Wednesday, August 26, 2009

BeyondTV Plus MediaPortal vs SageTV – Redux Part 1

As many GeekTonic readers know, I was a long-time user of BeyondTV.  I still have BeyondTV installed on a test PC but have since switched to SageTV for my whole-home HTPC needs.  So after posting a how-to on switching from BeyondTV to SageTV I thought I’d share with you a counter-point guest-post by a long-time BeyondTV user who tried to switch to SageTV, but couldn’t make the move in the long run.  ZetaVu is a pretty hard-core user with some pretty specific needs, but you can’t argue that he put some serious time into trying things out.  I’ve noted a few corrections or “clarifying notes” where I thought they would be helpful to other readers, but otherwise I’m posting this review verbatim as provided to me by ZetaVu.  It’s a long one so I’m breaking it out into two parts – one for Thursday and the second one you can read here.

NOTE:  This is a guest post by ZetaVu, a GeekTonic reader and frequent guest-blogger on GeekTonic.  Basic guidelines for writing and submitting a guest post at GeekTonic can be found here.

This is my third attempt at SageTV, even though it is my first review on the matter. I have been using Snapstream's BeyondTV since 2005, started with version 3.4 and have invested time and energy in the beta programs for every build since. As a result, I am heavily biased towards BeyondTV both from familiarity and preferences. About a year ago I tried Sage out when I became annoyed that Snapstream was reneging on their promise to integrate Beyond Media into BeyondTV. Unlike SageTV, which offers music, pictures, and other applications integrated in their product, BeyondTV had a separate program called Beyond Media that handled media other than TV and video. At the time I did not feel comfortable with Sage and did not see any advantage to switching.

In addition to BeyondTV I was also using Snapstream's Beyond Media as well as Media Portal for my other HTPC components. Media Portal is an open source HTPC program, and although it has its own PVR, I disable that and use it as a companion to BeyondTV. The main issue with free HTPC programs in my opinion is the ability to set up the TV channels and obtain reliable guide data. I find the other components of Media Portal meet all my needs, music, pictures, video library, weather etc. Recently Snapstream discontinued Beyond Media so my current system uses BeyondTV and Media Portal exclusively. Feature wise, I preferred the combination of those two programs over SageTV and its interface the last time I tested it. For that test I only tested the default skin, never installing the SageMC STV.

Now I felt the time was right for a head to head comparison. I have BeyondTV 4.9.2 working as good as it is capable and Media Portal 1.0 tweaked out to my liking. I was however seeing some signal quality issues with over the air recordings so I wanted a second opinion. For this comparison I did some research first, and followed the Geek Tonic guide for SageMC installation. This article covers my notes and impressions of SageTV vs BeyondTV/Media Portal. It encompasses about 40 hours of direct SageTV tweaking and research. Unfortunately that compares to over a thousand hours of BTV and MP experience, so take this as a familiarity biased comparison, honest as I will try to be.

My Setup: I built my HTPC server on a Foxconn NF4UK8AA-8EKRS motherboard with AMD 4200-x2 processor, 2gb Corsair memory, Asus Earthmate 430 power supply, and PNY 8500 GT video card. I have just over 2TB of hard drive space and an NEC DVD burner. My capture cards are a Hauppauge HVR1600 with remote, HVR950 USB, HVR2250 dual tuner, and HD PVR. The HD PVR is connected to a Directv H21 HD receiver via spdif (dolby 5.1) and component, the receiver is locked at 1080i. The 1600 uses one tuner for OTA HD and the other for s-video from a Directv H20 locked at SD. I have four OTA HD inputs all together, each fed from a roof mounted antenna feeding an electroline 8 port amplifier. Both Directv receivers are controlled with serial tuning cables, null modem cables with Iogear Guc232A usb to serial adaptors. I also have ATI Remote Wonder and both this and the Hauppauge remote control the HTPC using Eventghost. I monitor the HTPC with an LCDSmartie. My system is Windows XP Sp2 with all security updates, no antivirus or firewall on the computer (Use firewalled router). Main TV is Samsung LNT-466F connected with component and analog audio, and SPDIF audio going to a Yamaha RX-V663 SS receiver.

