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Roku – not bad, but not good, and who is this really for?

While I was waiting for the AppleTV v2, I figured I’d try out the Roku.  And it’s clearly in the path of my ongoing media player quest.  So I bought the “top of the line” (which is hard to say given that it’s like $99 and has almost no frills) – and given all the hype I was excited to start using it.

Well, my first big disappointment was that it doesn’t play any of your own media.  I knew this when I bought it, but I was hoping there was some hack, or back door, or custom channel to do this.  Not sure how this really even fits into the “media player” category, as it’s more of a dedicated internet streamer only.   Unless you upload all your own media to YouTube or similar, you’re not playing it through the Roku.

Okay, so it’s sort of a new-cable-box-without-cable, I can get into that.  If it supports cutting-the-cord, then it’s gotta be good.

It has a bunch of channels that you can pick from, of course none of them are iTunes, but you do get Amazon and Netflix.  The interface is fairly simple, but it gets tedious if you have a bunch of channels.  Most of the channels are garbage, and some require an annoying coordination with a computer to actually activate – and I kept feeling like I was exposing personal information or something bad, as I had to go to really shady web sites to activate things like a weather “channel” (not The weather channel).

But the more I used it, the more it became clear that it was mostly a lousy browser with a horrible 10-foot interface.  Most of the channels just opened a browser to the site, slightly masked to make it look like a TV screen.  And as we all know with things like Windows tablets, regular browser interfaces don’t magically work well without a mouse and keyboard.  Unless it’s designed to be consumed through a TV screen, the user experience is poor at best.

Worse, some of the channels actually had a small arrow-cursor on the screen that you have to slowly manipulate with the remote up/down/left/right to click on things.  Painful.

Yes, a few of the channels that I played with had more app-like interfaces, but most of what I saw were in the broken-browser-interface model.  And all of it is sluggish and sort of sloppy.  That plus the fact that you don’t have the ability to play your own media files, it’s really not useful for much.

I guess this is the tradeoff for a completely open system where anyone who wants to can add a “channel” to Roku.  The concept is good, I think.  But in practice, it means the bulk of what’s up there is total garbage, and weeding through it all is almost impossible.  After a number of bad experiences with lousy content channels, it’s hard not to just give up.

For all the hype of how the Roku was the best thing ever for the non-technical user, I’m really surprised how much I didn’t like the interface at all.  For something in the $69-99 price range, I suppose it’s passable, but most of the valuable content you can get on the Roku (except Amazon), you can get on something like the Apple TV v2 for the same price and with a much better TV interface.  And all the awful content means the non-technical user will likely be overwhelmed almost immediately, and come to the conclusion that the curated experience of cable TV is much better.

So for now, the Roku is in my “test only when the update the software” bin.

Boxee – waste of monee…

As you know if you’ve read my history, I’m constantly looking for a better media streaming device.  There are multiple needs though – NetFlix and Amazon streaming, iTunes streaming from Apple, iTunes streaming from local iTunes servers, streaming of archived Tivo recordings (HD/SD), streaming of other archived movies, streaming of home movies (HD/SD), and then ideally pictures and music as well.

So far, no single device meets all those needs.

The Boxee Box has (had?) so much promise – a quick UI, a great history, and the ability to play nearly any media type.  So I bought one right away, and quickly realized it was a mess.  They decided to abandon their history, and tuned the box to cater to the mainstream consumer.  But with no NetFlix, iTunes, or Amazon.  Huh?   And playing any of your own media was buried in some tertiary menu.

A few updates later, and they added NetFlix, and gave us a mode to flip into focus-on-playing-my-media versus focus-on-playing-other-media.  Sort of a weird approach when this could have been handled with about 5 minutes of a good UX person, but okay, I’ll roll with it.  The problem is, the play-my-media mode is just awful.  It’s like an afterthought.  It’s like they forgot their years of work in this very area.  Things like giant scrolling menus that take forever to actually find the item you want in your collection, to painfully slow scanning of your media libraries, to horribly non-intuitive navigation and menus.

It’s like they’re trying to compete with the super-simple Roku, while still baking in all the old Boxee capabilities.  They’re sort of schizophrenic, and end up doing nothing well.

Sadly, the Boxee is still connected, but I rarely use it anymore (except to check out the latest update).  The Popcorn Hour is still my go-to device for archived video streaming, and my AppleTVv2 is the best NetFlix player out there.

I’ll still keep it connected in case they come out with an update that fixes everything, but I’m not too hopeful anymore after a series of overly hyped, under-delivered updates.

Popcorn Hour – A200/C200

I started with the A110, moved to the C200 for my home theater, and finally the A200 for everywhere else.  The main reason for these devices is to stream my extensive movie collection from my central storage – this includes HD Tivo recordings, HD Home Movies, and of course the other HD and SD stuff we all have in various formats, including MPEG, M2TS, and HD ISOs.

The nice thing about the C200/A200, compared to the A110, is that the 200’s support chapters in an HD ISO.  Not that I do this sort of thing, but if you were to rip a BluRay movie, you could rip out just the movie and put it back into an ISO container, and maintain all the chapters (see something like Clown_BD).  Remember boys and girls that removing encryption from DVDs or BluRays is against the DMCA, although if you’ve purchased the physical media I’ve always felt you have a right to back it up for your own personal use, as long as you keep the physical copy as well.

Anyway – the problem with the C200/A200 is the interface – it sucks.  The best you’re going to get is to build an HTML interface with something like YAMJ, and find some passable skin.  Even then, it’s really slow and clunky.  But once you get a process that works, you just create a timed job and it automatically picks up new movies and generates new HTML.

They have this new flash-based interface that in theory should be great, but it’s even worse.  It’s been through a number of iterations now, and it’s clear that they have no clue how to put a solid UI together.  Yeah, it’s smoother than an HTML interface, but other than that it’s just awful.

But the good news it that it plays just about anything.  They had a really annoying issue with playing M2TS files with HD audio codecs, but that’s fixed now (of course everyone converted to ISOs to get around that issue since it took them so long to fix it).  And even though an HTML-based YAMJ-build interface is sort of slow and clunky, it’s still fairly usable so that most people can find their way around it (I prefer the simple AEON skin).

So for now, this is the media player to beat – it plays everything, and the interface is just workable enough.

First stab at requirements

I also got the first piece of requirements posted.  This one is about the channel sources on cable that I’d need to be able to view using a streaming solution.  As you know, I Love TV, so whatever I do has to provide me access to every piece of content available on cable.

Here’s the post.

Posted my Mission!

Finally got my Mission all put together.  I feel pretty good about it, and think it captures they main point of what I’m trying to accomplish.

It also gives a little history on me, to help you understand my mission!

Here’s the link.