Media Center

Media Center PC – Christmas Miracle.

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Christmas brought me a HTPC this year. I used to have a mac mini for this purpose and it worked out quite well. I watched Hulu, movies, Netflix, Youtube, etc. I have tried to find an alternate, as I said in a recent post. Playon or TVerisity can be used in connection with a video game console to watch a variety of internet based media streams. The Xbox 360 has Netflix integration which is really great because some of the media comes through in HD and looks great, and the interface is more TV friendly than using a keyboard and mouse to navigate.

However, the problem with those programs is that they can’t deal with hiccups or breaks in the stream. If the whole program doesn’t come through without a hitch, you have to start the whole thing over again. This got too annoying and I wanted something better. I also wanted to be able to play with some retro console emulators as well as DDR in the front room.

I decided to go with Nvidia’s new ION platform. I had read some good things about video card accerelation with flash video and the dual core 330 atom chip. So, after looking on the local classifieds (here in SLC we have KSL.com – a local news station that has an online classified section) I found someone selling a working HTPC with the ION platform for like $200. This is about $100 less than what it would cost to do the build myself, so I made myself a Christmas present of it.

After installing the right drivers and a little tweaking, I can report that the platform performs quite well. I added a Blu-ray DVD-ROM drive and have now tested it with all the differing media sources that I watch. It plays the Blu-ray discs without any trouble, does DivX and other media formats very well, streams Netflix like a charm and even works with Hulu Desktop and Hulu in Chrome smooth.

I was able to play Hulu and Netflix at the same time, and Netflix still came through in full HD beautifully, though Hulu did get a little choppy. The Hulu performance is perhaps the worst of all these. During commercials and transitions it slows down and drops frames, and though it is usually smooth during most programs there are a few hiccups. The CPU meter jumps between 40% and 60% utilization, so I’m not sure why Hulu isn’t perfect.

All in all I am very satisfied with the platform. Here are the specs:

Zotac ION-ITXF – ION 330 ATOM Dual Core
2GB RAM
80 GB HD
NVIDIA 9400M – also called ION
LITE-ON IHOS104 Bluray DVD Drive

It’s my first experience with BluRay and I have not been disappointed. Even on my 720p TV, the images are noticeably sharper and more detailed. I may have to upgrade my TV to get the full enjoyment out of it.

I am currently running all this in Windows 7. I also tried installing

Xbox 360 Media Centers

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I watch most of my favorite TV shows on Hulu these days. What that means is that I need a way to get my hulu onto my TV in the living room. There are quite a few ways that i have considered doing this. I used to use a Mac mini as a HTPC, controlling it with either a laptop via VNC or using Boxee and the infared remote. This worked out great.

I liked that I had my favorite episode of 30 Rock right alongside The Totally Rad Show. It brings warmth into my heart to combine old and new media. It feels like the world, the way it should be. Anyway, I moved on from the Mac mini and I have been looking to recreate the living room media center experience ever since.

A few weeks ago a friend introduced me to Playon and TVersity. They work both about the same and they both have the same big problem, if you internet media halts for any reason, you can’t navigate back to your place. You usually have to start the show over again. Other than this, however, I am very happy with both. They have a variety of media sources that you can build including Hulu RSS feeds, Youtube feeds, TED talks, etc.

The big kicker is that Hulu doesn’t make the whole experience better. I know that it’s probably not Hulu’s fault as much as it is the networks, but the obvious is going to happen sooner or later. There’s no benefit nor compelling reason to be stuck in a network schedule any more. People want on demand access to whatever show or experience they feel in the mood to watch. We no longer want to tolerate schedules.

Playon and TVersity performed on about the same level. Here are some of my favorite media sources:

Academic Earth
TED Talks
Revision3
Youtube – My Profile
My Hulu Profile

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