Short Bits: HDMI Switch, Plug-ins, More

I just finished hooking up an HDMI switch because of a growing number of HDMI devices.  If anyone is looking for an inexpensive HDMI switch the place to look is at Monoprice.com (also for inexpensive cables).  I got the 4×1 HDMI Switch (1.3b Certified HDMI, Equalizer and IR Remote, REV.3.0) for just $40 and it works great.



It also works perfectly with a Toshiba HD-A3 HD DVD player (with latest firmware).  This was a problem as there are reports all over the web of the Monoprice switches not working with the A3.  This switch works perfectly for all you Googlers, as do Harmony remotes which has the IR commands already in the database.



On the Media Center side, Missing Remote has some great articles including tips on playing game ROMS in Media Center/SageTV and a review of MiraWorldTV for Vista Media Center.



Ian Dixon has The Media Center Show #142 featuring his final CES interviews and his first impressions of the Linksys DMA2100/DMA2200 Extenders.



Niall launched bigscreenglobal.com, the homepage for his Big Screen products like Big Screen Photos v2 and Big Screen Weather v2.  You can also now download 30 day trials of the products!  Of course these are MCML plug-ins that look incredible in Vista Media Center.

New TV Toolbox Beta Released; Somehow Edits CableCARD Content

Two part post here, first of all Olcay has released a new version (beta 4) of his 10-foot MCML DVR-MS editor.  The release is mainly because of a timebomb in the last release, so if you currently have it installed you should grab the new release if you wish to continue using it.



On a related topic, it appears that TV Toolbox is able to edit content recorded from CableCARDs.  This according to a user at The Green Button who says it works for all his recorded CableCARD content including HBO HD.



I’m personally shocked at this, but don’t have a CableCARD PC to test it with.  It doesn’t output the content in an un-protected format, but if true this means you could cut commercials out and if not patched gives hope for an automated commercial skip solution (though my guess is that would still be a huge undertaking).



I’m not sure why TV Toolbox is able to edit this content, but I don’t think there is anything specific in the application that would allow it to work.  The developer, Olcay doesn’t even live in the US where the content originates, so I’m a little confused here.

CyberLink Patent Included in HD DVD Essential Patent Portfolio

Taipei, Taiwan—-Jan. 31st, 2008—-CyberLink Corp. (5203.TW), today announced it is participating in the formation of a joint HD DVD patent license based on its ownership of a patent determined to be essential to the HD DVD standard.



CyberLink’s patent relates to the specifications for interactive content over a network for prerecorded HD-DVD Discs, for playback according to the DVD Specifications for High Definition VIDEO (HD DVD-Video).



“Innovation is the key to CyberLink delivering leading products to our customers as well as sustaining long-term business success,” said Alice H. Chang, CEO of CyberLink. “We’re extremely proud be a part of a group of essential HD DVD patent owners who have come together voluntarily for the purpose of forming a joint license, as this is testament to the strength of our core technology.”



Essential HD DVD patent owners that include CyberLink participate in an effort to form a joint patent license facilitated by MPEG LA LLC.



More information about CyberLink’s support for the HD DVD format, and the complete range of CyberLink software, is available at http://www.cyberlink.com/.



About CyberLink



CyberLink Corp is the leader and pioneer in enabling digital multimedia on PCs and CEs. Backed by a group of high-caliber software engineers, CyberLink owns its core codec and a number of patented technologies. Today, CyberLink has built a solid reputation for delivering high-quality, interoperable, and fast time-to-market solutions that keep our OEM partners on the leading edge. Our business partners include leaders in the PC industry: drive manufacturers, graphics-card makers, and top-5 desktop and notebook brands. Today, CyberLink Software Solutions include: complete applications for Blu-ray Discs and HD DVDs, Digital Home entertainment, Mobile TV and eHRD solutions. With customers spanning from multi-national corporations to small/medium-sized businesses, and from power users to home users, CyberLink has enjoyed rapid and consistent growth leading to a record breaking IPO in 2000 on the Taiwan Over The Counter Exchange (OTC: 5203). Currently, CyberLink is listed on the Taiwan Stock Exchange (ticker symbol: 5203.TW). CyberLink’s worldwide headquarters is in Taipei. To keep up with market demands, CyberLink has operations in North America, Europe and the Asia Pacific region, including Japan. For more information, please visit CyberLink’s website at http://www.cyberlink.com/

Short Bits: CableCARD, Beta Testing

Missing Remote has published a few great CableCARD articles, including some steps to take if your cable company doesn’t want to install a CableCARD in your PC.  A Vista PC with Digital Cable Tuners are CableLabs certified, so all US cable companies must provide CableCARDs to go with it.  A question has come up about the difference of your cable company installing vs. providing CableCARDs.  I’m not sure what the official wording is, but I’ll try and do a post later on exactly what the FCC statements say.

