As expected, I have been playing Guild Wars 2 for most of the month, and as in times past when I get occupied with a new game, the blog suffers. I’m in a temporary hiatus with the SITA game, and while I have some new stuff about GW2, I think I’ll save it until I actually get a character to the end, which should be surprisingly soon. Another topic I occasionally delve into is TV, and with the new fall season, it seems appropriate.
The last few years, if I have nothing better to do, I watch all the new pilots in hopes that I find my next favorite show. The freshman class of 2011 was a bumper crop with 5 new series I watched every week. Unfortunately, two of the 5 got cancelled, along with a couple of other regular shows I watched. So I have slots to fill, and so far the freshman class of 2012 feels a lot like the 2010 class (none of the new network fall shows of 2010 ever got a second season). My TV viewing may be down this year as a result.
If I do watch less TV this year, I will be following a trend. TV viewing is down everywhere. People don’t turn on the TV and watch whatever is on anymore, they are becoming selective. I don’t even have cable TV, or satellite… I have the internet. Primarily I watch Hulu Plus because most of the shows I am interested in are on it. The small handful of shows that are not on Hulu Plus that I like I can usually get on iTunes or just wait for the DVDs. To watch live TV, I use rabbit ears, and if it is not on broadcast, I don’t watch it.
Once the darling of internet TV, Netflix has hit some rough times. A lot of people consider Netflix a better deal than Hulu Plus due to commercial free content, but Netflix is having a hard time getting and keeping content it can show without raising prices… which it tried already resulting in a mass exodus of subscribers. It also does not help that Amazon and Google have joined the fray of streaming TV content.
With stiff competition it is the content providers — Disney, Warner, Newscorp, Viacom, Columbia, Universal, and Paramount — that hold all the cards. Their prices for movies and TV shows to stream are going up. They also own the majority of network and cable channels, and are primarily the reason your cable, satellite, and IP TV bills keep on going up.
Cable vs. Satellite vs. IP TV
As someone who is in the know on these things, I thought I’d address the question of which is better: Cable, Satellite, or IP TV?
Before I address that question, let me in on a little secret: If you are satisfied with your current TV/Internet provider, but are looking around for a cheaper price, DONT!! Irregardless of what you have, if you like the service and then switch, you will regret it, guaranteed. One reason is human nature. You will nit pick the new service until you convince yourself you made a mistake. I’ve seen it happen. The second, and more important reason, is that you will not save money. The cost of all three services are about the same, and they all have install fees, and equipment fees, and tech visit fees, and early cancellation fees, and other hidden fees that the sales person, who is paid on commission, did not mention. Even if your monthly charge is lower with the new service, that will only be true for a few months, then you are back to full price.
That said, which is the best type of service? Well the very best, is IP TV run with fiber all the way to your house. This is what is available in major cities all over the world, except the US. It exists in the US only if you are lucky enough to be an early customer of Verizon Fios, or in a brand new housing development where Verizon or AT&T service. For the other 99% of us, IP TV comes via fiber to a terminal box up to 2 miles away, then flows through old unreliable copper the last stretch. While true fiber to the house internet can get 100 mbps speed easy, the aging telephone infrastructure means you are lucky if you can get 25 — enough to stream compressed HD TV streams, but not much else.
In the US, the winner is Cable TV. Satellite is good if you can’t get anything else, and you have an unencumbered view facing south, but if Cable is available it is probably better since you don’t lose signals during storms or thick clouds.
So why is Cable better? Mostly it is for the internet. Coaxial cable is not subjected to line noise, and technology keeps improving, pushing bandwidth higher and faster. Also the primary negative of cable — sharing bandwidth with your neighbors — is becoming less and less of a problem as the tech improves. The sharing bandwidth issue was why in the past I would say DSL is often better than Cable, but the game is changing. In fact a growing number of customers (like myself) are getting cable only for the internet. Paying an additional $30 for basic cable TV would be a waste for me.
