Monday, April 23, 2007

When I say I surround myself with tech...

...I ain't joking. It's amazing I'm not sterile, actually, with all the wired, wireless, and carrier pigeon radiation flooding my home. Think of it this way: I live in my own laboratory.

Since I was a little kid - before this stuff was even a glimmer in anyone's eye, I've been weirdly obsessed with media portability. (Of course, it wasn't called that then - didn't really have a name for it.) I went through the whole thing - analog tape recordings of TV and radio shows, cassette decks in cars, the Walkman, the Watchman (anyone remember that?), and on and on... and now its come to this...

Here's a network topology of my current situation - I'll just walk through it quickly to give you an idea of what we are talking about here -- I get my media in a number of different ways, and I try to keep it all very legal:

AUDIO

audio - hosted: CDs (yup, eff DRM - I rip 'em the old fasioned way - uncompressed, too) - from there, I put them on the media server (currently a modified MCE 2005 box) as uncompressed audio files. They're huge, of course, which is preferred for playback with my Sonos systems, but won't fit on my portable audio stuff (iPod, PSP, Phatbox), so I need to compress the damn things down. For that little task, I use CDex, which I have running via a script in the background. Any new ripped CD shows up on the media center, and it is transcoded to a 128K MP3 file and placed in another directory. It's quick, neat and works.

audio - external sources: three sources - Sirius Satellite radio, Rhapsody, and a few dozen favored internet radio stations, my favorite being radioparadise.com. In addition to these music delivery systems, I live and breath podcasts these days - I'll post a piece on the prevalence of podcasting in a bit, which will include a few of my favorites, but if I don't get my TWiT, Buzz Out Loud, and various NYT podcasts in a timely fashion, I start to spontaneously bleed.

Both hosted and external audio gets mashed together on my Sonos, and the results are amazing. It doesn't matter to me where the music resides, the Sonos just takes it all and combines it - including the podcasts - and then distributes it around my house.

PHOTOGRAPHS

All of my personal photographs currently come from digital camera that I take with me wherever I go - I've got a crappy filing system I use (I really need to clean that up), and then I toss them on the MCE system. For quick viewing, I use the various flatscreens around the house and MCE as the display option. For quick pict printouts, I have a Sony 4x6 photo printer - which is adequate. For real photos, tho, I use oFoto or Shutterfly.


I still have two problems, tho:

  • legacy photos
    I am an amateur photographer - and my collection goes back a long time. I started to digitize these things myself on a mid-end, prosumer photo densitometer, but the time is was taking out of my life made me want to scratch my eyes out with a fork, so I stopped. I have these things stored safely, but I'd like to get them digitized cleanly, in as high a rez as is commercially possible.
  • cell phone photos
    Ok, I have to say I honestly didn't care about this stuff before. I figured I'd lose them (who cares) or use flickr or photobucket to store the ones I wanted to keep. I, uh, haven't used those either. I could store them in a directory on the MCE system, but that seems like more hassle than its worth.
If anyone out there has good solutions to these issues, that would be excellent. Please leave 'em here as comments.

VIDEO

Well, are we sitting down, kids? This is gonna take some 'splaining.

I have several discrete sources for video - all trying to keep the following rules in mind:
  • DRMless
    It's not that I am passing video around, or that I like to steal it or whatever - I just can't stand the concept. I hate it for music, and I truly hate it for video. I have a lot of nice little gadgets for bringing this stuff with me on plane flights, hotels, wherever...and I do NOT want to have the conversation about buying something I already bought multiple times.
  • Transcoded
    High-def for the plasma and laptop, low-def for the PSP and iPod.
  • One server to rule them all
    I have one repository (a big one) for all of my video - and I do not want to copy it or move it around as I go from room to room, so it should all sit in one location, and I should be able to access it anywhere using the 10-foot rule. (i.e. a remote.)
  • Keep It Cheap, Stupid
    Sure - you can do all of this stuff with 100's of 1000's of dollars worth of CEDIA installers, video switchers, etc... but screw that. A few $1000 dollars, tops, or its not worth it.
THE NEW-FASHIONED, OLD-FASHIONED WAY

I record it off the air and off cable. Not with a tape, of course, but with my Microsoft Media Center 2005... I bought the DHS-5 from Alienware about 18 months ago, and this thing is really quite a powerhouse. (Alienware has discontinued this model, and I am not sure why.)

