The next computing revolution will be televised

Up until very recently, I had been able to remain faithful to my home-theater PC. Well, that’s not entirely true. I’ve gone through a small handful of HTPC iterations over the decade or so that I’ve had computers hooked up across from my couch. With network connections to my vast collection of MP3s and video content, TV tuners capable of recording cable and over-the-air broadcasts, and enough horsepower to handle a smattering of casual games, these systems have been my primary source of living-room entertainment. Although I’ve owned a couple of Xbox consoles and have been know to plug more powerful rigs into my TV for bouts of serious gaming, the overwhelming majority of what’s displayed on the screen comes from my home-theater PC.

Or it did, anyway.

A couple of weeks ago, I upgraded my TV service to expand on the measly four over-the-air HD channels accessible with my homebrew attic antenna. I contemplated dropping television service entirely and subsisting on torrent downloads and streaming sources alone. However, asinine region locks prevent a lot of streaming content from migrating to Canada, and online sports coverage is pretty thin overall. To get the essentials, which for me includes an admittedly odd combination of basketball, hockey, mixed martial arts, and professional cycling, paying a flat monthly rate is by far the easiest option. And it saves me from having to download episodes of Bachelor Pad and Grey’s Anatomy to keep my girlfriend happy.

Telus, my new TV provider, offers its own PVR with the Optik service I have now. You wouldn’t think I’d need it, what with four tuners inside my current HTPC, but none of them can decode the encrypted signal that comes from my provider. Making matters worse, none of the television providers in Canada support the CableCARD decryption implementations available elsewhere in the world.

Now, instead of being able to feed the entirety of my non-gaming entertainment through my home-theater PC, I’ve been forced to take on a piece of consumer electronics to manage the televised side of the equation. I suppose it’s appropriate, then, that this particular set-top experience feels as antiquated as the concept of broadcast television itself.

In a word, it’s lousy.


My set-top box’s painfully slow interface

Let’s start with the guide, which is stupid enough to display the full range of available channels—music included—whether or not my particular plan is capable of accessing them. Trimming the channel selection manually is incredibly tedious, in part because I shouldn’t have to, but mostly because the user interface is generally sluggish and unresponsive. Scrolling through the guide takes forever, and it feels like there’s some latency between the remote and the cable box. The menus don’t flow with the sort of fluidity I’d expect from a modern interface, especially when this one is entirely devoid of anything that could remotely be called eye candy.

I’m sure there are better cable boxes out there, but I didn’t have a choice. I suppose I’m spoiled, too, coming from a history of XBMC, BeyondTV, and Windows’ own built-in Media Center software. I was using XBMC back when it was called Xbox Media Player and ran exclusively on Microsoft’s first console. Even then, the interface was superior to a lot of what I see in living rooms today.

In its latest revision, XBMC is a true wonder. That’s the best part of this whole TV upgrade, in fact. I’ve been using Windows Media Center for the past few years because my girlfriend only wanted to deal with a single interface to handle music, video, picture, and PVR duties. XBMC doesn’t play the PVR game, and now that I don’t need to, the open-source marvel can make a triumphant return to my big-screen TV.


XBMC is simply in another class for both looks and responsiveness

Windows 7’s Media Center component does a decent job of integrating HTPC basics under one roof, but it’s no XBMC. To start, XBMC is free—truly so, because it’s available for both Linux and as a standalone Live version that runs solely off a bootable thumb drive. Short of recording TV streams, XBMC does everything Windows Media Center can do. The interface is prettier and snappier, though, and XBMC serves up far more configuration options. You also get stoner-friendly Milkdrop visualization plugins, broader codec support, and a host of free add-ons covering everything from YouTube browsing to remote programming.

I’m still getting my XBMC config dialed in, but I’m really impressed at how slick it’s become, especially since it runs so well on cheap, ultra-mini nettops like Zotac’s Zbox Nano AD10. I never considered nettops for my own HTPC because I’d always needed multiple tuners on board. The Nano can cover all the bases my home-theater PC does now, though, and that includes pumping out smooth frame rates in an awful lot of casual games. Valve’s new couch-friendly GUI for Steam can’t come soon enough.

Thanks to new nettop graphics solutions with solid HD video decoding in addition to capable 3D horsepower, diminutive PCs have become much more appealing for the living room. I’m not talking about the expensive, ill-conceived towers Microsoft tried to push with its original Media Center Edition of Windows—the technology now exists to put fully functional PCs with rich multimedia capabilities into palm-sized chassis that don’t cost more than a few hundred dollars.