What needs to happen in the US Internet market
It might surprise most Americans to learn that most of the world enjoys faster and more reliable internet at cheaper prices than we do. The reason is that it is illegal for Telco/Cable companies to block other companies from using their lines to provide service. The result is massive amounts of competition resulting in low prices for better speeds. American Telco/Cable companies oppose such plans, because they make more money gouging American consumers. Blame the corporatocracy for opposing deregulation and consumer choice.
My post about the new Apple TV sucking has generated a lot of traffic. I thought I’d follow it up with my own impression of what would be a whole lot better.
About a year ago I started a project that I continue to fine tune, but I have perfected it enough to explain. This is a project so cool everyone will want to do it, and I suspect in the near future, there will be online services and special hardware to make this a lot easier than it currently is.
Basically the project involves doing to TV and movies what MP3 has done to music. I am converting all video from multiple sources to unencrypted MP4/h.264 video. It is all 480i format for compactness and mobility. MP4 files are playable on pretty much anything, though the best looking playback is on a Playstation 3 which has the best upscaling technology to turn 480i picture to 1080i without the picture looking slightly fuzzy. I can also take the videos with me on my ipod touch and watch anywhere.
The bottom line is that I have instant access to all my favorite movies and TV shows without ever having to find a DVD to put in, and no buffering issues or commercials that you get with online TV services. Just a few clicks, and there it is. I pair this tech with online services to discover new shows, as well as an aerial antenna/TV Tuner card/Windows Media Center for local TV. No cable, no satellite, no expensive fiber based TV service.
This all sounds obvious and you are probably asking why hasn’t anyone done this before, and the answer is that only recently the storage has gotten cheap enough and the tech good enough to do this with satisfactory results.
There are three components to instant access TV, a computer of course, a mass storage device preferably a networked NAS box with uPnP server software but a large (1TB or bigger) external usb 2.0 hard drive formatted in FAT32 format works too, and a playback device — ideally a PlayStation 3, but anything that can handle uPnP or that can read the external hard drive (Wii and XBOX360 both can) will do.
The computer converts all your files to MP4 format and moves them to the storage device, and the player plays the video from the storage device. Its the same as ripping CDs to mp3 files and storing them on your mp3 player, only we are doing it with video which are significantly larger in size.
The software I use to convert all video to the same MP4/h.264 format is all free, or included in Windows. The biggest challenge is that the ripping/converting process is very time consuming compared to audio ripping and converting. The programs I use are Windows Media Center, DVD Decrypter, Handbrake, MCEBuddy, Avidemux, and Download Helper. If you don’t already have it, VLC Media Player is very helpful too. Everything I will be describing below is legal in the US as long as it is for personal use only, this may not be true in other countries. Distributing copyrighted video in any format is illegal.
DVDs to MP4s
Most DVDs contain 4 to 8 GB of data, and yet converting it to an MP4 file will reduce a movie to around 1 GB file, Half hour TV shows are around 200mb, and hour longs are around 400mb. A 1 TB drive can store 2500 hours of TV and movies in the MP4 format.
DVDs are the best source for MP4 data, which is odd because DVDs are supposed to be a dying format. Until a service like itunes can sell unencrypted mp4 files, DVD is the best source. DVDs are themselves protected, but easy to unprotect. For 32-bit Windows you can use DVD43, have it run in the background, then just use windows to copy the files from a DVD to your hard drive, and DVD43 will unencrypt as they are being copied. For 64-bit I use DVD Decrypter, which is a little bit buggy but quickly creates an unencrypted mirror to your hard drive. You can use VLC Media Player to test your decrypted image. Not all DVDs are convertible this way, though I know tricks to get around more stringent protection.
Once you have a decrypted image, you can use Handbrake to create MP4 files. For maximum compatibility and best file compression, you want to use “Regular Normal” for everything. For movies there is one really big title, for TV show DVDs there are multiple titles to convert. You can use VLC to figure out which titles go with which episode.
