based on the AMD 785G chipset. The reviews of the 785G are universally positive.
All the advanced features of the video system won't be used by current software, but should be viable for years to come.
So the video card will be 785G integrated video.

The Motherboard:
Choosing the 785G limits our choices for motherboards.
Tom's Hardware did a nice review of the Asus M4A785TD-V EVO board and that was good enough for me. If I build another one of these, I'd go with the micro-ATX version, but since I'm planning on a custom enclosure, I saved a few bucks by purchasing the full-sized ATX version.

Power Supply:
This made a huge difference. I had already purchased an Antec EarthWatt 450 for the old box, but that computer died before I got it installed. The new machine is drastically more quiet than the old one. Not quite silent, but very quiet.

I put a one terabyte SATA drive in to start. I plan to add two 1.5 drives to make it into my main household file server.

I kept all the other parts (Case, remote control, DVD drive,  etc.) from the old machine.

Assembly was very straightforward. The Asus board came with some nice headers so I could plug in all those little case wires into the headers and then plug that into the board. Made it very simple.

The only issue I had was that I had 2 ATA hard drives, an IDE CD drive, and the IDE DVD drive. The new motherboard only had 2 IDE connectors, so I decided to skip the old hard drives and put everything on the ATA drive. There are a ton of SATA and eSATA connectors. Again, this board should serve me for a long time.

The Price:
With some shopping around, I was able to get all the parts for around $450 including memory.

In part 2, I'll install the software.

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Thursday, January 14, 2010

It's Not 3D!

The 2010 Consumer Electronics Show was all about "3D" Televisions for the home.
Let's be clear: There's nothing "3D" about these displays. They are stereoscopic.

Much as stereoscopes completely replaced traditional albums of photographs in the 1850's... oh wait.
Here in the twenty-first century, most people still keep albums of traditional photographs.

Could stereoscopic photography be anything more than a fad?

Perhaps a little more...
I loved my ViewMaster back in the 1970's and in the 1980's one could purchase stereoscopic film cameras.
In 2010, we'll see a bunch of stereoscopic digital cameras.

But here's why the home stereoscopic TV fad will be particularly short lived:
  • Most homes just upgraded to digital TV at a price point the average consumer wouldn't have considered a decade ago. There is no way they can justify a new set.
  • Stereoscopic programming cannot be viewed while lying on the couch or in bed.
  • Those stupid glasses
  • The headaches caused by some of the viewing technology.
  • No programs. While there are a handful of movies that were shot in stereo, but most new programs will just be re-renders of digitally animated movies.

Did you really love "Avatar" enough to plunk down another two grand for a new TV, buy a new "3D" Blu-ray player, and sit perfectly upright wearing dorky glasses just so you can watch it at home?

But Gaming is whole other issue.

Gamers are used to strapping on a headset, so adding the glasses would not be a big deal.
We're used to sitting perfectly centered in front of a screen for hours at a time. I think stereoscopic monitors for gaming could become standard gear.

But I think you get a much more compelling 3D experience with something like this head-tracking demo.

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