December 24, 2004
Happy Holidays from TVHarmony
I just want to wish everyone happy holidays and a great new year. New posts will be light over the next week, but next year should be good with some new product reviews, a re-designed TVHarmony Product Tracker with some helpful new features, and some new articles and How To's that some will find useful.
December 21, 2004
Review: Creative Zen PVP (Peter Near's Blog)
Extremetech.com has a nice primer for HDTV and the main technology options involved.
December 20, 2004
Sony pulling out of Plasma TV Market?
In another blow to plasma televisions, rumors have it that Sony will pull out of the plasma television market as soon as this next Spring. According to the article, the reason is business related; Sony doesn't produce the plasma televisions so it can't compete on price and the profit margins are eroding in the market. Regardless of whether Sony believes plasma has a future, the article then suggests that Sony simply dropping the product line will scare potential plasma customers away from adopting the technology.
The article also highlighted this forecast for the television industry:
According the independent research firm DisplaySearch, the global market for plasma TV sets will reach 5.14 million units in 2005, up 92% from 2.68 million this year. The LCD TV market is expected to double to 16 million units next year.
DisplaySearch predicts that sales of rear-projection TVs will total 6.82 million units in 2005, up 20% year-on-year. While sales of flat-panel sets are booming, traditional cathode-ray tube (CRT) models still make up about 90% of all TV sets sold worldwide.
I guess my old Sony CRT television isn't that out of fashion yet. It may actually turn out to be retro chic.
Feature shootout: Comcast DVR vs. Tivo
The Richmond Times Dispatch wrote this short comparison comparing the two rival products. It oversimplifies things a bit but I think it's still worth noting.
December 17, 2004
IPod in short supply
If you can't find it in stock, never fear, because DigitalMerging.la has a good link to competitive products.
Review: MCE Extender for XBox (WhiningDog.net)
The WhiningDog.net has a review of Microsoft's MCE Extender for XBox, a cheap way to extend a MCE DVR to another television if you already own an XBox. If you don't, it might be a good back door way of convincing your significant other that an XBox is needed.
Sounds like a good product except for two things I find disappointing:
- You need to have the software CD inserted in the XBox to run the software, making it a hassle to flip between watching television and watching a DVD on the XBox
- There is no support for XVID/DIVX, which unfortunately, is the format of choice for most of my video library given it's smaller footprint
That being said, it's not a bad product for $80, including a remote control with a stylish, big green button in the middle of it.
(Hat tip: HTPCNews.com)
Review: AverMedia UltraTV 1500MCE
Competition is a great thing for consumers and good example of this is the battle being waged in the video capture card market. Both Hauppauge and AverMedia have released sub-$100 MPEG2 Encoder cards to the market this year, and at a $70 street price, the Hauppauge 150MCE and the AverMedia UltraTV 1500MCE both give the consumer a lot of bang for their buck. I had a chance to try the AverMedia UltraTV 1500MCE, and I found it to be a great value.
One thing every builder of a DVR system should look for in capture cards these days is MPEG2 encoding built directly on the board, reducing the CPU processing necessary to record a video stream. With the introduction of entry level MPEG 2 encoder cards, it's definitely worth the price differential to purchase a card with MPEG2 encoding. The AverMedia 1500MCE and the Hauppauge PVR150MCE are both worthy of consideration.
The AverMedia UltraTV 1500MCE comes with both video capture as well as FM radio. Inputs on the card include both a NTSC connector, a FM receiver connector, S-Video, and right and left stereo inputs. The 1500MCE does not include a component Video-in, so you'll end up buying an adaptor cable if this is needed for your setup. Neither the PVR150MCE nor the 1500MCE include a remote control as part of their entry level offerings.
Installing the AverMedia UltraTV 1500MCE was straightforward and uneventful, always a good thing for hardware installation. It is compatible with both Microsoft's Media Center Edition 2005 as well as the standard Windows XP operating system. The 1500MCE integrated seamlessly with MCE 2005 without any additional configuration, and as soon as the drivers were installed, MCE recognized the card and worked flawlessly. Unlike the PVR150MCE, AverMedia adds some bundled software for Windows XP called UltraTV to view and timeshift live television.
I did have problems using both the AverMedia and Hauppauge cards on the same system, the result of which was somewhat mysterious to me. They worked fine when both were installed under MCE 2005, making our MCE 2005 test system a nice low cost, 2 tuner DVR. However under Windows XP Home, the two cards refused to work together using the same computer, PCI slots, and installing them in the same sequence in the two configuratios. If a multiple tuner DVR is what you desire, I would consider sticking with the same brand (caveat: I didn't have two identical cards to try so this is an assumption) rather than mixing and matching.
