Sunday, March 18, 2012

XBMC, Plex Media Server, Airplay and Ubuntu 11.10 ...

     After spending a few days looking for a solution that would fit into my existing setup, I have almost found a solution that works. What I am looking for sounds really simple, the ability to watch any and all of media when and where I want and on the device that I want to watch it on. Due to conflicting standards, closed source software and the restriction of the MPAA this is much harder than needs to be. 

    Lets get started with XBMC. This was a pain to get installed, but only before I found the right PPA to add to Ubuntu. To get started, use these three commands in a Terminal Window (you can also do this from your Mac or PC if you use Terminal to login to your Ubuntu box via SSH):

sudo add-apt-repository pap:nathan-renniewaldock/xbmc-stable
sudo apt-get update
sudo apt-get install xbmc

    Once XMBC is installed, it will be listed under Media Applications. As a "Media Center" it reminds me a lot of Windows Media Center or Apple's Front Row. The graphics and animations have a lot of polish it looks very good. It even let me adjust the "Visual Screen Size" to prevent the edges of the videos from being lost along the edges of my television. 

    Before I get too much farther, I suppose I should get into its AirPlay feature. XBMC has now included a "version" that supports "most" of Apple's AirPlay. This is not without issue. Youtube can stream to it very well, as can video that I have in iTunes on either of my Mac's. Streaming music is out of the question though. For some reason Apple has decided to encrypt that part of Airplay. Video's are fine, just not music. I honestly don't get it, but then again it is Apple. 

    Other problems I encountered started with "Apple Movie Trailers" app for my iPhone. The video just to starts to play on XBMC then decides to stop. You get about a half second screen shot and thats it. If you keep pressing the issue and retrying enough times, you will crash XBMC and it will just exit you back the Unity Desktop. 

    Also, if my wife is AirPlay-ing a video from her computer via iTunes, and (even though I have nothing to do with the video in anyway) I quit the iTunes application on my computer, my wife's video on XBMC stops playing. Just quits. No warning, and no resuming where you left off. It just stops and goes back to the XBMC main screen. 

    And another thing, if my wife has decided to try again with said video, and I (who was not interested in what she watching at the time) decide to play a game on my iPhone (in this case Zombie Gunship, great free game from the app store) it kicks her out of her video so the Audio can be streamed instead. She was a little miffed. Granted, all of this is part of the learning curve with new software, but it was rather annoying. 

    The application AirParrot for Mac (AirPlay screen casting) also does not work with XBMC, but AirFlick does work. In fact AirFlick works very well with excellent quality video, and its free. 

    I also didn't like the way XBMC displayed metadata for my videos. If fact, i didn't. I did find plugin called PleXBMC. This was interesting to get working correctly. The only real note worthy items for PlexBMC are:
    
    1) Change the ip address from 127.0.0.1 to the ip address of the server. Do this even if (as in my case) XBMC is on the same machine as your Plex server. If you don't you will end up waiting a good three minutes or more for the video to start. 

    2) Turn off Video Transcoding. If your Ubuntu box can play the video, so can XBMC. There is no reason for transcoding and it even says its experimental. It does't work very well so its best just to leave it off. 

    Other than those two things, it seems to work very well. In fact, it works better than using the Plex Channel on my Roku Box. Roku defaults to 720p for the main menu and all video's unless it is 1080p24 or 1080p30. I am not sure what the difference is, but I do have a lot of 1080 content that ends up getting transcoded to 720p. So in that respect, I do get better video with PleXBMC than I do with Roku+Plex. 

    In fact, XBMC is working out so well, I am considering seeing if I can get away from the Roku completely. All I really need at this point is an Infa-red receiver so I can use a remote control with it. That or a wireless keyboard and mouse. 

    And that bring me to my final idea. I am now forced to ask, why don't I just by an new 3rd Generation Apple T.V.? The Apple T.V. does 1080p and it will handle all of the Airplay features. Between the limited content that Apple TV provides and by learning to manage other things via AirPlay, I could (in theory) simplify the network. In fact, I could AirPlay the Plex Media Application from my Mac (either of them) to the Apple T.V., and Airparrot could handle it (in theory) until this fall when the new osX comes out. 

    The thing to keep in mind is, especially when dealing with technology, everything is subject to change. Computers will get better, standards will change as will the needs and wants of the end user. The key is to manage what you have, what you want and mix those with a little bit of fortune telling to try and see what is coming soon. If you can do all of that without breaking the bank, your already ahead of a lot of people.

Until next time ...