Hey everyone! I apologize for the hiatus. Things got crazy around here with visiting friends from out of state. Then last week I found myself stuck in a hotel room for two whole nights without working wifi. So, my blogging opportunity was dashed there!
In my last post I discussed how I felt streaming media had a long way to go to really offer the same experience as physical media; and how the best of both worlds would be a kind of media server or movie “juke box” like the Kaleidoscape system. The Kaleidoscape has two big drawbacks, the primary being the high purchase cost, and the other is the need to verify ownership of the file being played by keeping your disc inside their carousel for verification. This really has me looking at two alternatives. The first is a dedicated home theater personal computer or “HTPC”, and the second being a network attached storage device or “NAS” coupled with a separate smaller device near your display for playback.
The HTPC idea has been around for several years now and during that time has gained a lot of popularity within the AV community, and for good reason! They do pretty much anything you ask of them and they are easily upgraded. The primary advantage of the HTPC is that everything involved in this system is handled by a single computer. The backup, the storage, and playback is all in one machine, and is arguably easier to manage as well. The downside is that the computer is usually tied to your primary display. You probably aren’t going to fire up this thing up to do your taxes; and as such the whole concept limits what you can do with the computer somewhat.
The alternative is to break up the components that do each of these steps. Backup is accomplished on any computer you choose with a Blu-Ray disc drive. Storage is done on an external hard drive or NAS connected to your home network. Playback is accomplished on a small device near your display. In this scenario, you could rip and back up your movie of choice in the home office, save it to the NAS downstairs, and play it back on potentially any display in the home. Over time, I found this option to be the most appealing
So at this point you might be asking yourself “wait a minute, what box are you talking about putting by the t.v. to do this?”. Good question! I haven’t completely settled on the best one as of yet. Things are changing so fast that I have had a hard time figuring out which is the best value for my needs, but I’m going to throw a few up here that are on my “short list” of devices that may potentially work. Remember, that it must be easy to navigate, and be able to play high definition video that is stored on a hard drive attached to your home network. This is a tall order, and you won’t find this capability on an Apple TV, or a Roku box.
The first option is from a company called Popcorn Hour. Now, Popcorn Hour has several models, and the newest even includes 3D Blu-Ray support as well as the ability to play Direct Stream Digital audio files (a high resolution audio file originally seen on Super Audio CD that you can now download directly from some sites). MSRP is modest, starting around $209. This company also offer a somewhat pricier model even includes an internal hard-drive as an all in one solution. Very cool. http://www.cloudmedia.com/
The second option is a number of products from Dune HD. This company offers a slew of different models. The main differences seem to be the inclusion of an internal hard-drive and the ability to play back full Blu-Ray menus, rather than just the movie itself. Prices are a little steep compared to the competition but they appear to be a polished product with good company support. MSRP is around $299 to $359 for the models with full Blu-Ray menu support. http://dune-hd.com/eng .
My last choice is from a company called BoxTop Theater. Now, these guys are offering several boxes all built upon open source software. Some of the boxes run on Android for the operating system, and a few run on straight Linux. All of them use open source software called XBMC for file navigation and video playback. I’m not sure if they offer full Blu-Ray ISO support, but on the other hand they appear to be very customizable for streaming other content. I would think you would have to be a little more tech savvy to utilize this product to its full potential. On the other hand, they also offer a significant savings over the other two options with prices ranging from $75 to $150 dollars. http://www.boxtoptheater.com/
So there you have it. This stuff changes so quickly that I’m sure I will post a follow-up at a later time. Doing homework on all of these choices entails surfing forums usually dedicated to each company. Unfortunately, it seems like most people on said forums only have experience with a single product. I would love to get all three of them together to make a comparison, but at this point I would be happy to find another reviewer who has experience with even two different options.