Tag: TV (page 1 of 7)

Making the most of an Apple TV

I picked up an Apple TV a few months ago and I’ve got far more use out of it than I expected. The following are some app’s and tricks that I’ve found handy in that time.

PlexConnect
The sole reason I picked up an Apple TV was PlexConnect. PlexConnect is a hack to allow an Apple TV to playback media from you local Plex library. It works by routing requests from the Apple Trailers app on the Apple TV to your Plex install and sending back results that the Apple TV expects that is really your Plex library. A clever hack but as with all hacks at risk of Apple making changes to disable it in the future.

An update a couple of months ago to add new channels changed the trailers app to only work with https. This was enough to break PlexConnect. Bad Apple. A few days passed before a fairly straightforward work around was published that looks worse than it is. Follow the steps and PlexConnect was back up and running.

At this point I found some issues with playback – stutters, frame drops. I was convinced that PlexConnect was no more and I would need to move to another solution – Roku or perhaps invest in a Mac Mini. It turns out my network switch was at fault so a swift replacement later saw PlexConnect returned to it’s former glory. I love it, all my movies available on the Apple TV without having to worry about converting to a compatible format.

Beamer
If Plex and PlexConnect seem like hard work but you want the flexibility of playing back any media on your Apple TV without converting to a compatible format then Beamer for Mac is a great option. Install and launch Beamer on your Mac and you are presented with a small window. Drop a movie of any format (AVI, MKV, MOV, MP4, WMV, FLV) on to the window and a few seconds later it will playback on your Apple TV all via Airplay.

Like any other movie on the Apple TV you can control playback via the Apple remote and Beamer supports 1080p and also 5.1 surround sound, both Dolby Digital and DTS. Subtitles are also supported.

On the movies I tested there was no issue at all. Smooth, quick and great sound. Considering this removes the need to convert films, jailbreak older Apple TV’s or mess around with PlexConnect the £12 cost is trivial.

iOS Setup
Setting up the Apple TV can be painful. Typing in the wi-fi password is an exercise in frustration with the remote. One shortcut is to use your iOS device. Switch on the Apple TV, connect it to your TV and touch the Apple TV with your iOS device. The Apple TV (once you zap in a password) will then copy wifi settings and automatically configure itself. Smart, and the touch isn’t really necessary as it’s not done via NFC but it’s just Apple’s way of ensuring that you get the iOS device in close enough range for bluetooth to work effectively.

Apple Remote for iOS
If you do have an iOS device, download the Apple Remote and use it to control the Apple TV. It makes for a far better experience and if you’ve used the physical Apple remote to search for music in a large library you will find the iOS version infinitely better.

Wrap-up
For £99 the Apple TV is good value and I’m getting a lot of use out of it. However I think I’d point people to the Roku 3 that has finally come out in the UK as it offers a lot more for the same money and a store where you can pick up app’s like Plex to further improve the Roku. Hopefully the tips above thought will make for a better Apple TV experience…and maybe one day Apple will bring an App store to it’s TV platform.

So I bought an Apple TV

Hardly a new device and probably the wrong time to buy an Apple product just two days before WWDC, but I purchased an Apple TV and really only for one reason. Plex, or more specifically PlexConnect. The most notable feature of the latest Apple TV is that it cannot be jailbroken which has lead to the unusual situation that older models are worth 2-3 times more on eBay as they can be jailbroken and you can then install app’s like Plex on it.

So I was surprised last week when catching up on my feeds that PlexConnect had been developed and announced on the Plex blog. It was a hack, and undoubtedly a hack that Apple will stop with a future firmware update but it was enough for me to stump up the cash and give it a whirl. Setup is pretty easy. Set your Apple TV to a fixed IP address, set your Plex computer to a fixed IP address, change your Apple TV DNS to point to your Plex computer and then launch PlexConnect. Boom. (photo’s are pretty poor – hastily snapped from my iPhone as I couldn’t be bothered getting DSLR, tripod etc – blame my cold!)

Plex

Grid view for movies

Grid view for movies

Browse by genre

Browse by genre

Plex

The reason it’s a hack is that you access Plex via the trailers app on your Apple TV. PlexConnect works as follows:

  • re-use an already available app (like YouTube, Vimeo, Apple Trailers, …)
  • re-route the request to your local Plex Media Server
  • re-work the reply to fit into AppleTV’s XML communication scheme
  • let iOS do the rest

So far I’ve been impressed. All movies and TV shows have worked without issue. It’s not got the full Plex experience but it’s so close that it’s not really noticeable and all from a £99 tiny box with a dead simple remote. I sold my Mac Mini late last year and the one thing I really missed was having Plex – the bluray player I picked up is great for blurays and for playing content accessed via USB, but streaming is awful.

