The Ruffled Crow

Animation, Art, and Other Shiny Things

My Digital Evolution – Killing the Cable – Part 2

[part 1 – the idea][part 3 – the hardware][part 4 – the build][part 5 – epilogue]

Part 2 – The Software

I’ve been evaluating the various software available to run my intended Home Theater PC (HTPC) for the last couple weeks on my current computer. It’s a gaming level machine so the video handling isn’t an issue, the main thing I wanted to know, however, was the useability of the various software packages and if they did what I wanted them to. My main criteria were:

  1. Is the learning curve shallow enough to pick up a remote and find what you want?
  2. Do they have the shows and movies me and my family want to watch?
  3. Are they updated regularly and often?
  4. Will it play my local DVD backups and (rather large) music collections?
  5. Is there online support and a forum community?
  6. Can I update it remotely?
  7. Will little things become annoying over time?
  8. Will it play 1080p in 5.1 sound?

Well, it’s only been a couple weeks of regular use in front of my little 20″ monitor but I’m fairly sure of the programs I’ll be using in the initial build of my HTPC.

One caveat, though, is that currently my computer is running Vista and VMC (vista media center) is not terribly impressive when trying to tie together the things I want to do. This build will be under Windows 7 and I haven’t had a chance to play with 7MC but I read that it is much more capable and user-friendly and will likely figure in to a software rework once I’ve got the machine up and online.

With that said, let’s look at the software I’m working with:

Zinc TV:

Zinc beta 5

With their beta 5 release Zinc tv by zeevee is both a very slick interface and a very comprehensive content provider. Besides Netflix integration and a huge number of ‘channels’ such as ABC, Crackle, and Comedy Central, it also accesses all of Hulu’s content as well.

I played with Hulu‘s front end throughout my testing, and while nice, it just didn’t engage  my eye like Zinc does. Hulu felt dark and when browsing for shows there was alot of side scrolling involved as it didn’t show more than 5 shows per strip.

Zinc, on the other hand, packed more thumbnails in to each screen and felt easier to navigate and stumble over shows I would have never known about. The ability to browse through content faster and easier is a big plus for Zinc. With Favorites you can mark shows you want to keep track of and display them all on their own screen. The Queue function lets you put shows you want to watch on their own list and will automatically play them in order should you so desire.

Zinc’s integration with Netflix is an important aspect of it’s appeal since we’ll be getting all our new movies and several tv shows via Netflix. I haven’t signed up with them yet, but I’m hoping that Netflix will work with Zinc’s Favorite and Queue functions, but we’ll see.

On the downside; Zinc doesn’t add new episodes of shows on your Fave list to the Queue like Hulu does. Also, handling of local content (your videos or mp3s) is pretty rudimentary. (dare I say that it sucks? mayhaps…) Not to worry though, I’ll handle those functions elsewhere.

For the local media files there is XBMC:

XBMC Main Screen

XBMC (X-Box Media Center) is apparently a port of software originally written for media handling in the X-Box 360. It doesn’t do the TV thing like Zinc, but does playback of an amazing number of media file types stored on your local machine or media server. It also can stream content to other computers or extenders on the home network.

To set up, the learning curve is kind of steep, but general use isn’t too bad. The interface is skinnable and fairly well put together. In addition to video playback of everything from AVI to MKV, it will also play music files and let you assemble smart playlists based on just about whatever criteria you can think of. Want to play blues and jazz made between 1940 and 1950? You can have XBMC find them for you and queue em up.

The thing I had the most problem getting figured out was how to add new content to XBMC’s library and get it scraped properly. “Scraping” is where the program accesses an online database to identify a media file and it “scrapes” additional information from the database and attaches it to your local file so when you highlight the file in XBMC you get a synopsis, perhaps a plot summary, cast, etc. Very handy.

Good scraping is dependant on proper file naming and when you get into individual tv show episodes over a few seasons there’s some filename rules you need to pay attention to. Same thing with movies that have been remade a few times. (like War of the Worlds, for example)

Once you get that all figured out XBMC becomes a very nice media player and looks stunning. It’s extremely configurable as well so you can have it display your media lists in just about any way you want it to. Being open-source and available for Windows, Mac, and Linux makes it a top choice for the front-end on my local stuff.

Finally, there are some shows Like “Memphis Beat” and “Leverage” that can’t be found outside pay sites like iTunes or Amazon VOD (for $1.99 a pop) or the tv channel’s own site (TNT in Memphis Beat’s case). I’m not about to pay eight bucks a month to watch 4 tv episodes so I’ll end up putting direct links on the HTPC’s desktop to access those.

NBA

This will probably be the case for sports as well. Zinc does have some integration with MLB tv but I’m an NBA fan. Live game online programming is generally handled on a season by season basis and looks to cost from $50 to $150 on average depending on how much you want to try and consume. Here I imagine I’ll need to do a direct link to NBA.com, but I think I can handle that…

As for our geographically local programming, I expect to get all that over the air (OTA). The nice thing about digital tv is that you either get the channel or you don’t. No static like with analogue. Aunt Bee is a news junkie so it’s imperative we keep access to our local newscasts. For me, even with the PBS channel in Zinc, the local station (KCTS) shows some fun locally loved stuff, especially during pledge weeks.

Even with the massive amounts of free stuff out there in the digital realms, some things just can’t be found or, if you do, are only available for purchase. This is where my local libraries come in. A direct link to the city and county library catalogues on the desktop will allow us to search up and request that first season of Johnny Quest in case we don’t feel like shelling out 50 bucks to purchase it.

So that will be the initial set-up; Zinc, XBMC, and direct links. Whether 7MC wows me enough to try and integrate them all together remains to be seen, but this looks like a good solid starting point to get the family comfortable with cutting the cable.

[part 3 – the hardware]

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