The UltraTV software is functional for viewing television from a computer, but not on the order of other DVR systems like SageTV or BeyondTV. The electronic program guide is simply a link to TitanTV and scheduling requires manually typing in each show. For watching television, including pausing live television, it does a good enough job, but you'll soon start looking for better software if you want a true DVR solution.
From what I gather via Google, both SageTV and Microsoft MCE 2005 both support the AverMedia 1500MCE card, and I'm sure other software DVR products will likely either announce compatibility or add it in the near future. I would check with your favorite DVR package before purchase, but other AverMedia products are well supported so this one can't be far behind.
The quality of this card is quite good. It includes some de-interlace technology called V-Sharp that appears to do a good job of rendering and capturing interlaced video. Here's a head to head comparison between the AverMedia 1500MCE vs. the Hauppauge PVR150MCE and both cards do an admirable job of capturing video:
Aver Media UltraTV 1500MCE
Overall, I found the AverMedia 1500MCE a good value for the money. I give a lot of kudos to Avermedia for lowering the cost of building a DVR system by introducing a $70 card that does a good job of capturing video. The AverMedia 1500MCE is a solid performer with a lot to like, and with the its low price, it is pretty hard to beat.
December 16, 2004
Advice to Tivo: "Kill Subscription Fees"
" Without the subscription fee requirement, TiVo would turn the marketing tables on cable DVRs that now soundly beat it at face value. Paying a one-time $400 fee for stable DVR service with home networking links and a great interface is compelling versus paying $8 or more per month to your probably beloved cable provider for which the only “Lifetime” option is a barrage of sappy women’s TV movies. TiVo will never be able to beat cable and satellite providers at a subscription price war, so why fight one? And when compared to a Media Center PC for $1,500 or more, TiVo would be closer to the price of a far less versatile Media Center Extender."
As a monthly check writer, I like the idea of no subscription fees but I would worry that it might hurt Tivo more than help it. Some people end up paying their monthly fee because they aren't sure of Tivo's long term future, and adding another $200-$300 to the price tag may be enough to turn them from toe-dippers into swimmers in a different pool. If I were a consumer who wasn't certain about DVR technology but wanted to give it a try, would I pick a $0 cost, no long term commitment monthly fee from a cable provider or a $400 Tivo?
There is no doubt, long ago, my wife and I were reluctant to purchase a Tivo given the monthly fees, uncertain about the value a DVR can have on television viewing. If there were a no cost alternative, I certainly think we would have tried it before purchasing a Tivo.
I'd suggest the opposite position for Tivo: offer a 60 day, full refund, no questions asked, return policy. That would encourage people to try Tivo before waiting in line for their cable or satellite operator. Calling the cable company, let alone being home for a 4 hour block of time so a cable guy can plug-in a DVR, puts cable and satellite operators at a disadvantage. Going into Circuit City or Best Buy is a heck of a lot easier, and with 60 days to try risk free, most people will learn they can't live without it.
I think consumers are still questioning whether they need a DVR at all, not whether they need the best one out there. The monthly fees can be daunting to a potential buyer, but so is a high initial purchase price. Tivos, once in use, sell themselves so from my point of view, removing the obstacles to getting them in the front door is objective #1. Making it risk-free and "cable guy"-free, seems like an easier sell.
Control your content: Build your own DVR
Build Your Own PVR has some interesting things to say about the restrictions starting to appear on DVRs. Both on Tivo and MSO provided DVRs, restrictions on recording video on demand and undoubtedly other content are starting to appear, limiting the time you can leave those recording on your DVR. With more and more restrictions being placed on consumers of retail DVRs, the better it is to just build your own DVR using off the shelf components and software.
The roadblocks to building a DVR system are steadily being removed. DVR software is getting easier and easier to install and use, while at the same time, getting more competitive with products like Tivo. Hardware components like video capture cards are dropping in price, with $70 cards like the Hauppauge 150MCE and AverMedia 1500MCE, as well as bargain basement computer CPUs, motherboards, and hard drives, easily capable of providing the necessary horsepower.
The one remaining roadblock, shared by Tivo unfortunately, is the lack of a standalone solution to HDTV. It's easy for a HDTV set-top box to record a compressed signal directly to a hard drive, but it's very difficult to take an uncompressed HDTV signal and compress it and store it to a hard drive. That's why you only see either over the air HDTV capture cards or HDTV DVRs provided directly from cable and satellite operators. Encoding HTDV signals in real-time is still a tough nut to crack. At this point, that will be the Achille's heal for homebuilt systems moving forward, particularly as the dubious "broadcast flag" requirement takes effect for hardware manufacturers.
