Why do I need 5, 6 or 7 boxes to watch stuff on my TV?

All I really want to do is listen to music and watch stuff on my TV. And my granchildren want to play some games.

Why is it so hard?

In my living room, like many people, I have a large screen TV and surround sound speakers.

In order to drive these, I have to have an AV receiver, and they are annoying and unnecessary devices. All I want the AV receiver to do is to switch HDMI inputs and drive the speakers. Why does the box have to be so big and have so many unnecessary features? Why do I need a separate box just for this?

I don’t really want the TV to be connected to speakers as it is fixed to the wall, and I don’t want speaker cables and other wires coming from it. In fact, all I really want is a single HDMI connection to it. (It would be good if this could also power the TV. LED TV’s don’t need that much power).

A trend I don’t like is for extra functionality to be added to the TV. In the UK they nearly all have Freeview tuners, and they mainly have USB inputs, Ethernet of Wifi connections, and some have internet streaming services. This just adds to the expense, size, power usage, and complexity. I think TVs should be just display devices, and should not be called televisions at all. As I have said before, I would like the whole wall to be an OLED display device.

I then want some content. I want a lot of TV channels, as I watch sports and movies, and my grandchidren watch a lot of channels like Disney, Cartoon Network etc. To get these in the UK, you need either Sky of Virgin Media. I use Virgin Media as I prefer cable to satellite technology, it provides faster broadband, and I don’t want to give money to Rupert Murdoch. (Its bad enough giving money to Richard Branson, but Rupert Murdoch is a step too far).

I use the Virgin Media TiVo box in the living room, and this works well. The DVR and on-demand functionality is fine. My main complaint is that I have to drive the TiVO with an infrared remote control. I want an open HTTP API. TiVos do have such APIs but they are not available on the Virgin TiVo (or it have been severely restricted, so as not to be usable). Keeping up with where Virgin media are with introducing and then withdrawing APIs, and failing to launch their Android App, is a bit boring.

Navigating via the remote control is very tedious particularly for services like Youtube. I have automated this with HouseControl, but it is still slow and a bit unreliable. I believe I can plug in a wireless keyboard, but I do not want a proliferation of wireless keyboards, each attached to a single device.

Another gripe about the TiVO is that it does not support CEC, so I cannot use a single remote for multiple devices (TV, AV receiver, TiVo). You can program the TiVo remote to switch the TV off and control the volume, which helps, but is not as good as CEC support could be.

The TiVo gives me a lot of features including quite a lot of Internet services such as iPlayer, ITV Player, 4OD, Youtube etc., but there are lots of internet services it does not support, and its Youtube support is practically unusable.It does give me Spotify, but only with a premium account.

So I need an Internet streaming device and for this I use a Raspberry Pi running XBMC OpenELEC. This works fine, and has an open HTTP API which I have integrated with HouseControl. Both the XBMC GUI and the API are a bit clunky, but they let me do most of the things I want to do. It is a bit slow at some things.

I have my own music collection on the 16Gb SD card that openELEC is installed on, as well as some music videos, so I can play music quite well. I do not need the TV on to play music, just the Raspberry Pi and the AV receiver.

So what can’t I do with this set up? I can’t get the Sky Atlantic channel, so I can’t watch things like Madmen and Game of Thrones. I cannot access Netflix or LoveFilm.

I can listen to podcasts, but it is easier to do this using iTunes on a PC.

I cannot access Spotify with this set-up, as I only have an unlimited, not a premium account.

Another beef I have about AV receivers, is that they can only select one input at a time. Why can’t I have a music playing and a silent video, or photo slide show at the same time For example, I often watch sport with the sound off and music playing.

I would like to be a cord cutter, and use Netflix or Lovefilm rather than Virgin Media, but nothing other than Sky or Virgin gives me sport channels, and as I am forced to have Virgin (or Sky) for sports, I also use them for movies and on-demand services as it seems to have a better selection than Netflix or Lovefilm. There is Now TV for Sky Sports on streaming devices but it is ridiculously expensive,

So I have this solution with 4 boxes: TV, TiVo, AV receiver and Raspberry Pi, I pay a lot of money for it, but there are still things I can’t get, and it is a pain to control.

None of this lets me (or my chidren or grandchildren) play games. So I have a Wii U, owned by my 7-year-old grandson, attached to the AV receiver. The AV receiver has 3 HDMI inputs called Blueray, DVD, and STB. The Wii U is on Blueray, and the Raspberry Pi is on DVD, which is all a little confusing. The receiver remote has buttons for about another 6 sources, which nobody in their right mind uses.

