Further adventures in media streaming: don't buy a Popcorn Hour, and props to XBMC and OpenELEC

So, I said back last April that I'd found an ideal solution to media streaming, replacing my big heavy complex HTPC system with a Patriot Box Office dedicated streamer.

It turns out that I lied...kinda.

After several months of experience, I was almost happy with the PBO. It's really impressive for the price, size and power consumption. But it had a couple of irritating flaws: it couldn't play one particular set of large video files I had, and every so often when playing back a subtitled video - more in the case of certain videos than others - it would 'drop' one of the subtitles, it just wouldn't be displayed. This obviously gets irritating over time. The box was pretty well served with firmware updates and alternate firmwares, but the PBO itself and the other similar devices from which alternate firmwares were derived are all pretty much out of support now, so it's unlikely that'll ever get fixed.

So I came to the conclusion that the obvious solution was...a better media streamer, right? Or rather, a more expensive and heavily community-hyped one. So I went out and pre-ordered a Popcorn Hour A-300 for $220 plus shipping.

I highly recommend you DON'T do that.

The thing is unfit for purpose and has been since release. It has had three firmware updates, none of which has fixed the three serious bugs I've had with it:

  • It frequently turns itself off (into suspend mode) when you try and quit the screensaver
  • It's incredibly slow to browse directories on a CIFS server; every 22 entries there is a pause of a second or so. My NAS is not the world's fastest, but no other device I've ever used to browse that share - other, cheaper, streamers, various Windows and Linux-running computers, hell, even some phones - has had that problem. The thread is full of others with the same problem
  • It frequently loses synchronization between the video/audio and the subtitles when you skip around inside a subtitled video (or, sometimes, just when you play one)

These bugs are pretty much showstoppers for my use of a media streamer. They've each been confirmed by dozens of other users - I'm not some kind of weird bug-inducing outlier. Syabas is clearly aware of them, as they have people reading the forums. Yet in four months since my box shipped, they haven't been fixed. This is utterly unacceptable for a streamer that costs more than twice as much as its competition; I don't expect it to be worse. In addition to the above three main bugs, I've had it crash on me several times. It's crap, and Syabas's support sucks. Don't buy one.

I'm currently trying to persuade them to give me a full refund on their clearly unfit for purpose product, but so far they've only offered to do so if I ship it back in the original box. Seeing as how I live in a 500 square foot apartment I don't have the original box, it'd be utterly impractical to try and keep the original packaging for everything I ever buy lying around my tiny apartment. Just not going to happen. So right now I have a complete waste of $220 sitting on my dining table. Thanks, Syabas. Jackwagons.

I decided to give media streamers one more roll of the dice, and got a WDTV Live for $100 - it's from Future Shop, so I can return it within a month. It turns out to be in the same class as the PBO: it mostly works - it's a lot less buggy than the PCH, which costs over twice as much - but has just a few irritating flaws which I can't quite live with. It doesn't display stylized subtitles - a pretty small nit, but I kinda got used to them on the PCH and I miss not having them. More importantly, it seems like you have to 're-scan' a directory every time you add a file to it or it won't pick the file up, which is a pain in the ass, and it has no ability to 'permanently mount' a shared drive by IP address; it always needs to browse for it, and CIFS share browsing is...ahem...not the most reliable thing in the world. So sometimes it just doesn't see the NAS, which isn't great.

So I finally decided, the hell with media streamers. I briefly considered running XBMC on an Apple TV or getting a Boxee but I could just see too many potential problems with those routes, and I was sick of it.

I'm going back to having an HTPC. But it's not going to be big and heavy and it's not going to run a full Linux distro with the concomitant (ooh! word of the day!) maintenance hassles.

I got me a Zotac AD02: it's an AMD-based 'nettop', a netbook-class system in a miniature desktop-ish chassis, pretty much tailored for HTPC use. It's a bit bigger than the PBO and WDTV Live, but smaller than the PCH. It's pretty efficient on power, and can even be attached to the back of a TV with a VESA mount - me likey. Comes as a fully-specced system with 2GB of RAM and a 250GB hard disk (no need for even that much with all the media on the NAS) for $300 - not a lot more than the PCH plus shipping, but this thing's a fully-powered PC.

Then I put OpenELEC on it. This is a brilliant project - it's a dedicated XBMC-based media centre distribution, rather like OpenNAS for NAS boxes or OpenWRT for router boxes. It's ridiculously easy to install and works - at least, so far as I can tell so far - very very well. You download the appropriate build for your hardware (the Fusion build for my box; they have an Ion build for NVIDIA-based boxes), plug a USB stick into your system, run a little installer script which turns the USB stick into an OpenELEC installer, plug the stick into your HTPC box, boot it up, hit enter a few times, and it installs the distro onto the hard disk in the box. You reboot, and XBMC comes up. It's literally that straightforward - it's barely harder than updating the firmware on a dedicated streamer box. Really impressive stuff.

You get ssh access, though it's pretty limited and really only meant for debugging. You can use it to set up 'permanent' mounts of shares, though, which is all I really need. It boots in about ten seconds even from a hard disk and performs pretty nicely. And you get XBMC. To a traditional F/OSSite XBMC is a pretty icky project, and it's a bit of a headache to package within distro conventions, but if you consider it as being basically a standalone blob for turning PC hardware into a media centre, it's awesome. Beats the software on any dedicated streamer I've seen or tried into a cocked hat.

I'm sure I'll figure out something wrong with this setup, given time. But so far I'm happy with it. Now all I need to do is find the damn USB transceiver for my MCE remote so I can remote control the thing...


nullr0ute wrote on 2012-03-09 17:00:
If you want super small and super low power you can always go Raspberry Pi with XBMC. Credit Card sized with very low power usage http://www.raspberrypi.org/archives/571
nullr0ute wrote on 2012-03-09 17:15:
In fact there's even a release of OpenELEC for RPi http://www.raspberrypi.org/archives/810
adamw wrote on 2012-03-09 17:35:
the problem with the Pi is that, AIUI, it only has hardware decoding of h264, and obviously nowhere near enough CPU power to decode anything else in software. So if your video isn't h264, it'll likely play horribly. They may make this better in future, but I didn't want to take a chance on it. Also, it's sold out up the wazoo. :)