Note: Handbrake will use every last bit of CPU power available while converting, slowing your computer to a crawl while converting. I set up a queue of conversions to do, then let my computer do them in the middle of the night, so they are done the next morning.
Windows Media Center DVR recordings to MP4s
Even though DVDs are the best source for MP4s, DVDs themselves are not free, and not all TV shows end up on DVD either. It is possible instead to record TV and convert that to mp4.
Windows Media Center is the best DVR software out there. Just like all other DVR software, you can schedule recordings, pause live TV etc. The problem is that to record HDTV programs it uses a hell of a lot of hard drive space, about 6 and a half gigabytes for an hour long program, and you still have to fast forward through commercials.
I record my shows to a dedicated folder called “Recorded TV”. Within this folder are two sub folders called “To Convert” and “Converted”. I have a program called MCEBuddy which runs in the background looking to see if any new WTV files have been added to the “To Convert” directory. When it sees one, the program efficiently converts the file to mp4 and stores it in the “Converted” directory about an hour later. Again MCE buddy uses a lot of CPU resources, so don’t drag and drop WTV files while playing video games.
Now the finished mp4 files are still going to have commercials, and that is where Avidemux comes in. Avidemux is a quick and dirty editor, which is worthless if you want to do anything fancy (it has a tendency to unsync the audio and video tracks, especially if you try appending files) but all we want to do is edit out the commercials, which once you get used to using the program, can be done in a few minutes per episode. When you start Avidemux, set the format to MP4. When you load a converted show, it is going to say h.264 detected with a warning, say YES to this. There are 3 ways to move through the video, there is a slide bar (the fastest), arrow frame buttons < >, and double arrow key frame buttons << >>. There are two select buttons, “A” begin block, and “B” end block. To edit out the beginning, use the KEYFRAME buttons to find the beginning of the program (your final video must begin on a key frame) then hit B to select the non-program stuff at the beginning. Then just hit the Del key and it is gone. Then use the slide bar and frame buttons to find the beginning of commercials, press A, find the end of the commercials, press B, then Del, and the commercials are gone. Once at the end of the program, press A then Del to get rid of the end stuff. Now you can save your commercial free MP4 file.
Online Videos to MP4s
Don’t try this with Hulu, TV.com, Netflix or other protected sites like that. There are programs out there to do those sites, but they are not free, not entirely legal, and they record off your video card, recording all the buffering stutters in low format video and ultimately look crappy.
This is for collecting video from sites like You Tube that you can’t get any other way. All you need is DownloadHelper. Some sites like You Tube offer video already in MP4 format, which DownloadHelper will download for you, or if all you can get is FLV files, you can use Handbrake to convert them to MP4.
Once you start collecting MP4 files, it is all a matter of organizing them. I keep them on an NAS for easy access, and also on an external drive as backup. Having all this video instantly accessible is far superior to all other forms of tv watching. The chore of finding the disk, putting it in, wading through all the warnings and previews and menus before your movie starts is gone. Its commercial free with no buffering issues.
This, and PlayOn, is how I watch TV now. The money that I would spend on cable or satellite TV, is being spent on new video acquisitions, which I can spend as much or as little as I want each month. I stopped buying TV and movies from Apple, because they are encrypted and only viewable on certain devices. MP4s are viewable on anything.
Its September and that means the new fall season of TV is coming. As usual the networks rearrange their schedules and schedule most of my favorite shows opposite one another.
I do not have cable or satellite, just an antenna to pick up local HD channels. My “DVR” consists of a tuner card on my computer running Windows Media Center — far and away the best DVR software despite the fact that the files it saves are proprietary. Between WMC, and websites like Hulu and streaming video on network sites (cbs.com, abc.com, etc.), and pay for TV like iTunes, Amazon, and Netflix, I do not miss anything I want to see, despite the lack of cable or Satellite.
The problem is, none of this can be seen on my TV, just my computer. All I can watch on my TV are live channels, DVDs, and my previously metioned Apple TV.