Zotac’s Zbox Nano AD10 is all you need for a home-theater PC

The potential market is huge. Every year, it seems I get more and more people asking me how to get content from their laptops onto their TVs, be it picture slideshows from a vacation, YouTube clips from FPS Russia, or the latest season of commercial-free programming downloaded with BitTorrent. A long HDMI cable will do in a pinch, but as downloads and online sources become the primary source of entertainment for a lot of folks, there’s a good case to be made for a more permanent fixture in the living room.

In the past, I’ve recommended purpose-built devices like WD’s TV Live Hub, which have the benefit of costing $200 or less. Modern game consoles have plenty of baked-in multimedia capabilities, too. But neither of those solutions offers anything close to the flexibility of a basic home-theater PC, which you’re of course free to equip with enough grunt to put consoles games to shame.

The more I think about it, the more I need to be recommending that people spend just a little bit more to get a proper PC. Desktops are as good as dead in most households, making the living room the safest refuge for a stationary PC. Even friends and family who have long since moved to notebooks as their primary machines could still use a home PC to house shared data, host backups, and provide living-room entertainment.

Unlike desktops, which must compete with notebooks, tablets, and even smartphones to handle everyday tasks like email and web browsing, home-theater PCs need only to worry about set-top boxes and consoles. The tablet-and-smartphone revolution isn’t a threat to the massive flat panels in our living rooms, but the solutions that drive them should take notes on what has made the best touchscreen devices so popular. Interfaces are everything—not just how they look, but how fluidly they flow. Windows 8’s stylish and snappy Metro UI already looks like it would translate nicely if accessed from across the room on the couch, and the OS will run on the sort of ARM hardware that could challenge the definition of what constitutes a home-theater PC while further lowering the asking price.

I’m not so much concerned with semantics. All I know is there are a lot of different players vying for a slice of the living room. Giants like Apple, Google, Nintendo, and Sony all have an interest in ensuring that the PC doesn’t take root under your television, and so does Microsoft’s Xbox division. The PC may be the most desirable entertainment platform right now, but it will have to continue to evolve to stave off challenges from devices that are ultimately less capable.

With a fundamental transformation already well underway in the mobile world, the next computing revolution will surely be televised. The question is what sort of device will be streaming the footage to your TV.

Comments closed
    • DavidC1
    • 8 years ago

    I’m not sure I agree with the opinion that Canadian laws should be more open. Their protectionism law regarding TV and media is probably the reason why we have more limited online content.

    But that’s a necessity if they want Canada to survive as an indepent entity with a unique culture of their own rather than ultimately being assimilated into our biggest neighbour, the United States. The Canadian companies might stand absolutely no chance if everything is fully opened up. The scale they operate here compared to US is absolutely miniscule.

    Yes, you have less of a choice as a consumer. Some countries out there are struggling to have their most basic needs met, don’t we have enough entertainment already? The same law that prevents online media to be so open to us is the same one that will (somewhat) shield us from the worst ever global recession or even depression that’s about to happen.

      • cynan
      • 8 years ago

      You make some good points regarding the advantage American media providers have vs their smaller Canadian counterparts when it comes to offerring competative streaming services in Canada due to the 10X increased market size of the US. However, I’m not certain that the laws as they exist are that just, especially compared to other markets.

      It’s my understanding that, unlike the US, Canadian networks buy Canadian rights to American content. As a result once a Canadian network buys an American show, no other company in Canada is allowed to distribute it.

      To me, this type of system goes beyond simply protecting Canadian competition with would be American providers, such as Netflix, but also prevents Canadian companies from offering competitive streaming media services.

      Added to this is that large media companies like Rogers and Bell are starting to acquire smaller networks and cable channels (ie, Bell now owns CTV). As a result, you have a company that is capable of purchasing rights to American television that is one and the same as the company that is trying to remain profitable with their cable TV services (and internet provision services): It is obviously in such a companies’ best interest to stiffle distribution of said media by any other means than what would be most profitable to them – which right now, with the prices they charge, is cable TV.

      To me, this kind of system places too much control of media distribution in the hands of such companies, and very little in the hands of the consumer, and mostly serves to protect the bottom line of these large Canadian media companies as much as anything else.

      [i<]Edit:[/i<] Would a decent analogy be the distribution of games by Steam or Music by Itunes or ebooks by Amazon? Do you think that it would be better if a single Canadian media company was "required" to purchase the rights to any game or song or ebook produced outside of Canada in order for said content to be able to be distributed in Canada, dissallowing Canadians access to these online media services?

