Can an HTPC do streaming content (Netflix, Hulu, etc.) as good as an AppleTV or Roku? - AVS Forum
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post #1 of 13 Old 02-05-2013, 07:34 AM - Thread Starter
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I've got a Windows 7 Media Center desktop (tower PC with Intel i7-2600 w/onboard HD2000 graphics) combined with a SiliconDust HDHomeRun Prime 3-tuner cablecard tuner. I use this (or an XBox 360 in another room) for live TV/DVR. I've also got a couple of Apple TV (gen 2 and 3) which I use for Netflix, Hulu+, an occasional iTunes movie rental, and AirPlaying Pandora from my iPhone. For my HD movie collection, I use the WMC server (or an Atom/ION nettop in the other room) using the Plex UI, but could possibly be persuaded to use XBMC (which I already have experience with), if it does a better job with some of the plug-ins/channels I want. We also use the Plex client app on our iPhones/iPads.

My goal is to have a single box and common UI for playing most/all of this content. Unfortunately, I'm thinking that this is a holy grail that doesn't yet exist. Recently, I decided I'd see what the current state of the tech/apps was like with my main WMC i7-2600K PC. Since this computer should be more than capable enough to handle anything, I figured I'd use this for testing. So, on to my experiences...

1) Netflix. WMC already had a Netflix icon on the home screen, so I took a look at that, and it seemed pretty decent. I didn't spend any significant amount of time comparing the user experience or streaming picture quality between my ATV and my WMC HTPC with the Netflix app, but my initial impressions were positive. I have not yet tried out Netflix under Plex or XBMC, and am not even aware if working plug-ins/channels for Netflix exist for those. I'll need to do more extensive testing to see how the UI and PQ compare to what I'm getting from my Apple TV (which I've been very happy with).

2) Hulu+. So far, this looks to be a miserable experience. The Hulu website makes no mention (that I can see) of even having a downloadable app for Windows. You have to add /labs to the end of the URL to find it. Anyways, I got the app and installed it, but: a) It doesn't integrate well into WMC and a hack I found online to add an icon to the WMC interface still didn't work well for keeping the focus on the proper app (probably something I can fix, though); and b) The Hulu app's UI would start ignoring my remote control presses after a while. My first attempt to play something also resulted in them serving up what seemed to be a non-stop barrage of ads, followed by it playing the Jimmy Fallon show (which wasn't the show I had selected!). After shutting it down and restarting, I tried to play the show I wanted again, and this time it played a single ad or two and then my show, but it again stopped responding to my remote. Overall, the whole experience felt buggy, but I'm willing to give it another try if anyone can offer some suggestions. Again, I'd also like to know what options exist for Plex and XBMC. Right now, I'm happy with the UI and PQ with Hulu+ on my ATV.

3) Amazon Instant Video. I'm an Amazon Prime member, so this would be nice to have. I haven't tried the standalone Windows app yet (it looks like you have to download the full show or something, which seems to be oriented more towards taking a show with you on-the-go, and there isn't a Mac version). There's the option to stream from the web, but that would require a keyboard/mouse. I don't know if an XBMC plug-in exists. My previous attempts at trying the Plex channel were unsuccessful, but a new update seems to have fixed it on my iPhone now. My Mac is still getting errors with it and I haven't tried it again on Windows yet.

4) Other VOD services. I may want to occasionally purchase a movie or TV show rental. What are the best options out there? Again, my ideal is a channel that runs within Plex and offers a UI consistent with Plex. If not Plex, then what about WMC or XBMC? Services might include iTunes, Amazon, or VUDU. Remember, the UI needs to work well with a remote.

I'm interested in hearing advice as to how to get all of these things working, ideally under Plex. If not Plex, then WMC or XBMC. I'm also interested in hearing about your experiences in using these on an HTPC and how they compare to the ATV and/or Roku experience (I don't have the latter, but am curious). As of right now, it seems like in order to get the best experience, I may need to accept the fact that I'll need at least two devices: an HTPC (for live TV, DVR, and movies), and an AppleTV (for Netflix, Hulu+, and iTunes).

Also, if you're aware of any major issues getting an acceptable playback experience with the Intel HD2000 (or the HD4000 that a Mac Mini I also have uses), let me know. I believe on my WMC server w/HD2000, I had to turn off GPU decoding in Plex and XBMC because of video defects I was seeing, so that box is using the CPU for movie playback. I'm not sure if WMC utilizes it or not. In a brief test with my Mac Mini (under OSX), I didn't seem to have any problems turning on the GPU decoding.

Scott R
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I'd much rather watch a great movie in B&W at 240 lines of resolution than a lousy movie in 1080p with lossless audio.
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post #2 of 13 Old 02-05-2013, 07:38 AM
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The answer is.... it's a flustercuck.

All of these providers HATE PCs.

Edit: Lemme add a few more frustrations.