Plugged into the DHS-5 are two cable boxes (no cable card support in MCE 2005), and two HighDef Over-the-air tuners. So - 4 input sources (2 NTSC, 2 HDTV). The DHS-5 takes this all in stride, and is able to record and playback in any combination. It is to the point where I honestly, seriously have no idea when anything is on television anymore. I don't know the network, and I don't know the day/time. While this is great for me, it gives the station carriers the willies, I am sure. (In a later post, though, we'll talk about why the production houses are starting to embrace this new business model.)

So, at 2gigs an hour for NTSC (using the microsoft ms-dvr codec), and a whopping 8-12gigs an hour for HDTV, where am I going to put that stuff? Oh, on commercially available external RAID drives, of course. Connected to the DHS-5, are 3 Terrabytes (yes, with a T) of RAID storage from LaCie, but there are now a dozen options available - including internal terabyte S-ATA drives that are now starting to appear on the market.

THE NEW, NEW-FASHIONED WAY

Yay, Bittorrent! Yay, Azureus! Boo, Bittorrent and Azureus script-kiddies! What the hell is wrong with you people, don't you have other things to do?

So - my enthusiasm in having the ability to pull video content from the internet in a fast, efficient manner is damped by my utter disdain for the need to constantly be checking the downloaded content to make sure that it is not infected before I release it into my home ecosystem (yes, I said "ecosystem") and view the content.

To do this, I employ an inexpensive server on the outside of my firewall to run Azureus and collect the content. There, it's isolated until a number of antivirus and antipayload applications can scour it. It's certified clean, the contents are copied over to the MCE's drives for playback.
Its a pain to do that extra step, but its worth it. Even with all the plugins available for Azureus to prevent these things from getting onto your drives, they still do get on your drives.

So, that's the commercial video content, but lately I find myself fascinated with video podcasts. Since I have just been experimenting with video podcasts to my collection of home and portable devices, I still haven't gotten this to be single source yet.

For my portable devices, I use two different delivery mechanisms... for the iPod, of course, I begrudgingly use iTunes. It does an excellent job of aggregating a huge number of the video podcast sources in the iTunes music store, and allows them to get downloaded to the iPod in a timely manner.

For the PSP, things are a little more difficult. The PSP will, of course, play the .MV4 files that show up on the iPod, but PSP screen is SO much larger and brighter, that you want to get video podcasts that are correctly transcoded for the PSP. (After all, don't you wanna see Katrina from MoBuzzTV in all her glory, rather than squished down on a little screen?) There are a couple of ways to deal with this: some sites, like MoBuzz, provide a link to a file already transcoded for a PSP's larger screen -- and the results are great. For everything else, I resort to the same tech I use for transcoding Bittorrent'ed content to the PSP: PSP Video9. This is a shareware tool, but very inexpenisive - US$20, I believe - and is incredibly useful. It not only transcodes the video podcasts, but also does a great job with 90% of the files bittorrented to the house server. (You can also add Videora to the mix to post-transcode bittorrented files automatically when they are received. I time saver when I am trying to hop a plane.)

For the flatscreens around the house, video podcasts can be aggregated, autodownloaded and displayed by a nifty plugin for MCE called TV Tonic. (Works in both MCE 2005 and Vista MCE, by the way.) This little plugin works as well - better, actually - then iTunes for aggregating, collecting and playing video podcasts at the maximum resolution possible. The company has several hundred aggregated video podcast sites, but there is an easy interface for you to enter video podcast RSS feeds that they don't already aggregate. All from your couch - very slick. Oh, extra bonus: TV Tonic plays back on your XBox 360 Media extenders...

...speaking of which, the XBox 360's I have scattered around the house are unbelievable. Full control of the MCE 2005 server from anywhere in the house, full 1080p playback (if you have them cabled that way), and full access to 90% of the MCE plugins, like TV Tonic. (Explain to me again why Apple's iTV is such a big deal?) BTW, I am having this debate with a few folks now - but I swear that the Xbox 360 uprez's all of the content. My NTSC recordings - as well as live NTSC television - sent from the MCE box looks significantly better than the source material.

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Anyway, a long winded post today, but I wanted to set the stage for how I live my life on a day to day basis for this blog column... I'll keep this article updated as I swap the gadgetry out in my house for the latest and greatest.

- RocketMan

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