At this point, I'd rather have a good DVR system than HDTV, but that equation will change over time as more and more content is available in HDTV and a clear standard for next generation DVD technology comes out. Hopefully before that tipping point, we'll see some new affordable HDTV encoders make their debut.
Via PVRBlog, Tivo is giving away free 40hour Series 2 Tivos to residents of the Bay Area that come to their company headquarters tomorrow (Friday) between 11am to 1pm, armed with a gift to give to The Family Giving Tree charity. To be eligible, you must be a Comcast cable subscriber (you need to bring your latest cable bill) and you must not already be a Tivo user (no free upgrades or second Tivo DVRs).
I really think this was a great idea for Tivo. Not only will it generate a lot of positive buzz on the Internet and in the local press, but it gives Tivo employees a chance to see happy Tivo users face to face. As someone who has worked for consumer products, there is nothing better as an employee than seeing satisfied customers who use the products you've worked long and hard to develop.
Kudos to Tivo!
PS. I wonder if these Tivos qualify for the Tivo Rewards program? If so, don't be afraid to send those referrals to the TVHarmony.com's Prize Pool to share the love!
UPDATE: More info from CNet.
December 15, 2004
DVR Market Penetration
eMarketer.com has a great article on the current DVR market penetration. According to their data, Time Warner has made the biggest inroads with 16% of cable subscribers using one of their DVRs. That's triple the number of subscribers that use other DVR brands (read Tivo there). That's also much higher than other cable operators.
The article has some great charts and is well worth a quick browse.
PVPs: Is there a market?
eHomeupgrade has some thoughts on this article from Michael Gartenberg of Jupiter Research who does a weekly column in Engadget. Jupiter Research found that 55% of people would like to watch video on a mobile player (as opposed to 79% who would like to listen to music). That's a high number, but as Walter Mossberg, columnist for the Wall Street Journal mentioned previously, the difficulty of getting content on to a device is too high to make it ready for primetime.
It will be interesting to see what happens. When asked about these things without a price tag, it's easy to incorrectly extrapolate whether users will pay an additional premium to have that functionality. I'd love for my MP3 player to bake chocolate chip cookies, but if it cost another $100, I'll stick with a traditional oven.
On the other hand, buying decisions can be quite different than the way people actually use a product. Many people buy 4 wheel drive vehicles but never actually use the feature. All else being equal, people will purchase a 4 mega-pixel camera over a 3 mega-pixel if it's the same price, regardless of whether they need the extra pixels or not. The point being that if people think they need video features on their MP3 player, it may not matter in the long run if they rarely use it.
Assuming PVPs fall into the same product category as MP3 players, the real issue could very well rest on what the cost difference is between video-capable and traditional MP3 players. At the current $100 difference at retail it's a hard sell, but if the differential is reduced, it might very well become a checkbox item.
Tivo and the Grammar Police
Many regular readers of this blog realize that grammar has never been my strong suit, but Tivo is giving a helping hand to journalists on the proper way to use the word "Tivo". To reduce the dilution of their trademark, they suggest that using "Tivo" as anything other than an adjective (i.e. not a verb, noun, or dangling participle) is not only improper, but a form of copyright infringement. Tivoblog.com, my prime source for all Tivo (adj.) things has more, including this article from Slate located in the comments.
I can understand the need to protect their copyright, but I continue to feel that the managment and PR dept. are tone deaf. In general, I find the media reporting of Tivo DVRs very favorable, and I think they squander some goodwill, particularly in this sensitive time when Tivo needs to grow marketshare to survive. I don't think telling journalists they can't use "Tivo" as a verb helps. [Editors Note: check if we can still recklessly use "BYOPVR" as a verb]
December 14, 2004
Few products have given me as much emotional satisfaction as XPlite from the Australian company LitePC.com. It's an absolutely brilliant application that makes deleting unnecessary system components easy to remove. Just the progress dialog alone featuring two gears grinding up system icons is enough to pay for this product.
Using it is surprisingly simple and straightforward with "pick list" style interface with handy comments on what each component does. It knows about almost 100 different system components. Even if you do delete something that turned out to be important, the software makes use of the system restore point so you can still go back to your "last good configuration" at startup. That makes it a handy way to iteratively chop down your system into something much more manageable.
How much can you chop down depends on your needs, but you can see our other article on how I took an XP Home system with BeyondTV Link installed and whittled it down from 2 Gigs to down below 800Mb to fit on an inexpensive compact flash drive.
