fantasy video player box

(I say ‘fantasy’ because we’ve had thoughts about this for a year or more, but we have more important things to spend our money on).

We don’t watch much normal TV. Cable doesn’t seem worth it. However we use a certain site to get bittorrent downloads of British shows we like. This currently means we do a lot of our watching videos on one of our PCs.

I also have a collection of region 2 DVDs from when I lived in the UK, which won’t play on our basic DVD player – so we watch those on the PC too.

So we have a requirement for a box which hooks up to the TV, can play video files off our fileserver, and also region 1 and 2 DVDs1. Some secondary requirements are that it fits in a shelf in the TV stand, doesn’t make too much noise, and looks like it could be home entertainment equipment rather than an ugly PC2. Wireless networking would be good too.

Hardware

I’ve recently realised there is a big difference in hardware requirements based on whether we intend to be able to play HD video or stick to SD3. Decoding HD video is likely to require a ‘current’ CPU like a Core 2 Duo, and that has knock-on effects on the power and cooling requirements of the box. Whereas for SD not much CPU work is needed so there are lots of choices of low power setups.

There’s also a difference depending on whether the box needs to connect to our current TV – an old CRT with only a composite video input, or the replacement flat-screen TV which is also a fantasy at the moment. Most current LCD TVs have a VGA or DVI/HDMI input which is much easier to hook up a PC to, whereas composite video requires a specific ‘TV out’ graphics card, and probably some fiddly tweaking of settings.

I have had three basic ideas for hardware:

1. A hacked box.

Take a box intended for TV connection, and hack it. The old XBox or Apple TV are ones I’ve looked in to. Xbox-Linux has plenty of details on how to hack the XBox, but the effort required is enough to scare me off of that one. The Apple TV turned out to be more hackable than I originally thought, so I could deal with that – but it doesn’t have a DVD drive, so the cost is starting to get towards that of alternatives.

2. A mini-itx box

Heh, I’ve always wanted an excuse to build one, since I saw the many weird and wonderful builds on Mini-Itx.com. With a case like this, a VIA motherboard with a low-power CPU, and a flash disk instead of hard drive, it’s even possible to make a fanless system – i.e. quiet. Unfortunately by the time you add up the costs of the components you end up close to or more than my third option…

3. Mac Mini

It seems like it can’t be beaten, given the price, compactness, and features. The only thing that bothers me is I can’t open the box (very easily) to tinker. Maybe that’s not such a bad thing :-)

Software

I’d probably be going for something Linux based, though with a Mac Mini something that would run on top of Mac OS X could be ok.

Since Linux software is free I’ve been trying out some alternatives on my current PC.

This was disappointing. The Live CD works as a MythTV Frontend – but you can’t use it without an existing MythTV Backend and MySQL database to connect to. We don’t have those. I’m not going to run those – I just want something which works with our existing file server. I guess MythTV is not what I want.

This installs on Ubuntu. It requires hardware accelerated OpenGL, doesn’t cooperate with Compiz, and seems to have problems with the Intel graphics in my current PC. So that’s a bit of a no-go.

Appears to do everything I want. Hooray!

1 We could rip the DVDs to turn them into video files too, but it seems like a waste of space on the fileserver to me.

2 My current main PC is definitely an ugly PC. Though it is very black.

3 I currently have no intention of getting Bluray, or HD cable or satellite, which suggests playing HD content is not that big of a requirement.

2 Comments

  1. Aaron
    Posted January 5, 2009 at 11:42 am | Permalink

    Have you thought about looking at some of the Linux-based boxes on the market?

    I’ve got one of these -> http://www.popcornhour.com/onlinestore/

    It can either stream video from a networked PC or you can your own standard HDD to the box and play the video locally.

    The UI isn’t great (especially for music) but it’ll play anything you throw at it – including HD material. You can even create ISOs of your DVDs and it will play them, menus and all. For films, I tend to create straight ISO images (only takes 5 minutes) but for TV series I like to rip them to H.264 using AnyDVD and Handbrake. That way I can play all the episodes in a season without swapping discs.

    It’s silent in operation but obviously any HDD you add will make some degree of noise.

    I was considering getting a Mac mini instead, but once you add in a 1TB HDD, wireless keyboard/mouse, etc. the price is a little too high for my tastes.

    Apparently a new Mac mini is getting announced this week. Perhaps that will change my mind. Certainly being able to view BBC iPlayer content on it too would be cool. :)

  2. Edward
    Posted January 5, 2009 at 11:55 am | Permalink

    Interesting, I haven’t heard of that one before. I will look into the details :-)

    I’ve tried out Handbrake but it obviously requires you to plan ahead since it takes a while to rip things.

    In our case we already have a network file server with big disks, so I don’t need to acquire extra storage. Oh and the Mac Mini comes with a remote control I believe, and I wouldn’t think it needs a keyboard/mouse for TV watching usage.

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