Missing Remote also published a CableCARD Resources article, of course I’d also suggest one of their first links on the list, that being my CableCARD FAQ.

Mary Jo says that Microsoft is seeking testers for something Media Center related, though the product is just listed as “Windows Media Center Tester Application.”  I have no idea if it’s something different then the next Media Center release; Mary Jo’s source says that hardware specs were a popular question in the survey, and while the sources thoughts of why those questions where asked are partly right, there is another reason they are usually asked.  I’ll leave that to others to speculate, but it’s not too hard to get.

Short Bits: Plug-ins, Media Center Show, Linksys Video

Important: For anyone commenting, Community Server seems to randomly be moderating every single comment!  Comment moderation is not turned on on my end, so I’ll have to see what is up.  If you don’t see your comment it’s ok.  It just needs to be approved by me.



Via Missing Remote a few new plug-ins that I haven’t covered, but a third party Netflix Watch Now Plug-in might be coming to Media Center.  I’ve talked about this in the past, but Netflix hasn’t done anything officially yet.



In addition a plug-in called MCE Organizer interfaces with Movie Collector (I think it’s here) and even works with Ziotek Media Carousel’s.  It’s an MCML plug-in and looks very cool.



Danny Mavromatis got himself a Linksys DMA2100 and will be posting a video review of it.



Ian Dixon has the NetGen Home (Life|ware) at CES and Extenders as the subject of The Media Center Show #141.  Ian also had a post about the i-Mate Sideshow Photo Frame.

More Thoughts on Native Blu-ray/HD DVD


Ben at Engadget HD picked up my post about the lack of native HD DVD/Blu-ray in Media Center today.  I’ve been reading some of the comments the post is getting and wanted to add a few thoughts.

First, I’m talking about native support.  This means that it works without launching an external application, just like playing a DVD or any other video within Media Center.  PowerDVD and ArcSoft TotalMedia currently launch external applications for playback, so you don’t have native support for either HD DVD or Blu-ray at this point.  Media Foundation would be used to do this, much like DirectShow has been used for native DVD playback in Media Center since the start.

Microsoft had planned for native HD DVD support in Windows Vista, but they dropped that and left it to third parties.  It was my guess that native HD DVD support would finally ship in Fiji, but given the downfall of HD DVD since you can see why I’d question that.  Even if native HD DVD playback shipped in Fiji, it could very well be pointless if HD DVD continues its demise.

For native Blu-ray playback within Media Center, a Java based interactivity layer (called BD-J) would have to be added.  Microsoft hates Java with a passion as many of us know, so it is unlikely that they would spend time developing native Blu-ray playback when Java is a requirement.  I’m not saying it can’t be done from a technical standpoint.  Instead, I’m saying that it is unlikely that Microsoft will be the one to do it.

There is also additional DRM that would need to be present in BD+.  HD DVD only needs AACS, which can technically be supported using Protected Media Path (PMP) that is already present in Vista.  Yet another thing Microsoft would have to add that they didn’t plan for and that they don’t agree with in the first place.

Lastly, I think Microsoft had put a ton of thought into HD DVD remoting to Extenders.  HD DVD uses HDi (iHD) for interactivity, which Microsoft co-developed with things like Extenders in mind.  With Blu-ray you would need Java running remotely in an Extender session is much different from HDi which they had already planned for.

When Microsoft decided to support HD DVD, they did so because of what it offers the consumer as well as their existing technologies.  The industry move to Blu-ray changes all of that.

I think we will be more dependent of third parties doing the work, and even then I’m not sure they could get native Blu-ray within Media Center because of BD+ and BD-J.  PMP doesn’t do BD+, this is key as PMP basically has to be used to provide native playback.  There is much more to native playback support then being able to decode certain video codecs, the content protection and interactvity aspects are huge with both of these formats.

Related:



More Ramblings About Blu-ray & Xbox 360

In-Depth Zune Review

I’ve been fairly critical of Microsoft’s Zune since it was released, so I decided that I should get a Zune and give it a try.  Over the past two weeks I’ve been playing with it giving my plenty of time to sum up all of the features.



User Interface (UI)



Say what you like about Microsoft and user unfriendly of their applications and features, but they almost always get digital media UIs right.  From the first version of Media Center to the first Zune, the UI has always been amazing.  Anyone can pick up a Zune and figure out how to use it within a matter of seconds.



This UI is somewhat customizable, easy to navigate, and includes small little visual effects just like Media Center.  I have nothing to complain about around the UI of the Zune.



