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
.