The Wii U is a strange device with its tablet-cum-controller. As with most games consoles it doesn’t have an open API, which is disappointing. It would allow me to use Lovefilm and/or Netflix, if I really wanted to use the strange controller.

So, with this 5 box solution, I still can’t do what I want.

I could add a PC to this set up. This would let me play Spotify, without a premium account. But I have run out of HDMI connections on the AV receiver, so I would need to use another connection, probably an analog one. I sometimes do this.

So this six box solution doesn’t really work.

In truth, there are more boxes. As well as the Virgin cable going into the TiVo box, it has a splitter which used to feed the cable into a cable modem, which was connected by Ethernet to a Wireless Router. That would have been an 8 box solution. Luckily, I now have the Virgin Superhub which combines the cable modem and wireless router, so I just have a 7 box solution. (Some people don’t like the Superhub, but it has worked fine for me).

So what would I really like?

Just two boxes would be nice. A combined AV receiver, TiVO, internet streaming, wireless router and games console and a TV.

Such a solution would have disadvantages: the devices would not be best of breed at any of the functions, and probably couldn’t be updated very frequently. But these things should be so close to being commodity, that it does not matter.

So it there a solution like this?

An HTPC with a cableCARD comes close, but not very close, and is not available in the UK.

The Xbox ONE seems to have made some attempt at improving the situation, but does not seem to have succeeded.

In fact Microsoft, Google, Apple, Samsung, Sony and others have all attempted to solve this problem, but have failed.

The XBox One combines a Games console with Internet streaming and a cable pass-through with video overlays, but it is not a very good solution, at least in the UK.

I like the idea of having voice and gesture control over devices, but I want it over all devices not just one. And I want a free choice in which device I use to control things. At the moment, I prefer to use a chat client on my PC, but I also want to be able to use phone and tablet apps and universal remote controls.

The XBox One does not seem to be very good at controlling other devices. An IR blaster for controlling the cable or other set top box seems like the best option, as CEC is unlikely to work. The correct solution is for all devices to be controllable by HTTP over Wifi. So, I will probably not be getting an XBox one.

There are other gaming solutions such as the Ouya. The Ouya is cheap and open, but under-powered. I can only really justify getting one if my grandchildren want it.

So again, what is my preferred solution?

I would really like a single box that acts as an AV receiver, cable modem, set top box with DVR, streaming device, wireless router , games console and HTPC.

I think most of the stuff in such a device should be commodity by now, and you don’t need specialist hardware to get decent quality with digital devices.

So my Geek Grandad One box have the cable going into it, an HDMI output for the TV and 7.1 speaker output. It would provide Wifi for other devices. it might have a wireless charging plate on the top.

It doesn’t really need anything else, but …

It would probably be able to play Blueray disks, but I am not too bothered about that.

It would probably have a few HDMI inputs to connect other game consoles, PCs or other devices.

It would probably have some USB ports for charging, memory sticks, USB disk drives etc., and some Ethernet ports for connecting things like Raspberry Pi, where Wifi is not built in. Theses things are not essential.

It would probably have a digital audio output connector for connecting a soundbar rather than 7.1 speaks. I prefer an HDMI connector for these, even if the video output is not used.

I would like it to have a Kinect-style camera and microphone. A USB connector is probably best for this,

So what is stopping this from happening?

For a start the cable companies would have to supply a single more functional box. To combine the set top box, cable modem and wireless router in one box, does not seem like a big step. I don’t think there is a commercial reason for not doing this. I suspect it is more than no company currently builds a box with this functionality.

Many people might want a different wireless router, so plugging one into an Ethernet port, could be provided as an alternative.

I also don’t see why a cable box should not have an amplifier with 7.1 speaker output. Again, there does not seem to be a commercial reason for not doing this.

So if the cable and satellite companies, provided such a box, how would it fall short of my ideal?

Most cable boxes have internet streaming services, but the quality of some of them leaves a lot to be desired.

I would not mind some extra HDMI inputs on the cable box to allow other streaming devices like an XBMC Linux box, or a Roku, but the cable companies are unlikely to allow this.

I think the bigger issue with my Geek Grandad One idea, is that the cable companies do not want to have open HTTP control APIs, or to support open standards like CEC.

Also, such a cable box would not be a games console.