After downloading and registering the product, there is no real installation since everything fits in a single executable (that also makes it handy to remove when you are done). Upon launch, XPLite inventories your system for you and includes checkboxes on which components can be removed. If one component is dependent on another, XPLite will tell you and let you decide whether to remove both or neither. All you need to do is juust uncheck the boxes, click Next, and a few seconds of gear crunching progress dialog later, you are ready to reboot and try it out.
The only problem I had was finding the "advanced components" section which lets you remove even more stuff. That's located by going to the settings button on the top, while the rest of the interface is navigated through tabs. Be careful about the "advanced components" section though, since you can actually remove the system restore feature as well, removing the safety net of the "last good configuration".
For anyone wanting to substitute a hard drive with a quiet solid state drive to make your PC noiseless, this is definitely the best tool to lower the OS overhead and get everything to fit on an inexpensive compact flash card. The app will work on XP and Windows 2000, but they also have a similar product called 98lite which will make a surprisingly small Windows98 system if your application software supports that.
XPLite is a fantastic tool and a handy utility for anyone trying to get their system slimmed down and humming as fast as it can.
Booting Windows XP off of a Compact Flash Card
With the cost of solid state disks like Compact Flash and USB thumb drives coming down in price, they have become an attractive option to use as a replacement for hard drives on home entertainment PCs. They are noise free and generate very little heat. This article describes how I was able to get BeyondTV Link, a .Net application, running Windows XP Home using an inexpensive compact flash card. As a disclaimer, please not that your mileage may vary when doing this procedure so please don't blame me if things go badly, your spouse leaves you, and/or your dog bites you as a result of this article.
My first attempt was to do this with a USB thumb drive, given the motherboard I was using, a Via Epia M10000, has an option in BIOS to boot to a USB drive. After many failed attempts and investigation, I believe Windows XP does not support booting off of a USB drive no matter how much wishful thinking, so I took an alternative road using a compact flash card and an IDE adaptor. Please let me know in the comments if you have found a way to get USB drives to boot into Windows XP.
I used a cheap 1 gig Compact Flash card but depending on your skill level and tolerance of repeated attempts, I believe this can be done on a 512MB card as well. BeyondTV Link (and the associated Firefly remote software) use .Net which increases the disk usage significantly, so if you are using a different application, I think 512MB is adequate. I also used a compact flash ide adaptor which is pretty easy to find both online and at electronics stores.
I used two applications in the process. One I think is essential to the cause for anyone who isn't an expert, XPLite from the LitePC.com, a very handy application that will help you remove components from the Windows OS. The other is Partition Magic, which makes it easy to resize and copy one hard drive to another. I believe there are open source projects that can do some of this, but I find Partition Magic easy and dependable so it's worth the cost to purchase it.
Step 1 - Build system using a hard drive
Windows XP Home requires a minimum of 1.5Gigs of hard drive space, so the first step is to build the system using a standard hard drive. I created a partition of 2 Gigs but found it inadequate to installing Service Pack 2, so I suggest putting the OS on a 3 Gigs or bigger drive to start. I installed a fresh copy of the OS using NTFS since it has a handy "compress files" option which I use later. I then added the VIA drivers and spent a good deal of time in Windows Update getting all the latest patches. I also installed BeyondTV Link and the Firefly Remote software. I then verified everything was working properly. At this point, it wouldn't be a bad idea to back everything up using a tool like Partition Magic in case you need to come back to this point (I learned this the hard way)
Step 2 - Turn off Virtual Memory
The first thing you’ll want to do is turn off virtual memory so it doesn't create a paging file on the drive. This can be found by right clicking "My Computer" and selecting "Properties". It's under the Advanced Tab, buried in another dialog by selecting the "Settings" button under Performance. From there, it's under yet another "Advanced" tab and it's labeled Virtual Memory. Make sure that when you select "No paging file" you hit the "Set" button or it won't actually adjust the settings.
Step 3 - XPLite from LitePC The next step for me was pruning back the OS using XPLite from LitePC. The first thing you should do is "disable" Windows File Protection in the aptly named "Window File Protection" tab. If you don't, you'll find windows constantly complaining about missing files. I removed most components including those Advanced Components you can get to show up by changing the default settings. Be careful though, since you'll likely remove the System Restore feature which gobbles up a lot of space, but prevents you from doing something completely irreversible. See our review on XPLite for more information on how to use the product. Make sure you reboot a couple times afterwards to remove any system restore points.
Step 4 - Clean up
The next thing I did was to boot into Windows Safe Mode (hold down the F8 key) to do some basic clean up of the system. Make sure you have changed file explorer to show hidden and system files. This can be found in the "Folder Options" menu in the "View" tab. Your final system will likely be different from mine, but here are a few good things to remove or change to get more disk space:
- Delete anything in the Windows directory that starts with $NTUninstall.
