Imagination was given to man to compensate him for what he is not, and a sense of humor was provided to console him for what he is. - Oscar Wilde
Animation, Art, and Other Shiny Things
So it’s been about a year since the we killed cable television and began getting all our “video content” online and from the Library. I can’t say I miss CTV that much, or really at all – the fact is that I’m enjoying my big ol’ tv alot more these days.
Aunt Bee and I went to the coast for a few days a couple months ago and the cabin we stayed in had CTV. Although we didn’t watch much, when we did it was incredibly annoying: just trying to find something to watch took forever, and then the inundation of commercials was appalling. Certainly we watch OTA (over-the-air) programs (Wolfman Mac’s Chiller Drive-In on RTV Saturday nights is a staple) and Hulu has commercials (though significantly shorter duration), but this re-introduction to CTV was horrific.
For a quick overview; Hulu and XBMC remain significant conduits to our media flow and my local public libraries are big contributors. Over the last year we’ve added Netflix and I’ve tweaked XBMC and other feeds for useability. The Seattle OTA broadcast channel selection remains good with a couple PBS stations and a retro-tv channel getting the most of our business. The rest of them, and there are several, are axiomatic gravy.
To give a more complete picture of the (moving) pictures we’re watching let’s take a look at how we’re using the HTPC now.
XBMC is getting alot more use than I would’ve figured considering I prefer not to use bit-torrents. Besides streaming the music library resident on my computer, I’ve also put our DVD collection on the HTPC’s drive. With everything’s file names just right XBMC scrapes program/movie/artist information and art and presents it in an attractive interface that’s easy to navigate by remote control.
If that’s not enough, you can apply add-ons that will actually stream online media from the web. They are generally written to scrape content from a specific site and there are add-ons for everything from Aussie rules football games to PBS to self-help videos and beyond.
Hulu is a mainstay for many of our current tv shows like Haven, The Daily Show, and the like. There’s also several old series and movies we keep in our subscription pile such as the old and new versions of Twilight Zone and Outer Limits and the mid-50’s Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. (a great find, if I do say so)
They have been adding a bunch of paid content recently, such as Criterion movies and complete libraries of tv series , but for the same 8 bucks a month a Netflix subscription appears to be a better value for us.
And speaking of Netflix: Young Master Z, the local scion, has had a streaming+DVD account for probably a couple years by now and sang it’s praises until I finally gave in and signed up for the streaming-only plan. Pretty much just about anything on DVD can be found and the vast majority of it can be streamed. Netflix is my personal documentary heaven; PBS, National Geographic, History Channel, and scads of independent documentaries can be found and my Instant Queue is loaded with ’em. (no, i won’t be expounding on netflix’s recent business decisions. enough ink is out there already)
The integration of the Netflix api into Windows Media Center and it’s easy brows-ability by remote and visibility in the 10-foot interface (in other words, we can see it fine on the tee vee) kept the WAF (Wife Acceptance Factor, a paramount metric) high.
The Seattle Public Library and King County Library remain big suppliers of our video content. It certainly helps that in my job I process new books and media into SPL’s catalogue so I get a lot of ideas on new shows to put on my reserve or wish lists. (While I may work there, I use my library like any other patron)
The online catalogues are handy in that I can manage a ‘wish list’ and a ‘reserve’ list. The key is timing the moving of stuff onto the reserve list so I don’t end up with a half-dozen 5-DVD series showing up at the same time. It’s especially bad if a season 3 comes in before seasons 1 or 2…
XBMC can be a big help with library DVDs, and not just because it plays them. It’s about unheard of to be able and watch a series on DVD without there being at least a few spots of rampant pixel artifaction and stuttering (if not outright locking), and that’s on a new set of ’em. If it’s been circulated heavily then you can only imagine. When this aggravation presents itself I’ll occasionally rip the disks and XBMC will happily play the files. Once we’re done watching, the disks go back to the library and the files get deleted.
And speaking of the WAF; Aunt Bee is well adept with the remote these days. She still leaves the acquisition of content to me, but makes plenty of suggestions on shows and movies to track down. As mentioned before, between Hulu, Netflix, and the Library, just about anything can be found. The stuff they don’t have can be gotten pretty cheaply on E-Bay or Amazon if we’re really interested in watching it.
What I think I’m having the most fun with is the ‘recommendation’ lists, and one can be found in each instance of our Big 3 (yes, even the Library’s systems now have rec lists) as well as all over the the internets. Many shows I would never have considered, or even knew existed, get dropped into one of the queues. It’s much akin to channel surfing CTV, except you don’t miss half the show that you just discovered three-quarters through the fourth season.
And you don’t have to watch so many commercials…
On a typical evening we’ll watch the local news (over-the-air) then pop onto the HTPC for The Daily Show and Colbert Report on Hulu, and any other shows that have shown up (Burn Notice, Harry’s Law, etc perhaps). hit Netflix and watch another episode in Numb3rs and/or Columbo or whatever, then perhaps hit one (or a few) of the Library DVD series episodes via XBMC. And if there’s an awkward amount of time before the late news, then I have a stock of short animation collections tagged in Hulu, Netflix, and locally on the HTPC. I think we actually spend much less time browsing to the next show than we did with CTV and, counter-intuitive as it may seem, watch more television. Shows are not padded with 18-plus minutes per hour of commercials. Over a period of 6 hours that’s saving 1 hour and 48 minutes! Enough to fit in 2 more shows or a movie.
