Why I chose not to use SageTV

by Paul 14. December 2010 00:22

Visit SageTV.comDamn, I started writing this post over a year ago, much has changed since then, not least the fact that I’m actually in the process of switching to SageTV, whereas this time last year I had no intention of doing so.

I still think it’s worthwhile discussing why I chose not to use SageTV in the first place before moving on to why I’m now switching over.

SageTV Version 6 Main Menu The main reason I have never used SageTV as my media center of choice is because of the UI. In my eyes it’s always been too busy and has never had the same kind of polish as Windows Media Center, Media Portal or XBMC et al. The subject of Sage’s UI has come up in countless topics in the support forums, with many polarised views, some people love it, some hate it, some put up with it, the one thing that most users seem to be able to agree on however is that good or bad UI Sage is still a great media center.

 

SaveTV Version 7 Main MenuIn my opinion the problems with Sage’s UI is the one major stumbling block that’s stopping Sage from elevating itself from being *just* a great media center into a superb media center. In fact, Sage themselves must feel the same as version 7, which has recently been released, has a re-designed UI, albeit in my eyes it looks more like a coat of paint than a complete re-design. The main menu has been given a facelift and is now very similar to many of the skins you see for XBMC, however drill down into the various sections and you begin to see that it still has that same busy looking feel that the last version did.

While Sage may not be kings of the UI, the one thing they have always done well is the recording and playing back of content. Out of all the media center apps I’ve ever used Sage has always offered the most rock solid TV recording and playback experience (MediaPortal has been rock solid recording for the last year or so but playback can still occasionally be flaky), if that’s your main priority in selecting a media center then Sage is the perfect choice.

What is probably my most favourite feature of Sage though is its server/client architecture. Windows Media Center users have been asking for PC based extenders (aka SoftSled) for years and Microsoft have never delivered, Sage users on the other hand have been enjoying PC clients for a long time, not only that but Sage also has a client they call the Placeshifter, this is effectively the same as a PC based client (i.e. it’s software that runs on your PC) but you use it outside of your home network. For example, say you were stuck at work and didn’t want to miss [insert sporting event of choice here], you could use the Placeshifter client to connect to your Sage system at home and watch Live TV, no need to miss a thing. The Placeshifter will automatically adjust the bit-rate of the content your viewing so that it will stream nicely over your broadband connection, which is good in that you don’t have to have a super fast connection to use it but of course you will be sacrificing some quality.

A couple of years ago Sage also introduced hardware based extenders in the form of the HD100, these are low cost, low power devices that can either run standalone as a network media player or they can connect to a Sage server and act as another client. The latest of these extenders has just been released, called the HD300, it’s the 3rd hardware extender from Sage and now supports bit-streaming of HD audio which was one of the last things lacking from Sage’s extenders.

Why I’ve decided to switch to SageTV?

tmp108DIt just so happens to be that it’s this little box that has made me re-consider whether I use SageTV or not. Priced at $150, by the time you account for delivery and customs charges in the UK, it works out to be roughly £150, which is very good value when you compare it to the alternative of say an Atom/ION based PC. (You might want to also factor in the cost of a UK power supply as the HD300 comes with a US 2 prong plug, you can use a shaving adaptor just fine, however I picked up on of these from CPC).

What got me most excited with this extender though is bit-streaming of HD audio. I have bit-streaming working on my HTPC using an ATI HD5450 card, but it was one hell of a process to get to that point, so I was most intrigued at how plug-and-play the HD300 would be. I placed an order for the HD300 and SageTV server as a combined bundle so that I could try them both out.

I’d read reviews of the HD300 saying that it was smaller than the previous extender, what I wasn’t expecting however was just how small this device is. For what it does, it is tiny, I would say that it’s not much bigger than one of my hands and is perfectly suited to being attached to the back of a TV as you would never know that it was there.

Setting up the HD300 was very simple, plug in the various connections, switch it on and follow the on-screen prompts to choose your video and audio connections, you can then choose to run it in standalone mode or connect to a SageTV server, I chose the latter and was presented with the SageTV main menu. I navigated to my videos and proceeded to throw various Blu-Rays rips at it, making sure I tried various video and audio codecs (VC-1, H.264, DTS HD, Dolby TrueHD) which all played perfectly smoothly and my amp reported that it was correctly receiving the bit-streamed HD audio. Score a win for SageTV.