Part 1 – SageTV compared to BeyondTV

Setup issues
Clearly since I have been using BeyondTV for four years I can't provide any detail about issues with its setup, I am a master after 100+ reinstalls. What I can do is point out what I found different or particularly with the SageTV install and contrast it with BTV

  1. Serial Tuner for Directv. I currently use null modem to usb to change channels on my Directv H20 and H21 receivers. I could not get this to work for a while, initially I thought I had the wrong com port, but after checking with Brent found I had to change a setting in detailed setup to Fast to get this to work (not very insightful). This experience also brings me to #2
  2. Could not change serial tuner com port after setting up source. Really this means that I miss the Webadmin of BeyondTV, where I can use Firefox to change all my settings in BTV behind the scenes. Navigating through Sage's htpc setup menus got cumbersome really fast. Worse, I could not find a way to edit the com port so I had to remove the tuner and add it again with the correct port.
  3. Cannot disable tuners, can only add or remove, and basic editing. To disable a port you remove it, and while you can add it again, if you use multiple guides you can lose all your changes.
  4. Channel setup – BTV lets you setup a account, where you can go online and setup your channel info. This lets you import the edited guide quickly. In Sage, I have to manually hide channels, and with Directv that's a lot of scrolling and clicking. This was even more frustrating when I removed the tuner to fix the com port and then had to hide all 200 channels I did not want again.
  5. No signal meter on OTA setup – I like to see what my signal strength is per channel.
  6. Advanced setup options: things like enabling spdif, commercial remover, etc, are not part of the base program. Setting these up requires some good advice like the GeekTonic guides, searches through the forum or a lot of reading in the almost 300 page manual (use the one in Help, an online search found older versions). [NOTE FROM EDITOR – The latest documentation is always installed on your computer with the install of SageTV. So just do Start>Programs>SageTV and you’ll see the full help document that corresponds with the version of SageTV you have installed.]

    Overall, setup was far more complicated to get the equivalent features I am used to in BeyondTV. BTV uses a windows installer to setup remote, tuners, channel lists, etc. You can then go into settings within the viewscape to set some of the simple parameters, like whether commercials are automatically detected by Smartchapter or if you want to Showsqueeze files into compressed formats. It also provides access to the DVD plugin for archiving. More complex settings can be made by accessing the Webadmin, the web interface which lets you customize recording and showsqueeze settings, and then anything from network to updating to tuner settings. Finally some advanced features can be set by editing the settings.xml file. Sagetv requires most changes to be made in one of the setting pages, usually detailed settings. Some adjustments require opening external applications and manually running setups, such as SPDIF and Comskip. Sagetv does have a web interface plugin which I did not test at this time. Again, this is a separate install.

    For remote control I use Eventghost rather than the internal remote applications in Sage or BTV. This lets me customize my universal remote or the buttons on my Remote Wonder any way I want. I was able to get most but not all of the PVR remote function is Sage that I used in BTV. BTV has an options shortcut (keyboard O) that lets me change video and audio instantly during playback. Sage does not have this feature and it is missed. A more detailed comparison will be in Part 2 of this article.  [NOTE FROM THE EDITOR – You can customize any keyboard shortcut or IR remote control button from within SageTV without needing EventGhost or Girder – you can use those programs but they definitely are not necessary]

    Recording Quality
    Here I got a little bold and tricky. I just recently got a Hauppauge 2250 dual HD tuner, so I assigned tuner 1 to BeyondTV (actually had both assigned but disabled tuner 2, which is nice to be able to do as an option) and assigned tuner 2 to SageTV. I was capturing over the air (OTA) high def recordings from my roof mounted antenna, fed through an 8-port Electroline amplifier. This let me record the same show (picked my weakest OTA channel) at the exact same time using the same tuner. To my utter amazement, it worked! Both programs recorded the show and I was able to do a complete and concise quality assessment. Mother nature was cooperating as well, I had some nice icy rain to torment my signal as much as possible.

    Initial results had Sage leading on the signal quality front. Head to head, the .mpg (process stream) files Sage created had less pauses or pixilation than the BeyondTV .tp transport stream files. This led me to a long term comparison, recording exclusively with Sage for a week. For this I added my HVR1600 and 950 cards, as well as my HD PVR component/spdif Directv recording, and s-video Directv recording on my HVR1600 card. The more I recorded, the more pauses, stutters, etc in OTA HD I started to catch with Sage. While not without errors, Sage was still catching less errors than BTV 4.9. However, much of this may be related to changes in the way Beyondtv handles OTA transport streams in 4.9. Previous versions of BTV (4.8 and earlier) seemed to perform more similar to Sage. This is an issue Snapstream will need to address since the PVR is what they survive on.

