Damn, 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.
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.
In 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?
It 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:
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.