Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Getting previously recorded TV into Media Center Part 2 : Media Browser take 1

Media Browser is a very popular free add-on for managing media libraries.  A lot of people seem to like it a lot, so it might be just what I'm looking for.  I must say, however that initially I wasn't terribly impressed.  When I first set it up, what I saw of course was the same old directory and file structure that I've been trying to avoid.

It would be nice if all media applications used the same metadata format, but unfortunately, that's not the case.  And it turns out that Beyond TV's naming convention isn't terribly helpful in that regard since all of the other media applications I've looked at expects to see season and episode numbers in the file names.  Beyond TV doesn't even put that information in their metadata.

It looks like if I want to get serious about this I need to bend to the demands of the software and rename and reorganize my files.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Getting previously recorded TV into Media Center Part 1 : Native Media Center Functionality

If I'm going to sell Media Center to the family, they need to be able to play back all the shows recorded with Beyond TV as easily as they can now.   In Beyond TV, we usually have the shows sorted by series even though they are stored in different drives and directories, the user can't tell.  The other sort orders that get used frequently are by date recorded and original air date.

I'm not very familiar with how Media Center organizes recorded TV, but I have had poor results trying to get other software to present shows recorded in Beyond TV sorted by anything other than physical location and filename. I have a fairly small number of folders, each with hundreds of files in them, so that doesn't really work well with my current setup.  I'm hoping I can find a solution in Media Center that can integrate TV shows recorded in Beyond TV with those recorded in Media Center as seamlessly as possible.

My first inclination was just to add the Beyond TV recording directories to the Recorded TV library in Media Center.  Unfortunately, Media Center doesn't recognize the Beyond TV recordings.

Next I tried adding the Beyond TV directories to Media Center's Video Library.  The first thing that jumped out at me is how incredibly slow Media Center's video library is when trying to display a large number of files.  The second thing I noticed is that once again, the files are organized by directory.

So, I started investigating third party options.

Friday, June 25, 2010

The joys of connecting a PC to a TV

About a year ago I decided to build a small PC to run Beyond TV Link for the TV in the living room.  That's  a secondary TV for us as the main TV with the HTPC connected to it is in the family room.  I had previously had the old HTPC connected there when I upgraded it a couple of years ago, but the motherboard died and I was just getting around to replacing it.  Of course, after I built the new PC it didn't get connected to the TV right away, instead serving as a test PC for Windows 7 and a few Linux distros and it even served as a kitchen PC for a while before making it to its new home a few months ago.

The old PC was connected to the TV via the VGA port since it used an older video card (a Radeon 9800 SE) that only had VGA output.  That worked fine while it lasted so I didn't expect any issues with the new PC.  The TV, by the way is an Insignia 26" 720p LCD that's about two and a half years old now.

The new PC or "Link Box" as its referred to in the Beyond TV community used a Zotac GF9300-D-E mini-ITX motherboard that has integrated NVidia 9300 graphics and includes HDMI output.  When I originally connected it to the TV I used HDMI.  I was rather disappointed to find out that the TV didn't have a mode that eliminates overscan from the picture.  I used NVidia's correction tool to create a custom resolution that fit within the viewable area of the screen and called it good.  I wasn't terribly happy about it, but it worked and the BTV Link picture was acceptable.  The bigger issue with is is that I needed to always remember to turn the TV on and set the input before turning on the PC.  Otherwise, the output would never show up on the TV.

This was all good enough until my daughter wanted to watch a Blu-Ray movie in the living room last night and I realized I hadn't reinstalled Power DVD with the last OS refresh.  So, I went ahead and installed Power DVD and that's when the fun started.  Power DVD wouldn't run because it requires a minimum screen resolution of 1024x768 and the custom resolution I was using to make the picture fit was less than that.  I may have been able to bump that up, but then the overscan would have put the task bar completely off the screen and that wouldn't have been very user-friendly.

As an aside, why 1024x768?  The standard 720p resolution is 1280x720 and apparently that's the highest progressive resolution my TV would accept over HDMI, so is Power DVD not meant to be used with TVs instead of computer monitors?

Be that as it may, I know the TV's native resolution is 1360x768, and that resolution satisfies Power DVD's requirements.  So, I dug out the old VGA and audio cables and connected the computer to the VGA input on the TV.  At least I wouldn't need to deal with the overscan issue that way.  I was certain this would work, after all, it worked fine with the old computer.  But it didn't.

When I rebooted the computer now with VGA instead of HDMI everything looked good initially.  I saw the boot splash screen, then the Windows startup animation just fine.  When it was time for the Windows desktop to show up, though, the screen went blank.  Then the TV's "Missing Input" indicator came up.  I tried again.  Same result.

I connected a second monitor to the PC to check the resolution and settings.  Lo and behold, with the other monitor connected, the TV works fine.  It doesn't even matter if the TV or the monitor is the primary display.  Weird.  Apparently there's some sort of handshake that's not happening between the PC and the TV.  I've heard of issues like that with HDMI, but never VGA.

So, I decided to try connecting both the VGA and HDMI inputs to the TV.  At first that didn't help.  Then I set the option to clone the picture to both monitors in Windows.  Now I can use the VGA input on the TV with no overscan and it works just fine.  It doesn't even matter which order I turn on the TV and PC any more.

