Saturday, June 1, 2013

Developments in Home Streaming

After 10+ years of building and running home theater PC boxes (HTPCs), cheap streaming appliance frontends may finally be good enough to present a variety of local and Internet content on 1080p displays. This blog post provides a brief summary of the hardware and software solutions I've recently abandoned, and some suggestions and hints toward what might approach video Shrangri-La.

In mid-2012 I discontinued use of my TiVo HD in favor of a MythTV setup with HDHomeRun network attached tuners. For nearly a decade, I'd run TiVo series 1 and 3 (HD) boxes for my cable recording and living room display needs. The old TiVo was a life-changer. The original TiVo team built a brilliantly usable interface to fundamentally complex functionality. Unfortunately, TiVo has become something like the Palm Computing of DVRs. The current devices aren't that much more advanced than the original devices in terms of actual interface and practicality. It's like TiVo laid off a brilliant team of engineers and failed to foster partnerships in the industry. When my local cable provider switched to digital-only, I ditched the TiVo rather than fighting with CableCARD and re-committing to TiVo. I will not support the cable industry's lockdown of content by turning every DVR or cable box into an additional source of revenue for the cable monopoly. This is now the age of Ethernet and Internet streaming. I refuse to acknowledge my cable provider as anything but an Internet pipe and source of local broadcast programming. I realize that many get the extended or premium cable TV packages. I'm done with that. I'll get my HBO and Showtime series over DVDs or streaming services long after the programs initially air. Considering most network's proclivities to cancel new programs, I'm willing to wait a couple years for those programs that pass the gauntlet, and receive them at a time-discounted price.

I've run local streaming server and client HTPCs for years. PCs, especially Linux and open source PCs, have offered the freedom to store and stream personally owned/managed content for years. Just as the TiVo was my DVR, my HTPCs happily served up my personal AV archive and DVDs to any display in the house.

This year, I've experimented with devices like the MiniX Neo X5 (Chinese, Android-based TV box) to act as cheap clients to attach to HDMI displays. I also built a new Windows 8 HTPC to access XBMC, MythTV, and streamed Netflix and Amazon content: In the end, neither Android nor Windows boxes are what I want attached to my displays. I want set-top boxes that work like appliances and have custom hardware and Linux underneath. I don't want to futz with custom Android firmwares and the intricacies of hardware accelerated playback, nor the complexities of a full Windows box with an awkward combination of Metro apps and some (annoyingly) browser accessed content. What I want, and what I suspect many want, is something akin to the old TiVo appliance that can seamlessly access both local media and current Internet streaming services. Nothing else will do. This past week, I repurposed my long-serving AMV/Nvidia (MythTV) HTPC to be a network firewall/router and bastion host. I expect to repurpose my new Windows 8 HTPC as a network server this coming week. PCs are finally becoming overkill for driving 1080p displays; they're still too much like PCs and not enough like appliances.

My current preference for driving displays is the Roku 3. The works like an appliance for the sources I use: Netflix, Amazon, Aereo, and Plex. My Synology box now acts as a very adequate Plex server for my own content, and can be integrated to work with my MythTV backend. Netflix, Amazon, and Aereo can stream at 720p or 1080i/p. The Roku has a great appliance interface and a great remote control. I love being able to attach headphones to the Wi-Fi remote control itself for quiet late-night viewing.

In the end, here are my recommendations: A Roku 3 for each dumb display, a MythTV backend for cable-based content, a Plex server for your personal media archive, and portable devices to shore up any other areas. Aereo may be here for the long haul, or may be a flash in the pan. MythTV and ClearQAM or CableCARD also have an uncertain future. Transcode or pop your archive and TV content onto a Plex server to stand the test of time. The world of broadcast and streamed video is changing rapidly. I generally trust the Roku (version 3) and Plex to stand the test of time. This may change. ;-/. I'll be right there to inform as changes occur. As always, I'd love to hear on G+ what's currently working for everyone else or what direction you're heading. Cable and Internet video is always a moving target. This will presumably settle down at some point, but we're in a period of disruption and business and legal change. I simply hope you AV enthusiasts out there are navigating a path that works for your and your family! I'd love to hear your chosen path(s). Thanks for listening during these unsettled times!