Thursday, 17 January 2008

Home Media Centre Pet Project. Part 1: The history

Note: Shipping DVDs and Electronics to Trinidad incur a 20% duty as well as 15% VAT (Value-Added Tax) when imported, making them roughly 37% more costly than a buyer in America. Different Caribbean islands have different duty and VAT rates and I'd appreciate any persons reading this who might be willing to share this information to e-mail me at (nissan at_ redditech _dot com).

One pet peeve I've always had is when my DVDs got scratched and I'd lost playability of them. As a preventative measure I learnt well before the days of DVD burners about software like CloneAd that allowed me to rip DVDs and then compress them using the DivX (and later Xvid) codec and VirtualDub into formats storable on a typical CD.

The problem with this technique is that CDs can also get scratched, and also tend to degrade over time if they are really low quality CDs. I had a few unused hard disks and so chose to invest as well in external HD enclosures and keep additional copies of my backups on these.

I also had a TV tuner card in my desktop and a piece of software called Snapstream Personal Video Recorder (now BeyondTV) which allowed me to record tv shows for storage and later viewing. Having the portable hard drives available as media storage for these often large files proved quite useful. The files were large because the version of the software I had then only supported Windows Media Video (wmv) encoding which was not very strong compression at the time compared to DivX.
The local cable company has since switched their pricing to using a pay-per-decoder box pricing and the cost justification of a decoder box just for the computer just was never there.

My collection of media files now includes content such as YouTube videos, audio and video podcasts I subscribed to as well as webcasts I usually use for self-training.
I downloaded and converted many of these to store on my Zune for future offline viewing while on the go, but still had no real means of sharing the content on my home TV.

When DVD burners became affordable I was already seeing the convenience of having all my media files in one central location and playable within a few clicks on my PC. DVD backups were useful in order to maintain menus and extras for DVDs, but this added value did not justify the more-than-double space these backups took on my portable hard disks when weighed against using a compression technique and easier playback nature of compressed video files.

My collection of DVDs grew to a point where I sometimes found it cumbersome to sort through the lot looking for a particular movie if I wanted to watch it on my regular TV with my family....watching the backed up version stored on my laptop/desktop just was not a family viewing experience.

One short-lived solution I tried was using an S-video output on my laptop to hook up my laptop to the TV but this created several problems.
First, the dependency was on me to setup the laptop, hook up the external hard disk and TV connectors and open the right file to play on the TV. (My parents were, and to some extent still are not fans of technology and know very little about using a computer)
Secondly I could not use my laptop while it was in "movie-mode" since it was now a community event and disrupting folks to check my email or chat with a friend was just impolite.

So thus was born this project.
The initial goals of it for me were as follows:
1. To be able to play ALL my stored media content on my TV as easily as if I were using my laptop. This included my DVD backups as well as downloaded content.
2. To make it as easy as possible for my other family members to do the same with minimal help from me
3. To be able to record and take offline any TV content (like we would with the VCR)

My next post I'll continue with what options I came up with.