Building my home media center

I now have all the pieces in place to build the Home Media Center that I’ve been dreaming of. Sure I’ve got HDTV’s, TiVo, surround sound, Blu-ray, Apple TV’s, and a pretty extensive DVD collection of over 350 movies. However, the one piece of the puzzle that was missing was having those movies that I love, the top 25 to 50 or so movies that I could watch over and over again on a hard drive that could be streamed to any one of my HDTV’s. There is nothing new about ripping DVDs to .MP4/.M4V format and serving them up. As a matter of fact I had already tried it months ago. What stopped me dead in my tracks back then was the fact that I was missing the 5.1 surround sound. The original Apple TV software 1.x did not support 5.1 surround sound playback without some cleaver hacking/encoding. It was just a bit more than I was willing to go through. However, with the latest software update to Apple TV (take 2), Apple has turned on the 5.1 surround sound playback if your movies are encoded properly.

Once Apple updated the Apple TV, I knew it would be just a matter of time before my favorite media conversion apps would be updated to take advantage of this. Sure enough, the first one, "Visual Hub" was updated almost immediately with an Apple TV 5.1 preset. Then the other shoe dropped. The other utility and probably the more important of the two, HandBrake 0.9.2 (a freeware app for both Mac and PC) was just updated a couple of days ago to support 5.1 surround on Apple TV as well. So now with a computer running iTunes and a large hard drive, an Apple TV or two around the house, I can rip my DVD’s to an Apple TV 5.1 surround format and access them at any time using the Apple TV remote.

A true 5.1 Dolby Digital signal coming through to my Bose receiver from The Matrix running on my Apple TV


What’s my setup?

I have an iMac G5 dedicated as an iTunes server. It currently has a 250GB internal hard drive in it and I plan to update it to a terabyte drive now that this is all working. This iMac is on my network via gigabit ethernet. This iMac already has my entire music collection on it. I have some Apple TV’s in various rooms connected to HDTV’s. Using HandBrake (a freeware app for both Mac and PC) with a simple settings change, I can encode my DVDs while preserving the 5.1 surround track.

The main setting change I made in HandBrake was to change the Codec to AAC + AC3 Audio


Once the movies are encoded then what?

Once I rip a DVD to the hard drive using HandBrake, I then import it into iTunes. I have to option of actually syncing the movie(s) to the hard drives of the Apple TV, but this really isn’t necessary with the latest version of Apple TV, nor is it feasible because the Apple TV hard drives just aren’t large enough. With the latest software update of Apple TV the movies and other media in your iTunes library and the movies and media on your Apple TV hard drive show up together in the Apple TV menus. So Apple TV will play the movie you select regardless of which drive it actually resides on. The streaming experience has been flawless so far.

Scene from The Matrix streaming through Apple TV from my iMac G5 to my home theater


What’s next?

Now I have to decide if I really want 350+ movies at my finger tips. If so then I will definitely need to upgrade the iMac to a larger hard drive. A 2 hour movie weighs in at 2.54GB once converted to .M4V (.MP4). So 350 movies could easily take up just under 1 terabyte of drive space. The truth is that I realized some time ago that there aren’t very many movies that I could watch over and over again. So chances are I won’t be converting all of my movies. I will definitely rip my favorites. There’s also the HD issue. The vast majority of my current DVDs are in standard definition DVD. While the Apple TV does support HD content, these standard def DVDs still look pretty good or at least as good as the original DVDs did (to my eyes) using this setup. If I do buy any new movies, I will likely buy them in Blu-ray format. Hopefully iTunes will start to offer HD movies for sale. I don’t plan to buy many new flicks, but given the choice of buying a digital download vs. a disc, I may lean towards a digital download now.


Fujitsu ScanSnap S510M

One of my goals this year is to have less paper clutter (yeah I know, but I can try). I have been hearing rave reviews on the Fujitsu ScanSnap from my colleagues at Adobe (Noha Edell recently raved about it to me and my my buddy Chita Hunter reviewed a different model in MacGroup’s newsletter back in 2005). I saw this scanner in action a couple years ago at Macworld Expo and always had it in the back of my mind. I recently ordered one (which is on the way). However, I just read Adobe’s Adam Pratt’s review on it and it got me all excited all over again.

