Media center setup, part infinity

Roku 2 XS

My home media center has evolved much over the years, as my patient wife can attest. See here, and here, and here, and here, and here. Well, now it’s gotten a whole let simpler.

But first a little background.

Being borderline OCD, I tend to get worked up about utilitarianism. This bleeds into my technology life as well. I appreciate the concept of technology convergence, wherein several utilities begin to overlap in ways that are beneficial to the end user. For instance, it has made much sense as of late that your smartphone would be capable of checking email as well as send text messages.  Where convergence doesn’t make sense is with intertwining single-purpose devices like kitchen appliances — think refrigerators becoming needlessly intelligent.

A branch of technologies that are ripe for convergence is home media.  The task of streaming audio and video from either a central local source or from the cloud to a TV or set of speakers can be handled nicely by one piece of hardware.  The crux of that challenge is in the software; it’s crucial to make the user experience a pleasant one.  The user shouldn’t be burdened by setup and maintenance.

Sadly, such was the case for my previous home media topology.  I am a Mac guy.  But I’m not so zealous as to be blind to the occasional problems that befall OS X.  Just as with the Windows world, Macs crash.  The RWoD {1} is analogous to the BSOD {2}; which one occurs more than the other is a topic for another post, not today’s.

All that to say that my experience using Macs and Mac hardware & software to act as my home media system was not a very great one.  It was occasionally great, but mostly frustrating.  I started using a first generation Mac Mini as the central computer.  It was connected to our LCD TV via DVI.  It had TOS-Link digital audio output to our surround sound amp. For recording television, I used the Elgato EyeTV 500 which was like a TiVo for Macs.  For media download, I used Xtorrent.  For media playback, I used the excellent Plex (a fork of XBMC).  Then there were a host of other cool utilities and drivers that I used to enhance the overall experience, from remote controls (Remote Buddy) to keyboards (Controller Mate) to iOS apps (RedEye, Remote Buddy, Plex) and the like.

Arguably, this computer didn’t have enough horsepower to do the job adequately.  Over the years, there were various hardware related problems that occurred randomly, like spontaneous loss of digital audio out (reboot required), or hard lockup during MPEG2 video playback from the EyeTV (reboot required).

It’s very easy in these situations to get into a finger pointing game: third-party accessory vendor points in the direction of Apple, blaming their lack of hardware or API support; Apple points in direction of third-party software developers for not writing robust applications.  But assigning blame is getting beside the point for me.  The bottom line is the overall user experience.  And I can tell you that as soon as you get your first system crash, reality starts to set in.  I don’t care how cool the idea of a web browser is on your TV — when the damn thing hangs or is buggy or won’t play back a disc, who care’s that you can post Facebook statuses?

As a last ditch effort, I upgraded the Mini with a Macbook Pro and a Hengedock.  This was my own forced attempt at technology convergence: allow one piece of hardware to be both the family entertainment hub and the family laptop.  This was, in essence, as grave a mistake as the over-designed refrigerator.  Laptops are laptops for a reason.  They shouldn’t, in my humble opinion, be used for both these purposes.

I continued to have the above occasional hardware/software problems, but now with the added challenge of juggling the device’s dual use between laptop and media hub.  Though I loved the Macbook for a laptop, it left much to be desired (as any laptop would, Mac or PC) as a media machine.  So, onto the recent upgrade.

In July, I took a very different path.  I decided to simplify my media life and ditched the computer-centric topology of my setup in favor of a more set top box approach. I had tasted the other side of technology convergence for media delivery, but now was ready for a single-purpose device.  A machine that does only one thing (or set of things), but does them extremely well.  A machine that is optimized to excel at media delivery without bugs, without hassle, without endless software updates, without IT admin interruption, without defragging and RAM updates and hard drive crashes.  As Steve Jobs said, “It just works” — it turns out these set top boxes just work.  And well.

Roku 2 XS

I’m getting ahead of myself.  So I did a bunch of research on Apple TV vs. Logitech (Google) Revue vs. Roku and decided finally on a Roku 2 XS. For me and my wife, the Roku, out of the box, had the best feature set of Netflix, Hulu+, Amazon, and… Plex integration!  I had been incredibly impressed with Plex since the Mac media center days for it’s elegant yet simple design.  So I didn’t really want to leave behind the Plex experience and its excellent iOS app.  Plex works with the Roku as a channel.  It delivers downloaded shows to the Roku, and finally to the TV.  Nice.

For control of the system, I went with a Logitech Harmony One remote.  Great Wife Approval Factor, nice interface, simple elegant control.

For now, I’m quite satisfied with this current setup, but who knows?  It might (will) change again, and when it does you’ll be the first to know. {3}

Footnotes:

  1. Spinning Wait Cursor, or Rainbow Wheel of Death []
  2. Blue Screen Of Death []
  3. I hear interesting things about the Boxee Box’s TV tuner USB stick! []

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