Ask Daley: Entertainment on the Cheap

With today’s Ask Daley, we have a question from Dorkus who I encountered through the MMM Forums. The question is regarding alternatives to cable boxes and providing streaming media to the family television, and the best devices for doing so. Dorkus writes:

I’m going to see if I can sell/repurpose some of my techy junk and work on building/buying an entertainment PC for my TV – being sure I have an hdmi output.

My goal is to use Netflix, Hulu (not plus), Youtube, & Amazon Prime Video for TV, and to watch downloaded video, and also use it for casual e-mail/web browsing/downloading. I already have a sweet wireless keyboard. I already have an external HD.

I would really love a simple/slick interface like Roku etc.

There are so many options! Any suggestions? (Hardware + Software?) I used to work in I.T. but I’ve been out of the game a few years so I’m a bit rusty and tech moves so quickly! I’m not really great with Linux – that community is so jargon-y and I feel like whenever I search for help I find the most complicated ways to do everything.

CubieBoard?
Raspberry Pi?
BeagleBone?
Some other single-board computer?
MK802IV?
Chromecast?
Equiso?
Some other pc-on-a-stick?

Thanks for the help!

The XBMC Media Center interface
The XBMC Media Center interface

Thanks for writing, Dorkus! I would like to first start by stating that I’m flying a little blind on this as although I’ve played extensively with Android, I’ve not gotten my hands personally dirty yet with any of the HDMI-ARM-based micro-systems; that said, I have extensively researched the advice I’m about to put forth and I am personally an XBMC user. Although I will be answering your question directly, I’ll be expanding beyond the scope of your specific needs to encompass the greater topic as well. There will also be some philosophical points that I will address later on, but for now let’s jump in and start off with the hardware aspect.

The Android+XBMC Approach

The G-Box Midnight MX2 (or something similar) might be your best bang-for-buck, least muss and fuss device. Pre-loaded with Android and XBMC, decent build quality, included remote. Add your apps, and you’re done. This isn’t to say you have to go with the MX2 specifically as there’s other Android-based HDMI devices on a stick/in a box available (like the Equiso SmartTV or Pivos XIOS DS)… it just comes in a tidy little bundle for a good price, and I know it does XBMC hardware acceleration.

Disclaimer Ape Sez: Keep in mind that this advice is primarily geared for United States residents. There are regional options and apps for other countries, as well as means around IP address content filtering, but the latter falls into a legally gray area, and won’t be covered.

As for those apps?

Netflix
Youtube
XBMC – (pre-installed)
Additional suggested apps:
TV.com
Crackle
Redbox Instant

Amazon Prime and Hulu will need to be done either through XBMC with the Bluecop Repository (which may still need Flash support), or through a web browser with Flash support. A how-to on adding repositories to XBMC can be found here.

There’s also other XBMC repos that have plugins for content from PBS, Cartoon Network/Adult Swim, Food Network, ESPN, Revision3, Internet Archive, Ted Talks, etc… let’s just say there’s quite the assortment of content. Most of that stuff can also be accessed by web browser as well, but again will mostly require Flash support. In addition to the Bluecop third party repo, also investigate the Stacked Repository as well for plugins.

You can still download the Flash .APK files for Android from Adobe, but understand that it’s no longer being updated, no longer guaranteed to work, could have massive security holes, and could extend those security holes to the entire machine, which means you have to be extra special careful with where you go: The Adobe Flash Player Archives

Given I’ve not tried XBMC on Android yet, my best advice would be to try doing the XBMC route with the Bluecop repos first without installing Flash to see if it’ll work for Amazon and Hulu playback. If it won’t work, you can either try installing Flash to see if it allows them to work, or watch through a web browser like Photon (with Flash built in – safer, but costs money for the ad-free version) or Dolphin again using the outdated Adobe Flash .APK.