ALL of these providers use, what I call, a "broken" streaming and advertising model. I have nothing against ads, but the ads shouldn't deter you from enjoying your media. Almost all of these providers use a Flash/Silverlight based model where the player "switches" to the ad stream at pre-determined times during playback. What this means is that the "delivery" of your media stream is inherently tied to this player configuration/platform/settings.

Compare this to the TV model, where the ads are actually "part" of the video stream, not a separate stream. Can you imagine how frustrated you'd be if your settop box acted like these streaming boxes? Your source resolution/framerate/AR all would potentially change everytime it switched to an ad stream. Now, Flash/Silverlight abstract some of this out, so you don't actually see these changes in the background, but they are happening.

The biggest problem with the current streaming models is....integration. If these providers basically offered a "stream" that had the media stream and the ad stream combined, the integration would be a snap. But as it stands right now, the integration has to accommodate this broken delivery model, hence why you didn't see better user interfaces for streaming. I don't count XBMC/Plex/Roku/Apple TV/etc as being successful delivery models. They are basically hacks. Some are better, some are worse.

All these providers have built walled gardens around their supposedly sacrosanct content, with the business proposition of selling that content exclusively. What they fail to realize is that the online media streaming model is no different than the overall online web content model. AOL, Yahoo, MSN all tried to be the "gateway" through which you access web content, and they all failed. These guys are trying to do the same thing with online media content now, and it will also fail.

Try this for size. Let's say I want to watch a certain TV show, that I don't have locally. I'd like to search for it online, and find the source that will give me the highest quality at the cheapest price. Can I do that right now? smile.gif
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post #3 of 13 Old 02-05-2013, 08:24 AM
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You have the largest selection of sources on a PC - lots network web video will toss an error saying "this is only available on a PC". Same with things like NBC's NFL and NHL broadcasts. Those are only on their website.

The best overall quality is on devices. Netflix and Vudu especially don't allow their top quality a/v streams onto pc platforms. They can only be watched on set top boxes. STB programs are all more remote centric interfaces too.


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post #4 of 13 Old 02-05-2013, 08:27 AM - Thread Starter
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Quote:
Originally Posted by kapone View Post

Try this for size. Let's say I want to watch a certain TV show, that I don't have locally. I'd like to search for it online, and find the source that will give me the highest quality at the cheapest price. Can I do that right now? smile.gif
It's funny you should mention this, as this is something I had been thinking about recently. There are a lot of people clamoring for apps on the AppleTV. This leads to the concept of an app per channel, much like Roku. So then we have CBS, ABC, etc., all having their own app, all with their own UI. And if I want to watch a show, I don't even know which station it's on, so now I have to go into each app individually to do a search.

I believe that GoogleTV tried to solve this problem by having the search concept, where you search for a show and it looks amongst several online sources (e.g., YouTube). I don't know how well it worked/works.

Roku also introduced universal search functionality. I think it works with Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu+. Not sure if 3rd party app developers can get it to search their apps as well, but I suspect not (e.g., it would be nice for it to also draw from my Plex Media Server metadata). It seems like a very smart implementation, but I think it's limited to a text search. IMO, this needs to be expanded to allow for drilling into genres and other categories (e.g., "New Releases"). So, I should be able to choose "New Releases", then "Comedies", then see several options. Selecting one should show me my options for playing it. Ideally, it would show my own HD Blu-ray rip on top as the default. If I don't own it, then maybe it shows the next highest quality and/or cheapest option (and you should be able to set how you want it to prioritize things in a settings screen). Maybe this all will come, but it's not here today. And now we've gotten pretty far off-topic.

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post #5 of 13 Old 02-05-2013, 08:40 AM
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Plex has apps for most of these things. However, the quality usually isn't great, and they break from time to time. For instance, I haven't been able to get the Amazon video app to work for a while. If streaming services are important, it's best just to use a second device like a Roku. It's as simple as that. Get yourself a good remote that makes switching between devices easy.
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post #6 of 13 Old 02-05-2013, 05:10 PM - Thread Starter
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I'm a little surprised by the tone of the replies so far. Seeing as this is an HTPC-focused forum, I was expecting a lot more bashing of the $100 streaming boxes as well as more people praising the HTPCs ability to accomplish this. Maybe I hit a sore spot? Anyone have a differing view?

The interesting thing is that we may actually be in a place now where the streaming boxes really will catch up to the HTPCs in the next year and be able to do quality streaming of Netflix, Hulu+, etc., while also being able to decode full-bitrate Blu-ray rips. The MPEG-2 HDTV content seems to be a problem for these little boxes, since their GPUs typically do h.264 hardware decoding, but can't handle MPEG-2 (or VC-1). But with some exciting upcoming products like the SiliconDust HDHomeRun Prime refresh with built-in h.264 transcoding, it won't be too long that that won't matter anymore. There's already been some impressive advances in getting live TV working on XBMC and iOS. It's buggy now, but by the time that new SiliconDust box comes out, they'll probably have mastered the EPG and DVR functionality.