Of course, the downside is that  now I need to run 3 cables from the PC to the TV and waste an HDMI port, but I wasn't using it for anything anyway.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Filling the gaps between Beyond TV and Media Center

Since the obvious solution to adding cable card capability to my HTPC with the new Ceton tuner card when it arrives is simply to switch to Media Center for my TV recording needs,  I started taking a look at the Beyond TV features I use that Media Center doesn’t have and how I might bridge those gaps.  In most cases there are add-ins for Media Center available (and mostly free ones at that) that can do what I’m looking for.   I’m listing the results of my research so far here.  I haven’t yet tried all of these, but they seem to be popular solutions for these things within Media Center.
  • Web Admin: It’s nice to be able to connect to the Beyond TV service and set up recordings or tweak settings from another computer while someone is watching a recording.   The best alternative I’ve found that works for Media Center is to use a remote desktop connection to do that type of thing.  There’s a patch needed to set this up for W7 Home Premium: http://thegreenbutton.com/forums/p/79427/393664.aspx#393664
  • Showsqueeze: I transcode a lot of shows to .mp4 format to save disk space.  The tool of choice for doing this automatically appears to be DVRMS Toolbox and since I need it for commercial skipping anyway, it’s doubly appealing.  http://babgvant.com/Wiki/view.aspx/DVRMSToolbox  It looks like there's some work to be done to get this to do what I want, but it looks possible anyway.
  • Remote Scheduling: I sometimes use Snapstream.net to set shows to record when I’m away from home. There appear to be a couple of options for getting at guide data over the web and scheduling recordings remotely, but since it’s free, I’ll be trying Remote Potato first. http://ww2.fatattitude.com/software/software-item.aspx?appid=12   I realize this is more like making my web admin available on the internet that using Snapstream.net, but it should get the job done.
I’m sure there are other, smaller features I would miss if/when I switch from Beyond TV, but I guess I’ll need to discover those when I get to them.
If you know of other alternatives for the features I’ve listed or know of something else that I’ve missed I’d love to hear from you.  Feel free to leave whatever feedback you want in the comments.

Monday, June 21, 2010


The Ceton cable card tuner that I won (though I'm still waiting for it since shipments have been delayed) was given away by Dragon Global, the makers of ShowAnalyzer.   While I probably wouldn't have bought ShowAnalyzer for use with Beyond TV without the contest (so their marketing ploy worked for me at least), I have to say I've been very impressed with the software.

Case in point: last night I went to watch my re-recording of Royal Pains.  I had previously recorded it, but the channel change on the cable box failed (I haven't been able to determine why the firewire channel change fails occasionally, maybe 5% of the time.)   The re-recording didn't have smart chapters generated yet, so I used the manual scan feature in Show Analyzers UI.   ShowAnalyzer scanned the show (almost 7 Gigs worth) in 7 minutes flat and the detection was flawless, so I was happily able to skip commercials while watching the show.

I realize that I didn't save any time in this case since I waited for ShowAnalyzer to finish, but I don't normally run it manually, it runs automatically. In this case I was impatient and I'm so spoiled by the automatic commercial detection that I was willing to wait for it to finish so I could skip the commercials quickly.  And I didn't have to wait long.   So I'm happy with my purchase of ShowAnalyzer and would be even if I hadn't won the tuner giveaway.

Commercial skipping of previously recorded shows may be an issue if I move to Media Center.  I'm not sure but I suspect that the DVRMS Toolbox add-in for commercial skipping only works for .dvrms and .wtv files.  I'm still looking for an answer to that one.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

First Post

Catchy title, I know, but descriptive at least.

Seems like a good place to talk a little bit about what I intend to do with this blog.  I mean why am I bothering with this?

I'm a software developer by day.  These days I'm using mostly C# and SQL Server.  I expect some of that will make it into the blog, but the first I want to talk about is my HTPC.  I'm at a crossroads concerning this technology and I thought it might be interesting to share my experiences as I go through this transition.  After that, who knows, hence my rather generic name for the blog.  I love technology, particularly computers, so I'm sure I'll find plenty in that vein to blog about.  Or babble about as the title would indicate.

I've used Beyond TV as my primary DVR software for more than six years now, starting with a single tuner and growing over the years to my current setup with four tuners plus the ability to record from the firewire output of my cable box--when it works anyway.  Recently I won a giveaway for a Ceton InfiniTV 4 tuner.  As a cable TV user, that tuner is just about the best thing since sliced bread for my HTPC.  No more set top boxes, missed channel changes, accidentally changing the channel when someone didn't know the set top box was being used for a recording, or inability to record premium channels in HD.  Not to mention the ability to record four cable channels at once.  Unfortunately, Beyond TV can't use a cable card tuner.  The only PC DVR software that's approved by Cable Labs is Windows Media Center.

So, the obvious thing to do is to switch from Beyond TV to Windows Media Center, right?  Well, the trick is what is often referred to in HTPC enthusiast circles as "The WAF or Wife Acceptance Factor" or in my case, the "Family Acceptance Factor" since I need to consider my wife and two teenage daughters.  We have a lot of existing recordings and having the family switch back and forth between Beyond TV and Media Center isn't going to cut it.  I want to find a way to keep the experience similar to what we have now, which means not needing to go to two places for current and past recorded TV.  I'm still searching for a way to make that happen in Media Center, or maybe there's a way  to bring cable card recordings into Beyond TV.  I'm exploring options.  We'll see where I end up.