I then tried playing some DVD rips, unfortunately this is where things didn’t quite go to plan, after it breezed through the Blu-Ray’s I was expecting the DVDs to be a formality, but upon watching the opening sequence of Back to the Future I noticed that there was the occasional stutter, I decided to try another film and fired up Star Wars EpII and was horrified at how blocky the picture looked. It was at this moment I had a vague recollection of the Missing Remote reviewof the HD300 in which they mention that the HD300 isn’t particularly strong when it comes to upscaling content, hence why DVD rips don’t look so good. Since my initial trials, Sage have released a number of firmware updates for the HD300 and while I won’t say that DVDs look great, they do appear to be acceptable now and certainly the stuttering that I witnessed is no longer there.

Another issue I initially had with the HD300 was that the UI looked blurry on my TV, I eventually learned that the reason was because the extenders render the UI at a lower resolution and then upscale it to the output resolution, hence the blurriness. To me, this was so bad that I’d decided the HD300 wasn’t for me and I’d boxed it up ready to move it on but kudos to Sage, they released an update for the HD300 that bumped the UI up to 720p and once I applied the new firmware the difference in the UI was substantial.

One of SageTV’s greatest strengths are the community plugin developers who have produced a number of fantastic additions that have really raised SageTV to new heights. With the addition of the new plugin manager in version 7, installing and trying these various plugins is now easier than ever, which means that I’ve been trying quite a few to see how they fare. The following is a (short) list of my recommended plugins:

  • Metadata Tools (otherwise known as BMT/Batch Metadata Tools) – Provides automatic metadata and fanart retrieval for your SageTV recordings, ripped DVDs, Blu-Rays, TV Shows etc. which can then be used by UI plugins.
  • SageTV Web Interface – Provides a web UI that allows you to manage and schedule recordings, watch your recordings, control your clients and much, much more.
  • SageTV Mobile Web Interface – As above but for mobile devices.
  • MiniGuide – Provides a mini guide while watching live TV allowing you to see what’s currently on other channels and switch over without having to bring up the full guide.
  • Diamond Theme – This theme provides more than just a facelift for Sage, integrating the metadata and fanart that BMT retrieves and proving new views of your media (see screenshots below).
  • SageMyMovies – Provides integration of MyMovies in to SageTV. 

Here’s a few screenshots showing by current setup, with the above plugins installed:

Home Screen - Diamond ThemeImported TV - Diamond Theme Custom ViewTV Seasons View - Diamond ThemeVideos by FolderMy Movies - Sideways ViewMusic by Artist - Customised with 3 columns, reduced font size etc.TV Guide - Channel Icons from iconharmony.comMini Guide

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This post started off with the intention of telling you why I don’t use SageTV, however in the course of a year much has changed which is a testament to the continuing efforts of the SageTV team who have really raised the bar and come good with a fantastic new version of SageTV, let’s just hope that trend continues over the next year.

To finish off, here’s a short summary giving some pros and cons to using SageTV:

Why you would want to use SageTV:

  • Rock solid TV recording and watching
  • Integration with Windows Home Server
  • True Server/Client architecture – use a PC as an extender or a dedicated SageTV Extender device
  • Dedicated hardware extenders that support 1080p and Bitstreaming
  • Placeshifting – watch Live TV (and all your content) anywhere you are in the world as if you were still at home
  • Lots of community plugins
  • Cross platform – runs on Windows, Mac and Linux.

Why you wouldn’t want to use SageTV:

  • UI isn’t as polished as alternatives (can really affect the Wife Acceptance Factor)
  • No out of the box support for the MCE IR blaster (I’ve always thought this was a bit strange, the remote is supported but not blasting! A third-party plugin does enable it though, so not a major setback)
  • Media Center aspects (Music, Pictures, Movies etc.) seems to take a back seat compared to TV functions (3rd-party plugins have improved this i.e. SageMyMovies.)
  • No true music visualisations and no support for 3rd party Windows Media Player or WinAmp visualisations, although the new HD300 extender does have a new visualisation, which is better than the stock graphics one you get in the client. While I do miss this, in our house we tend to like watching the pictures screensaver when it comes on anyway, so not a big problem anyway.

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Choosing your preferred Media Center Software

by paul 8. December 2009 21:00

Over the next few weeks I intend to post some new articles explaining why I did or did not choose a particular Media Center application, what I think are the good points and bad points and why you should or shouldn't choose one over the other.

The point of these posts isn’t to criticise any of these apps, indeed I think they’re all great in their own way, it’s more a case of fulfilling my own particular needs and hopefully I’ll be able to help others out in the process.