Still, I just bought an open-box Mac Mini and it's a beautiful piece of kit. I'd love to put it to good use. smile.gif

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I'd much rather watch a great movie in B&W at 240 lines of resolution than a lousy movie in 1080p with lossless audio.
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post #7 of 13 Old 02-05-2013, 06:46 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by srauly View Post

3) Amazon Instant Video. I'm an Amazon Prime member, so this would be nice to have. I'm not sure if a standalone Windows app or XBMC plug-in exists. I did try the Plex channel but haven't been able to get it to play anything (I can see the TV shows and movies, but nothing will play).

Standalone app: http://www.amazon.com/gp/video/ontv/player
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post #8 of 13 Old 02-05-2013, 06:52 PM
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Re: universal search - Tivo has a unified search across Netflix, Amazon, hulu, cable TV, on demand, and recorded shows.
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post #9 of 13 Old 02-05-2013, 07:31 PM - Thread Starter
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Quote:
Originally Posted by vladd View Post

Standalone app: http://www.amazon.com/gp/video/ontv/player
Thanks. Is that remote-friendly or does it need a keyboard/mouse?

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post #10 of 13 Old 02-05-2013, 08:22 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by srauly View Post

I'm a little surprised by the tone of the replies so far. Seeing as this is an HTPC-focused forum, I was expecting a lot more bashing of the $100 streaming boxes as well as more people praising the HTPCs ability to accomplish this. Maybe I hit a sore spot? Anyone have a differing view?

The interesting thing is that we may actually be in a place now where the streaming boxes really will catch up to the HTPCs in the next year and be able to do quality streaming of Netflix, Hulu+, etc., while also being able to decode full-bitrate Blu-ray rips. The MPEG-2 HDTV content seems to be a problem for these little boxes, since their GPUs typically do h.264 hardware decoding, but can't handle MPEG-2 (or VC-1). But with some exciting upcoming products like the SiliconDust HDHomeRun Prime refresh with built-in h.264 transcoding, it won't be too long that that won't matter anymore. There's already been some impressive advances in getting live TV working on XBMC and iOS. It's buggy now, but by the time that new SiliconDust box comes out, they'll probably have mastered the EPG and DVR functionality.

Still, I just bought an open-box Mac Mini and it's a beautiful piece of kit. I'd love to put it to good use. smile.gif

There's really nothing wrong with streaming boxes like the Roku. They are specifically designed just for that, and many of the content providers (Netflix, Amazon, Vudu, etc.), design apps specifically for those devices. They don't design apps for HTPCs for the most part (there are some exceptions like Hulu desktop), and I'm guessing there are piracy concerns as well. It shouldn't really be surprising that these services work better on the devices actually supported by the provider!

I look forward to more powerful content streamers in the future. Unfortunately, they almost never support all of the blu-ray formats and have various other caveats (subtitle issues, no refresh rate switching, rudimentary interface, etc.). HTPC's just give you a lot more power and control, and I don't see them going anywhere anytime soon. HTPCs may even become more popular as x86 hardware shrinks and become less expensive. Software like OpenELEC is also making it easier than ever to setup an HTPC.
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post #11 of 13 Old 02-06-2013, 06:06 AM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by kapone View Post

Compare this to the TV model, where the ads are actually "part" of the video stream, not a separate stream. Can you imagine how frustrated you'd be if your settop box acted like these streaming boxes? Your source resolution/framerate/AR all would potentially change everytime it switched to an ad stream.

This happens with my cable TV feed too. The ads are all in different resolutions, different aspect ratios, some with Dolby D, some in stereo. The worst are local commericals -- not in HD, not in Dolby D, my AVR is switching modes every commercial. PITA. It's super annoying.

So, CableCo. does it too just maybe not in the same fashion.

 

 

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post #12 of 13 Old 02-06-2013, 08:51 AM - Thread Starter
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FYI, I updated my OP with some new comments regarding Amazon Instant Video. A recent fix by the developer of the Plex channel appears to have gotten it working on my iPhone now. I still get errors on my MacBook and haven't tried it again (yet) on my Windows 7 box.

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post #13 of 13 Old 02-08-2013, 11:59 PM
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I go with a bunch of boxes like a Roku 2 and an HTPC all connected to the inputs of a single plasma monitor. I must have a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse to be happy. Netflix and Hulu+ have apps for Windows 8; when I set up my new HTPC I added them and the tiles are on there but when connected to my old 480p TV I can't use them, Windows 8 says my screen resolution is too low! Incompatible new and old, but I must have 1:1 pixel matching. YouTube full movies, some foreign with CC subtitles are best on my HTPC. Vudu plays worse on my new HTPC than on my LG Wifi BD player! I've never used WMC or Plex.
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