The Fujitsu ScanSnap S510M (The M is for the Mac version) goes for $425 ($495 list) and includes a full version of Adobe Acrobat 8 Professional. It scans in color or B&W and does two sided scanning of stacks of paper. It automatically converts the scans to PDFs and from what I hear it’s blazing fast! Check out Adam’s review for more.

The war is over!

It’s finally over! No, not that war. The High Def, format war has come to an end. Toshiba has announced that they will stop making HD-DVD players clearing the path for Sony with Blu-ray. Although I did buy a cheap Toshiba HD-DVD player (so that I could have BOTH formats), that I will now be getting rid of, I couldn’t be happier with the news! I have only bought one HD-DVD movie that is still in the shrink wrap. So no big loss there either. Now I can focus my attention clearly on Blu-ray and later in the year start outfitting the rest of my HDTV’s with Blu-ray players. At the moment the Sony Playstation 3 is still the best bet for a Blu-ray player. You not only get a good gaming machine, but you also get the only Blu-ray player that is upgradeble via firmware updates to the new Blu-ray features slated for release later in the year. Newer players could be released that are just as upgradeable, but if you’re looking to finally get on board with a Blu-ray player now, I would strongly suggest looking at the PS3.

Apple TV (take 2) vs. TiVo HD for Movie Rentals

It would be nice to have ONE device that does it all. However, in reality it just doesn’t exist (yet). I have 3 set-top boxes in my home theater. Those 3 boxes are TiVo HD, Sony Playstation 3 and Apple TV. Each device has some overlap in functionality to the other two, but not enough to be eliminated. My focus here is on one aspect of entertainment and that’s movie rentals via electronic download. Since your budget may not allow the purchase of two devices that do a lot of same things, I thought I would compare the two that are the most alike.


Apple TV (take 2)

Apple provided a FREE software update to the existing Apple TV. So no new hardware is required. While I’m an early adopter of Apple TV, I was never behind the whole "buy movies from iTunes thing." It just never made sense to me. I said it from day one, "If I really like a movie enough to buy it, I’d rather own it on DVD (now Blu-ray)." There wasn’t really a cost advantage in buying a movie from iTunes and they tie up space on your drive. So my reason for buying an Apple TV was mainly to showcase my photography to friends and family, watch video podcasts, watch purchased TV shows, music videos and home movies. Well the Apple TV just got a lot more useful in several ways and of course the main new feature is support for Apple’s iTune Store movie rentals. I rent movies all the time. My main rental source is Netflix (and after you read this entire post, you’ll see why it will remain my main source for a while longer).

The new Apple TV interface is as you would have guessed, very slick! It’s so inviting and easy to navigate. Apple has blurred the line between what’s stored on the Apple TV’s hard drive and what’s stored on your Mac or PC’s iTunes library. So if you go to "My Movies" for example, it shows the movies from both places (the built-in hard drive and your iTunes library) all together. Pick a movie to watch and it plays it no matter where it’s located. This applies to music too. Apple has also gone a few steps further with photo slideshows by implementing direct support for .Mac gallery and Flickr online photo albums. This makes it so easy for you see photos from friends and family right on your TV. Another big improvement is the ability watch podcasts directly from Apple TV regardless of whether you’re subscribed to them or not. It will stream them right from the source. You can even bookmark your favorites such as my Creative Suite Podcast.