Navigation



Overall the navigation around the UI is very simple, but it includes one huge downfall.  Unless I’ve missed something, the only way to get back to the now playing section is to manually keep going back and back until you get back to where you started (Thanks to Jaxim in the comments, you hold down Back in order to get to the Main Menu, then Back again to get to Now Playing).  Assuming you are building a playlist and you have gone into and out of a dozen artists/albums menus this is crazy.  I have found no easy way to return to now playing.  The Zune badly needs a Green Button on it.  If I missed something here and another Zune users knows what to do please let me know.



Other navigation downfalls include the autorotation to landscape when in picture/video mode.  The first video I fired up had a portrait/vertical view and thus changing the landscape of the Zune was needed to figure out how to change the volume.  The Zune Pad rotates with the Zune in picture/video mode, so volume up and down is actually side-to-side in portrait/vertical.  More consistent navigation and volume changing would be nice in future releases.



Zune Pad



Charlie said that I’d love once I got to use it, and he is partly right.  I love the concept of touch much like Apple has been doing in various ways on the iPods, that said the Zune Pad takes some getting used to and well over two weeks after I still can’t say I’ve mastered it at all.  For long distance scrolling the Zune Pad is perfect, however for selecting a track that is just below the current selection it is nearly impossible to do.  You’re supposed to touch the Zune Pad to stop the scrolling, easier said than done when you are trying to select a single item.  In this case I found myself leaving the touch features behind and using the sides of the Zune Pad to do all the work (D-pad).



Wireless



No doubt one of the selling points and major features of the Zune is supposed to be integrated wireless.  However in my practice, it feels much more like a gimmick then a useful feature.  With the exception of being slow, it works great (technically) whenI could find a reason to use it.

If you have something like a Zune 80 that plenty of hard drive space it is easy to use the “Sync all my music” option, then you can have it sync new content added on the PC wirelessly.  However, on a smaller Zune 4GB/8GB (or even 30GB) this really isn’t an option that I’m aware of.  In this case you still have to build a playlist of some sort on the PC before you can remotely or locally initiate the wireless sync, thus it becomes kind of pointless.  If I’m already sitting at the PC I might as well plug-in the Zune via USB and sync it in 1/10 the time.



If the Zune supported syncing from a Media Center and Media Center Extenders (10-foot with remote), my feelings would be completely different.  I’d love to be able to create or select a playlist from one of my Extenders and then remotely sync it wirelessly with the Zune.



I did get a small amount of use out of the wireless by RDP’ing into my desktop, creating a playlist, and then syncing wirelessly in my home.  I can’t imagine that’s the scenario Microsoft is going for, but it is the only time I found it useful.



I didn’t test Zune to Zune sync as I don’t know or was unable to find anyone that actually has a Zune locally.



Zune Software



The Zune Software is of course independent from Windows Media Player which presents problems for Media Center users.  Media Center is locked to Windows Media Player, so the addition of a Zune that doesn’t sync with Windows Media Player leads to multiple applications managing your music.  No matter how good or bad the Zune Software is, I can’t get over it.  Either give me a way to sync the Zune using Windows Media Player/Media Center or give the Zune Software the hooks to work with Media Center as its backend player.



Now that I’m off that I can say the Zune Software isn’t half bad.  Navigation though the UI is relatively simple and performance with my music library is a bit better then with Windows Media Player.



Again there are a few things I dislike when making the needed comparison to Windows Media Player.  There is no taskbar controls for the Zune Software so attempting to use it as your main music playback and management software leads to it being open on the desktop all the time.



In addition I feel that Microsoft tried too hard with parts of the UI.  This eye for design leads to text and scroll bars being too small.  A perfect example is the text is the Settings menu which is actually an 8 point font!  I’m all for streamlining the UI, but there was so much unused space that there is no need for a font that small to be used.



Recorded TV Sync



As I’ve talked about in the past, the Zune Software doesn’t support syncing of ATSC content (or rather, content with AC3 audio).  Because of this oversight, you either have to use SD recordings or use a separate program to content the HD content (DVRMSToolbox, MCEBuddy).



I successfully had the Zune Software transcode and sync SD recordings without any issues.  On my Core 2 Duo E6750 it took just under 20 minutes to convert a 30 minute show.  If you are going to do a lot of video conversation and syncing, a fast processor is your friend.



The quality of recorded TV on the Zune itself was fantastic expect for a bit of motion blur.  The screen on the 4GB/8GB Zune is very small, so if video is your primary use then you should skip the 4GB/8GB Zune and go with the 80.

Addition: All CableCARD content (including SD and HD) is protected and thus can’t be put on a Zune or any other portable device.



