Saturday, May 2, 2009

Boxee's getting GOOOOOOOD!

In my never-ending quest for the perfect media center app for my HTPC, I have been using the three best available for Linux today. The mighty and reliable MythTV, the stealthy and below-the-radar Elisa, and the wildly popular yet volatile Boxee.

Here's my setup: I'm currently using an Acer Aspire 5610 laptop (about 2 years old with the standard Intel graphics, 2 GB of RAM, HDA audio, VGA-out), 42" Insignia LCD HDTV, Yamaha receiver w/ 5.1 surround, and a Microsoft Media Center Edition remote control.

Here's what I need: A one-stop solution that will let me watch Hulu, watch TV and movies saved on my harddrive, listen to music saved on my harddrive, listen to internet radio, and browse photos saved online and on my harddrive.

Here's my experience so far:

MythTV has been my most reliable solution. For over three years it has been THE default Linux media center. (Although it's been around for seven years, it really began life as a TV capture and DVR application. It's full media center capabilities came later.) If you use Ubunutu or any of the variants (like Mint, for instance), installing Myth is a snap. Configuring takes about 30 minutes, and soon you're flipping between shoutcast radio, Apple movie trailers, and saved TV shows. The UI is VERY plain menu structures, but quite intuitive and easy-to-use. And it has a plugin architecture that allows additional functionality to be added. Myth is SUPER stable, well-documented, and has an EXTENSIVE support community. However, for me the killer-feature (broadcast TV capture and playback) is of zero value. This giant Insignia TV is nothing more than a fancy computer monitor; no cable, satellite, or rabbit-ears allowed. The killer-feature that I am looking for is Hulu. And as yet, Myth does not support Hulu. Too bad as Myth is really an awesome media center solution. It uses 2D menus, which means that even the slowest of PC's will be able to run it.

Elisa.... What can be said. Elisa was supposed to bring the revolution. But the SLOW development cycle has left it in the dust. Maybe slow development cycle is not the correct phrase. They release quite frequently, actually. But nothing seems to get better! I STILL can't use my remote control! Also, no Hulu support. In reality, I haven't even looked cross-eyed at Elisa for about two months. Maybe I should give it another try, but now that I have Boxee...

Boxee, as I've discussed in previous posts, is the hellspawn of the XBox Media Center (XBMC). Similar core and UI. But Boxee has thrown in a whole lot of new bells and whistles. In short, it does EVERYTHING I need, and then some. Easy install, zero-setup, intuitive UI, and no issues with my remote control. To date, however, there were two critical issues keeping me from using it consistently. First, it's totally an Alpha-stage project right now. So stability has been all over the board. Random crashes, audio glitches, etc. And second, about four or five months ago, Hulu formally "requested" that Boxee remove direct access to it's content. I think the theory was this: Boxee was making it WAY too easy for tech-heads to watch Hulu in their living rooms. So much so, that the studios began to think that Hulu-viewing was spreading beyond geeks to normal folk, and thus cutting into actual broadcast TV viewership. So, the message came down to Hulu from the studios: "Cut off Boxee, or else. Don't forget where your bread gets buttered." And I'm sure the "request" to Boxee was a veiled threat. Sure they asked Boxee to volutarily comply, but the manner in which Boxee accessed Hulu servers ensured that Hulu could identify and disconnect that access should Boxee choose to continue. Thus, Boxee shutdown Hulu. Until now. The latest version of Boxee is stable (mostly), and has restored Hulu access. And those clever bastards have ensured that Hulu can't identify Boxee users by integrating a firefox browser into the UI. INGENIOUS! I've been Boxee'ing for the last 24 hours straight!!! Try it for yourself! If you've got an HTPC, you'll never go back to anything else.
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