    • d0g_p00p
    • 8 years ago

    I have been using XBMC on my first gen XBox for quiet some time. It’s mainly there so I can play emulators and what not, music repository and the occasional video. However now with HD feeds, bigger storage and more external connectivity options I seriously need to look for a replacement. The Zotac’s Zbox Nano AD10 is starting to look like a great alternative. Emulation is a must and while I have not paid for network television in a long time squeezing a tuner or 2 into it would be a nice option.

    Geoff any chance of doing a review with a SFF box (like the Zotac) using XBMC and external USB tuner cards? I would love to read a TR review/article on this type of setup. My TV only really gets used for console games and external second monitor for playing games when people want to watch. I would love to have that be the focus for all my media needs. Just something to think about.

    • LoneWolf15
    • 8 years ago

    I use a combination of a lifetime Tivo Premiere XL, and a Popcorn Hour C-200 for my media duties (note: Sorry about the lack of Cablecard support up there Geoff; it’s clunky, but at least it allows more flexibility than your situation).

    I’d have probably gone with a Ceton InfiniTV 4 and built an HTPC, but I got the lifetime subscription for the Tivo nearly for free through a little luck; at the time, the Ceton card wasn’t quite available yet.

      • mutarasector
      • 8 years ago

      The way I see it, the advantage of Ceton’s InfiniTV cards will probably be best realized when they bring out their 6-tuner PCIe card. A dedicated media streaming DLNA server/DVR built around one of these makes a lot of sense since you can handle up to six streams from just one monthly CableCard rental.

    • kc77
    • 8 years ago

    The next computing revolution might be centered around set top boxes. However, this will not happen until someone steps in and ***** slaps the the content providers. Right now all of them are running around like Gollum or Daffy Duck yelling “mine mine mine” without ANY OF THEM having the means for delivering the content.

    Their heavy handed tactics against google, netflx, hulu and yes even the torrent community are all centered around the fact that they don’t want to share the revenue with the tech companies who have actually built out the business model for delivering their content. Instead of being grateful they are death-gripping their content instead, which makes it less accessible.

    • TravelMug
    • 8 years ago

    “YouTube clips from FPS Russia”

    Good article, and as always – have a nice day! 🙂

    • indeego
    • 8 years ago

    Dumped the TV years ago as I’ve mentioned many times. The idea of just watching media on a static display in a single room is fairly foreign to us.

    – Sometimes we take a laptop with us in the car and the kids watch old Nova/Nature shows, or Phineas & Ferb.

    – Sometimes we set it up in the living room and watch videos taken from the Droid or iPhone. The kids can take the laptop to another room and watch there or edit them live.

    – Sometimes we watch a movie on a larger screen down in our office. I might be working on a second display while watching the movie with the kids, but this setup allows flexibility.

    My point is I can’t believe people tie themselves to rooms/walled-devices just to watch one form of media that is entering the sunset years. Screw the living room and the domination of it, the future are personal displays and mobile displays.

      • liquidsquid
      • 8 years ago

      Weird, I says. Let me beat you with my cane you whipper-snapper and tell you like it was back in my day.

      Seriously though you don’t get a full experience without good sound in a dark room to make home-movies an immersive experience. During an explosion your chair should shake, when a zombie pops out of closet you should get an immediate reaction to run, and during a first-person view of a car chase you should feel like you are in the drivers seat. Of course with sub-par expectations with media on tiny displays and “ear buds” that sound like two stringed-up tin cans you may not know or care about the difference.

      As soon as I can easily move my 120″ projector and speakers to another room, then perhaps I can declare the living room non-existent. Instead the projector is pinned to the ceiling, and the speakers will give me hernia, but it is worth it.

      Unfortunately my HT system is getting long in the tooth and I have no way of streaming media to it without dragging a laptop over to it. However after looking at some streaming over-compressed crap from NetFlix and YouTube on the projector I have no incentive to upgrade. When viewed on a scrunched display, over-compression doesn’t matter since your visual pathways can ignore the flaws unless you really pay attention, but when expanded to 120″ it makes me worry that the future of media is going downhill as small displays dominate allowing inferior image quality. It is unwatchable.

      • sweatshopking
      • 8 years ago

      yep. +1

      • BobbinThreadbare
      • 8 years ago

      If you like sports, and you like sports live there is no real alternative to TV.

      Well I guess you can head to a sports bar for all the games you want to watch, but that can quickly add up to more than a cable bill.

        • sweatshopking
        • 8 years ago

        who likes sports?

    • Sargent Duck
    • 8 years ago

    Geoff,

    A co-worker of mine let me know of this service that allows Canadians to watch American region content: [url<]http://www.unblock-us.com/[/url<] I haven't used it, but he says it's proper. I honestly have no idea about the legality of it though.