I decided that I would find a way to solve this once and for all. I researched many possible fixes: Wireless enabled television (too expensive), building a media PC (also too expensive), TiVo (another monthly fee to pay, high startup cost), a media server (none support the WMC proprietary files), a converted xbox or linux box with XBMC loaded (same WMC proprietary issue), a Windows Media Extender (difficult to find, most no longer being supported) and a PC toTV device (poor screen resolution no HD support). I mention these options because others may find them more suitable.
For me, the easiest and most cost effective solution is to get an XBox360.
I don’t own any consoles, never had the need, as my computer is powerful enough to play anything. But if I want to watch all this internet based television on my actual television, the XBox360 is the best way to go. I got the “arcade” model, the extras you get in the “elite” are needed for console gaming enthusiasts, but not needed for my uses.
Setting all this up turned out to be a major chore as I ran into some undocumented issues that Microsoft apparently does not even know how to fix. My computer connects wirelessly to a router in the same room as my TV, so all I had to do on the xbox is plug in a cat 6 ethernet cable (the 54mb limit of the way over priced wireless G adapter Microsoft sells is too low to stream HD). Once connected, my computer had no problem seeing my XBox, but the XBox could not see the computer.
The official answer from Microsoft is to make sure your network is “private” and that and that both file and media sharing is enabled. It turns out you must also turn off Internet Connection Sharing as well (its a service under administrative tools, disable it from ever starting so it does not come on when you reboot your computer). Microsoft either does not know about the issue, or they dont think it is common enough to publicize as a possible fix. Took me a good 4 hours of troubleshooting to find this out though.
Anyways, once fixed, I can play all my media files through my TV, including my DVR recordings via the Windows Media Extender feature. The xbox also has netflix built in.
What I still could not do was access hulu and other streaming video. Turns out there is an easy fix for that too called PlayOn ($40 one time after two week trial). It installs on your PC and plays online streaming video through your TV by pretending to be stored video. Works on PS3 and Wii as well.
And with that addition, I can watch anything I want on my TV, sans cable or satellite.
Generally speaking I do not do movie or TV reviews on this blog, but Caprica is a sci-fi story that hits many themes I tend to hit on this blog.
For Battlestar Galactica fans, it is the story about the creation of the first Cylons. For Virtual World fans there is a deep plot involving virtual reality, its nature and practical uses. The opening scene is what a lot of SL players probably wish SL was really like. (this scene will likely be heavily toned down when the movie finally airs)
I like science fiction, especially the speculative fiction with real world ties, like Philip K. Dick, or the “cyberpunk” writers like William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, and early Neil Stephenson. This kind of stuff does not translate well to TV or Movies, and even when it is done successfully there is not a big enough audience to sustain it.
Battlestar Galactica often managed to get beyond its space adventure genre and start telling stories with real world parallels, like the “New Caprica” episodes and their table turning parallels to the war in Iraq.
Caprica loses the whole space adventure genre completely. It is more of the dystopia genre. Caprica is a parallel Earth slightly more technological advanced than ours. The fact that it is also slightly more advanced than BSG as well says that Ronald D. Moore and crew understand how tech can slide backwards in the time of war (which hasn’t happened yet in Caprica’s timeline).
Bottom line is that Caprica is a good sci-fi story set in the BSG universe. If you are a fan of either, you should really check this out. I will definitely be looking forward to the series this fall.
Occasionally I veer away from posting about life in the metaverse to talk about not too distantly related other stuff. This is one of those posts. I recently set up a modest home theater system consisting of the following components: An Apple TV and an HDTV. Going through the offerings on Apple TV, it occurred to me that this is the future of entertainment!