This is all GREAT, but what about movie rentals? The good news (make that GREAT news) is that no computer is required. You can use the Apple Remote right from your sofa/theater chair and browse movies, do searches, watch previews and RENT them on the spot. If you choose to rent a movie your iTunes account will be charged and the movie will start to download immediately. Once enough of it has downloaded, you can begin watching the movie (in my case after about 4 minutes with an HD movie). Movie rentals are priced from $2.99 to $4.99 depending upon the age of the movie and quality. Older movies are $2.99 in standard def and $3.99 in HD and newer titles are $1 more in their respective formats. Sounds great so far right? It is! However, doing my best to always do a balanced review, there are some downsides: The biggest downside for me and the reason I won’t give up Netflix is that Apple won’t get new releases until 30 days (yes one month) AFTER they come out on DVD. I’m sure this was done intentionally by the evil movie Hollywood houses, but it is what it is. Another downside is that (to the best of my knowledge) you only get 5.1 surround sound on the HD rentals. Also unlike renting from iTunes on your computer, if you rent a movie directly on your Apple TV it CAN’T be moved to any other device. This last one isn’t a big deal, but I thought you should know so that you can plan accordingly. Just like renting from iTunes on your computer, you’ll have 30 days to start the movie and then 24 hours to finish it/watch it as many times as you like. Like many of you, I feel that 24 hours is just not enough time. They should do it like they do at the rental stores. If it’s a new release you have 24 hours. If not, you have a few days. Or they should do it like Netflix, offer a monthly subscription to have a set number of movies out (downloaded) at one time to take as long as you want to watch them or watch as many times as you want. Another one of my pet peeves hasn’t been resolved in this update and that is the ability to play a playlist of music videos. Just like the original Apple TV, the first video plays and then stops returning you the list of videos. There is no technical reason that I can think of as to why it just can play one right after the other!

The Apple TV works exactly as described and is way more versatile than the original model. Apple also dropped the price down by $70 to $229 for the 40GB model. Speaking of which, a lot of people were really complaining early on about the original Apple TV ONLY having a 40GB drive. With the new software, and they way it seamlessly blends content from your computer and its built-in hard drive, the size of the internal drive is really irrelevant for most people. The only time it would be a concern is if you didn’t want to keep your computer on for live streaming of content that didn’t exist on the Apple TV’s hard drive. There’s even a new option in iTunes to have iTunes automatically figure out what content should be sync’d giving priority to newer items. However, the streaming works so well that this really isn’t an issue especially if you have an 802.11n network.


Moving back and forth

Just like before the update you can sync content from your computer to an Apple TV. You can also MOVE rentals from your computer to your Apple TV, but not the other way around. If you PURCHASE music or movies on your Apple TV they CAN be transferred to your computer so that you can sync them with iPods and such. So if you RENT a movie on Apple TV, you are only going to be able to watch it on Apple TV. Everything else goes both ways. Also if you have multiple Apple TVs there is no way to move (or watch) content between them directly.


AirTunes Bonus!

Apple also threw in an AirTunes bonus. Since you will likely have your Apple TV hooked up to your booming sound system, you can now direct your Mac or PC to stream music from iTunes directly to your Apple TV and out through your stereo. No need to buy an AirPort Express just for iTunes streaming. It would have been nice if the Apple TV was also an AirPort base station, but I’m guessing that was too much to ask for for a FREE update.

If you want more info and to see an actual demo of Apple TV, check out this guided tour. Check out the complete specs here.



What about TiVo HD?

How does TiVo HD compare? Apple has an advantage in that they make both the hardware and the software. So it will always be hard for hardware manufactures to out do Apple when it comes to user interface and user experience. However, TiVo’s user interface is legendary and should be the model for all DVRs! When it comes to movies though, TiVo has hooked up with (Amazon Unbox). Amazon Unbox provides movies for purchase and movie rentals with direct download to TiVo HD boxes, Windows PCs and portable devices like the Archos and Creative Zen, but NOT iPods. Although you can choose to rent movies from the website OR directly from your TiVo, trust me you’ll want to do it from the website. The TiVo interface to Amazon Unbox is nowhere near as slick or fast as Apple TV. As a matter of fact, the first time I tried it I remember saying that "I’ll never do it this way again." It works, it’s just SLOW!

Amazon Unbox links up with your TiVo Central account. Since your TiVo connects to the internet every 30 minutes or so, it will see the request/purchase from Amazon Unbox within 30 minutes and start downloading your rental. Of course if you want it sooner you can either rent directly from the TiVo HD or force an immediate connection. Like Apple TV, once enough of the movie has downloaded you can begin watching it.

Although the TiVo HD outputs an HD quality signal (up to 1080i) to your HDTV, the movie rentals themselves are NOT in HD format. They are in widescreen format and seem to be in the original movie aspect ratio. So you will get even more letterboxing than you do with a DVD. The quality is decent, but the Apple TV/iTunes quality is BETTER!

Amazon Unbox rentals can cost less too. They often run 99¢ rental specials. The first movie I rented (Shooter) cost me only 99¢ and that was certainly cheaper than going anywhere else to get it. Amazon Unbox seems to also be restricted by the movie houses in that their movies come out well after the DVD versions. Movie rentals from Amazon Unbox cost from 99¢-$3.99. They also sell TV shows for the same $1.99 as iTunes.