Otherwise, that should get you set up. It won’t be a wholly unified interface as you’ll be using an assortment of Android apps for different content, but a lot of it (and more) can be done through XBMC directly excluding Netflix, TV.com (CBS), Crackle, and any major league sports season pass type things. Also, for all the disparity in interface with the additional apps, the interface between video apps on Android doesn’t really vary too greatly, and you can still launch those apps from within the XBMC frontend giving you a mostly semi-unified user interface.

This’ll help avoid too much technical efforts, especially on the Linux end, and it should be cheap and relatively easy to set up for most everyone.

hrumph
hrumph

Disclaimer Ape Sez: Keep in mind that this advice is primarily geared for United States residents. There are regional options and apps for other countries, as well as means around IP address content filtering, but the latter falls into a legally gray area, and won’t be covered.

Back around to the subject of Android devices and XBMC, I want to provide a few additional thoughts before moving onto other solutions. As I’ve pointed out already, I’ve not done this setup myself, but things should just work… however, your mileage may vary. A good second-string option might be the Equiso stick, but there currently is no video hardware acceleration support for the Equiso’s SOC yet, so I can’t attest to how smooth some of the video playback might be. If you’d prefer an Android device with guaranteed XBMC video hardware acceleration, you might want to stick with the G-Box MX2 route (it’s technically not much more than the retail cost of the Equiso, but I’ve also never seen an MX2 on Ebay for $35) unless you just want to be adventurous and give the Equiso a try anyway. There’s also the Pivos XIOS as I mentioned earlier, which has full official XBMC hardware acceleration, and might be worth considering as well.

G-Box Midnight MX2 (referral link) – $97.00
Pivos XIOS DS (referral link) – $89.99
Equiso Smart TV (referral link – far cheaper can be found through Ebay) – $69.95

The Junk PC/Laptop/1st Gen. AppleTV/Custom PC/Raspberry Pi Box

If you’re wanting to spend a little extra on the system, aren’t afraid of using more electricity, want to roll in DVR support, want to reuse what you already have on hand, and are interested in getting your hands a bit dirtier, there’s the non-ARM HTPC route using commodity PC hardware. The core of the system will still be Linux (non Android) and XBMC, but you’ll have more flexibility in what you’ll be able to do with the machine as you’ll have more physical hardware ports and more mainstream hardware support. This means you could add a big hard drive and a digital tuner along with MythTV DVR support, or more easily get your multiplayer game console emulator groove on, or perhaps better support an older television that you have kicking around that doesn’t have HDMI input on without resorting to terrible format converters.

Of course, going this route will have its (already mentioned) added benefits and drawbacks as well, such as likely losing Netflix support – though they do support Linux unofficially through Android and ChromeOS under ARM platforms, but I’m not holding my breath on full Linux support post Silverlight-HTML5 migration. You’ll also lose Redbox Instant support (if desired), and the other assorted content channels available through Android but not elsewhere.

A great starting point would be using the XBMCbuntu distro that XBMC hosts. I won’t get into very deep into setup, as it’s a well worn topic elsewhere, but most of the XBMC-specific and web-browser based content available going the Android route is mostly applicable here as well.

Alternately, if you’re wanting to re-purpose that old first generation AppleTV or build a custom machine off of an Nvidia ION, AMD Fusion or Raspberry PI system, consider using OpenELEC instead. It’s a custom, quick booting, slim Linux build with an XBMC front-end. Of course, similar content caveats will be present going this route as well.

Similar ideas can of course be plied to a Windows install running either XBMC or MediaPortal if you so desire as well. If you go the Windows route, MP is worth a mention as an alternative to XBMC as it brings a few unique features to the party.

As for Linux friendly DTV tuners so you can go down the DVR route with your rabbit ears, a great resource for finding compatible devices is over at MythTV’s Wiki. Hauppauge is usually a safe bet, and they generally come with remote controls. If you just need a remote control, there’s the pile of cheap keyboard/mouse emulation MCE remotes out of China that run under $15, but truthfully, nothing beats the classic Microsoft Media Center 1039 Remote (though they are getting rare). That said, if you’re DIY friendly and are willing to build your own IR receiver, the classic TiVo Peanut remote or any other programmable remote you have kicking around already is never a bad idea, either. There’s no shortage of options, and you can even use your smartphone.

