Arman's stuff
Mediacenter Software

(Wed Jul 21 17:40:53 2010)

So here I am, looking for yet another media program to use.

I've already tried quite a few - MythTV, Boxee, and XBMC. The trouble is, nothing seems to works just right. Here's some of the programs I have used, though, and some ratings, on four scales: ease of use, amount it can do, how good it looks, and flexibility.

MythTV is a great all-purpose media center; it does everything, and I mean everything. The trouble is, it's ugly. Not just a little ugly, but REALLY ugly. Now, I don't really care too much about looks, so that doesn't bother me that much, but it's not all that easy to use, either. I don't really want to write a complete plugin just so it can sort my TV shows... It uses mPlayer (or any other media player you want), so it has a lot of flexibility, but you have to set each one up yourself.

Boxee is, as they call it, a "social media player." It does all sorts of stuff like YouTube and other online sites, and has a pretty good "namer" that downloads information and images from IMDB and elsewhere, for more of that cable TV feel: episodes have screenshots and tag lines, for instance. However... it's not exactly change-friendly. And it doesn't have an actual repository for use with Ubuntu, Debian, or even Red Hat.

XBMC started life as a media center for XBox, but it's come a long way since then, and is now available for Linux, as well. It's clean, fancy, and looks really nice. A downside is that I can't find the "play DVD" button; you can stick it in and hit go, but other than that - nothing. Boxee is based off of it, and while it makes some improvements, it also takes some of the functionality away. It doesn't have an automatic show labeler, though it does have some nifty weather stuff.

There are still other media programs that I haven't tested - Elisa (now Moovida) is Windows-only right now (though the older version is available); Entertainer seems to have a package for Ubuntu, so I might try it, and Freevo is also available. I'm sure there are still more out there, but those seem to be the most popular - and thus the most used and updated.

It's hard for me to find what I want, and not just because all these packages are still growing (though that is a factor). MythTV is great for being able to do absolutely anything, from playing music or video to playing games and ripping/burning DVDs. If you know Python, you can easily write your own plugin, and thus extend it every which way from up. Trouble is, there are a billion plugins, and not nearly that many people to use them. If someone wants a plugin, they write one, make it public, then abandon it. On the other hand, while Boxee and the like don't allow plugins, and thus can keep the user interface simple and well-integrated, it also limits what you can do with it. For instance, Boxee and XBMC don't have a way to use a tuner card.

There is, of course, one more option - one that I've toyed with off and on for a while, and actually began to implement when I first started. I could, hypothetically, write my own app ([cringe] don't hit me, don't hit me!). It would be mPlayer based, using the little-documented menu and frontend/backend functions. Given a little work, I could actually create looping videos that would contain the menu system, so you could actually browse for and play stuff. That would take care of video (files, DVDs, and TV), but I'd have to find something else to play the music portion. Now, the best part of that system is that it would be *fast* - no need for a GUI at all, so no horrible overhead. In fact, if I could find a decent menu-creating system, I'd go for that anyway; that's really what sets XBMC and Boxee above Myth; the latter has a terrible menu system...

My problem is that nothing really offers what I want; I have music, video, and images that I would like to browse and manipulate on my media computer AND my other computers, possibly even my phone(s). I don't have video input, though I may in the future. I have a nice sound card, but only analog speakers, so I don't want digital sound, but I do want surround sound. If a file has 2 channels, it should be intelligently up-mixed to 5.1, as should 4 channel or 5 channel. 6 channel (5.1) surround sound should come through each speaker as it should. I have an IR remote, and I'd like to use it. I have a mixture of old and new video and sound formats, so it should be able to play anything under the sun. I have a weak CPU but a strong GPU, so it should use the GPU when it can (ie, VDPAU).

I can find most of those things in the various media players/centers, but there is one feature that is sadly lacking - a web interface. I want my mediacenter to be managed from afar; I don't want to sit down at the console with a keyboard, I want to sit down on my couch with a remote.

Myth has a frontend/backend, and Boxee adds social elements, but really, they need a full web frontend. When I sit down to watch a movie, I'm not thinking about categorizing anything, and I don't want to worry about files types, or bandwidth, or what sound comes from what speaker. However, there are times that I think about that. Imagine a system that you could buy a DVD, scan the barcode with your webcam or barcode reader, rip the DVD, then set the box on the shelf; when you want to watch it, all you have to do is swipe the barcode again, and bam, there it is. You could also search for the title, or start it via your phone (most smart phones have barcode readers), or any of a dozen other ways. And when it starts, instead of having to poke buttons on your remote (or, heaven forbid, the console), you automatically have perfect sound, in all the speakers you want. And better still, if you later want to add notes or tags, you can just go to your desktop, type in your mediacenter's address, and set it. OR what about streaming? You're at your desktop and want to watch a movie? Go ahead! Again to the web, and watch it through a built in player (like YouTube's player, only local). There has got to be a way to do all that, hasn't there? I've done enough standard web stuff to know that the general setup is easy to do, things like naming files and adding tags. I don't know about streaming the video from one computer to another, but something tells me that it should be easier than writing your own media player...

I know. I ask a lot. But then, I require a lot from everything I use. I didn't want a smart phone until I knew I could use it to interact with my own world; once there was a phone that could do that, I snapped it up. In the same way, I've bounced between media players because there is nothing that really does what I want. Myth is close, but it's ugly; XBMC is pretty, but buggy. And nothing has a web interface, let alone a decent one.

Sigh... another project for the heap, eh?

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