    For the HD PVR I found no difference between Sage and BTV. Both had the same quality and neither locked my system. My Directv receiver output is locked at 1080i, and I capture spdif Dolby 5.1 audio. I did see some wavy texture on a few channels, particularly on black or dark backgrounds, but this was the same for both programs. Likewise I saw no differences on s-video captured from Directv.

    Another feature I like about BTV is the log, which lets me check and diagnose recording or program issues. I've been using this steadily to track which tuners are used for recordings, specifically when I get stuttering or other artifacts. Sage has a log but it tracks everything, and is not enabled by default. Sage however lists the tuner number on recordings, however I did not find a way to set tuner priority, other than to tell Sage to use only that tuner or only a channel assigned to that tuner. [NOTE FROM THE EDITOR – Since ZetaVu tested SageTV logging is now enabled by default and easily turned on/off with a toggle switch in settings.  And tuner priority is configurable within SageTV]

    Stability and Placeshifter
    I put these two together because I really didn't start seeing program lock ups until I started trying out placeshifter. However, Sage lockups are not only caused by placeshifter, I've had the main program lock up on me several times, usually during file playback. The non-placeshifter lockups might be caused by playing back .tp files, I had to add this extension to the file: seeker/video_library_import_filename_extensions list. Maybe the .tp files are causing this, maybe Sage just isn't as stable as btv, or maybe these are learning pains. I used to get a lot of BTV lockups, but then again most of those were in the betas or with older video drivers.

    A recent development that finally turned me off of the SageTV trial (spoiler alert) was the freezes when entering settings and when starting file playback. This started after I enabled Comskip sometime, may or may not have been related to it. Sage would take between 10 and 60 seconds to enter a screen or start video playback in TV. Did not have this issue in Videos, seems to related to Sage TV recordings. Reboot did not fix it, and it was what finally did it in for the wife factor.

    The placeshifter lockups were one of the two issues that killed placeshifter for me. They seemed to be the worst when I tried to use placeshifter from one of my linux boxes. The reason I tested placeshifter rather than client was I wanted to make all my other computers run Ubuntu, and Sage does not have a client for linux. It took me many attempts to get placeshifter to work on windows, I had to open the server port on my router even though I was going to access it on my LAN, had to setup a username and password, and for good measure turned off 3d accelerated. (suggestion from forums)

    I finally got Placeshifter to work from a windows machine, but still could not get it to work from any of my Ubuntu machines. I used the debian installer on 8.1. The ubuntu attempts were getting through to server, I knew this because that was what locked up my server several times. Then, for no reason, it started working, which annoys me more than anything else.

    Both placeshifter weren't very promising, video quality was very poor, even when I turned off all conversion and set it up for LAN usage. With conversion the files are very pixelated. Biggest issues were transport streams and H.264 though. Both had stuttering, freezes, and very wavy edges on video regardless of the settings or platform I ran on. In Windows, CPU was about 30% and in Linux about 80%. By comparison, BeyondTV's placeshifter to vlc (rather than silverlight which is not yet available on Linux, hoping for progress on the Moonlight project) shows much cleaner video, but is a big drain on server and client cpu. The problem with Snapsteam's placeshifter goes back to recording, some channels lose audio in VLC, but not in BeyondTV or Silverlight. This occurred in 4.9, 4.8 recordings did not have this issue, but so far no acknowledgement from Snapstream on the problem despite many bug reports and forum posts. All things considered, Snapstreams Placeshifter beats out Sage for video quality alone, at least to Silverlight, VLC needs work.

    Speaking of the forums, I posted many questions as a newbie to see how the Sage forums respond. I'm used to the Snapstream forums, hell, I'm one of the people that does a lot of the responding there. On Sage my specific questions did a lot better than my general thread talking about my experiments and asking for a lot of suggestions. All in all, I'd say the forums were on par with Snapstream. Sage had a lot more posts but Snapstream seemed to address questions as effectively as Sage forums did. I did not try to use Sage's technical support, so I cannot comment on that. I have all but given up on Snapstream's technical support, their response time to issues has become unacceptable compared to the past, possibly because of less developers and the change in focus to their Enterprise product. The lack of commitment from Snapstream to their consumer customers is probably the biggest reason for defections. Sage also has a 200-300 page manual that was a little over the top, but I found a lot of clues, otherwise GeekTonic and Google were really my best friends when it came to sorting things out.

    PVR extras
    I decided to focus on 4 extras for the PVR portion of Sage to compare it to what was stock in BeyondTV. I did not look into a DVD burning plugin for Sage, I don't use this much in BTV and was starting to run out of trial.