So how can I get closer to my ideal?

I have been looking for compact alternatives to an AV receiver, but there does not seem to be anything available yet. There are some compact integrated amplifiers, so perhaps a compact AV receiver with HDMI inputs will come soon. That would be an improvement, particularly if it could select more than one input at a time, with one going to the speakers and another to HDMI out.

I like the concept on the Ouya, but it is overpriced in the UK, and is not getting very good reviews. It could potentially replace the Wii U and Raspberry Pi in my set-up, as it plays games, runs XBMC and has the potential to run Netflix and Lovefilm.

It is surprising that none of the players such as Microsoft, Apple, Google, Sony or the cable companies have come up with a decent converged media experience.

Perhaps if Google entered the Game console market, and produced a higher-powered combination of the Ouya and the Google TV, it would be a bit closer to my ideal. Rumours about this started just after I wrote the last sentence.

I have an Xbox 360 belonging to my 11-year-old grandson in my Games Room/Dining Room/Spare Bed room. We have tried that with Smartglass. I prefer using my Asus Transformer Android table to control the XBox, over the Wii U with its proprietary tablet/controller. I will investigate whether I can write a plugin for HouseControl to control the Xbox using the Smartglass API.

So, where do I go with all this?

I can get most of what I want with my current set-up. I will keep monitoring a few things like the Ouya and other Android games consoles, compact AV receivers, and more powerful alternatives to Raspberry Pi to run XBMC on.

I will investigate how much money I could save by getting rid of Sky Movies, and using Lovefilm or Netflix instead.

I will investigate the Microsoft Smartglass API.

I will continue improving HouseControl, add gesture control and better voice control, and I will add an RF remote as as an option for controlling media programs like XBMC and iTunes.

I will consider getting Spotify Premium.

I will look out for the Android Virgin TiVo app, if it ever arrives.

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3 Responses to Why do I need 5, 6 or 7 boxes to watch stuff on my TV?

  1. Ross Betts says:

    Hi, I just wanted to say what a great article! I read this and everything resonated. I wonder if in the last two years if you have managed to get to your utopian world of 1 to 2 boxes required?

    I am in the very same place, I have front room consisting of Smart TV, PS4, AMP, Tivo, RPi 2 (Openelec) and a bedroom with Smart TV, Tivo, PS3. Along with this the obligatory subscriptions to Amazon Instant, NowTv, Netflix and Spotify – Costing me a nice packet each month!

    Prior to reading this made a grid of what each service provides and then started my internet search quest to find out if there is a solution (which is where I stumbled on your article) – I don’t think things have moved on all that much in the last two year, this is still a first world problem:

    Not sure how well this will paste (10 mins later after formatting!)

    (Y = Yes, X=No, L=Limited, O=Optional,P=PPV)

    TiVo S/TV FireTV PS3/4 Pi(Openelec)
    PVR Y X X X O
    TV Y X X X O
    TV OD Y L L L Y
    Spotify/MP3 Y Y Y Y Y
    Netflix Y Y Y Y Y
    Amazon Ins N Y Y Y Y
    Sports O/P O X O Y
    Movies(OD) O L L L Y
    New Movies P P P P Y
    Atlanic/HBO L L L L Y

    Tivo offers up a pretty good service, but comes at a high cost, especially if you want to add movies and sports. You can’t get amazon instant and you’ll need to pay for the latest movies.
    The next three require subscription to 3rd party apps and therefore are only conduits rather than providers which leave an expensive route, but if you already own the services then just offers another route to watching.

    Then comes the RPi 2 running openelec, with which I think can achieved everything, but with a lot of effort (for the record I haven’t tried yet!) but also a lot of headache.

    First up the PVR, I’ve read a number of articles that suggest with the right hardware you can achieve a PVR and LiveTV on the Pi (although you need something else acting as the TV signal receiver).

    The rest of the services are achieved without the need for additional hardware, but require (1) Breaking the law (in some instances), (2) offer an unreliable service. However Openelec is also great for streaming local content and making it look really pretty.

    Some of the services on the Openelec work great, I can get my subscription Netflix though an unofficial add-on along with Spotify & Amazon instant (although I’ve not yet managed to get Spotify to work). You can also get what seems like an unlimited number of 3rd party add-ons for Live Tv, Movies, Game (Emulators/Roms) and Sports – but with so many choices it becomes really difficult to sort the good from the bad. It really is a double edged sword, you will spend more time setting it up and trying to get things to work than actually watching something….. but maybe that’s part of the fun right?!

