The King of All Media?


An HTPC Solution

In our home, DVDs suffer the cruelest of fates. Some are left abandoned only to fend on their own without a case. Some are placed in an awkward, uncomfortable position in another movie’s case. Little Mermaid, meet Showgirls (just kidding, I don’t own that movie). And some are subjected to the primitive, overzealous hands of two toddlers that compares only to King Kong’s grip on Fay Wray. What can save our DVD collection from such a sad end? Enter the home media center.

For those of you that have a PC and Windows Vista Home Premium, media center functionality is already built in with Windows Media Center and for Mac fans, Front Row is typically included with the latest versions of OS X. Even gaming consoles, as you probably know, have the ability to play DVDs, view pictures, and even download online content. Our household is primarily Mac and while usable, Front Row is not quite as robust as I would like. Before going further, I would like to preface that software is needed to convert or “rip” your media to your hard drive and while controversy exists over whether it is legal to do so, I won’t go too much into the hows and why’s (I’ll leave that for another post that, most likely, will not be written). Should you need options to convert your media, I suggest trying Handbrake or ffmpegx.

My two main media center software choices are Plex and Boxee which, in my opinion, are the two best current open source options and being open source, are totally free. The one caveat is that both of these applications are currently in beta and you might experience some bugs. But the software is continually evolving and updates are made on a regular basis. I’ve been using them for about a month now and have not experienced any major problems. Also, did I fail to mention that they are free?

I currently favor Plex over Boxee because I find its interface very intuitive and much better visually (read: eye candy). What makes Boxee interesting, though, is that it contains a social networking aspect that connects to your Twitter or FriendFeed account and lets your friends know what you are watching and what you recommend (when it comes to porn though, I highly recommend you turn this functionality off unless you are so adamant about everyone needing to see Remember the Tight Ones).

Perhaps more importantly though, is that these applications are not relegated to just movies. They can also be used to access and organize your music, photos, tv shows, etc. After all, it is a media application right? But it gets better. A multitude of plug-ins have been created to access content from the web. I have plug-ins that will allow me to access YouTube, Hulu, Vimeo, sites have video and/or audio content such as CNN, Comedy Central, & Pandora, and photography sites. There’s even a plug-in to access Netflix’s rental downloads.

In some cases, people have cancelled their cable or satellite subscriptions outright and moved to downloading or watching their favorite shows online through an online site such as Hulu, iTunes, or Bittorrent. While I think that is an excellent cost-effective solution, I wouldn’t give my provider the finger just yet. In many cases, especially Bittorrent, the picture quality of the shows suffer due the effects of compressing the files to a smaller size. In addition, while sites such as Hulu, are starting to add HD content online, a higher internet connection speed is required and even the quality can be subpar. Finally, in our age of instant gratification, having to wait until a show is available online (which can take days) just doesn’t compare to watching the actual broadcast and being able to discuss it with friends or coworkers immediately afterwards or around the water cooler the following day. Then again, there are some types, including myself, that use their DVR constantly and not overly concerned with watching a show during its normal broadcast time.

Overall, I have nothing but high praise for the home media center experience. Is this the future of home entertainment? I definitely think it has a shot. Blu-ray (both players and media) is still quite expensive and integration with other disruptive technology such as digital downloads gives us additional options and could reduce prices in the long run. For now – in our house, let’s just say that Finding Nemo stands for more than just the title.

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