Some quick thoughts on the Apple TV itself. It’s tiny and quiet and the remote feels nice in the hand, is simple and probably does just enough considering what the Apple TV offers. It’s very much tied to the Apple ecosystem and I guess that what frustrates so many people. It’s a platform waiting to be exploited and the hardware is fairly capable – it’s playing 1080p without much trouble. I do think it’s a next gen device though before we see an App Store. It’s weak link is the remote. It allows you to browse around apps easily enough but thats about it. It wouldn’t act as a good interface for games, browsers etc. You can use the remote application on iOS to control the Apple TV, but I don’t think thats a route Apple would go down – buy a device for £99 and spend upwards of £200 to get a touch controller.

Icon order changed on the Apple TV

Icon order changed on the Apple TV

The front end feels old compared to Plex, XBMC etc and allows for very little customisation. You can move the app’s around and thats pretty much it. One way to remove apps is to enable Parental Controls and hide the applications. Makes for a slightly cleaner interface but with so little on the front end it makes only a minor difference.

Parental controls enabled - you can hide unused icons!

Parental controls enabled – you can hide unused icons!

Music playback from a local library or iCloud is fine although again the interface feels simple and lacking some options and customisation. It is nice to be easily able to play podcasts on the TV again. Airplay also works really well – it’s great to throw a video onscreen rather than view on the iPad.

Overall I’m pleased with PlexConnect. It’s early days for it but it already works well for me. Your mileage will depend on where you host your Plex library. Some NAS devices aren’t supported or will struggle if they need to transcode the file to display on the Apple TV. If it wasn’t for Plex though I’d get a limited amount of usage out of the Apple TV. It still feels like a cut down product – Apple could and some day will do so much more with the television market, undoubtedly not with this generation of Apple TV. I really look forward to the day that there is an App Store on an Apple TV where we can buys apps like Plex and have access to a wide variety of apps and games. Until then, PlexConnect will do nicely.

Sky HD EPG Update

It’s been a couple of weeks since the long awaited new Sky HD EPG made it’s way onto my box. Considering all the fanfare about it I’ve been fairly ambivalent about it, so much so I couldn’t be bothered even posting about it. A tweet tonight about ITV HD has nudged me along though.

The ability to watch ITV HD on Sky is the biggest new feature for me. Before the update, ITV HD was available only on FreeSat and only via the red button service – it’s not an actual channel which when you realise how little is broadcast in HD is understandable. To watch it on Sky (new EPG only) you need to do the following:

  • Press services button > System set up > Add channels
  • Change the Freq to 11427
  • Change polarisation to H
  • Leave symbol rate @ 27.5
  • Leave FEC at 2/3
  • Press select to find channel
  • New channels will appear , TV and radio , scroll to the one marked Channel 10510
  • Press yellow to store it , press select , press select press back up , press back up.
  • Scroll down to other channels , highlight 10510 and press select to view.

Not easy and it’s a few button presses to access the channel each time. Then again, Champions League in HD tonight and FA Cup semi-finals in HD this weekend. Nice. Quality is excellent too which makes a big difference compared to the pixelated mess that ITV usually is on Sky.

Other important changes – the EPG is now in HD and much clearer than the old one. It’s also added a mini display. However it cuts off half the display if enabled and also plays the sound from the currently selected channel. This has caught me out already – last weeks Apprentice was recording while I watched the football. Went into the EPG to select it and start watching and I see the three boys sitting in the boardroom. Even worse, disabling the mini tv doesn’t sound the TV channel sound off so you can still hear spoilers. Bit daft on Sky’s part.

Your series recordings are now displayed in stacks in the EPG. Makes sense for me but another daft feature is that the stack isn’t just per series but per series and channel. Miss a recording on BBC1 and record on BBC3 instead will see two different stacks for the same series. Can’t see this affecting me as I don’t build up a lot of recordings but it is a real pain for some which could have been avoided.

HD programs can now be highlighted in the EPG – handy when browsing what’s on. Speaking of which, now and next is a lot better on the new EPG with full info on each program without going in to the EPG. About time.

Despite these additions though the downside is that it feels a bit slower in use and that’s on my box with not much recorded. Some reports in forums from users with lot’s recorded say it is way slower than before. I’m also convinced that to watch recordings it takes more button presses than before. If it doesn’t it certainly feels that way. Considering it’s been in development for so long it’s a shame that usability seems to have suffered. Overall it’s a benefit having the new EPG but still feels like a missed opportunity.