On the weekends, besides a so-bad-it’s-good movie or three, toss in some OTA football, streaming Aussie Rules, and the OTA Universal Sports Channel, we don’t suffer too much. I did get the NBA League Pass last year and it was quite excellent, but I can’t see doing the same for Baseball as we’d only be watching our local Mariners games. Currently, the WNBA streams almost all their games live online, so I am a happy camper there. If we were bigger sports fans we’d be able to find some online subscription to fill the need, but for now…
For this household, the grand experiment of killing the cable has been a great success in my view. Considering the growth of online content it will be interesting to watch how it changes over this next year.
Part 5 – The Aftermath
We’ve been using the HTPC now for about a month and I’ve realized that I’m actually watching more television now! The TV isn’t on any more than it was, but I’m paying more attention to the shows that are on because I’ve taken the time to chose them rather than to simply settle on them as I flip by. This has actually opened me up to some interesting and good shows I wouldn’t have ever considered tuning into pre-HTPC. More on that later, though.
I did finally get good control of everything into the single Harmony remote. Part of the issue there stemmed from having to go through the iMon software built into the case. A bit of a bother, but the remote’s programmability helps alot. Getting it down to the single remote affected the WAF (Wife Acceptability Factor) greatly, but for the first few weeks Aunt Bee was much like a cat at a fish pond; there are things in there that I want but if I try to get them my paw gets wet – and what if I fall in? She is getting the hang of it, though.
Part 4 – The Build
As builds go it was amazingly easy. I might even say it went swimmingly. Everything slammed in easy (except for the slight confusion when I used the wrong hard drive screws and tore a rubber grommet. fortunately the case came with an extra), powered right up and installed without a hitch. It was kinda creepy, really…
I’ve built literally thousands of machines; both my own and for a local computer store, and the one thing I’ve never done was take pictures of it. I’d resolved to pictorially document this epic assembly, but when in the throes…. Well… Here is a picture of a Larch:
As noted in my last post (part 3), as HTPCs go it’s pretty standard hardware so if you need a pictorial walk-through on assembly you can find literally hundreds of posts, and even videos, that will help you hobble through the process. Read more of this post
Part 3: The Hardware
After spending the last couple weeks working with the various software I’ll be using on my HTPC (Home Theater PC) I’ve come to the conclusion that there probably isn’t one overarching, integrated package that’ll do everything I want. That said, the WAF (Wife Acceptability Factor) should still be high if I set it up right. More on that when I get everything onto the 10-foot interface.
Perhaps even more important than the software will be the hardware. I could have the most sophisticated and beautious interface that catalogued everything and could even anticipate my next program choice (how did it know I wanted to watch Beach Babe Sumo Wrestling?), but if it stutters, buffers, and has poor quality video and audio then what’s the point?
Fortunately hardware capable of doing high end video is pretty much the norm these days and, as hardware has a tendancy to become, it’s cheap.
As noted in an earlier part to this series, I could go super cheap and get a netbook or the like, but I’ve decided to build my own. Having been a computer builder professionally and built all my systems for 20 years one would think that this was a no-brainer, however I really would’ve preferred to let someone else do the work as I’ve been out of the biz for a few years (an eon in computer time) and it is really kind of a pain in the butt.
Using 6 months of cable tv as a cost benchmark, around $750, let’s look at what we can cobble together.
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:
[This is the first of a series on my move from cable tv to online content]
Part 1 – The Idea
I’ve had cable television longer than I’ve had cable internet, though not by a huge margin. There were a few years thrown in there that I had to choose between the two and went with the intertubes. I was playing alot of an online game, bringing home videos from the library, and watching what I could find on the internet. About exhausted PBS’s site during that time.
Well, it’s getting time to do that again, not because I have to make a choice again, but because I’m tired of paying for alot of stuff I don’t use. It’s not like I’m averse to the concept of getting what you pay for, I own a Cadillac for gawd’s sake, and I certainly am getting a decent enough deal from my local cable tv provider; hundreds of channels on twenty-four hours a day, premium movie channels, on-demand content, dvr. That’s alotta stuff.
Like a lot of folks, though, I come home, flop on the couch or in my computer chair (with a good view of the tv), and proceed to browse to find something even vaguely interesting to watch or let babble in the background while life goes on around it. There’s perhaps a handful of tv shows we like to tune into over the week, other shows that we’ll watch if we browse across them, and the occasional movie if it’s particularly good (or suitably bad, as our tastes go) or we’re just in the mood.
Lots of dvr’ed stuff goes unwatched. The on-demand content is marginal and smallish. I bet I only watch a dozen channels – tops.
I pay about 130 bucks for the privilege.
That’s going to change…