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.