BBC’s HD Test Card

Calibrating your HD TV is never straightforward. Lot’s more settings than a standard SD set and if you use an amp for your surround sound you will potentially get lip-sync issues too. You can pick up a calibration disk – Digital Video Essentials on Blu Ray for example which will step you through calibrating your TV. You can also use any THX DVD’s as they will include a THX Calibration tool that helps you tweak your setting (Wall-E also has a nice calibration tool as well). Another way of calibrating is to use the newly added BBC HD Test Card which broadcasts a number of times per day on the BBC HD channel.

Andy Quested has posted up a great tutorial on the BBC Internet blog that takes you through how to use test card to not only calibrate your screen settings but also adjust audio settings to fix any sync issues. It looks like the trickiest part of the process is recording the 2 tests. Directly from Andy’s blog post – the HD test card is just over 1 hour into the promo and the AV sync signal is 50 minutes later. To record both signals, check the time the last programme finishes and add 1 hour. So if the last programme ends at 01:30 set your PVR to record from 02:25 to 02:45 for the test card and 03:15 to 03:35 for the AV sync signal. The promo referred to is the rolling HD promo that is broadcast on BBC HD when there is no actual programming being broadcast. It would be far easier if these two tests were broadcast as individual programmes with actual time slots – would make recording far easier. However that’s a small niggle as these two tests are a nice addition from the BBC. I know I’ll be using them to set-up a new TV over Christmas.

Head in the Cloud…

…and other shorts. Been pretty busy since switching jobs. Enjoying getting my teeth into Oracle tools again although once thing that is VERY frustrating are Oracle application installers. Unless you have full admin rights to your Windows client then installation is a pain. In fact I’d go as far as saying installation is impossible. At our work our rights are pretty limited and even with what are called ‘developer rights’ you don’t have full client admin. It made installing Oracle, BI Publisher and a couple of other tools a nightmare last week.

To get round it I now use a VMWare image at work that I full rights over. Installations are now almost painless…although then you get caught up in some nasty bugs. Hey-ho. Performance isn’t ideal either but at the moment I don’t have much choice.

Anyway…head in the clouds. I’ve moved away from a couple of desktop tools to some hosted options. The first issue was tasks. I’ve been using iGTD for around a year now and it’s been great. A couple of time the syncing between machines got a bit screwy but it was easy to recover. There’s a big but though – I could never see my tasks at work as they were separate and in Outlook. Not ideal. So I tried Tracks and installed it on my domain. It was a lovely app, did most things I wanted but I couldn’t find a couple of key features and I had to hack in things like e-mail support. Then I remembered the milk.

So I know GTD using Remember the Milk. I can get access to my tasks and lists from Mac or PC and in future they look to have a fabby interface for iPhone users. I also like being able to subscribe to tasks in iCal and the Google Calendar plugin is excellent. Sorted. Just need to do the tasks now.

I’ve also got my own wiki installed now. Helps me have one area for notes, procedures etc. I tried a couple of hosted options but preferred my own MediaWiki install with plugins.

My final ‘find’ was Zoho. I can’t believe how feature rich this set of applications are. Very handy and they also have a wiki…I just don’t believe that my firm won’t ban access to these app’s eventually.

I guess what I’m realising is that putting more info on the cloud rather than on the desktop is a reality, is pretty easy for all and that it’s no longer a pipe dream. Not a startling conclusion but it’s been good to take more advantage of some of the web 2.0 app’s than normal.

Anyway, other stuff. Burnout Paradise is a cracking game and one that shouldn’t really be missed. I haven’t played as much as I would want to over the last couple of weeks but the few sessions I’ve played have been great. It does the online side of things really well.

Sold my old amp on eBay. Quite pleased getting £150 for it. Still to post up some thoughts on the Onkyo 705 which will probably take another couple of weeks but so far it’s been excellent, especially Blu-Ray. Thank goodness one of these formats has emerged on top. Hopefully that will lead to better hardware and cheaper prices.

Apple updates – there’s been something new in the store every Tuesday this year. The Macbook Pro updates today were pretty small – increases to processor speeds, hard disk sizes, graphics card’s and the addition of multi touch which I guess is more extensive than the current model’s use of two fingers on the touchpad. I’m pretty pleased as the laptop I bought 15 months ago hasn’t really changed much apart from the expected speed increases. I still have no regrets with the hardware…touch wood.

Finally, a rant. I do wish Virgin Media would piss off and stop calling me about their inferior TV service. While I’m happy with their broadband reliability (although not always with speed which can be pathetic sometimes) I really hate when they try and sell me TV and even maintain they have a better HD service than Sky. Liars. Better package – don’t make me laugh. Well, they eventually do but only after annoying me. I’ve asked a few times now never to call again but they still do. Time to take the matter further.

when I am through with you there won’t be anything left

Did I say finally? If you recognise the quote you’ll have been watching Damages. If not, then try and catch up with it via downloads as it’s the bet thing on TV at the moment.

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