Have a pre-assortment of Linux friendly DTV tuners and remotes to choose from if you’re feeling especially lazy and you need one (they are referral links that do help support Technical Meshugana’s operational costs and your genial host’s financial independence, as always):

The Pre-built Solution

Speaking of TiVo, if you want to go the DVR route but don’t want to combine it with your little HTPC or you’re not really interested in going the HTPC route, I should point out that old TiVo Series 2 devices can be picked up off Ebay for well under $150 with a lifetime subscription attached to the motherboard. “But Daley!” I hear you exclaim, “Isn’t the old Series 2 TiVo an analog DVR and not compatible with digital broadcasts!?” Yes, yes it is… but it also has input ports and support for DTV tuners like the incredibly cheap and readily accessible Magnavox TB100MW9 and the RCA DTA800 DTV tuners, amongst others. They still work great, and you can’t get a cheaper pre-built DVR that’s free to operate anywhere. If nothing else, they’re worth mentioning as a possible option to consider.

Of course, I would be remiss to mention zero-effort devices like the Roku, current generation AppleTV, GoogleTV, WD TV, Boxee Box, apps for game consoles and other sub-$100 devices of their ilk as they’re zero effort to set up and use, but these devices are primarily designed to continue extracting money out of you to buy more and more content… and we’re trying to save money, right? That said, if you’re willing to toss lose the free Hulu and web-browser based content and any of these things work for you with the content you choose to watch, then it’s worth investigating. This is especially true if you’ve already got the game console already kicking around.

Given mention of DVRs, antennas, and given these are solutions to help people kick cable and satellite TV to the curb, we should also briefly touch on antennas themselves. It’s a topic that a guy like me could waste hours on talking about building your own directional antennas and that sort of wonderful thing, but I’ll keep it short and sweet. First, find out the sort of antenna you’ll need for reception over at TV Fool, then shop or build accordingly. That’s it!

Ultimately, you can see how each approach has its merits and drawbacks. No matter what you choose, though, research… but I think going the Android route will be most folks best choice (yourself included) for depth of available content and ease of setup so long as you’re not afraid to get your hands a little dirty. DVRs are nice, and we use a TiVo Series 2 in our own house as it cuts our bandwidth needs, but it’s worth pointing out that there’s not much TV available over the air that can’t already be watched for free on the internet these days.

Closing Thoughts

For all this talk of television and and cheap entertainment, some of the longer time readers might notice that this seems to be a bit in conflict with my desire to peel people away from technology dependence and my overall concerns about the psychological addiction issues that comes along with this sort of stuff (cellphones, television… they’re all blue flickering addiction machines). All I can really say is that it’s a process. You can’t get people to go cold turkey on something they want to do… but I can show people how to not spend so much fargin’ money on it and give them better control. It is my hope that by bending their viewing habits to their schedules, they’ll consume less and realize that it’s not as important as they once thought.

I’ll admit it myself, we’ve got a few hours a month viewing habit in our own house… the wife and I enjoy good storytelling. That said, we also know the problems and issues with this stuff. If you have the opportunity, I think there’s two books that every person here should read and give a good, long, hard bit of thought on (both books are available through the Shopping Hut along with a few other interesting titles):

Jerry Mander‘s classic book Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television
Marie Winn‘s updated classic The Plug-In Drug: Television, Computers, and Family Life

The cheapest and healthiest solution is going to involve becoming aware of what impact these habits have on your life, and appropriately removing yourself from them. Read a book, go fishing or camping, take a walk with the family, play card and board games with your family, friends and neighbors… reconnect with the physical world and all the richness it provides, and embrace your loved ones. It’s a glorious world out there that HaShem created, more glorious than any movie or video game… but you have to get your eyes focused past the flicker of that little box in front of it to be able to see it.

Dorkus, I hope this helped you… just as I hope this helps others. Be well, gentle readers!

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