Here’s a list of the posts I’m planning which I’ll update as I post each one:

  • Why I chose not to use SageTV
  • XBMC and its offshoots (Plex, Boxee et al)
  • MediaPortal
  • The enigma that is Windows Media Center
  • Media Center apps that I haven’t already covered

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How to send your Windows Home Server to sleep via the Home Server Console

by paul 7. September 2009 23:45

I have my Home server configured to wake up for a couple of hours a day to perform backups and then go back to sleep again, which is made possible via the excellent LightsOut add-in. However I also occasionally use my Home Server outside of these hours by sending it a WakeOnLan (WOL) request to wake up as I can’t physically switch the machine on as it’s up in the loft out of the way.

Once it’s up and running, the question then becomes how do I send it back to sleep again? The most obvious answer is that I can remote desktop into it and send it to sleep there, but that’s a bit long winded especially when you’ve most likely got the Home Server console open anyway.

My solution involved two third party applications, the first is PowerOff which allows you to control the power state of your pc and the second is Advanced Admin console, which is a Home Server add-in. Once setup with these two applications you’ll be able to send your Home Server to sleep simply via a toolbar button.

Here’s the steps I followed to get this functionality:

  1. Download PowerOff and copy it over to your Windows Home Server.
  2. In the same place where you copied the PowerOff executable, create a batch file called ‘PowerOff.bat’.
  3. Edit this file and enter the following (don’t forget to change the folder location to where you copied PowerOff):
    1. D:\shares\Software\poweroff.exe standby –immediate
  4. Save the batch file and close it.
  5. Download Advanced Admin console and copy it to your Windows Home Server add-ins folder.
  6. Start the Windows Home Server console.
  7. Click on ‘Settings’ and then go to the ‘Add-ins’ section.
  8. On the ‘Available’ to install tab, select the Advanced Admin console and install it.
  9. Once the add-in is installed, log back in to the Home Server console.
  10. Switch to the Advanced Admin console add-in.
  11. Click the drop down arrow at the far right of the toolbar and click ‘Customize…’.
  12. Switch to the ‘Custom shortcuts’ tab and click ‘Add Shortcut…’.
  13. Browse to where you created the ‘PowerOff.bat’ file and then click ‘Next’.
  14. Name the shortcut ‘Sleep’ and then click ‘Finish’.image
  15. Click ‘OK’ to exit the settings dialog.
  16. Now when you click the drop down arrow at the far right of the toolbar, you should see your new ‘Sleep’ shortcut.image

If you click on your new shortcut your Home Server will go to sleep. When you choose the command, it may appear as if your Home Server Console has locked up, it hasn’t, the Home Server is just doing its thing and after a while the Console will say it has lost its connection to the Home Server, meaning your Home Server is now asleep!

CropperCapture[2] CropperCapture[3]

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My ‘Franken-build’ Windows Home Server

by paul 5. September 2009 23:41

I’ve just recently put together a Windows Home Server machine to backup all of my photos, music and so on as well as all of the machines around my house. It’s custom built rather than off the shelf, hence why it’s called a ‘Franken-build’, which is a term I first heard on the Home Server Show podcast to describe a custom build.

Why Windows Home Server?

If you see my post here you’ll remember that I purchased a NAS box about 18 months ago and have been using that to backup most of my content. Unfortunately I never really used it to its full potential as I had it waking up for an hour a day, doing the backup and then going back to sleep. I didn’t use any of the extra features such as the iTunes server or BitTorrent client and it was also lacking in a couple of areas, performance being the main one but also minor things such as not supporting Wake-On-Lan.

After upgrading my TV/File server again I had even more spare parts lying around so in the course of deciding what to do with all these bits I thought why not give Windows Home Server a try? There’s a free 120-day trial edition available from the Microsoft website, which is more than enough time to decide if you like it. It only took me a week to decide to replace my NAS.

Components

Here’s the initial list of components I had to work with when I first setup with the trial edition:

  • Athlon XP 2000
  • MSI KM4M-V Motherboard
  • 1gig ram
  • Seagate 80gig IDE
  • Seagate 160gig SATA
  • Old 350w power supply
  • Random spare DVD drive.
  • Intel 1gig NIC

I also have a Sempron 3000 CPU lying around which I would have rather used for this build as it’s faster and more efficient, but unfortunately it’s not compatible with the above motherboard and the motherboard that I do have for it doesn’t support S3 standby whereas I know the MSI board works really well with S3 because it came from my old Media Center prior to the Quad Core upgrade.