Although TiVo HD doesn’t hold up as strong for movie rentals, the one thing that it has that Apple TV doesn’t is DVR functionality. Not only can I play back my purchases and computer generated content, but I can RECORD TV shows and move those TV shows to my computer for viewing or downloading to my iPhone/iPod/Apple TV.


Feature Breakdown

  Apple TV TiVo HD
Movie Rental Costs $2.99-$4.99 .99¢-$3.99
Movies Available in HD Yes No
AirTunes Streaming Yes No
iTunes Purchased Music support Yes No
Watch Rented Movie on another networked box No Yes
5.1 Surround Sound Only on HD rentals Yes
Component Video Yes Yes
HDMI Video/Audio Yes Yes
Optical Audio Yes Yes
Max Resolution 720p for HD content 1080i
DVR No Yes
Ethernet Yes – 10/100Base-T Yes 10/100Base-T
Wi-Fi Built-in Requires $59 adapter
Max Wi-Fi Speed 802.11n 802.11g
Expandable storage via an external drive No Yes (eSata)
Monthly Fee No Yes
Requires Cable service No Yes
Base Price $229 $299


Apple TV 40GB Model $225 at Amazon ($229 list price), 160GB Model $329

TiVo HD 160GB $254.49 at Amazon ($299 list price)


The Bottom Line

When Apple TV first came out, it was exactly the same price as TiVo HD $299. That coupled with the limited functionality it was pretty much a no brainer to go with TiVo HD if you were going to pick one device. Now Apple TV costs less and has a lot more functionality than the original model so you would have to decide which features are more important to you. For me, I need BOTH devices. If Apple TV were a DVR, I’d potentially be saying good-bye to TiVo. If TiVo HD improved in the areas of movie rental interface, streaming from Macs, etc. I could live without AppleTV. However, neither device is strong enough to run solo in my theater. Since I still need disc playback capabilities the Playstation 3 isn’t going anywhere either. It makes a great Blu-ray player.


Netflix still wins the bulk of my business

Why? Netflix offers me something that Apple TV/iTunes and TiVo HD/Amazon Unbox don’t and that is I can watch my rentals whenever I feel like it, anywhere I like with an all-you-can eat price. The movies are available immediately when they are released on DVD. I can take my time and no have to watch a 24 hour clock. There are no late fees and as their commercial suggests, "there’s always something to watch!" I usually have two DVD’s that I haven’t watch at home almost all the time. So I’ll probably only do iTunes/Apple TV rentals when it’s a spur of the moment kinda situation OR if I’m already on the road and want to watch something for the flight home. Netflix has also promised Mac support in 2008 for their online movie stream service. So things should really start to heat up when that happens.

Pulling the plug on HD-DVD’s life support

With the departure of Warner Brothers from the HD-DVD camp, HD-DVD was put on life support. However, the war still didn’t officially end. There was/is much speculation that Universal & Paramount (the only major studios left) will pull out, but that hasn’t happened yet.

However, there are a couple of recent announcements that make it clear that these companies are tired of waiting. Rather than watch the continued slow agonizing death of HD-DVD. Best Buy and Netflix are moving (pulling the plug) to either push Blu-ray hard or eliminate HD-DVD altogether. Best Buy announced that while they will still continue to carry HD-DVD players, they will be recommending Blu-ray to all their customers. Netflix on the other hand sent out this email to all their users who had the HD-DVD format in their profiles:


Dear Terry,

You’re receiving this email because you have asked to receive high-definition movies in the HD DVD format. As you may have heard, most of the major movie studios have recently decided to release their high-definition movies exclusively in the Blu-ray format. In order to provide the best selection of high-definition titles for our members, we have decided to go exclusively with Blu-ray as well.

While we will continue to make our current selection of HD DVD titles available to you for the next several months, we will not be adding additional HD DVD titles or reordering replacements.

Toward the end of February, HD DVDs in your Saved Queue will automatically be changed to standard definition DVDs. Then toward the end of this year, all HD DVDs in your Queue will be changed to standard definition DVDs. Don’t worry, we will contact you before this happens.

