Wednesday, September 1, 2010

xbmc vs. boxee vs. roku.

So over the last few weeks (months, to be honest) I've been contemplating building a home entertainment system of the home theater pc variety, trying to focus on some free alternatives to cable. (This is motivated by several different things, but they all seem to tie back to the fact that cable plans are ridiculous, and I have no desire to give Comcast any more of my money than I already have.) I'd been pretty much obsessed with the XBMC mainly based on this great start to finish guide from Lifehacker as well as the fact that I thought it could do everything that I wanted from a TV. However, today I read a comment that said that the XBMC doesn't do Netflix-playback (it doesn't allow you to stream their On Demand to the computer you're running it on and then play that through the HDMI cable on your TV? Really?) which was kind of a big deal to me. As I indicated in the parentheses, I don't really know if this is true, as it seems like it wouldn't be something they'd avoid, nor something that would be that hard to do. So, you know, that's weird.

But then I also read about Boxee (while also having already looked at Roku) and I got confused. It looks like Boxee will do what I want? Maybe it'd be cheaper? The problem is that I don't really know what each can or can't do, and, honestly, a good portion of what I want to do - run Torrents through a program so that I can watch pirated TV - isn't going to be listed on the front page of businesses that are trying to be legal. Therefore, with the knowledge that mine is limited, I turn to the infinite wisdom of the Internet.

My goals for this project are as follows:

1. I'd like to be able to stream my Netflix on Demand onto my TV.
2. I'd like to be able to avoid paying Comcast (or some such other huge company) for TV, and rely more on Hulu, Joost, etc. I'd like to be able to stream these sites on my TV, since it's a nice one.
3. I'd like to be able to buy the NBA League Pass Broadband, and stream those games, via the computer, onto my TV.
4. I'd like to be able to control my torrents via this program, and watch TV that I've pirated on my TV, as opposed to my computer.
5. I'd like to be able to rip my DVDs into a digital format, and store them on the computer's hard drive, or a networked external drive.

6. I'd love to be able to have a Blu-Ray player either in the computer or via an attached peripheral, so that I can start upgrading my DVD collection.

The last goal is not necessarily a huge priority, since I'll probably be fine with buying an external Blu-Ray player at some point in the future, but the first five, I think, are do-able and, I hope, do-able for less that 400 dollars. At that point, it kind of becomes cost-prohibitive, because it'd be more worth my while just to pay those terrible big companies, and enjoy my TV the way I used to.

I've read pretty extensively about Roku, but I'm semi-new to investigating Boxee, so I'd love any input that anyone has about any of these problems, or even solutions that I haven't thought of. Thanks!

P.S. Lifehacker, can we get an update to this handy comparison chart?


House and Land Packages said...

What a wonderful blog you have. Keep blogging. Have a great day!

Chris Jones said...

You're on the same quest as me -- which, incidentally, is how I found this article: by searching for some keywords as I'm trying to solve the same problems as you.

I have an existing Windows Home Server which is just sitting in a corner doing nothing but storing all of my video/audio/photos/etc, and I've been streaming all of this to my XBox 360 with mixed results, and trying to use PlayOn to fill in some of the gaps (such as Hulu). This hasn't been working as well as I'd like. I've moved the server into the living room, installed Boxee on it, and started looking to let it just play everything directly on the TV instead of streaming.

That does solve the problem of some content not being available on a set-top box (EVERYTHING is available on a PC), or certain media files not working (PC players will play EVERYTHING). I've really had only two snags: 1) The server as it is configured isn't playing surround sound through my receiver via the digital outputs (SPDIF or HDMI), and 2) I'm in the air as to what media center software to use

Here's a rundown of these...

1) The motherboard (if using onboard sound) or soundcard (if not) MUST either support Dolby Digital Live or you must get some sort of real-time Dolby Digital software encoder working. I failed on the software and spent money on a DD Live compatible motherboard. Not sure yet if this is going to work because I also found that my CPU won't work in the new board and haven't been back to the store to get another one. $$$$ are creeping up, but if it does work, I'm in business.

2) Boxee looks great, plays Netflix, plays my local media, and works with a Media Center remote control which can be gotten online cheap. It's a bit flaky on Windows Home Server. I'd also consider Windows Media Center but that isn't on WHS (nor the beta 2.0, "Vail", which I'm actually using) and I don't see where anyone has hacked it in and told the rest of us how to do that. Other than Boxee, I don't see anything else that plays Netflix and otherwise works well. I'd love another choice just to get something a bit less flaky on WHS.

So that's that. The set top boxes are probably cheaper than all the crap I'm putting into this PC, but I'll have a more flexible platform in the end. If I went with a set top box it would probably be Roku, which is less than $100. It can't yet play my local media, but that's supposedly coming in a firmware update sometime soon. It still isn't too late to take back this motherboard and just go set top, and I'll think about that in the next day or two before my time runs out. I'm not liking all the money I'm putting into this but I'm really liking the absolute flexibility to play everything.

I will look ahead to see if you've written any follow-ups to this blog. I'm curious what you've ended up doing.