Monday, June 23, 2008

I Just Want My Media on My TV

The last couple of weeks have been ridiculously frustrating. All I want is to get my media, on my television, playing the sound through my stereo. This should be a no brainer, right?

Well it turns out that once again I must be just an outlying data point in the world of consumer electronics. What a frustrating adventure this is turning out to be. I've tried lots of different combinations with mixed bag of success and no clear winners. To start with here's a quick run-down of my basic requirements.
  • My media is on two big hard-drives:
    • 1TB external hard-drives
    • accessible via USB
    • willing to share them over the net with an always on pc, but prefer to just plug them in
  • My media is very big and mixed:
    • about 100K songs, from 10K artists, all in MP3, with cover art and ratings embedded in the tags (about 600 GBs)
    • about 10k high-quality pictures (about 100GB)
    • about 3K videos, mostly DIVX and XVID, organized in folders by type, series, season, etc. (about 400 GB)
  • I need to navigate music by playlists, artists, and genre. I've listed them in the order of importance to me. Playlists need to be 'smart' so they'll respect the ratings, genre, etc. that have been painstakingly maintained. For example, a playlist would be 'Songs in Genre = Folk, Subgenre = Acoustic, Rating > 3'
  • Displaying cover art from the file is a must. Displaying other tag attributes is a nice-to-have.
  • Displaying a picture slide-show while playing songs is a must.
    • Being able to choose a specific directory is a nice-to-have.
    • Being able to pick a set of specific directories is a nice-to-have.
    • Assigning a set of directories to a playlist is a nice-to-have.
  • Being able to navigate videos by type, show, season is important.
  • Output via HDMI or DVI is important.
  • I have no interest in using a tv tuner, scheduling recordings or any of that other TV nonsense. So not having it in my way is a good thing.
  • Being able to edit ratings on screen is important.
  • Being able to create playlists on the fly is important.
  • Being able to shuffle by playlist, album, artist is important.
  • Media will get added routinely, so being able to monitor the folders on the drives is important.
  • Start-up time for spinning up music and videos is important.
  • Being able to navigate the very large amount of media quickly and by different attributes is important.
  • Being able to access this media from more than one television is important.
  • Being able to do all this without a dedicated, always-on pc, is only a nice-to-have.
  • Being able to get all this with commercial off-the-shelf stuff is important. I don’t crack boxes, and most soft-mods are off the table too.

When it comes to home electronics, I'm no slouch. I've been trying a whole host of devices and combinations. For example the Netgear EVA8000 Digital Entertainer HD and the Helios X5000 Network Media Player are two examples I've tried. They both really suck. Not only are they slow and can't do half of what I need, they are expensive and crashed often.

I do have a Windows Media Center pc (from Windows Vista Ultimate) which is a pretty good interface. And we have two Xbox 360's. There are multiple ways to connect these bad boys, but the really obvious one (as a Media Extender) doesn't seem to work out of the box. Being pretty good at figuring this crap out, if I can't get it to work after a couple long sessions of fiddling, it's just not meant to be (for me). Tips anyone?

One option I'm considering is the Apple TV. The interface is one of the slickest I've ever seen and the speed appears acceptable. But it won't play my videos without jumping through mod hoops and I'm not a fan of that. Unless someone has an alternative?

So now you know my predicament. What else should I try? Ideas? Anyone? Bueller? Bueller?

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