- Delete anything I the Windows/SoftwareDistribution/Download directory.
- On larger directories, go to the properties dialog and select the "Advanced" button and pick "compress contents to save disk space". Note that this is only available if you formatted your drive using NTFS. I did this to the following folders: Program Files, Windows/Microsoft.NET, Windows/.inf, Windows/system32.
Doing just that, I got the system down to 750MB or so. Being more aggressive, at one point I had a working system under 500MB.
Step 5 - Resize and Copy
I ran the floppy boot disks for Partition Magic to resize and move the OS to the compact flash card. Make sure you resize the hard drive partition small enough to fit the compact flash card, and then from within Partition Magic, copy the drive over to the compact flash drive.
Final Step - Remove original Drive and put Compact Flash Drive in its place
The final step is to remove the original hard drive and switch the connectors so it puts the compact flash drive in its place. Make sure it's in the same location on the ID Bus (e.g Master Drive, Primary IDE channel) or you'll quickly run into a "NTloader is Missing" error. With any luck, it will boot up as it did before, albeit a lot more quietly than that squeaky old disk you were using before.
UPDATE: Based on a comment from Andy, I want to point out that Compact Flash speeds vary greatly, as this article points out. This is considerably slower than a typical IDE hard drive. In my test with BeyondTV link, I found the difference in speeds neglible; a few seconds slower booting and launching the application, but the application itself operated as fast as before. This would not be the case if the application you are using does a lot of disk i/o.
I also have 512MB of RAM, making it much easier to run without a paging file. If anything my system, while still running from an IDE hard drive, ran more quickly when I turned off virtual memory. I've read that applications like Adobe Photoshop make good use of virtual memory, so depending on the app, it could also have an impact of performance.
UPDATE 2: This article has been reprinted at eHomeUpgrade.com and commenter Jaxun brings up another point to consider in regards to solid state devices; each sector has a limited number of rewrites before the sector goes bad. In an article he link to in his comment, Tundraware.com states:
"Although many flash memory products automatically map bad blocks, and although some even distribute write operations evenly throughout the unit, the fact remains that there exists a limit to the amount of writing that can be done to the device. Competitive units have between 1,000,000 and 10,000,000 writes per sector in their specification. This figure varies due to the temperature of the environment."
When I have a bit more time, I'll try to determine how many writes my system does during typical usage running BeyondTV link to estimate the life span of the card, but it's yet another thing to consider when building a similiar system.
Review: BeyondTV Link
In a previous review, we looked at SnapStream's BeyondTV 3.5 and found out how easy it was to setup a multi-tuner server. BeyondTV 3.5 Link, software which can be installed on another PC to control and view BeyondTV, turned out to be just as easy to setup and use.
Installing link on my Via EPIA M10000 mini-itx system was a snap. While the Snapstream knowledgebase mentions incompatibilities, other users on the Snapstream forums have mentioned that if you install a third party codec like PowerDVD or WinDVD to manage the MPEG2 rendering, it will take advantage of the M10K onboard MPEG decoder chip. I installed an old copy of PowerDVD, opened up the PowerDVD Settings dialog, and selected "use hardware decoding". I also had to change the default codec in BeyondTV Link to use the PowerDVD codec, but I found the M10K a nice quiet PC to use for BeyondTV link. In a companion article, I've described how I used XPLite and a cheap compact flash card to run the whole system without a noisy hard disk.
When you launch BeyondTV Link, it will scan your local network for any BeyondTV 3.5 servers and list which ones are available, saving you the hassle of configuring and remembering IP addresses.. If you have your BeyondTV server password protected, it will ask you for it, and badda boom, badda bing, your BeyondTV TV link is seamlessly integrated with the server and all its features.
BeyondTV Link provides all the features that are available from the BeyondTV 3.5 software. You can pause and rewind live television, you can watch previously recorded shows, and you find and record new shows. In my testing, I found only a few spots that felt sluggish on the controls but still very usable. It took a 10 or 15 seconds to load up a BeyondTV server during startup, something that isn’t unreasonable. I found that the controls reacted quickly during the more important moments such as pausing live television, even while recording another program or having two BeyondTV links active connections to the server.
There are only a couple minor improvements I'd like to see the Link product do better in the future. Playback was jerky via my laptop using a wireless B network, by no means the fault of BeyondTV, but it would still be nice to be able to set the LiveTV quality for each BeyondTV Link (right now it is a system wide setting). Doing so, I could watch our bedroom with a wired Ethernet port in the best quality setting, while outside manning the barbeque, I could watch the game wirelessly on my laptop with a "had a few beers so it doesn't matter" quality. I also wish BeyondTV Link supported Snapstream's new Beyond Media product so that you can use those features from every room as well. At this point, you could install Beyond Media on each front-end client, but that is not the ideal setup from my point of view.