Social



I’m not really into the social aspect of the Zune, I’m getting tired of every product and company thinking it needs a social network behind it.  I’ve used a few social music services in the past for random listening on the go (Last.fm, Imeem, etc) but I’m not really interested in spending time with the social aspect of the Zune.



ZunePass/Marketplace



I also didn’t test the Zune Marketplace, but I wanted to correct something I had said in the comments of another post.  Thanks to everyone at The Green Button, I now know that ZunePass music can play in Windows Media Player (and thus Media Center), but the experience is broken due to the need to have the Zune Software get the license for tracks before Windows Media Player can play them.  Since this process happens monthly and on a per song basis, there is no way to logically integrate ZunePass and Media Center at this time.

Update: Some are saying that ZunePass works as above, others are saying it works without any license issues at all.  Again, I didn’t test it just reporting what I have seen from others.  For anyone who uses ZunePass with Media Center/Media Player, please comment and let everyone know what your experience has been,



v3 Wishlist



As many others have noted the addition of other Microsoft technologies into the Zune would give it a larger advantage over other players.  An SDK would be my first suggestion, let developers add new functionality and value.



On top of that, Zune really needs to integrate things like Windows Sideshow.  This seems like it could be done in a small amount of time and would add amazing value to the Zune.  A built-in Media Center Extender type function would also be nice, but battery life would be an issue.



Of course, better integration with Media Center and other Microsoft products is on the top of my list.  No reason for two music libraries in two applications, no reason for not being able to sync with Media Center wirelessly.



Overall/Conclusion



I still stick to my comments that the Zune is still not an iPod competitor, but I have to admit awareness is growing, albeit slowly.  I was in a Best Buy in West Texas a few weeks ago and two teenage girls were around the iPod/Zune display.  One of them said “Hey, that’s a Zune.”  The other said “What the f#&k is a Zune?”  That’s kind of my impression of any product against the iPod, the marketing has already imprinted the iPod name in everyone’s head.



Zune v2 is what Zune v1 should have been, but the features that are supposed to make the Zune standout have not really impressed me.  Wireless in its current state is still nearly useless, the Zune Pad doesn’t match the Click Wheel or iPod touch, I don’t see the Social as a big selling point, and from a Media Center user’s perspective I’m tired of broken functionality and a lack of integration between products.



The Zune is a fine portable media player, but it is far from the revolution Microsoft needs in order to take away from Apple’s iPod.



If Microsoft would add some additional functionality and integration with their existing products I’d have no problems recommending it to others.  As it stands now there isn’t much to set it apart from an iPod, other than a name that doesn’t automatically sell.  If you are interested in subscription music, the Zune is a must have.  If you want high storage for video playback, the Zune 80 is for you.  If you’re buying for music and occasional video playback I’d probably get an iPod because it truly has better navigation with the Click Wheel then the Zune does with its Zune Pad.



The last thing I’d consider is the possibility of Microsoft continuing to release firmware upgrades (ex. v3 firmware) that add new useful features to existing players.  This is something that Apple doesn’t really do with the iPod line, but it isn’t something Microsoft has committed to either (and new features often need new hardware to start with).  Addition: v1 Zunes were upgraded for free with the v2 firmware, but Microsoft has not said if this trend will continue.



I’d give the Zune a 7.5/10.

Ricavision Sideshow Remote Slips Again; Now Summer 2008

I’m sorry for those of you who have pre-ordered Ricavision’s VAVE100, but after delay after delay, price raise after price raise, the VAVE100 Sideshow remote is now said to have a ship timeframe of “Summer 2008.”



If you have pre-ordered the remote, I’d highly suggested cancelling your order at this point.  It is sad that one of the best features of Vista has yet to really take shape in third party devices.



I’ll now be turning my attention to DnC Multimedia’s Sideshow-enabled portable media player as well as Ikanos Consulting Sideshow software for Windows Mobile devices and iPod/iPhones (in private beta).



Short Bits: mControl Extension, Inteset Monitoring, More

Trying to catch up on some interesting stuff that I have missed over the past week.



Vidabox created an extension for mControl that allows you to control other Media Center PC’s via mControl.  It uses MCE Controller to do the work on the backend, and I’m waiting to find time to try it out myself.



Inteset is now offering a 24hr/7day/365yr server monitoring service called “Inteset Heartbeat Monitoring Service” that can remotely monitor all hardware and software of their media servers/extenders.  Very neat for the high end install.



Missing Remote has a review of MCE Weather and the news of ATI/AMDs new video cards, the HD 3400 and HD 3600 series.



More information on Windows 7 seems to keep creeping out, along the same lines some are putting Vista SP1 for release mid next month.