    First was commercial detection. BTV uses either the internal Smartchapter detector or you can add Comskip or another program using customer post processing steps. I tried the Comskip program once in BTV, and didn't see any better results than Smartchapters. Smartchapters works very well in SD and OTA HD recordigns, but it is fairly useless on HD PVR recordings.

    For Sage, you have to install a Comskip Scheduler plugin (comes with Comskip) and configure this using its one program to get it to work. If you use the default skin you also have to add the utility to Sage to use it, but SageMC skins already have this. I could never find the utility, and after installing it didn't work for a while and then suddenly started working. Sadly a lot of things in Sage act that way, see Placeshifter for another example. Once working, Comskip seemed to work perfectly with my recordings, although I didn't get anything for HD PVR recordings (I did update Comskip for this extension). Apart from difficulty in setup, this seems to be an adequate alternative to Smartchapters, in fact I'm considering a second try at Comskip in BTV to see if I can get it to work with my HD PVR recordings.

    Next tweak was audio. In BTV, I click options, keyboard shortcut O to access video aspect ratio and audio for playback. The video aspect comes in useful when recording SD from directv, it lets me switch to Letterbox, fullscreen, 16x9, 4x3 or other aspects to eliminate black bars in the picture. The audio lets me stick with 2-channel audio that feeds my tv or audio receiver, or switch to SPDIF passthrough for shows with Dolby 5.1 to my Receiver. Sage does not have anything this convenient. I can adjust video aspect in playback, but only have 4 options. The audio is far more complicated. TO enable SPDIF, I need to go to settings and switch to AC3Filter, and use the AC3config file outside of Sage to enable and configure SPDIF. Once this is done, I can switch back to analog audio but I need to go through setup again. This is a big drawback for Sage. The bigger drawback is that I was not able to setup SPDIF, all I got was static. Based on the forums this might have been caused by interference from the Arcsoft audio decoders, but by this time I was pretty much through so I did not explore further. Again, ease of setup is important here and in this case it was more that I was willing to deal with this time around.

    Video Conversion, both Sage and BTV have video conversion with a variety of defaults. BTV calls theirs showsqueeze, and I can set recordings to automatically showsqueeze to WMV, DIVX, or H.264 formats, and can create custom parameters in the web interface (Webadmin). Sage has similar functions but it seems to focus on mpg and H.264, not DIVX. Both programs have user generated plugins that can use third party applications like AutoGK or Handbrake, but given the default programming I think I like the showsqueeze funstion better than Sage's video converter. Going through exercizes of trying to simulate most events in Sage and BTV, I find that what BTV does is much easier and more convenient than Sage.

    LCDsmartie, I've used BTVsmartie with a homemade LCD for years to list when a recording was occuring, which tuner, next show and recording times. I recently expanded this to also control some LED's using LEDsDriver, so I could tell from other tvs when a tuner was in use, and in fact to send a disable tuner command via my serial port cable so no one would change Directv channels during recordings. For BTV, the smartie plugin just needs to be placed in LCDSmartie and set accordingly. For Sage, you need to install the getstatusplugin first and then the LCDplugin. Also, the Sage plugin on LCDSmartie's site was more complicated to setup than the BTVSmartie, but I felt that I could get all my screens and actions to work equivalently given time. There is an alternative plugin, MizookLCD, which seems to have more flexibility.

    Sage Extras - PVR

    Last, Sage offers many other extras not found in BTV. Many of these are available in Media Portal, but I rarely use that for video playback So I'll mention them here. Sage offers recording suggestions based on favorites and cued shows, BTV offers community recordings based on most popular shows from Snapstream Buzz. Sage also has views like current movies, genres, and downloads pictures and data for shows. BTV shows less show data but does let you search by genre and actors, keywords etc. There are many other features, most of which I did not explore fully enough to comment on. Media Portal has many of the same show data features in their movie library. As we are pretty much at the point of switching from BeyondTV to Media Portal,
  7. I'll leave the rest of the comparison to part 2 which you can read here.

About the author:  "ZetaVu is a frequent commenter and Guest-Poster at GeekTonic with a great deal of knowledge with HTPC's and other media gadgets.  I've gotten to know him from the many hours spent on the Snapstream, MediaPortal , AVS and other Forums where you'll often find him (under the same online name).  His past guest posts include Control Your HTPC With EventGhost, iPod Without iTunes, Video Editing Power Tools, and MediaGadget Showcase for his setup all of which are great reads.

Read Part 2 of this article Here