Another product being developed by open source developers is the MediaMVP BTV interface which allows you to run a Hauppauge MediaMVP as a front-end to the BeyondTV system. It's still in its infancy and doesn't support live television, but as it evolves, that that may become the cheapest approach to building a thin front-end. BeyondTV Link is an inexpensive product ($29.99) but unless you have a lot of extra computer equipment laying around, each front-end could get expensive if built from scratch.
Snapstream gets high marks from me with their easy to install, sophisticated DVR system. It's amazingly simple to set up both server and client front-ends, even if you go nuts with extra video capture cards and many client front-end computers. If you already have Ethernet wired in your house, it's a fairly trivial task to install the whole thing in an afternoon and be watching from multiple televisions that evening. Its simple interface won't scare off house guests either, which is good or bad depending on who you are having visit over the holidays.
December 13, 2004
More advice for Tivo
Maury Wright from EDN.com has some advice for Tivo. The mentions two things I've also found needed. The first is to have a standalone Tivo with dual recording capability, something long overdue. The second, which hopefully Tivo will soon addreses, is the ability to open the system to allow storage and transmission of recordings to any PC on a home network.
TivoToGo will hopefully help with accessibility, especially if a user can move recordings off of the Tivo, back them up on a centralized server, and then have access to them from any Tivo or PC in the house. The encryption will always be annoying, preventing one from switching to higher compressed formats like XVID, but at least it's a big advantage over the current state.
I'm actually surprised that Tivo hasn't created a standalone unit with two tuners, given how obviously needed it is. Within two days of installing our original Tivo, my wife was complaining that she couldn't watch live television and record another show at the same time. The feature can't be that hard to implement, given the dual tuner DirecTV model, and it certainly would be worth the extra price at retail.
While we are on the subject, another headscratcher to me is the lack of support for external USB drives. It seems like another obvious upgrade and revenue source for Tivo, particularly if they keyed it so that you couldn't just buy any external enclosure down at CompUSA. For people like the my wife and I, which got our toes wet by buying the cheapest 40hr unit we could find, the first thing I ended up doing was replacing the drive. If I didn't own a torx wrench or have a penchant for living life with voided warranties, I would have gladly upgraded my system with a USB external drive.
Review: Humax DRT800 (PCWorld)
PCWorld has a short review of the Humax DRT800 DVD Recorder with Tivo Service. They liked the unit but thought they should have added some simple editing tools so that users could remove commercials from recorded shows or home videos (which you can transfer to the unit via firewire).
TVHarmony Product Tracker: DRT800
Motorola Broadband Business
There's a good primer in the Chicago Tribune on Motorola's Broadband Business which includes set-top boxes, cable modems, and DVR technologies. Motorola and Scientific Atlanta are the two behemoths in the set-top box industry.
One interesting tidbit was phone giant Verizon's investment in this market:
On the other hand, set-top box makers can see opportunity in another market shift--the arrival of phone companies in the TV business.
Phone giant Verizon recently chose Motorola to help build its TV system and supply set-top boxes to its customers.
Verizon plans to spend $2.5 billion by 2006 to run fiber-optic lines directly to customers homes, allowing for television service.
The whole article is a good read.
December 12, 2004
Maiku's MythTV How To
Maiku, who writes a user journal at Build Your Own PVR.com, wrote a nice How To on getting MythTV installed on a Mandrake distro. MythTV is a daunting task, but it's a pretty cool product and every time someone puts one of these How To's together, it gets a bit easier for the next person.
JavaHMO 2.0 Released
According to TivoBlog.com, JavaHMO 2.0 was released this weekend. JavaHMO is a freeware replacement for Tivo's Home Media Option. I've been using a beta version that I found very stable so I had a feeling it would be out pretty soon.
Here's the new features:
In addition, 2.0 introduces numerous new plugins:
- Email: read your incoming email on the TiVo interface,
- Image organizer: similar to the audio organizer to allow you to categorize
your images by dates
- iTunes playlists (MP3 files only)
- Jukebox: every song you play in the other JavaHMO plugins will
automatically appear in the Jukebox playlist
- NNTP: download and view NNTP (News server) images automatically
- RSS: view RSS published content on the internet
- Web pages: view fullscreen versions of any web page
- Expanded weather: alerts for your county from the National Weather Service
will be part of the weather plugin
- Stocks: view the daily trading information of stocks
It's a nice way to extend your tivo with new features so I highly recommend it.