    I think the real blocker here isn’t one of hardware or applications, it’s all about content and licenses. There is plenty of capable hardware and an unlimited number of applications that support everything from Sky OD to Spotify, but they all want to re-sell their services 3 times over and not let the competition use their content.

    With andriod boxes available now, I wonder how well they might achieve all of this, there are almost certainly apps for most of the paid for subscription content and lots of On Demand TV, but it will still leave a ‘latest movies, tv, & sports’ sized whole

    Still a world where everything is perfect would leave me bored and I’d have never discovered the joys of tinkering with a Raspberry Pi!

    I couldn’t leave with out defending the AV receiver though, while I fully take on board your point and someone somewhere needs to develop something that just switches inputs really and allows for multi input between TV and Sound in a small box, the whole point of the AV unit is to provide belting 5.1 surround sound out of my very expensive and overpriced speakers 🙂

    If you ever do achieve the holy grail, please let me know! Likewise if I ever get there I’ll post a reply.

    Regards

    Ross.

    • Lawrie Griffiths says:

      My Living Room system has got worse since I wrote this article. I now have a Chromecast and an Amazon Fire stick. I got the Fire Stick on Prime day as it was only £19, which since it comes with quite a good charger, several cables and a remote control, was effectively giving the hardware away. I do not have enough inputs on the AV receiver for all these devices, so I am using all the TV HDMI inputs as well, and I still can’t have the Chromecast and Fire Stick plugged in at the same time. It’s annoying that the sound for some devices goes through the AV receiver and its speakers, but for other devices comes through the TV, so I keep having to play with different volumes control and input source controls. Perhaps I need a better AV receiver with more inputs and separate control of video and audio source (so I can what the cricket muted while listening to Spotify). Or perhaps I should get rid of a few devices.

      Virgin now lets me watch everything on my tablet or phone, so I get a choice on what devices I can watch most things on, which is a good thing, but adds to the confusion, particularly as it uses both Virgin and Sky apps. I don’t have a Netflix account, but my daughter does, so she and my grandchildren watch Netflix on various on my devices. I think they use Hola to watch USA Netflix which has more content.

      Yes, this is a first world problem, but the rest of the world are catching up fast, and they will be pissed off by all this soon.

      Yes, it is mainly a content licensing issue, but all the different hardware with overlapping capabilities but each with its own deficiencies does not help.

      I spend a lot of my time on Home Automation and building Internet Of Things devices, and there is even more chaos in that arena,

  2. Ross Betts says:

    Its funny that it was the £19 Fire stick prime deal that has led me down this rabbit hole in the first place, I didn’t really want or need a fire stick given that all of the content was already available to me one way or another, but it seem too go a bargain to pass up. Wanting to get value out of it I stumbled across Kodi and found that it could be side-loaded onto the Fire Stick, the downside was there is no support for my VPN and therefore I needed to the VPN on my router, great for unlocking US content through the Fire stick but no so good when every google search on phone all tablet thinks I’m in the US and gives me everything in dollars! No only that, but it was a hassle loading it up to then only use Kodi.

    This lead me quickly to the Raspberry Pi, I’d followed the project on and off since it conception but could never justify a need for one, reading up on the advancements with the Pi 2 and its use as a dedicate HTPC, I couldn’t resist and thanks to Amazon Prime I was soon up and running with the complete Kit running Kodi through OpenElec and able to set my VPN on the device only.

    The irony being a £19 purchase for a ‘bargain’ that’s escalated into a £50 RPi project. I fear it won’t end there seeing some of the other uses for the RPi that you’ve managed in your articles and what I’ve seen elsewhere.

    I had to chuckle at the “Yes, this is a first world problem, but the rest of the world are catching up fast, and they will be pissed off by all this soon.” – there is a clear market for an ‘all in one hub’ if only a company was brave enough they’d make a fortune, but then again the price we’d pay for all of the content would likely be outrageous.

    It does sound likes it’s time for you to get a new receiver, mine has 5 HDMI inputs and Optical inputs too, not sure if it would would but you can choose the source of audio and video input (HDMI with Optical) so a different device connect to each…. in theory at least. The downside of course is the size, the more ports, the bigger them AMP. In a similar vein that started with a £10 Optical switch I had that never seemed to work and ended with a £200 receiver and similar priced speakers…. Wait I see a pattern emerging here…!

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