Monday, December 29, 2008

Testing The MediaPortal Waters - Experiencing New HTPC Software

This is a guest post by Ray, many know him as GhostLobster on the web

“My brain hurts!” [1]

Nearly a week and a half into my Media Portal foray and I feel as if my brain has been kneaded into a nice, squishy dough by "The Chompers" [2] and then fed through a Salad Shooter.  Jen (Mrs. Lobster) summed it up best when I was complaining about how long it was taking me to install and configure 'For the Record', a decent TV recording management plugin, by simply pointing out "It's hardcore, dude."  Yeah, that's one way of putting it.

Home Improvement vs. Tinkering

OK, I’m getting a bit ahead of myself here, allow me to digress.  2 weeks back, things were a bit slow around the house, so I was faced with the prospect of performing one of 2 tasks:  Either break out the tools and fix the railing on the front porch, or find some way to completely break our relatively stable HTPC implementation by performing the minor task of installing a completely new architecture and front end.  Well, the last time I took on a home improvement project it ended with a tourniquet and months of having to endure the endless ribbing of friends and family, so needless to say, the front porch still needs work, and I began tinkering!

“I’m cuuuuuuute!  I’m cuuuuuute!” [3]

I was, and am once again, a happy SageTV user.  However, I felt the urge to check out some other solutions, just in case there was something better out there.  After seeing the Media Portal mascot, MePo, I just had to check it out. 

The little guy is just plain…well…cute!  There is no other word for it.  I did some research, and found that Media Portal met my requirements by providing the following functionality:

  1. HD-PVR Support
  2. Client/Server support
  3. Integrated EPG (employing a very loose definition of integration here)
  4. Wife friendly interface
  5. Ripped DVD support

For the most part, that’s pretty much it.  So, I disabled the SageTV services on my main SageTV rig and went at it. 

Guid(ance) Needed

The initial installation was pretty simple.  Just run the setup, select the type of implementation (Client only, server only, client/server on one box, etc.) and the online Wiki was very helpful.  Once it was installed it was time to configure the TV Server.  This is where it went downhill.  I have 2 analog Hauppauge 150 TV tuners in my rig, an HDHomeRun and an HD-PVR.  For U.S. users, Media Portal’s TV Server and EPG is an absolute nightmare to configure.  I had to individually enter the channel names and numbers for every channel I receive via an analog signal.  That would be all of the channels on the 150s and the HD-PVR.  Once I got all of that typing out of the way, it was time to retrieve the EPG data.  Nothing to it, right?  Just go into the WebEPG plugin, select the guide source and let it populate using the channels I just spent hours entering manually.  Uh huh…and nuclear fusion is just a matter of building a better particle accelerator. 

MediaPortal WebEPG

The guide data available within MP’s configuration is woefully incomplete.  After trying both U.S. options available, I was left with an EPG that contained 4 populated channels and 320 channels which apparently were broadcasting the same show over and over called “No data Available”,  which has to be a Jerry Bruckheimer production to be that popular.  After spending my free time over about 5 days scouring the Media Portal forums, which are incredibly helpful, I stumbled across mc2xml which downloads the Microsoft Windows Media Center EPG in .xml format which can then be imported into Media Portal via a very simple 12 click process.  However, once it was in place, I was able to schedule a task every few days which would automatically update the guide, so it was functional.

“…No match for a good blaster at your side, kid.” [4]

Next, channel changing on the HD-PVR.  The HDHomeRun and 150 tuners were just fine when it came to changing channels, but the HD-PVR’s integrated IR Blaster was completely foreign to Media Portal.  Off to the forums again, where I found that this was a common issue for all users of the HD-PVR.  Happily, I came across ralphy’s ServerBlaster .dll which blasts away just fine with the HD-PVR.  Unfortunately, it blasted away at everything, regardless of which tuner you were using, meaning that if my HD-PVR is recording something on channel 260 and I tune one of my 150 tuners to channel 50, the HD-PVR gets blasted over to 50 as well!  Thankfully, ralphy understood my issue and generated a new .dll for me which will only blast to channels > 100, fixing my problem.

Myth:  Busted [5] (and busted, and busted, and busted, and…)