Comcast's Bay Area DVR Rollout has Problems
The San Jose Merc ran a cringeworthy misleading headline entitled "Comcast DVR not ready for prime time" for an article that describes the rollout for the Comcast HDTV DVR in the San Francisco Bay Area. Some customers were told it wasn't available yet, while others were told there was a big backlog. According to Comcast:
Comcast spokesman Andrew C. Johnson said Friday that some of the company's service representatives had apparently misinformed callers about the Bay Area DVR rollout. But he said the company is indeed offering DVRs throughout the Bay Area, has begun installing them, and expects to fill thousands of new orders received Friday "within the next two to three weeks if not sooner."
"We're going to have those kinds of missteps as we launch the product," Johnson said. "We have a product that's obviously attracting a lot of attention. But we can't let these dozens of complaints, these one-off experiences, drive what customers experience, which overall has been happy. We'll get better next week."
Tivo and a some Comcast customers see something more nefarious:
Mark McKenzie, 47, of San Jose said he was told to call back every two or three weeks and not to phone too frequently. He and several other customers suggested Comcast's DVR announcement was a ploy to keep holiday shoppers from buying TiVo's product.
"I do think that this was probably a scam on their part to hurt their competitors," McKenzie said.
TiVo spokeswoman Kathryn Kelly agreed.
"That's exactly their approach -- it's available and it's not," Kelly said. "That's been their ploy for over a year now."
Not so, said Johnson, adding such a tactic would leave Comcast vulnerable to a competitive counteroffer by TiVo and its satellite-TV marketing partner, DirecTV.
Regardless of nefarious plots by evil corporations, it sounds like there has a been some good demand for the product.
December 10, 2004
Forbes.com on Tivo
Forbes.com has some more analysis on the troubles Tivo is facing. One item from it that stuck out was that 75% of Tivo's subscribers are from the DirecTV and Tivo only receives a net $1.34 per month compared to the full $12 us standalone users pay.
If the DirecTV relationship fizzles, the good news is that it wasn't a great deal for Tivo as far as monthly fees. The bad news is that it accounts for 75% of their existing user base.
Comcast HDTV DVR Now in SF Bay Area
Comcast's HDTV DVR is now available in Tivo's own backyard, the San Francisco Bay Area, according to the San Jose Merc. Comcast customers will be able to replace their exising set top box with the DVR for an additional $9.95 a month. According to the article, the Comcast unit, which can record 15 hours of HDTV (60 hours regular) is now available to 65% of it's 21 million subscribers.
This is the moment of truth for the wife and I. It comes down to this: Do we upgrade our television to HDTV and go with Comcast or stick with our old television and our beloved Tivo? Without a standalone, affordable, HDTV Tivo, those are really our only two options. Unfortunately, I don't think we're the only ones having to make that choice.
December 09, 2004
TivotoGo about to be released?
TivoBlog.com has been doing some snooping into his own web account at Tivo and found new web pages have been added for tivotogo access keys, central components to the decoding the TivoToGo streams. Either the web guys crossed wires with the Engineering dept. or it looks like it's very close to release.
It should be a good Christmas for Tivo users this year!
Review: Plextor ConvertX (BYOPVR)
Build Your Own PVR.com has a good review of the Plextor ConvertX USB2.0 capture card with built-in Divx Encoding. Add it to the list of positive reviews that for this easy to setup, MPEG4 encoder hardware.
December 07, 2004
Out at Target, in at TVHarmony
Most people have heard by now that Target has banned the Salvation Army from putting out their kettles this year which will make it much more difficult for them to raise funds. I can, at times, understand the business reason for this at Target, but it's still a shame.
Hearing the bellringers outside stores is something I can remember even as a little pup, and it's indelibly etched in my memory along with all those other religious and secular symbols of the holiday season. While shopping malls and mega-parking strip malls have in many places replaced the downtown square, the Salvation Army has moved along with them. I guess courtrooms and boardrooms are a little harder to navigate.
We don't have the ringing wav file, but we do have a link as our featured sponsor, so if you feel inclined, feel free to use it to make a small donation.
Review: Plextor ConvertX (HTPCNews.com)
HTPCNews.com has a nice review of the Plextor ConvertX product with SageTV. HTPCNews has some good screen comparisions between MPEG4 encoding, MPEG2 encoding, and the Hauppauge 250 encoding. Here's their final pro/con list:
- Hardware DivX encoding!!
- USB 2.0 so it doesn't use a precious PCI slot.
- Works with SageTV and soon BeyondTV (from what we've heard).