We’re sorry for any inconvenience. If you have any questions or need further assistance, please call us at 1 (888) 638-3549.

-The Netflix Team


Even though I have players for both formats, I applaud these efforts. I have no problem seeing HD-DVD going away so that we can get on with our entertainment purchases. Once there is only ONE format, we’ll see more adoption which will drive the costs down. Let HD-DVD die! It’s over!

Mac OS X Leopard 10.5.2 is out!

This will be old news to many of you, but yesterday Apple released Mac OS X 10.5.2 with a slew of fixes. Most notable for my Adobe CS3 and Lightroom users are important fixes that Adobe’s Photoshop Product Manager John Nack details here. When Leopard was announced Adobe announced that Adobe Creative Suite 3 was compatible with a couple of exceptions. Most notably the Adobe CS3 Production Premium products and Acrobat 8 Professional. The Production Premium updates came out on scedule in December and that suite is now Leopard compatible and the Acrobat 8 Professional 8.1.2 update came out last week. So now CS3 is completely compatible with Leopard. The water is safe!

Have tripod will travel

Although I travel with a digital camera almost everywhere I go, I almost never traveled with my tripod. Don’t get me wrong, I recognize the value of having a tripod in various situations, but the problem is that my tripod (a professional level Bogen-Monfrotto) was always too big to fit in my luggage. I also never check my photo gear for fear of theft/damage. So I would forego the tripod and in many cases miss certain shots that you just can’t get handheld.

Well that all changed over the holidays when I got the Gitzo Traveler 1540T  super lightweight and small tripod. Gitzo’s unique patented 180º folding mechanism accommodates the head inside the folded tripod legs and makes this the smallest folded tripod for its open size and number of sections. I was amazed at how small and lightweight it was. It weighs just two pounds! (one pound lighter than a MacBook Air) Yet it still accommodates up to 9.9 lbs. I weighed my Nikon D300 with battery grip and L-Bracket and I still had a few pounds to spare. The Gitzo Traveler 1540T doesn’t come with a ballhead and since I’m using the Kirk BH-1 ballhead on my Bogen tripod, I went with the Kirk BH-3 ballhead to go with the with Gitzo. The BH-3 weighs a mere 19 ounces. This combination works perfectly and I now have no problem flying with a tripod. As a matter of fact I gave it its first workout in San Francisco when I shot from Coit Tower during Macworld Expo. I was able to do the long exposures that you can only do with a tripod.

Any professional photographer will tell you that tripods and ballheads are expensive. The rational is "Do you think it’s wise to use a $20 tripod to hold a $1,800 DSLR + the $1,600 piece of glass you have on it?" Using that logic, I have to agree. However, professional tripods are outrageously expensive (IMHO). Carbon fiber lightweight ones are even more expensive. Good ballheads aren’t cheap either. The Gitzo Traveler 1540T goes for $560 at ($559.95 at B&H Photo). The one thing that keeps me from thinking about the price so much is that unlike digital cameras, once you get a good tripod, it will last you for years and years and years without the temptation or need to "upgrade."

If you think $560 is a lot of money for a tripod (and it is!), check out the Gitzo GT90TT 90th Anniversary Limited Edition Titanium Traveler Tripod. They only made 390 of this collectors item, so you might be a little stunned by the price :-)

If you’re looking for the lightest, smallest professional level tripod, the Gitzo 1540T is the best in its class! I hope to be using this tripod for many years to come.

Great book for the weekend

I heard others rave about this book and after reading this review, I couldn’t wait to get my copy which was already on order. The Moment It Clicks by world famous photography Joe McNally is PHENOMENAL. I’ve only just started reading it and I can’t really get into reading it just yet because I’m totally distracted by the amazing photography throughout the book. I find myself wanting to thumb through the book again and again just to see the pictures.

I hope to one day be 1/10th as good as Joe. This book has inspired me on many levels to be more creative and not be afraid to try new techniques. I highly recommend it. I do warn you that you may not get much else done for wanting to stare at the imagery throughout this book.

Amazon has it for $32.99 ($54.99 USA list) and it’s already one of their best sellers. Also check out Joe’s new blog which is in "My Favorite Blogs" down below on this page.

