Home theatrics: Revenge of XBMC and Apple TV



If you follow this blog at all, you’ve probably read some of my exploits in trying to find a perfect home theatre solution that blends discless DVD playback with the latest streaming video trends. Last year I jacked a D-Link DNS-323 NAS into my home office network with 2 TB of storage for ripped DVDs, and have been alternating between the Apple TV and an HP Windows Vista box to watch them.

Unfortunately, this isn’t quite as seamless as I had first hoped.

On the Vista front, I found a free database program called My Movies 2 which could import artwork & title info for a DVD and display it nicely in Windows Media Center. Unfortunately, Media Center’s MPEG-2 playback leaves a lot to be desired. It’s way too bright and soft for my tastes. I’ve toyed around with a bunch of hacky ways to fix that, but ultimately bought a $50 program called TheaterTek, a separate DVD player software with its own Nvidia decoders (producing rich blacks and a great, crisp image) that also played nice with Media Center. I could open Media Center, go into the My Movies menu, pick the movie and the playback is routed to TheaterTek.

The problem with this setup is many-fold. First, Vista is dog slow to start up, and my electric bill is already ridiculously high, so I try not to leave any of the computers in our house running 24/7. Sleep mode on this system also blows… it usually brings itself out of sleep within an hour after being put to sleep! Stupid Vista. By the time I’ve waited for the PC to boot up, get into Media Center, pick a movie and then hope that TheaterTek starts without crashing (which it often does)… it just got too damn frustrating to deal with. Granted, I could just launch TheaterTek alone and load the movie there, but the program is still too buggy even by itself. (Judging from the TheaterTek forums, the author of the program doesn’t seem to eager to update it anymore, so I’m sure when Windows 7 rolls out later this year, that will be the end of that option anyway).

I turned my attention back to using Apple TV for the task. Of course, I’ve got an ATV hacked with ATVFlash, and using nitoTV to pull up a disc image and play it back is pretty A-OK. There’s no on-screen guidance which is a minor nuisance and no resume function if I stop during playback, but the bigger issue is, no 5.1 output! For my old TV shows that’s not an issue, but for current movies, why bother?

There’s a lot of hype on Boxee these days, but frankly I’m not impressed with their Hulu playback (when it’s working, that is), and attempting to play a stacked DVD folder there is fairly lousy at best. I was a lot more impressed with XBMC, which is also included in the ATVFlash bundle. XBMC plays my DVD folders pretty well, and with 5.1 output to boot. It would even show the folder.jpg artwork that My Movies had put on the NAS from Windows, so at least I had a little visual reference as to what I was about to watch.

A week or two ago, I started playing around with XBMC a little more, discovering that I was using it more and more to watch movies. I finally figured out how to add my DVD movies to the library, which meant I not only got gorgeous artwork, but also title, cast & synopsis information added to each entry. So, I stopped entering my new discs into My Movies under Vista and went exclusively with the XBMC option. Unfortunately, television DVDs are still borked and won’t show up properly in XBMC’s TV category (although they can be listed as movies, just not with episodic breakdown), so I created a separate mount folder for those and have just been watching them the old-fashioned way (or using nitoTV if I just want to watch a quick episode of something).

About a month ago, I caved in and dropped $99 for the Roku Digital Video Player, that little box whose sole function is to stream Netflix (and now Amazon Video on Demand) movies to your television. The wife and I had been getting more and more use out of Netflix’s Watch Instantly service in recent months (first I got her hooked on old COACH episodes and now we’re blazing though the British COUPLING), and the aforementioned long startup on the Vista PC was becoming a bit of a drag. (Apple TV is sadly too slow to handle Netflix’s Silverlight streaming, so that option was out.) This has changed our home theatre dynamic quite a bit, especially since some of the Netflix movies are actually in HD via the Roku (and they look great!) and not on the PC, which has been languishing with the power off most of the last few weeks anyway.

My uncle happened to mention he was in the market for a newer PC to replace his 6 or 7-year-old model, so the HP box may find a new home with him, especially now that I’ve got Firefox running on the Apple TV this week, complete with the wireless mouse & keyboard that I had originally bought for the Vista box! Thanks to the free Xmarks add-on for Firefox, I was even able to sync all of my bookmarks over to the Apple TV, and that sync gets maintained between my laptop, editing system and iPhone (which are also using MobileMe to sync said bookmarks to each other’s Safari browser). And shucks, most of the other Firefox add-ons that I’ve been using seem to also work A-OK on ATV (the notable exception being Evernote, which can’t be installed on ATV because it requires Leopard 10.5 and ATV runs Tiger 10.4, although I’m going to try the regular web clipper, which should still work).