- Software bundle that is really not useful for HTPCs.
- Needs some tweaking to get the input to the quality level of a PVR-250.
- Where's MCE support (even if only in MPEG2 mode)?
I'm really impressed with the Plextor guys. I took notice when they came out with the original killer hardware specs including MPEG4 encoding and USB2 interface, but they've taken it one step farther by doing a couple great partnerships with SageTV on Windows and EyeTV on Macintosh. It's a combination that is hard to beat.
New Flat TV Technology from Toshiba
Toshiba is going to introduce some really interesting technology for flat panel televisions next year using a technology called SED according to PC World. It's supposed to be faster than other technologies like LCD and plasma, and just as bright as a CRT.
One interesting quote from the article is how Toshiba views the future for new technologies:
Toshiba is eyeing SED as a replacement technology for PDP panels, particularly for use in panels of around 40-inches or larger. The company has already begun laying plans to phase out production of PDP televisions in 2007. It plans to keep LCD panels in small and mid-size sets and use SED for larger sets.
If you believe Toshiba, plasma will be a dead technology in the long term.
The funny thing is that I've probably owned/used at least 25 new computers and 5 cars over the last 12 years, yet we still use my old Sony TV in our living room and my wife is becoming more amenable to upgrade to something better. The way technology is changing so quickly in consumer electronics, what's the chance our next personal television is going to last 12 years before it becomes obsolete?
(Hat tip: DigitalMerging.la)
December 05, 2004
More Server Problems
We've encountered a string of bad luck when it comes to server equipment and we've had some major outages lately. Hopefully, everything is now up and running but I apologize if there are additional problems in the near future. Please bear with me if things continue to be a little shaky for the next day or so.
December 03, 2004
Walter Mossberg on Personal Media Players
Walter Mossberg, who runs a highly regarded personal technology column in the Wall Street Journal, published an article on PVPs (Personal Video Players) such as the Creative Zen. His message to the average American:
"So unless you're a techie or a hopeless gadget freak, stay away from the Portable Media Centers for now. If you want a portable video device, you're better off buying a portable DVD player. They can be bought for half the price or less, come with larger screens, and are able to draw from an almost unlimited selection of content."
He describes on how difficult it still is to get legal video content on one's computer, and even then, how difficult it is to get it on to a player. His point is generally valid unless you are one of the growing users of home built DVR users where content can be created much more easily. Mossberg tried downloading legal copies of movies and baseball highlights and had very little success. Even with the introduction of TivoToGo, I am going to guess that it will be difficult to move them on to a standard PVP because of the DRM limitations involved.
At this point, I agree with Walter Mossberg on the cost and ease of use of using a portable DVD player. DVD recorders and DVD media are already stunningly cheap and the software to build a DVD from a MPEG2 stream (or to copying a DVD) is fairly straightforward. It would be nice to see software titles like BeyondTV and SageTV incorporate this feature directly into their product like MP3 software did ages ago, but even without a one button interface, it's trivial to burn a DVD from the MPEG2 recording. If it's twice the price and perhaps more difficult to transfer to the PVP, what is the point?
I haven't given up on the value of PVPs as a useful product category, but they need to do a better job at making it an easy choice. I'd love to have all my music, photos, and a few videos all on one gadget when I travel; it would make business hotels and cross country flights a little more palatable. Unfortunately, Walter Mossberg may be right when he says, "It's not ready for prime time yet."
(Hat Tip: atmaspheric endeavors)
Review: BeyondTV 3.5 Roundup
There have been several good reviews on SnapStream's BeyondTV 3.5 product over at Build Your Own PVR.
It's been a BeyondTV Review frenzy lately, and here's the links to the latest:
December 01, 2004
MCE 2005 Compatibility List
eHomeUpgrade points out that Microsoft has posted a useful compatibility list for its Media Center Edition 2005 product. Since rolling your own system is not supported by Microsoft, it takes some finagling to get an Microsoft mom and pop shop to sell you the software separately (you can also check ebay, but be very careful of scams). TheGreenButton.com is also a good resource for MCE2005 questions and issues.
This compatibility list at least takes some of the guesswork out of building a system.
Fedora Core 3 How To
Even if you decide to build a MythTV box based on another linux distribution, it's a really handy place to look if things go wrong during the install (which in my case, happens frequently).
Snapstream Releases Beyond Media
As expected, Snapstream released their new Beyond Media product. I downloaded it last night and my initial impression was fairly positive. As with their other products, it was super easy to install with a nice wizard interface to walk you through each step. It worked seamlessly with my Firefly remote and with my BeyondTV test system.
I'll have more comments on it in the near future.