    • ShadowTiger
    • 8 years ago

    Honestly the whole idea of television disgusts me. If it wasn’t for greedy corporate monopolies, we wouldn’t need this secondary market of half-baked consumer goods destined for the living room.

    I guess we have to wait for all the tech-illiterate people to die off before we can have progress.

    • KyleSTL
    • 8 years ago

    For the same ‘few hundred bucks’ as a nettop you could have added a Ceton InfiniTV to your existing HTPC. Can I ask why you didn’t? Did this come up as an option? It’s available from many sellers for $300 and can do all the encoded TV you want (aside from on demand, but c’mon you have 4 HD tuners and endless access to the internet – so it’s mostly unnecessary). I have an HTPC with 2 Hauppauge cards for (2) OTA HD tuners and (2) analog tuners. If I had and few hundred bucks burning a hole in my pocket right now I’d grab one and be set for all my needs (I hate not having HD cable right now).

      • jpostel
      • 8 years ago

      As he mentions in the article, “none of the television providers in Canada support the CableCARD decryption implementations available elsewhere in the world.”

      I am lucky to have CableCards in my WIn7 HTPC and it is the best combo DVR and media center I have used. Other than the lack of native bluray (I use Arcsoft TMT), it has just about everything.

      I just got my SiliconDust HDHR Prime last week and my CableCard self install (!!!) kit from Comcast yesterday. Considering how long I waited, I am anticipating several days of trying to get Comcast to pair the damn thing so that it works.

      • Bauxite
      • 8 years ago

      Cost of entry is now down as low as $130 for a 2 tuner external usb CC box. (Hauppauge WinTV DCR-2650, though its really a SD design similar to the prime)

      Though as already noted, hes screwed since Canada is not under FCC jurisdiction 😉

    • ssidbroadcast
    • 8 years ago

    Geoff, have you tried an AppleTV? It’s really responsive and easy to use.

    • derFunkenstein
    • 8 years ago

    [quote<]Let's start with the guide, which is stupid enough to display the full range of available channels—music included—whether or not my particular plan is capable of accessing them. Trimming the channel selection manually is incredibly tedious, in part because I shouldn't have to, but mostly because the user interface is generally sluggish and unresponsive. Scrolling through the guide takes forever, and it feels like there's some latency between the remote and the cable box. The menus don't flow with the sort of fluidity I'd expect from a modern interface, especially when this one is entirely devoid of anything that could remotely be called eye candy.[/quote<] You've just described my Comcast - errrr, Xfinity - experience. Bleh.

    • dashbarron
    • 8 years ago

    [quote<] And it saves me from having to download episodes of Bachelor Pad and Grey's Anatomy to keep my girlfriend happy.[/quote<] "My girlfriend," sureeeeee. We don't judge Geoff, or at least most of us don't.

    • Corrado
    • 8 years ago

    I’m digging my AppleTV2’s on each of the 3 TVs in my house. The fact that my wife and I both have iPhones and she has an iPad to use with airplay makes it better. Nothing like no matter WHAT video is on the iOS device, you push a button and it instantly is streaming to your TV. iOS5 makes all video, web, app, whatever, airplay compatible by default.

    I’ve tried using XBMC, but I didn’t like its layout and navigation of DLNA sources like PlayOn to get Hulu onto the TV. Using AirPlay, I use the PlayOn webapp and push the button. Voila, it works. The downside to using AppleTV is you’re tied to iTunes and iTunes compatible codecs for everything. That means no DivX or XViD files, but I convert everything to .mp4 now and it works just fine. I lose a little bit of space from a hard drive perspective, but the machine housing everything has 4TB now and adding another 2TB costs less than $100 these days.

    Its not the best solution, and I wish there were installable ‘apps’ for AppleTV2. Not in the traditional iOS app sense, but more like ‘Channels’ so there could be a Blockbuster Online channel, a Hulu channel, HBO Go channel etc with user interface APIs. It would be AWESOME if DirecTV could do the NFL Sunday Ticket channel on AppleTV as well as PS3. That + blackout free MLB.tv means I’d not have to have cable to watch what I want to watch.

      • derFunkenstein
      • 8 years ago

      I had an Apple TV 2nd gen and ended up selling it. I’ve ripped tons of DVDs to DivX and I was not thrilled at the prospect of re-converting everything just to work with iTunes. Also, mystifyingly, it doesn’t find a computer unless iTunes is running. I close iTunes when it’s not in use and it’s inconvenient to go launch it on my PC before I want to stream everything. That last bit is uncharacteristically un-Apple. I’d expect iTunes to have a “listening” service running on my PC so that when anything wants to connect to the library, it’ll launch for me. Home sharing is equally annoying. Rarely does Apple have a sub-par user experience, but the ATV2 and Home Sharing both put me off.