So, for those of you keeping score at home, my complete home theatre system currently breaks down as follows:

Sony STRDG920 7.1-Channel Audio/Video Receiver (augmented with a 4-port HDMI splitter box for extra inputs)

PlayStation 3 (mostly for Blu-ray and quick Flip MinoHD playback)

Apple TV (for discless DVD playback via XBMC, web browsing via Firefox, iTunes photos & movies and the occasional movie rental)

Roku Digital Video Player (for Netflix and Amazon Video on Demand streaming)

Archos 5 250 GB Internet Media Tablet with DVR Station (for watching movies & TV shows ripped from DVD when I want to watch a bit, bookmark it and come back to it later, and carry it on-the-go)

Dish HD ViP 622 (for satellite TV, with 320 GB external storage for saving shows & movies)

LG upscaling DVD player (for the occasional time when you just want to watch a disc, of course hacked to be region-free and to skip all menus and go straight to movie playback)

Toshiba DVD recorder (for when family asks me to DVR something for them, or to quickly burn discs from a camcorder or analog deck)

Toshiba HD-DVD player (for my small library of freebie discs)

JVC S-VHS/Mini-DV combo deck (for playing older formats)

Aiwa VHS PAL deck (still comes in handy when the wife’s family sends over old tapes from Ukraine)

Samsung 50″ HDTV (whose use should be obvious)

I’ve given some thought lately to replacing the Windows Vista box with a Mac mini, but honestly, with budget always an issue and now that I’ve got Firefox running on the ATV, I think it’s just overkill, anyway. I mean, what else would I really need to do on my home theatre that would require a full computer now? The Vista box initially came in handy for reviewing Windows software for DV magazine, but otherwise its main uses were to watch Netflix streaming (now replaced by the Roku box) or web browsing (now replaced by the ATV). And let’s face it, this is way too much stuff for one system anyway! As it is, I had to steal my HD-DVD player’s connections to jack in the Roku because I had run out of inputs (not that I watch HD-DVD much anyway, but it will be nice to get back to having the right number of inputs for all of my needs).

So how about you guys? Am I alone in being this obsessed with my home theatre gear? LOL



This entry was posted on Friday, May 15th, 2009 at 1:38 pm and is filed under Apple Talk, Gadgets, Movies, Random Thoughts, Technology. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

One Response to “Home theatrics: Revenge of XBMC and Apple TV”

  1. czimmerman Says:

    Oh man, you can leave replies on this site. Look at that. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    I remember XMBC from back in the day when I softmodded my Xbox. It was such a great media tool. I was able to stream media, including WMV, Quicktime files, Xvids, everything, plus have all the emulators that I wanted. The Xbox was the first “media hub” I used. Hacked with a 160 GB hard drive in it, man…those were the days. Even did 1080i output (but couldn’t play HD video), but when I used it, it was hooked up to a flat screen JVC tube. Now it still is hooked up to that same JVC tube, but isn’t used that often.

    I always think of my home theater. I mean, hell, with the price of going to see a movie in theaters, I’d much rather wait for the Blu-ray, and with how amazing of an upconverting DVD player the PS3 is, I don’t even really need Blu. My Netflix subscription, even with the Blu-ray tax, still is so much more cost effective.

    My home theater consists of:

    PlayStation 3 as my main media hub. Add in the PSP Remote Play support, I can pretty much access any DRM-free video or audio from any Wifi network, that is if I have the PSP in my pocket.

    Xbox 360 with HD DVD addon for occasional HD DVD watching and sometimes gaming. The PS3 is my main game system.

    Nintendo Wii for…Wiiing?

    Top loader NES 2 for classic gaming – connected with an old school RF adapter. My original NES sits on my stand, but isn’t hooked up because the NES 2 just plays games so much easier.

    Sega Dreamcast because man, the Dreamcast ruled.

    Comcast dual tuner DVR. Yes, I want to move to satellite, but man, I love HowardTV too much. And with that, I can’t go to Tivo since CableCARDS can’t get On Demand!

    Samsung DVD-R/VCR combo unit for dumping DVR stuff to DVD-R.

    Phillips Laserdisc player mainly hooked up for show. It smells like burning styrofoam when I use it, but it plays fine.

    Kenwood 5.1 DD and DTS receiver from…holy crap, maybe 2000? It has two digital coax ports, and one optical. And even better, the one digital coax port clashes with the optical, so I had to rig it to get it to work the way I wanted. Oh yeah, no component or HDMI inputs. I don’t even think there is an S-video port. Plus the IR sensor is broken, so volume control is maintained by getting up and turning the knob. In need for a serious upgrade.

    And my Samsung 40″ 1080p LCD.

    For what I have and my age, I think I’ve established a good setup. I remember setting up my TV and going “this is what I went to college for.”

    I might add an Apple TV at some point, but the PS3 handles that for streaming, and a Roku box for now wouldn’t do much for me because the 360 does Netflix streaming. Though man, I really want to play with an Apple TV. It is tempting.