I didn’t have a case to put any of the components in so I just laid everything out on the table and connected it up, using a couple of wires to bridge the power connector so I could start the machine up. Windows Home Server was then installed, which took about an hour and I then proceeded to setup and install various add-ins so that I could test to see if it would suit my needs, which mainly involved the ability to wake up and go back to sleep at a pre-determined time.

Once I was happy I then decided to order a licensed copy of Home Server, along with a case to house it in and a new more efficient power supply. I ended up ordering the following:

  • Asus TA-D31 case
  • Antec Earthwatts 380w PSU

The Build Proper

As per usual everything turned up nice and quick from eBuyer, so I shut down the Thecus NAS for the final time and removed the drives in preparation for the build. Here’s some pictures of everything prior to starting:

The parts arrive IMG_5044 IMG_5048

IMG_5045

I put everything together in the new case, started her up and then proceeded to install the full licensed copy of Windows Home Server. Unfortunately with Windows Home Server you can’t upgrade the trial edition to a full licensed copy, you have to re-install from scratch, which I wish I had known about before spending the time to setup the trial version.

After finishing the install I noticed that there seemed to be some issues with the OS hard drive, every now and then things would appear to stutter and lock up so I decided I’d just use a different hard drive and re-install again. Unluckily for me the second hard drive I chose had exactly the same problem, so this time I borrowed a drive from the kitchen PC and used that instead, this time after over 3 hours spent installing WHS it was third time lucky and everything was working ok!

IMG_5060 IMG_5061 IMG_5064

Once everything was up and running, I could then proceed to copy all of my photos, videos and music over as well as installing the WHS connector on all of my PC’s so that they are regularly backed up, which is a nice added peace of mind considering that they weren’t backed up at all before.

Even with the low spec of the WHS machine I’ve been getting decent performance copying files to and from it, certainly much better than I ever achieved with the NAS. Write speeds have been around 40MB/s across the network and read speeds have been between 50-60MB/s.

The WHS has now been running for a couple of months and has performed flawlessly during that time, I’ve even purchased some new 1.5TB hard drives to up the storage to 3.5TB, which has meant that I’ve now got the space to back up my DVD collection as well as everything else. Overall I’m really pleased with the machine and would heartily recommend a Windows Home Server to everyone that has multiple computers in their house!

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jQuery : working with SELECT lists

by Paul 20. June 2009 00:28

I’ve recently had to do some work with SELECT lists using jQuery and found the documentation to be a little sparse, there’s a few good articles out there, such as this one, but I couldn’t find any that had everything I needed so I thought I would share my experiences and provide a few examples to help others, so here goes.

(Disclaimer: I’m not suggesting that any of these snippets are necessarily the best or the fastest way to do things but they get the job done, your mileage may vary!)

To handle changes and get the currently selected value:

$("#mySelect").change(function (event) {
    alert($(this).val());
}

Retrieving the text of the currently selected option:

$("#mySelect option:selected").text();

With the above you could also remove the option and just do:

$("#mySelect :selected").text();

however I’ve always thought that jQuery selectors should be as specific as possible for performance reasons, hence why I use the former, though I doubt in this case that it would make any difference.

Finding an option by its value:

var listitem = $("#mySelect option[value=" + valueToFind + "]");

Finding an option by its text value:

// The following should work but doesn't in all browsers:
var listitem = $("select option[text='" + textToFind + "']");
 
// Since the above doesn't work in all browsers we can manually search 
// through all list items on the page
var listitem = null;
$("select option").each(function() {
    if ($(this).text() === textToFind) {
        listitem = $(this);
    }
});

Retrieving all options:

var options = $("#mySelect option");

Removing all options:

$("#mySelect option").remove();

Removing the currently selected option:

$("#mySelect option:selected").remove();

Adding an option:

$("#mySelect").append("<option value=\"" + myValue + "\">" + myText + "</option>");

How many options are there:

var count = $("#mySelect option").length;

Hiding all selects on the page:

var selects = $("select:visible");
selects.hide();

You may wonder why I assigned a variable before hiding the selects, well you’ll also notice that I only selected visible elements because if you’re hiding them to show an overlay (which you would need to do in IE6) then you’ll only want to show the selects that were visible before you showed your overlay, hence why they’re stored in a variable.

That should cover most of what you’ll need to do with SELECTS, if you spot any mistakes or anything that could be improved then let me know in the comments.

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About me

I seem to have a passion for media centers, I now have 4 in my house, so it seems only appropriate to compound the addication by blogging about it.