        • Corrado
        • 8 years ago

        There’s actually a bug in the installer. It doesn’t open the Firewall port for Home Sharing permanently like it should, only when its enabled the first time, and then only for the session. After a half hour or so, the firewall opening closes. I had ALL kinds of problems with Home Sharing until I figured this out and just forced the port open all the time, and now its like golden buttah. Just minimize iTunes to the tray and it works great.

          • sweatshopking
          • 8 years ago

          “Just minimize iTunes to the tray and it works great.” then you’ve still got itunes running. which he doesn’t want.

            • Corrado
            • 8 years ago

            I understand its still running, silly. But what with my 4 3.6ghz cores and 16gb of ram, I don’t exactly notice it. Esp since my PC idles 99% of the time. Its more like a server that I occasionally play games on than a PC that also serves media files.

            • indeego
            • 8 years ago

            So you’ve gone from “Here’s some helpful advice,” to “This is how I do it, who the hell are you again?” in two posts.

            • Corrado
            • 8 years ago

            he said he had issues with home sharing. I said theres a bug in home sharing causing issues. I didnt say it was a magic bullet to solve all derfunks issues.

            • derFunkenstein
            • 8 years ago

            While I appreciate the explanation, it doesn’t change the fact it was a big enough annoyance, that along with having to transcode everything, I said “forget it”.

            • sweatshopking
            • 8 years ago

            derfunk’s pc blows. it’s super old. he’s like 100. he doesn’t have a quad core, the man runs a pentium 3. leaving itunes running destroys his productivity. it’s not an option.

          • derFunkenstein
          • 8 years ago

          Even the Mac version works (well, worked, at the very least; I didn’t have a Hackintosh for very long after I got the ATV2) this way, it’s not just with Windows.

    • NeelyCam
    • 8 years ago

    That nettop box will be integrated into a TV – it’s just a matter of time.

      • trackerben
      • 8 years ago

      That’s the model for the standard home hub. But it does no good when you want to take it with you on travels.

      Even if you pack HD content for family or friends and stay at places with HDTVs and free internet, you still wouldn’t want to devote your ultraportable or tablet to that task. Or go downstairs for a DVD or (shudder) VHS from the hotel library. And you want something like the Live Hub or ZBox which doesn’t alarm TSA muscleheads, fits in their trays and bags, and yet doesn’t add bulk to all the GPS and camera gear you’re already schlepping around for love.

      Enable consistent UI and stores wherever big screens and connectivity are found, administrate less, enjoy more.

        • derFunkenstein
        • 8 years ago

        How much TV are you watching in hotels? Go find something to do! I mean, sure, I used to travel alot for work but I always carried a work-provided PC with me. That’s where I got my best Diablo II and Brood War playing done. 😀

          • trackerben
          • 8 years ago

          I’ve got an ultraportable for work trips plus a little casual Steam which is enough since I’m usually too tired for much else. But how to keep everyone happy (and what’s mine mine) when traveling for leisure? We’re usually back in the SF Bay Area for a month or longer every year. It’s a long time on the go so I try to pack as much media as possible, we also drive around a lot so everything has to be light and handy. Sure, ipads and handhelds are great for those long drives or moving about outdoors. But nothing warms up the night in some strange room in a new city as easily as cozying up to one of my kid’s favorite movies on a big screen. For that I would like the same familiar UI experience that we have at home, otherwise it’s less vacation and more playtest.

          Never tried diablo but played brood war way too much. To this day i still haven’t figured out how many allied terran Cruisers can fit under an Arbiter’s cloak…

            • sweatshopking
            • 8 years ago

            16

        • Squeazle
        • 8 years ago

        How about a we really mix it up, and just put a dock on the tv for it to rest in, instead of screwing it on.

      • mutarasector
      • 8 years ago

      … and it’ll be called an “iTV”

      • BobbinThreadbare
      • 8 years ago

      I’m sure it will happen, VCRs and DVD players got integrated into TVs. It’s never going to be widely popular I don’t think though.

      • Palek
      • 8 years ago

      Consider it done:

      [url<]http://store.sony.com/c/Powered-by-Google-TV/en/c/S_SonyInternetTV[/url<] The Sony internet TV actually has a separate, complete Atom nettop board inside: [url<]http://techon.nikkeibp.co.jp/english/NEWS_EN/20101116/187433/[/url<]

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