Once the guide data was in place and my channels were changing nicely, it was time to begin recording my shows.  Immediately, I was concerned with the lack of advanced recording management.  When a show is selected, you have a choice of recording just the one show, the show on that channel every time, the show on every channel every time, Monday through Friday, or every day at that time, and maybe a few others…I don’t completely recall, but you get the idea.  For my recording needs, this did not do the trick.  For example, I like to record MythBusters, which airs simultaneously on Discovery SD and Discovery HD.  When I’m watching something live on my HD-PVR, I’d like for it to record the standard def broadcast instead of taking over my HD-PVR for the recording, so I selected to record every time on every channel.  Well, Media Portal then began recording exactly what I told it to…every time, on both channels.  So, at the end of a 24 hour period, I had 8 recordings of the same episode, 4 in HD, 4 in SD.  Well, I guess that’s what I asked for!  There was no way to tell it not to record the same episode over and over again, nor was there a way to prioritize the tuners so that it would attempt on the higher quality tuner first, and if that was busy, would move to a lower quality tuner until it found a free one for the recording.  So, it was off to plug-in land to see if anyone had developed something to address this.  I discovered a great little utility called For The Record which completely replaces the TV engine for Media Portal.  Again, back into channel mapping and guide updating I go!  After another few hours of typing and tinkering and importing, I had For The Record in place and was initially impressed!  It offered very nice rules-based recording management allowing me to prioritize tuners and determine which episodes get recorded and I thought I was home free.  Until I flipped on live TV and depressed the numbers 330 on my remote, expecting the tuner to change to channel 330 so I could watch the NHL Network.  I was a little surprised to find myself looking at channel 923, the Music Choice Gospel station!  Again, back to the forums where I found that in countries other than the U.S., TV tuning is done by index ID (whatever that is!) instead of channel number.  For The Record has no way of tuning channels by channel number for U.S. users.  Ugh, now I know how European users felt about Windows Media Center.  This limitation alone would have driven the WAF down through the dirt if I left it in place.  Combine it with the intermittent, inexplicable lockups, there was no way I could have left Media Portal in place around here.

“Impressive.  Most impressive.” [6]

Upon reading the above, I realize that I’ve been a tad negative about MP here.  My experience with it was not all negative, and I do not want it to appear as such.  The user interface is gorgeous.  MePo is an amazing little critter who lends just the right amount of flash to the feel of the UI.  He happily welcomes you to each function, making it incredibly obvious that he’s just plain thrilled you’re there and he’s eager to show you what you’re looking for.  You can’t help but smile each time you see him.  Navigation within the UI was intuitive and never felt clumsy.  Everything was laid out as you’d expect, and the default remote control button assignments made perfect sense.

MediaPortal Blue3 Skin Home Page

From the plugin perspective, MP again shone brightly.  I absolutely loved the My TVSeries plugin which cataloged all of our recorded TV (including about 23GB worth of the same MythBusters episode…which was Steel Toe Amputation, in case you were wondering) in a slick interface, presenting everything broken down by series with great thumbnails, and then individual seasons and episodes with their own thumbnails.  Very high marks from the wife on that one!  Also, the iTunes plugin was seamless.  Just indicate the file extensions that require iTunes and it just plain worked.  The DVD burner plugin worked flawlessly, and a few of the others added to the experience.  I’d love to see SageTV adopt the modular look and feel of MP’s configuration application for plugins.  It was like working with Tinker Toys again, very simple but with a definite purpose.

What impressed me most about Media Portal was the picture quality with TV, videos and DVDs.  I was not expecting this one bit, and it was the sole reason I kept trying to get it configured to meet my needs.  Using the same Power DVD 7 .mpg and h.264 decoders, my SageTV picture quality has never looked as good as MP.  I’m still confused by this, as I did not think it would have made a difference, but it did.  Additionally, importing my music and ripped DVD library was quick, painless and error free.  The importing tasks are all performed via the neat configuration application that handles the plugins.  Again, HTPC front ends such as SageTV would certainly benefit from having a tool like this for handling these tasks from the 2 foot interface.

“It’s all here…in your head” [7]

Don’t get me wrong, I like Media Portal, and now that version 1.0 is out of beta and a true released product, I’m certain it will continue to improve.  A lot of good people have put a lot of hard work into this, on their own time, I might add.  The strides it’s made in just the past year are impressive to say the least.  If you’re a hardcore hacker-type with time on your hands and willing to roll your sleeves up and dive in deep, you could have a blast with this product and get your HTPC exactly the way you want it.  The open source community is there to help out every step of the way as well, with a very active and loyal core group of people.  However, if you’re a guy in the U.S. with a broken front porch railing who is looking for a relatively simple HTPC implementation, I’m not certain that you would be very satisfied with Media Portal, but then again, I’m not certain you’d fall into their target market group, either.  There is serious potential in Media Portal, particularly when you combine their UI, flexibility, and picture quality.  It was just too much work for me, though.

[1] Butters from South Park in Eek!  A Penis!

[2] Galaxy Quest

[3] Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer

[4] Han Solo from Star Wars

[5] Nearly every episode of MythBusters

[6] Darth Vader from The Empire Strikes Back

[7]  The Sorting Hat from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s [Philosopher’s] Stone


Read More About MediaPortal at the MediaPortal Website


Many thanks to Ray for sharing his experience with HTPC's.  This was the first, hopefully of many guest posts on GeekTonic - this one by Ray who goes by GhostLobster on the web.  Ray has been involved in home theater computing since 2004 and has spent that entire time searching for that perfect solution.  Ray said:  "In the Lobster world, the single most important aspect of any implementation is the overall usability/stability.  Mrs. Lobster can grab a remote and reduce an HTPC to a smoldering lump of wires quivering in the fetal position within 10 minutes.  If I can toss something into our living room that does not result in me getting “The Call” the first time I leave the house, it’s a keeper.  So, needless to say, I’m extremely critical of any product/solution that does not exceed expectations on the WAF front"

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