Well not necessarily Apple TV per se, but something close. XBox360 offers a few download services including Netflix viewing and soon hulu.com content, Playstation 3 launched its own movie download service this summer, and Blockbuster will be offering a stand alone movie rental box soon too. Eventually, there will be many options to choose from on all of these services. (Not to mention upcoming meta services like Boxee, and PlayOn which can add any streaming services like hulu.com to any of the above mentioned boxes)
The primary goal being this: Access to every movie and TV show ever made anytime you want.
This is pretty much what every customer wants. There already exists services similar to this in other countries. In the US, the closest is Verizon Fios or AT&T Uverse, both of which are expensive services only available in limited areas. They both offer “On Demand” TV supported by high speed fiber lines (25-50MB), but even there, there are limitations based on what I consider to be archaic “tiers” (i.e. if you want HBO on demand you have to pay for HBO channels too).
With access to any TV and Movie anytime you want, the whole notion of “Network TV” has to change. It will most definitely hurt network TV, but cant kill it. There have a lot of things threatening to kill AM radio, and yet it is still alive and kicking. In fact the AM radio model is where Network TV is destined to go: Non stop talk shows. (Think about it, those court shows and game shows on daytime tv are just glorified talk shows too.) All the news channels (CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, etc.) are there already. NBC just announced a five hour reduction in its prime time schedule for (you guessed it) a talk show.
Initially, wide spread on demand is going to kill many networks, or cause some consolidation, but the long term trend (as successful models emerge) is that we may end up with more networks.
While network TV may survive, it is going to go from a majority slice of the entertainment pie to a minority slice. Inevitably, in order to get eyeballs, networks are going to start streaming live on the internet, giving access to anyone with a high speed internet account. As bandwidth and streaming technology improve, the quality of streaming will match the quality of cable or satellite TV, seriously hurting these services.
With on demand, there is little need to own DVDs, but the same can be said of mp3s and CD sales, and yet the CD sales continue. People like software they can hold in their hand. That will not stop anytime soon.
Movie theaters are already hurting, especially since the viewing experience in theaters is not much better than most home theaters these days. But, people still like to go out and watch movies with a crowd. Theaters are trying to offer things they can’t get at home like bigger screens, and 3D movies. The big 3D movie offerings over the past year (Beowulf, Journey to the Center of the Earth, and Bolt) have not done any better than 2D movies however, so I am not so sure if that can save theaters. Meanwhile, they are now experimenting with live sporting events in 3D, the first ever being the Raiders vs Chargers game on December 4th, 2008. Will we go to theaters to watch sports in 3D?
Regardless, mass media, and how we get our entertainment, is going to change in the very near future.
The number of Second Life builds based on TV, Movie, and Video games is rather extensive. I could spend about a month researching it, like I did for the world tour, but I thought I would just post about the cool sites I know about now and later maybe I can add a few more.
Lets start with a classic. The Blade Runner Build at Devil’s Moon. This build has been around for a few years, and used to house a popular club. Now it only houses the main store of Abramations primarily, although the wet looking streets (the streets are patially transparent, and a mirror build of the streets can be seen underneath) are still there.
Less famous is a life size replica of Serenity, as seen in the TV show Firefly and movie Serenity. This is on a mainland server, and is fairly detailed. There are numerous Star Trek and Star Wars themed worlds including multiserver RPGs. A good place to start on the former is the Star Trek Museum. I have previously blogged about the incredible Battlestar Pacifica RPG sim.
Another incredible sci-fi build is the Privateer Space build. This server has multiple levels, each a different planet environment to explore.
While Sci-Fi is a very popular theme in SL, its not the only one. One of the sillier builds I have come across is one based on Bedrock from The Flintstones.
Speaking of silly, the ship from Mystery Science Theater 3000 has its own replica build as well. Turn on your media player if you dare to be subjected to a really bad movie.
Finally, if you are a fan of the game Vampire: Bloodlines, somebody has managed to build a decent copy of the first level of the game. Check out the Vampires Santa Monica build.
If the above picture looks at all familiar, you might have been playing my Dating Simulator, and reached this picture:
Yes I used the same game as a background for the Dating Simulator club.