New iPhone/iPod touch with more storage

It may not be the 3g iPhone that many of us are waiting for, but it is the highly anticipated 16GB model! That’s right Apple just quietly updated the Apple online store with new iPhone and iPod touch models. The NEW 16GB iPhone goes for $499 (ships 1-3 days) and the 8GB model is unchanged at $399. There doesn’t seem to be any other apparent changes in the iPhone itself.

The iPod touch gets a more significant boost now with a 32GB model at the same $499 price as the 16GB iPhone. So you can get an iPod touch 8GB for $299, 16GB for $399 or 32GB for $499 (ships 1-2 days).

While I’m always up for more storage on my iPhone, I still remain puzzled as to why Apple wouldn’t release an iPhone that has the same capacity as the higher end iPod touch? Yes I want a 32GB iPhone! I don’t want to (read-refuse to!) have to carry two devices. I’ve been getting by with 8GB and 16GB is certainly welcomed (means I can travel with more video content now), but 32GB would have even been better. Seeing how I spent $599 for an 8GB model back in June 07, would it be unreasonable to think that some would be willing to pay $599 now for a 32GB model? $499 would be even better!

Now the question that many of you are going to be asking is, "do I upgrade to the 16GB iPhone now or wait for the 3g model that’s coming out later this year?" Good question and it’s one of those questions that only you can answer. If you can live with a mere 8GB of space for another 3-8 months (my speculation on timing), then I would wait. If you are feeling severely cramped right now and constantly having to take stuff off your iPhone to make room for new stuff, then you might want to fire up and sell your existing iPhone. My personal feeling is that I’ll probably wait. More space is nice, but I want a 3g model even more.

I can hear the screaming in the streets now! "I just bought _______ and now I want a refund!" Here’s the thing. The model of iPhone/iPod you just bought is still the current model at the same price. So I don’t think you have much of a case. However, I’ll be standing outside your local Apple store selling pitch forks and torches. Mention this blog for a deal.

The mother of all USB hubs

You may remember that I put out a call to the readers of this blog for recommendations on a good USB hub. Most readers came back with Belkin as a suggestion and well, I took your suggestions and standardized on Belkin USB 2.0 hubs throughout my house. In most cases the Belkin 7 port USB 2.0 hub provided enough ports for most of the computers in my house. However, my main production desktop computer (Mac Pro) has a LOT of peripherals attached. On this one Mac I have a USB  scanner, Bravo Pro DVD duplicator, SoundSticks USB digital speakers, Epson R1800 Printer, Wacom tablet, Epson P3000 Multimedia drive, Maxtor Hard Drive, ShuttlePro 2 video controller, SanDisk 12-in-1 Card Reader, APC BackUPS, Griffin PowerMate, 3D Space Navigator, NuLOOQ Navigator, USB keyboard and mouse. Yes, I’m a peripheral junkie, but you knew that. With this many USB devices I had to string 3 Belkin hubs together just to have enough ports to plug in all my gear.

Although this solution worked, it was not ideal. There would be times where the last two hubs wouldn’t wake up when the Mac Pro woke up from sleep. While this was rare, it was still frustrating. It generally meant that I would have to unplug and re-plug the last two hubs back in.

Well the good folks at Synchrotech have come through for me once again. They make a 13 port USB 2.0 hub. That’s right! This one hub expands one of your USB 2.0 ports into 13 ports. So I was able to replace my 3 Belkin hubs with one 13 port hub.

While this hub provides me with enough ports (I have one left over now), there is one issue and that is the design of the hub itself. I’m not a fan of the "octopus design" where cables are coming out from all sides. The AC adapter, USB to Computer port and a single USB port are on the back. Then you have five USB ports on both sides and two in the front. This can make your desk look even messier. However, there is no requirement that the hub actually reside on your desk. So if the sight of cable clutter bothers you, simply relocate the hub under your desk. In my case I still like having access to the two front USB ports, so I simply relocated the hub under my Cinema Display. Now it’s time to do some dusting :)

If you have two or more hubs that you would like to consolidate down to one, then I highly recommend the Synchrotech 13 port USB 2.0 Hub. It’s $45 and comes with a USB cable to attach to your computer as well as the AC adapter to provide power.

Page 134 of 149« First...102030...132133134135136...140...Last »